REDMOND, Wash., April 24, 2001 — Microsofts new alliance with Blackboard Inc. unites the software maker with the leading provider of e-education Internet infrastructure technology. Blackboard serves more than 1,400 educational institutions in 70 countries. Together, the two companies will take advantage of Microsoft .NET technology to redefine and simplify the e-learning experience for students and faculty in higher education.
To learn more about the alliance and the technology changes taking place in higher education, PressPass spoke with Mark East, worldwide general manager of the Microsoft Education Solutions Group, and Blackboard Chairman Matthew Pittinsky.
PressPass: How big of a role does e-learning play in higher education today, and what are the prospects for growth in e-learning and online campus systems?
Pittinsky: E-learning is certainly the fastest-growing sector of the higher-education market. If you look at where t servers, databases and applications are being purchased, by far the fastest-growing segment is e-learning. Even bigger than e-learning is what we describe as
that is, how the Web can serve not just the core teaching and learning process, but a broader set of Web services for students and faculty. Things like building online communities for student organizations, or facilitating e-commerce using student debit accounts. In terms of growth potential, theres a huge amount of opportunity and plenty of room for expansion. Even though its the fastest-growing segment, its still the newest. If, for example, you look at overall spending on e-education systems versus Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or back-office systems, it would still be significantly smaller.
East: Were moving from an old-economy to a new-economy view in higher education. Instead of the typical four-year degree, its now a 40-year degree, where more and more students take advantage of technology to learn throughout their lives, whether theyre full- or part-time students or already employed in their field. In the old economy, training was often seen as a cost center. Now training is probably the No. 1 competitive advantage a business has. In the new economy we talk about content mobility, as opposed to learner mobility, so it doesnt really matter where the content resides; students can access it without having to go to a special place or institution to learn. Rather than distance education using video, we now focus on distributed learning, where learning can be integrated either within classroom settings or at a distance through high-tech multimedia centers. Stanford University, which I visited recently, has a fantastic resource center, where theyre developing digitized content. In the past, we talked about one-size-fits-all, and now were talking about more tailored programs. We used to talk about learning
“just in case”
the knowledge would be used in the future; now students are focused on just-in-time learning, having access to resources the moment they want to learn something new. In the old economy, distance learning was typically very isolated, but now were looking at new, dynamic, virtual learning communities.
Pittinsky: And were seeing this evolution on campuses everywhere. The spectrum ranges from simple adoption by faculty members, who use the Web for an online school event or to post announcements or assignments online, to greater sophistication where the Web becomes a significant part of the pedagogy of the professor through online quizzes, interactive learning materials, group discussions created by students, and so on. Probably the most sophisticated use is a distance-learning implementation through which students never come to campus. Often, you will see that full spectrum at one institution — some faculty use it very lightly while some departments have high-end implementations for distance learning.
PressPass: Microsoft has demonstrated a huge commitment to education over the years. What is Microsofts vision for higher education and how does the company see itself helping colleges and universities meet their technology challenges?
East: Microsoft has a vision for what we call the Connected Learning Community, which, simply put, gives students the ability to learn anytime, any place and on any device. Students are actually quite challenged today in terms of their ability to leverage technology for e-learning. So the concept of the Connected Learning Community is to give students a very rich learning experience, which includes how teachers can provide a more personalized and relevant learning process, as well as how schools, businesses and the community are connected in a dynamic, collective learning environment.
With that vision in mind, we need to make sure that we have technology to support it, and with Microsoft .NET, we have those technology building blocks. What we now have to do is promote the .NET vision by working with partners who are leaders in their specific line of applications.
PressPass: Blackboard is the No. 1 provider of e-learning solutions for higher education in the United States. What other educational sectors is Blackboard reaching?
Pittinsky: From the beginning, Blackboard recognized the international nature of e-learning, reflecting not just the U.S. market but the global market, because educational institutions around the world are inextricably linked. But we serve all sectors of the e-learning market. We have more than 100 K12 installations, we have higher-education institutions, which is where we started and represents our greatest market penetration, and then we have corporate training, association and government customers, as well.
