An Interview with Matthew Pittinsky, Co-Founder and Chairman of E-Learning Provider Blackboard Inc.

by Cathy Sivak

The education process is being transformed from chalkboard-intensive to utilization of e-Learning capabilities

A lifelong love of learning led Matthew Pittinsky to become the co-founder and chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard Inc., which provides the software and services many schools use in online courses. Established in 1998, Blackboard went public in June 2004, and today its E-Learning software is used by more than 2,000 colleges, schools and companies worldwide. In October 2005, Blackboard announced its pending acquisition of WebCT Inc., slated for completion by early 2006. The addition to Blackboard expands the company’s service roster to 3,700 higher education, K-12, corporate, government and commercial academic institutions.

Mr. Pittinsky received his undergraduate degree in education policy at American University, and was also enrolled in the school’s teacher certification program. But his interest in how the Internet can support the learning process led him away from the ‘traditional’ teaching profession. He received his master’s degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and is currently pursuing a PhD in the sociology of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he is exploring how online and in-class peer relationships influence student achievement.

In addition to his responsibilities at Blackboard Inc. and his PhD studies, Mr. Pittinsky serves on the board of directors of In2Books, a non-profit that uses technology to improve literacy in early education, as well as the board of trustees of American University. He also served as an early member of the IMS e-Learning standards board.

“Many institutions are still not aware of the tremendous value e-Learning solutions provide their students, faculty and campus,” Mr. Pittinsky says, noting he believes the future holds widespread adoption of e-Learning as part of the mission of academic institutions.


You & Your Career

Tell us about your career in the field of e-Learning. When did your interest in the field of E-Learning start?

Education is in my blood. I come from a family of educators – my mother worked as a teacher in the Baldwin district in Long Island for 30 years, and my father was an administrator at SUNY Stony Brook and Yeshiva University, as well as the president of the school board in our hometown.

I’ve always been passionate about the field of education. I originally planned to become an educator, but during the training, I became even more interested in how we can use the Internet to transform teaching and learning. That was the original mission of Blackboard, and eight years later we are still working to enable educational innovations by connecting people and technology.

Along the way, I have been fortunate enough to serve as an early member of the IMS e-Learning standards board, and I am currently working on my doctorate in the sociology of education at Columbia Teachers College.

What differences and similarities do you find between your current role as entrepreneur/cofounder/chairman of Blackboard Inc. and your previous experiences in the workforce?

The differences are vast – the longest jobs I held prior to starting Blackboard were operating rides at an amusement park and working at KPMG Consulting (which is now Bearing Point). Neither of these two experiences compare to what I spend my time doing at Blackboard.

What factors were in play in your decision to start Blackboard Inc.? How did you manage to grow the company from serving 15,000 students in 1998 to serving 12 million in 50 countries across 2,000 campuses and companies by 2004?

My partner, Michael Chasen, Blackboard’s CEO and President, and I wanted to start Blackboard because we recognized a real need for enterprise software that could enhance education. The Internet was changing so many aspects of life and society. We were working in the higher education practice for KPMG and saw so many college campuses being wired for web access, but there were few programs to leverage the technology that would really impact the academic experience. We started Blackboard to change that.

After launching our first product we saw tremendous interest, particularly from the higher education community. We attribute the ease of use of our product to that initial growth (rather than focusing on too many features, Blackboard focused on ease-of-use) and grassroots demand from instructors, who really drove the business at the beginning.

We also understood and put a great emphasis on having a solid financial model. We knew we needed a sound business to success and we attribute that to our success today.

How have your educational experiences contributed to your success in the e-Learning field?

Having spent a lot of time in school studying education, I’ve always contemplated how innovation can impact a particular teacher and a particular set of students and how that innovation could improve learning outcomes. I’ve always applied that measuring stick to what Blackboard does, and I think it’s been important.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

While there are many rewarding aspects of my career, I think what I enjoy the most is seeing how much Blackboard has really added to the education experience – it’s the individual anecdotes I hear from our clients that make it all worthwhile. Anecdotes about how districts can share resources, provide better training for teachers, about how community colleges can work together to connect students and faculty, how students in rural districts can access courses and training they would not be able to without this technology, and how students in urban areas can learn from students abroad and share cultures.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My parents were big inspirations for my career, constantly showing me the rewards of lifelong learning and knowledge. I have also had many professional mentors, including faculty members and people whom I have worked for and with.

