From Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to virtual classrooms, the education technology (EdTech) industry has seen rapid growth, leading to an influx of massive investments worldwide. If global EdTech venture capital funding in 2019 was around $7 billion, in 2020, it reached $16,1 billion! The future of EdTech looks promising. “The importance of distance education in an increasingly uncertain world of global pandemics and other dramatic disruptions is without a doubt. Institutions can certainly benefit from integrating virtual teaching and learning formats and tools into their infrastructures and can harness it to develop a more robust system,” comments Oleg Figlin, Vice President for Europe, Middle East and Africa atBlackboard, an EdTech solution provider with over 150 million users in more than 80 countries. In 2020, Blackboard recorded tremendous growth in its user base around the world, across the K-12 as well as the higher-education sector.
“At the onset of the pandemic, and the subsequent school closures, our goal was clear: we needed to work hand-in-hand with the education community to facilitate the smoothest possible transition to online learning, and we needed to help them do so in a severely compressed timeframe. We needed to help ensure academic continuity and learner success, regardless of the method of delivery,” shares Figlin. Blackboard formed partnerships with several institutions worldwide and extended its existing partnerships to deliver uninterrupted learning across hybrid and fully remote-learning models. Figlin adds, “We have expanded our regional teams to provide better, more hands-on, comprehensive support to our growing network of partners. We have helped drive technical fluency in educators and administrators through webinars, discussion and feedback forums, and solution-agnostic professional development courses.”
Now, Blackboard is working on tackling the next wave of challenges — whether this means keeping students engaged in the face of continued online learning or embracing hybrid models as some regions return to in-person classes. With tools and solutions to advance learning, the company helps students stay connected to their instructors and to each other and drives student engagement across different modes.
Pushing the Boundaries of Learning
Founded in 1997, Blackboard is a global EdTech leader offering a portfolio of connected capabilities that support learners through their learning journey in K-12, higher education and professional training environments. Blackboard’s mission is to advance learning together with the world’s education community so that all students, educators and institutions can realise their goals today and prepare for tomorrow. We believe everyone, regardless of geography, financial situation, stage of life or disability, deserves access to education and a connected support system. “It’s why we’re focused on providing the technology, tools, and support to continuously transform and meet the specific needs of schools and their students by delivering experiences that are connected, insightful, and personalised,” explains Figlin.
Blackboard’s cloud-based technologies, including its learning management system (Blackboard Learn), virtual classroom solution (Blackboard Collaborate) and accessibility solution (Blackboard Ally), allow educators to deliver personalised experiences, fuelled by data, to advance learning. Being in the cloud enables zero downtime, access to its latest features and updates, increases reliability. The company also provides personalised support through various channels, as well as work to increase technical fluency across its user base.
Figlin says, “Blackboard Collaborate, in particular, allowed us to stand out during the pandemic.” The virtual classroom solution offers both synchronous and asynchronous course capabilities. Blackboard Collaborate connects students and instructors via desktops and mobile devices and promotes collaboration, engagement and accessible learning through features such as hand raising, whiteboard, chat, breakout groups and polls. It also integrates seamlessly with all leading learning management systems.
Offering Personalised Support
“The shift from traditional, in-person classrooms to digital teaching and learning is often layered and presents challenges ranging from compatibility to be able to leverage the technology effectively. We continuously engage with the education community and the institutions we partner with to understand their specific challenges. And we have seen that when transitioning to digital infrastructures, institutions are most often concerned with ensuring continuity, training faculty to effectively leverage technology and ensuring the content they deliver online is engaging, accessible and inclusive,” explains Figlin. Blackboard has dedicated additional resources to address these concerns capably and efficiently.
Blackboard has installed cross-functional teams to ensure its technologies can meet increased demand while maintaining continuity of service across all its solutions. The company also proactively collaborates with its clients at regular intervals to anticipate their usage needs. As Oleg Figlin mentions, “We work alongside our clients and support them every step of the way. They expect more personalised experiences, as they experience engaging in a digital platform in many other aspects of their daily lives. I think this has only been amplified over this past year with the accelerated digital transformation we experienced during the pandemic.”