PressPass: How will this alliance with Microsoft help Blackboard maintain its position and continue to grow?
Pittinsky: I think our relationship with Microsoft is critical in several ways. The first is development — thats really the most customer-driven piece. More than 50 percent of our installed base use Microsoft technologies on the operating system and server side, and those institutions obviously care about scalability, stability and all those things that enterprise institutions care about. So, for us the relationship focused on development-related collaboration between Microsoft and Blackboard, and thats really just to serve our customers with our products today.
Going forward, we think it will actually expand the capabilities of the Blackboard product over time. The benefits of .NET and other Microsoft initiatives are going to allow us to deliver functionality that, if we relied simply on where the operating system and database are today, we wouldnt be able to deliver. And thats what were excited about.
PressPass: Under this agreement, Blackboard and Microsoft are granting preferred status to each others technologies. What does this mean for e-learning customers and end users?
Pittinsky: As much as our products provide — all of the infrastructure for a faculty member to manage a course online and for students to experience it — it never starts and stops with just our system. The .NET framework creates a more seamless experience for users of Blackboard as they interact with third-party Web sites or different ERP systems, for instance. This is critical. To give you an example, a student in a classroom powered by Blackboard can visit a publishers site and interact with digital content — and through technologies such as Microsoft Passport, they can have seamless logon and their access rights as a student can carry across. Or as universities seek to integrate administrative systems for things like student registration or the course catalog, those systems can be brought into Blackboard and students can hop between them as a result of having .NET behind the scenes.
East: The Microsoft .NET strategy provides much more personalized learning than we typically get today. Todays e-learning solutions essentially focus on new ways to interact with content . With .NET, we will empower educators, students and administrators — in fact, anyone involved in the learning process — to interact better with each other . Ill give you a couple of examples. First ,
Basically, a student will know whos online anytime, in a much richer way than with Instant Messenger, making it possible for the student to work more effectively with his or her teachers or other students on specific projects. Second, .NETs
makes it easier for learners to use a wide range of technology devices at any time and any place, creating a more convenient, richer and more relevant experience, regardless of the device or connection speed.
PressPass: How will Microsoft and Blackboard work together?
East: Apart from the fact that were broadly announcing this partnership and making an investment in the company, were putting our own consultants at Blackboards disposal to help them fully support the Microsoft .NET solution base. And were partnering in terms of sales and channel engagement worldwide. Its a pretty big commitment.
Pittinsky: I think customers can take comfort in the fact that we are putting this much effort into working together. Too often, technology vendors solve a lot of general problems at a customer site, when if they had really worked together in advance they could solve them globally for all customers. And thats what this relationship is about.
East: Absolutely. Strong partnerships help us give our mutual customers greater clarity when they make technology choices. Thats one of the reasons we wanted to work with Blackboard. Customers currently using Microsoft technology or migrating to Microsoft technology are going to benefit from Blackboards rich e-learning capabilities that are built on Microsoft .NET technology.
Pittinsky: We have collaborated in the past, but it was more ad-hoc, driven by individual customer needs. And obviously we both maintain relationships with other partners. But I think this alliance is something much more formal and proactive, and something that has measurable objectives — sales and development objectives — and something that is even more firmly rooted in the customer experience.
East: Microsoft does have excellent relationships with other key e-learning vendors, such as eCollege and IntraLearn, and those relationships will continue. With Blackboard, however, were working with the market leader, in terms of their worldwide reach, as well as a partner that shares a common, deeply held, customer-focused vision for e-learning. The bottom line here is that Microsoft supports customer choice. Weve chosen to work with some key e-learning vendors that have the vision and are prepared to integrate with Microsoft .NET technologies which, in turn, will extend our worldwide reach and provide customers with much richer electronic learning experiences.