Coincidentally, I was in the first month of dating my wife, Julie, when I decided to start Blackboard. She has always been a tremendous support to me and my goals.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

The day when Blackboard went public was a huge milestone, basically because it emphasized how much trust we had built in this company, and it enabled us to continue our growth and move forward. It wasn’t so much about the financial implications as it was about gaining that vote of confidence from new shareholders and rewarding the support of our early investors.

I think the biggest setback might be that we were actually considering merging with a small private company called WebCT in 1998-99, but did not think they would be interested. However, soon after, a company called Universal Learning Technologies stepped in and acquired them. So I think our hesitation to ask the question was a setback. However, it seems to have worked out; we are very excited about our recently announced plans to merge with WebCT.

What are some favorite projects that you've completed in your career, and what makes them stand out?

Writing and editing The Wired Tower with the late Neil Postman is by far one of the most exciting projects in my career. I am also very excited about completing my dissertation, which I am currently working on.

What exactly do you do as cofounder/chairman of Blackboard Inc.? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand? What are your key responsibilities?

I think it’s important to say that my role as chairman of Blackboard is a very unique position which enables me to utilize the individual experiences and talents I have in a way which is probably not typical. My job does not have a set description or skill set which I apply and work towards. My responsibilities are tied to my interests and passions. This has been very powerful for me personally and professionally, and I believe it’s been critical to Blackboard’s success.

As chairman of Blackboard, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the strategy of the company: where is Blackboard headed in three years, five years and even 10 years from now. I meet with leaders in the industry – including clients, investors, major stakeholders and our board members – to talk about where we are going and to hear what they are thinking. I provide this information and feedback to various leaders at Blackboard to make sure this information is translated into a clear strategy for the company.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

E-mail, it allows me to work virtually, as well as books on a wide range of topics which help open my imagination.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

Balancing all the demands on my time, between Blackboard (including a lot of required travel), working on my doctorate at Columbia and making sure that family time is not ‘just what’s left over.’

What are your top pet peeves with the field of e-Learning?

  • Either/or propositions
  • Pundits who act holier than thou, as if they are the keepers of the academic flame
  • Approaches that put technology over practice
  • Exaggerated claims by technology companies that they provide the universal solvent to all educational ills
How do you feel that the educational system could be changed to better serve society?

One of my main beliefs in how Blackboard can improve education centers around the concept of Networked Learning Environments, which Blackboard enables. Networked Learning Environments make it possible for many different educational tools to be linked together and easily accessed outside the boundaries of time and space. For example, in a networked learning environment, a student can access his class syllabus, texts from the library reserves and a lecture taking place in another city. This provides a much more robust experience, opening up many new channels for learning which might not otherwise be feasible without technology.

What is right and wrong with post-secondary education in America?

I’m one of the oddballs who believe most things about post-secondary education in America are right. I don’t believe universities should turn into corporations; what some people describe as the slow-moving nature of universities seems less important when you consider the tremendous contributions to society which have come out of universities.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the field of education in order to be successful?

Absolutely. To invest the time and energy into a field as large as education, which has issues that are somewhat intractable, it’s crucial that one is passionate about it.

Education Information & Advice

How did you choose American University for your bachelors in education policy, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education for your masters and Teachers College, Columbia University for your current PhD studies in the sociology of education?

I looked for universities that combined strong education programs with equally strong social science programs, and looked for schools that would accept me.

What have you enjoyed the most about your education thus far?

My classmates. One of the reasons I am studying the sociology of education at Columbia is because of the unique opportunity to tackle the topic while working with teachers and administrators who each bring an individual, unique perspective.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

Do better in school before heading to college.

How can prospective students interested in technology and e-Learning assess their aptitude for the field?

This is a tough question – e-Learning is such a broad field. I think doing internships is helpful and speaking to people in the field to understand what they do, so that one can learn about the variety of opportunities in this field.

How has your education benefited your career?

It has broadened my horizons. Education is at the foundation of my world view.

What drove you to return to school to earn your PhD? When is a good time for students to pursue advanced degrees?

