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Blackboard, Microsoft and the Education Tech Conversation
November 5, 2009 - 10:16pm

The EDUCAUSE annual conference is the one meeting each year that, for me, qualifies as unmissable. I come to EDUCAUSE for the vendors. To understand their product roadmaps. To get a sense of the competition. To get a feel for which company seems hot. To discover new companies and new strategies for vendors that I know. But most of all, I come to talk to the people who work for the companies whose services and platforms we utilize, or may utilize, on our campus.

This EDUCAUSE I spoke to a number of smart people across a range of vendors. I hope to build on these relationships.

In this post I'd like to highlight two people that I got to spend some time with, and who I recommend that you reach out too as well. The reason that I'm highlighting these people from Blackboard and Microsoft is that: a) I honestly felt a strong connection with both of them and would like to get to know both better, and b) they work for companies that I believe particularly are in need of putting their best people forward into the discussions and debates within our community.

Deborah Ann Everhart is the Principal Architect at Blackboard. From her EDUCAUSE profile we learn that this job involves "...provid[ing] leadership in product strategy and development ... responsibilities include researching, analyzing, and designing features and functionality for Blackboard products." It is impossible to spend any time with Deb and come away believing that she and her co-workers are not fully committed to using their platform to catalyze and support learning. Deb understands the needs of faculty (she has a teaching background and Ph.D. in English), IT departments, and institutions and is passionate about her work in partnering with higher education to improve Blackboard as much as possible. I came away from my discussion with Deb thinking of her as a colleague and an ally.

Cameron D. Evans is the CTO of Microsoft Education, North America. If you are wondering what Microsoft's vision is for higher education, or what where Microsoft sees its tools, technologies and platforms fitting into this vision, then Cameron is the guy you want to see. Cameron is impressive on many levels, someone who is clearly passionate (that word again) about the potential for technology to transform education as well someone fluent in both the underlying technology and higher ed policy. I came away from my meeting with Cameron excited, for the first time in a good while, about Microsoft in higher education.

Deb and Cameron are amazing people who both work for companies that would greatly benefit from figuring out how to get them, and other people like them, out into our higher ed. discussions and debates. Cameron has a great blog, one that I'll definitely follow now that we've met. But I think Blackboard and Microsoft are squandering an amazing opportunity to allow us to understand their companies through their people.

Some recommendations:

1) Encourage as many people in your organization as possible to blog, provide them (liberal) guidelines, let them know that risk taking and mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, and provide time and incentives for your employees to either actively blog and/or participate in discussions in ongoing discussions.

2) Provide links on your company sites to any blogs written by your people. More than links to blogs, your EDU sites need to highlight your people as much as your products. Let us understand their backgrounds, quirks, and passions (yet again) .... give us means to get in touch with them directly.

3) Figure out ways that your employees can collaborate with us college/university people on presentations, articles, and webinars. These collaborations do not always need to be about your company or your products, but can and should be about other aspects of learning technology and education.

4) Have the Camerons and the Deborahs come to our campuses to talk about their products and their jobs. Let's figure out a way to have you come guest lecture in our classes about your career path and what you see as trends in the job market and what skills students will need to succeed.

5) Create opportunities for more dialogue and discussion with the community. This can be done digitally, through active participation in the blogosphere, Twitter, social networks etc. Additionally, I recommend holding more events at your company offices where some of the marketing dollars are re-directed to bringing the higher education community to your companies to allow us community members to participate on product advisory boards, discuss strategy, and generally get a seat at the table in your product and communications planning.

None of these recommendations are remotely original. From the publication of the Cluetrain Manifesto we've understood that "markets are conversations". It baffles me why Blackboard and Microsoft have not fully embraced the practice of putting your people out into the conversation, particularly with the rise of the blogosphere and social networks.

I hope that Cameron and Deb feel the freedom (and the responsibility) to talk honestly about the communications (or perceptions) issues facing your companies and the higher ed. tech community - and once having named the issues start doing the hard work to present your companies as you understand them.

Do you have any other recommendations about people working in the for-profit ed. tech sector who we should get to know?

If you are someone working for an ed. tech company are you a part of the conversation? Why or why not?


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