Class Technologies CEO: ‘The education landscape has forever changed’

Michael Chasen, CEO of Class Technologies, tells Education Technology about the company’s recent acquisition of Blackboard Collaborate and why his predictions for virtual learning have changed since the pandemic.

Having grown up in Connecticut, in a “hick town with cows”, Michael Chasen went on to study computer science in Washington DC and co-found one of the largest global edtech solutions, Blackboard. In 2020 he co-founded Class Technologies, a Zoom-friendly virtual teaching tool, which has just acquired Blackboard Collaborate, Blackboard’s virtual classroom tool, in a deal reportedly worth $210 million.

Class has more than 14,000 institutions using its services around the world including schools, leading universities, Target, Nike and Peloton.

How did Class Technologies come about?

I was home at the beginning of the pandemic, like everybody was, and I had three children on Zoom classes. I saw the challenges teachers were have engaging in their classes so I talked to the teachers and they said Zoom was great for lectures and group discussions, but it misses out some vital elements from the physical classroom. Things like assignments, exams, quizzes, talking one-on-one with students, group presentations, referencing textbooks, watching videos or using the internet, as well as general administrative tasks like reading work and checking on student progress. 

So I got together with a bunch of developers that were experts in building elearning tools, who I’d worked with previously at Blackboard and other companies, and we went and added all the teaching and learning tools that were needed to Zoom. The interest we’ve had since is crazy.

How has the Class Technologies developed over last 18 months?

We’ve been working with dozens, if not hundreds, of schools to continue to add features and functionalities and improve the product. A big push nowadays is in hybrid flexible learning – schools are going back into a mixed environment where some students are remote so we’re building features and functionality around that.

Can you talk a bit about the acquisition and what it means for both companies?

So Blackboard had a main product called Blackboard Learn that helps schools put their course material online and a second product called Blackboard Collaborate, a virtual classroom very similar to Zoom. Schools would use Blackboard Learn bundled with Collaborate for their live classroom experience. There are 1300 clients on Blackboard Collaborate and a good number of leading institutions. We wanted to buy Blackboard Collaborate to take that division of the business and bring it together with what we built at Class to create the next generation of live classroom experience. It’s probably very unusual that a company as young as us would go buy a larger, bigger company, but it just made a lot of sense in this case, because of the strategic benefit of bringing these two platforms together.

What motivates you in your work?

My undergraduate degree was in computer science but I was always interested in education, because I thought if you could improve education you could truly lift entire society. Furthering education is the key to better jobs, to better economy. I was always someone that was interested in making a difference and it hit home even more when I saw my children struggling during the pandemic. I’ve always been interested in education as a way to contribute back to society and improve it – even more so during Covid.

You founded Blackboard in 1997 – how was the experience of founding Class in 2020 different?

Back in 1997 schools were just starting to connect the internet to the classroom, and we saw that they were spending all this money on hardware, and none on software. It was an incredible opportunity to develop software. The second time around with Class was very different. Suddenly Covid put every teacher and student in the world through a crash course in online learning. I mean, who ever imagined that we would have the technology infrastructure to put every class in the world online? With Class it’s more about taking advantage of the momentum that’s already going in the marketplace and to improve it, and bring the rest of the educational experience online.

What are your thoughts on the future of virtual learning?

Well, it’s interesting, because I think that if you’d asked me, and other people, two or three years ago, I would have said it’s going to be heavily asynchronous. It would involve self-paced learning, with an instructor for office hours to check in on you once a week, because you can’t possibly put millions of people in a live synchronous classroom. And then Covid came along, and we actually had the technology for full live learning, which is the preferred way that people learn. For the first time, we can really increase access to education with lower costs, and I think we’ll see a lot of new initiatives over the next few years because of the mass adoption we saw during Covid. The education landscape has forever changed.

People prefer live learning from an expert who’s really there and interacting with a group of people who are all diving into a topic. The more you can replicate that real, in-person experience online, so people can actually participate, no matter where they are around the world, I think is very beneficial.

Covid forever changed the pace of education and people don’t exactly notice it yet, but it’s coming. My town is actually building a fully virtual K 12 school just because some students learn better online. All of this will get more people through the education system, and that will greatly improve people’s lives – both individual and, I believe, entire society. Education is now a driving force of change in a way that it wasn’t before. And I’m excited about all the innovations that are being brought to it, like VR, and I think it’s going to be an exciting time to be involved in the education system over the next few years.

Read more: Class Technologies acquires Anthology’s Blackboard Collaborate

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