Blackboard's Boss Wants You To Hate His Company Less

Jay Bhatt is on a simple mission: Convince students and faculty that his company's product is getting better. With younger, sharper competitors nipping at his heels, he needs to do it quickly.

Blackboard CEO Jay Bhatt's job is simple: make people hate his company less.

The education software company has long been disliked, often strongly, by student and faculty users of its learning management system, BbLearn. And Blackboard was seen as a bully in the business world, where it became infamous for suing one of its rivals almost entirely out of business on the basis of a patent that was later invalidated.

In its heyday, the company had a more than 70% market share, and thanks to frequent acquisitions and its patent lawsuit, few real competitors on the horizon. But Blackboard's once-commanding market share in higher education has fallen by 30 percent, and it now faces some powerful competition, especially from Instructure, a two-year-old startup that has already grabbed away 10 percent of the market.

Bhatt sees improving students' experiences with Blackboard, and their perceptions of the company, as a key to regaining market share and keeping existing education customers from switching over to younger, more nimble competitors. "We're focusing almost entirely on learners," Bhatt said. "That's a fairly courageous thing to say, given that they don't pay us a dime. It's not something we were doing before — we used to build products for IT and administrators."

While Blackboard met the requirements of school administrators, students and faculty users of BbLearn complained the system was technologically years behind, with a clunky, slow interface that made basic tasks like class discussion and uploading assignments difficult. Getting anywhere within the system, users complained, took dozens of clicks, and the system was aesthetically stuck in the early 2000s.

"Somewhere along the line, Blackboard felt like they invented the LMS, and they stopped innovating the actual system," Bhatt said.

Core to Bhatt's mission, then, is the upcoming launch of a fully redesigned user interface, a simplified, sleek system reminiscent of iOS. It will be released to compliment a recently-redesigned mobile services app, which Blackboard has begun including automatically alongside its desktop software to keep up with how students and teachers use the system.

The interface may help Blackboard compete with the young startup Instructure, which has sold its learning management system almost entirely on the superiority of its user experience compared with Blackboard's. Instructure, which has DNA in Silicon Valley, says its Canvas system is far more attractive, up-to-date and intuitive than BbLearn's. So far, that's been enough to win it more than 900 institutional customers.

Bhatt has also worked on speeding up the pace of change within Blackboard, he said, spending just a few months to turn around products and moving especially quickly on the mobile side of the business. "If we're going to be a relevant company to the learner, we're going to have to move very fast," Bhatt said.

In a presentation at the company's annual conference in June, BbWorld, Bhatt and his team made so many rapid announcements about new innovations — its user interface overhaul, a system that could be hosted for the first time on the public cloud, product bundling, several new mobile apps, a new mission statement — that industry observers said they had trouble keeping track.

"There was an astonishing amount of very significant news," wrote education industry analyst Michael Feldstein after the conference. (Feldstein is also an consultant, and Blackboard is one of his clients.) He wrote the presentation was a "carpet bombing run of announcements" that, by the time they were over, "left you to wonder what the heck had just happened."

Alan Greenberg, a research analyst at Wainhouse Research, wrote after the conference that he was impressed by the changes made by Blackboard. "This overhaul was overdue and puts Blackboard in a much stronger competitive position," Greenberg said. The company, he said, "is no longer about buying the competition... [but] about innovating and delivering products desired by real-life end users."

"It's a more comprehensive user experience redesign than I've ever seen from Blackboard," Feldstein said. "But the real test is going to come when faculty and students get and start using it."

Another piece of the puzzle for Blackboard, Bhatt said, will be changing perceptions in the education community, where its past business practices made it enormously unpopular. At the height of Blackboard's patent suit, the biggest higher education technology association, Educause, publicly rebuked the company for the first time in the trade organization's history, urging Blackboard to drop the suit in the "interest of higher education."

Bhatt is trying to mend those old wounds by making Blackboard a participant in conversations about higher education and its future. "We're really trying to be a citizen in the education industry," he said. "Blackboard used to be happy being a vendor partner, but we want to be seen as more than being out to monetize education."

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