I’ve always wanted to (get my PhD). I began when Blackboard turned profitable. If you don’t start, you’ll never finish.

How can students in all types of disciplines expect E-Learning to impact their education?

I think e-Learning will be felt in all aspects of education, from accessing your child’s homework assignments to continuing adult education. E-Learning creates more choices, greater flexibility and more access to education.

Job Information, Trends & Advice

What are some common myths about the software profession? The field of e-Learning?

I think one of the common myths related to software is around the open source discussion, and the idea that open source software is less expensive than a commercial system. While we see many benefits to open source software, particularly as a complement to supported systems, we don’t think open source software is a more cost effective option, particularly for academic institutions. In fact, in many cases, it is probably more expensive than a commercial system. The cost of support is a main issue: how does an institution provide cost-effective support for open source programs developed by so many different people and customized on an on-going basis?

I think the value of e-Learning software is another area which is often under-emphasized. Many institutions are still not aware of the tremendous value e-Learning solutions provide their students, faculty and campus. We have heard many times throughout the years that Blackboard is the second most important program used on campuses by students and faculty, second only to e-mail. This demonstrates how mission-critical e-Learning initiatives are, and we think the leaders of academic institutions are just now beginning to realize this.

What are the hottest specialties developing in the field of e-Learning?

The growth of high quality content. There is a tremendous opportunity in the world of publishing related to academia. We are just hitting the tip of the iceberg on this now with our course cartridge program. Cartridges are electronic portions of textbooks (certain chapters and quizzes) which students can access online to use instead of or in conjunction with a textbook. There are currently more than 3,000 cartridges in Blackboard. We think this trend will continue to develop and expand – it will be interesting to see what emerges in the coming years.

How has the growth of the Internet impacted e-Learning? What does the future hold?

The growth of the Internet has absolutely impacted e-Learning. With greater access and more high speed connections available, e-Learning programs are becoming even more mission-critical at academic institutions. We also see deeper penetration with E-Learning programs at the K-12 level; as students begin using the Internet at younger ages, they will want and expect to get their school work online as well.

What are the best ways to get a job in the e-Learning field?

I would answer this the way I would answer “what is the best way to get a job in any field?” Determine what companies are in the e-Learning space, research them, see what jobs are posted on their web sites and locate a recruiter in the company or someone in your field in the company to network with. Determine what knowledge and skill sets you bring to the table and how that fits in with what the company is looking for. Also, network with people in education: ask them who they know, what products/companies are good and well respected, etc. In addition, becoming a member of and attending events of professional organizations and non-profit organizations in the education arena is a terrific way to get and share information and network for opportunities.

How available are internships and other hands-on experiences?

Here at Blackboard, we will be assessing the need for interns next year and rolling out a program if there is demand. I think we will probably look to bring on two to four interns next year. Across the industry, internships can be difficult to locate, but there are opportunities. Using similar techniques I mentioned to get a job, you can get to the people who make those decisions. Volunteer experience can be just as valuable, as well.

What kinds of entry-level jobs are available in the field?

This is our second year doing campus recruiting. There are jobs available for associate technical consultants, entry level QA analysts and associate tech support analysts. In general, if you have some technical knowledge and great multi-tasking and people skills, a support role is a good way to learn the products and clients and gain/enhance customer service skills. It’s an area where you can take and grow more junior talent (with one to three years of experience) and position them for further success in that area or other parts of the organization.

What is the job market now in the industry?

The job market is hot in general. Companies slowed down their campus recruiting efforts when times were tough, but this is definitely ramping up again. On the experienced hire side it is very competitive, especially for technical people with relevant industry experience.

What further advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the field of e-Learning?

The key to success in any arena is to focus on it and make it happen for yourself. Take charge of your career and mine the marketplace for the opportunity that is right for you.

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the field of E-Learning that would be interesting or helpful to students?

This is a very exciting time, particularly for academic e-Learning. In the early stages of development, corporate e-Learning was more prevalent, but the trend we are seeing now is widespread adoption of e-Learning across academic institutions. We think this is just the beginning and we are very enthusiastic about the future.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to contact Mr. Pittinsky directly for further information on his education experiences or the field of e-Learning, click here. More information about Blackboard Inc. is available at www.blackboard.com.

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