Raised in Connecticut, in a “street country with cows,” Michael Chasen went on to study computer science in Washington DC and co-founded one of the largest global edtech solutions, Blackboard. In 2020 he co-founded Class Technologies, a Zoom-compatible virtual teaching tool, which just acquired Blackboard Collaborate, Blackboard’s virtual classroom tool, in a $ 210 million deal.
Class has more than 14,000 institutions using its services around the world, including schools, leading universities, Target, Nike and Peloton.
How was Class Technologies born?
I was home at the start of the pandemic, as everyone was, and I had three children in Zoom classes. I saw the challenges the teachers were facing in their classrooms, so I spoke to the teachers and they said that Zoom is great for lessons and group discussions, but he loses some vital elements from the physical classroom. Things like homework, exams, quizzes, talking face-to-face with students, group presentations, referring to textbooks, watching videos or using the Internet, as well as general administrative tasks like reading work and checking student progress.
So I got together with a group of developers experienced in creating elearning tools, who I had previously worked with at Blackboard and other companies, and we added all the teaching and learning tools that Zoom needed. The interest we’ve had since then has been insane.
How has Class Technologies developed over the past 18 months?
We have worked with dozens, if not hundreds, of schools to continue adding features and functionality and improving the product. A big push nowadays is in hybrid flexible learning – schools are returning to a mixed environment where some students are remote, so we’re building features and functionality around that.
Can you talk a little about the acquisition and what it means for both companies?
So Blackboard had a main product called Blackboard Learn which helps schools put 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 customers on Blackboard Collaborate and a good number of leading institutions. We wanted to buy Blackboard Collaborate to take that division of the business and combine it with what we built in Class to create the next generation of live classroom experience. It is probably very unusual for a young company like us to buy a bigger, bigger company, but in this case it made a lot of sense, due to the strategic advantage of combining these two platforms.
What motivates you in your work?
My degree was in computer science, but I have always been interested in education, because I thought that if you could improve education you would really lift the whole society. Promoting education is the key to better jobs, a better economy. I have always been a person interested in making a difference and it struck me even more when I saw my children struggling during the pandemic. I have always been interested in education as a way to contribute 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?
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 with Class was very different. Suddenly Covid put all teachers and students in the world on a crash course in online learning. I mean, who would have ever imagined that we would have the technological infrastructure to put all the classrooms of the world online? With Class it’s more about harnessing the momentum that is already going through the market and improving it and bringing the rest of the educational experience online.
What are your thoughts on the future of virtual learning?
Well, that’s interesting, because I think if you had asked me, and other people, two or three years ago, I would have said it would be heavily asynchronous. It would involve self-learning, with an instructor during office hours checking you out once a week, because you absolutely can’t put millions of people in a live synchronous classroom. And then Covid came, and we actually had the technology for full live learning, which is the preferred way people learn. For the first time, we can really increase access to education at lower costs and I think we will see many new initiatives in the next few years due to the mass adoption that we have seen during Covid. The educational landscape has changed forever.
People prefer to learn live from an expert who is really present and interact with a group of people who are 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 in the world, I think it’s very beneficial.
Covid has forever changed the pace of education and people are not quite aware of it yet, but it is coming. My city is actually building a completely virtual K 12 school just because some students learn better online. All of this will bring more people through the education system and this will greatly improve people’s lives – both the individual and, I believe, the whole of society. Education is now a driving force for change in a way it wasn’t before. And I’m excited about all the innovations that are coming to us, like virtual reality, and I think it will be an exciting time to get involved in the education system in the coming years.
Class Technologies CEO: “The Education Landscape Has Changed Forever”
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