The education software giant Blackboard delivered an endorsement of the "consumerization" of higher education on Wednesday, acquiring MyEdu, an Austin, Texas-based company that combines data, e-portfolios and recruitment tools to guide students through college and into the work force.
The acquisition is small in scale but significant in scope, as it signals the direction in which president and CEO Jay Bhatt, who joined the Blackboard in 2013, intends to steer the billion-dollar company.
MyEdu, formerly known as Pick-a-Prof, is a free online tool that offers three main features: It aggregates grading information and displays professor reviews -- not unlike sites such as RateMyProfessor.com; lets students build online portfolios highlighting their skills and experience; and helps employers connect with students and recruit top talent.
The combined effect of those features, Blackboard and MyEdu officials said, is that college students organize their undergraduate careers for a purpose -- namely employment. And the more data at their disposal to pick the most suitable section of a course, decide between professors and plot their path to graduation, the better.
“The process of real-time rating and social media interaction around the quality of whatever you’re experiencing -- that train has kind of left the station,” Bhatt said in an interview. “There are just so many situations where people around us are benefiting from a set of data: travel experiences, consumer product experiences.... The consumer needs to determine what they want to do with that data. They affect your decision. I think it’s true for universities too. I think it’s true for everything in our life.”
MyEdu has collected publicly available course data -- everything from which classroom a course is offered in to the professor who teaches it -- from more than 800 institutions across the country, almost all of them public. In 14 months, more than 660,000 students have created accounts. Employers can also create their own profiles, enabling them to build their own brands and advise students on the skills they value in new hires.
According to Frank Lyman, MyEdu’s chief project officer, more than 200,000 college students have made their profiles available to the public, which he said suggests students have been searching for a platform to showcase their academic achievements.
“I am a firm believer in the consumerization of higher education,” Lyman said. “I believe there’s a lot of gravity moving toward the student as a consumer, and there’s a lot of value for us as a society in empowering that. That said, education is a really complex environment, and I believe that the chance of the student being successful has a lot to do with the support he or she receives from the institution.”
Both Bhatt and Lyman drew comparisons between MyEdu and sites such as Amazon and Yelp to explain how MyEdu uses data to help students. But in recent years, Lyman said, the company has moved toward LinkedIn-style endorsements. The change was partly fueled by backlash from faculty members in the University of Texas System, which invested $10 million in MyEdu and mandated that campuses integrate it.
The criticism caused MyEdu to shift its model from letting students list faculty members’ pros and cons to having them offer endorsements of particular skills, but staying away from “egg throwing,” Lyman said. With the addition of the online portfolio and career platform features, he said, MyEdu becomes more a way to give students a set of tools than a place to rant about their professors.
“The primary value proposition is: How do students organize themselves through a program, and how do they share that with each other?” Bhatt said. “The raison d'être of the LMS, of MyEdu, is not to rate things -- it’s to create a better environment, a better program, a better process.”
Bhatt declined to say how much Blackboard is paying for MyEdu, a team of about 20 employees. Other than an expansion of the career platform, current users won’t experience many changes. MyEdu will also remain free for anyone to sign up, according to Lyman.
Bhatt also said the acquisition addresses two areas where he feels the company can improve: integrating technology into its range of products, and strengthening the user experience.
“One of the big priorities going forward is to take the tools that we have and create some consistency around [the user interface and experience],” Bhatt said. “In the context of design, [MyEdu] is one of the better ones that I’ve seen. You can’t quantify cool, but it’s a very cool product.”