Indeed, personalisation across the industries begins once a critical mass of users engages consistently in a digital platform. Then, it leads to the aggregations of data associated with that engagement to derive a specific insight. The massive shift in education has opened the possibilities for personalisation. “Since no one could predict precisely how personalisation would unfold in the other industries, we cannot predict exactly how personalisation in education will take form over the next decade. But we do know the progression will follow what we have seen in other industries” states Figlin.
For the past few years, Blackboard has been laying the technology foundation to enable personalisation. Specifically, moving its clients to the cloud, migrating to an EdTech platform architecture with a common look and feel across products, and all underpinned by a data platform that aggregates and secures data from across its client’s ecosystem. With that in place, the company is now working on the fun part, which is to elevate insights into the user experience. Figlin explains, “For example, we are working on a feature now that will give instructors teaching inside our virtual classroom insight into student performance with a gallery view data overlay from our LMS so that instructors can personalise their instruction to meet their class’s unique needs. That is an early example of leveraging data pulled together from across the ecosystem and elevated into the user experience where it can impact outcomes for learners. No one else in the market can do that.”
Eyeing the Post-Pandemic Market Opportunities
With a whopping 4800 per cent increase in its virtual classroom user base, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of Blackboard’s digital tools in 2020 compared to 2019. The company saw a 400 per cent increase in Blackboard Learn SaaS usage and 495 M launches of third-party tools through Blackboard Learn. In addition, blackboard Academy that offers courses in six languages conducted 24, 728 hours of free professional development to support the continuity of education to 13, 684 participants from over 38 countries and awarded 2, 095 Digital Teaching and Learning Series Certifications.
“Now that it’s been over a year since the outbreak of the pandemic, the K-12 sector’s needs are varied and continuously evolving: some schools are opting to continue with remote learning, some have reopened, and some are allowing learners to choose between face-to-face and distance learning, which means they need the infrastructure to support both formats simultaneously,” pinpoints Figlin.
The pandemic has made abundantly clear that technology is not enough — not when transferring the face-to-face learning experience fully online. Only institutions that had the digital infrastructure and a trained faculty were able to transition online quickly. Figlin adds, “We believe institutions will continue to invest in empowering educators — this will help design flexible, transferrable courses that will be crucial to post-pandemic pedagogy. We have received feedback that our courses left participants feeling prepared. So outside of the need to adopt digital tools, we see the growing need for professional development as one of the opportunities the sector presents.”
Accessibility will also be pivotal to post-pandemic education. Oleg Figlin says, “Accessibility practices will become a natural part of every instructor’s course-design workflow. To become an inclusive campus, accessibility best practices like Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles must be built into courses from the start.” Blackboard continues to emphasise inclusion in its conversations with the clients. The company is working towards familiarising its clients with Blackboard Ally, an award-winning, revolutionary solution that integrates seamlessly into any LMS. It helps institutions improve the student experience by helping them take clear control of course content with usability, accessibility and quality in mind. “Ally automatically checks digital course content for accessibility issues and generates alternative formats using advanced machine-learning algorithms. It also provides feedback to guide instructors to improve the accessibility of their course content and institution-wide reporting on course content accessibility,” explains Figlin.
Education technology is key to the contemporary learning and teaching experience, as it impacts almost every aspect of education. For parents, teachers, and school district staff, that makes selecting the right technology partner important than ever. With an extensive portfolio of products and services that support learners throughout their life-long journey, Blackboard has been a trusted EdTech partner serving higher education, K-12, business and government clients worldwide. “When implementing online education tools, it is important to find a technology partner that understands and helps you navigate your specific needs and challenges — often, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Also, local, customised support is crucial to the success of digital teaching and learning and empowering your educators to leverage technology effectively. Find a partner that can provide you with both,” concludes Figlin.
About Oleg Figlin
As the Head of Blackboard EMEA, Oleg is commercial executive leader responsible for Blackboard operations and client success across Europe, Middle East and Africa. Oleg is responsible for creating a digital strategy that aligns sales, partners, products and channels that deliver deeper customer relationships across the region.
Oleg joined Blackboard in 2015 with a specific focus on spearheading the company’s international expansion of consulting services. He was instrumental in creating an innovative services portfolio and building a world-class team of experts to help institutions meet their challenges in several areas, including student retention, programme design, technology adoption and professional development.