Blackboard CEO Jay Bhatt on the Global Future of Edtech

6/2/14Follow @gthuang

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“has not really scaled yet.” And that is what’s driving Blackboard’s product roadmap, as well as its competitors’.

“When you build software, you’re building for the future,” he says. “It doesn’t reach scalability until three to four years out.”

Here are some more highlights from our chat:

On the future of the education software market: “The industry needs a leader in technology; the usual-suspect companies aren’t going to lead in education,” Bhatt says. “If you’re not an educational technology provider, it’s a pain to serve” the market of educators and students, he says. Clearly, he sees Blackboard as being in a unique position to capitalize on this market.

On the importance of understanding the user: Bhatt calls this “the rise of the learner.” As a student, he says, “you may not buy the product, but you’re the center of everything. There’s a learner, and there’s a teacher. But the first piece is the learner—otherwise there’s no place for education.” And as Bhatt sees it, the learner should drive edtech companies’ strategy: everything from their user interfaces and user experience to their product design and analyses of the marketplace. (This dovetails with a theme from last week’s LearnLaunchX demo day.)

On MOOCs as marketing: Open, virtual courses are “an unbelievable phenomenon that’s driving the concept that online education is happening, that people are willing to learn online,” he says. “The savviest universities are using MOOCs to matriculate students as a marketing tool.”

On whether there’s a higher-ed bubble: “I don’t think of it as a bubble,” Bhatt says. “I do think people are questioning the value proposition of education. I don’t know if there will be 4,400 higher-ed institutions [in the U.S.] in 10 years. But the addressable market for education may actually grow,” he says, through digital tools, distance learning, part-time programs, and the like. The industry “will have to validate and justify for the consumer how education connects to job prospects and a happy life long-term,” he says. “So no, it’s not a bubble, but maybe it got ahead of itself.”

On physical vs. digital content: As a deliverer of educational materials (and not a publisher), Blackboard has an important perspective on the future of content. Observers are wondering if and when the switchover to all-digital textbooks and so forth will occur.

“Generations are being divided by very small increments,” Bhatt says. “We have to understand a whole new generation of use is coming at us.” He’s talking about the surprisingly big difference between six-to-nine-year-olds—many of whom have grown up learning to read on iPhones, iPads, and Kindles—and 12-to-15-year-olds who (most likely) got started on paper books and still seem to prefer that format for most of their schoolwork.

One point is clear, Bhatt says: “If you’re going to extend education to the billions of people who have historically not had access to education, it’s not going to be through physical textbooks.” (Think India, China, and other big emerging markets.)

“Kids in China will be reached by devices, and non-Chinese brands,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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