Igniting a Desire2Learn

John Baker keeps the fires of learning burning with an integrated learning platform.   

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

JohnBakerAt the age of twenty-two, while attending the University of Waterloo as a Systems Design Engineering student, John Baker had it then, and he still has it: that burning edu-preneurial passion from which so many others have benefitted. Nearly 15 years have passed since he founded Desire2Learn and as president and CEO, he’s not slowing down. More recently, his company has partnered with their clients to pioneer a next-gen learning solution to provide an engaging experience capable of directly addressing key challenges related to learner engagement, retention and outcomes. Shifting from course management capabilities to highly pervasive, perceptive, and personalized learning experience, the change reflects an advancing industry, with smarter technologies pushing the edge. A strong believer in community involvement, John devotes both his personal and business efforts to supporting young entrepreneurs who are developing and applying technology to improve society worldwide. Here, he shares his original purposes in founding the company, which provides enterprise e-learning solutions and develops Learning Management Systems used at more than 650 institutions in more than two dozen countries worldwide. John also discusses the edtech marketplace, what he plans to do with $80 million, and more than a few thoughts on the future of education.

Victor: Why did you create Desire2Learn?

about_oJohn: All through grade school and higher ed, I found that the education system was very repetitive. It resembled a classic manufacturing conveyor belt system and did not include much personalization for each student. This was especially true in college as each class was almost identical to the other with a heavy emphasis on faculty lectures. An instructor would take a textbook, summarize everything on the chalkboard and then the class would copy those notes. Studies have shown that students’ brains are actually more active during sleep than lectures which show the level of engagement this model creates. I wanted to make the classroom more of a collaborative environment that inspired students to learn and truly value their education. 

Victor: Where do you see the EdTech market in 2013, and how will Desire2Learn impact it?

degree-compassJohn: As the edtech market continues to grow, over the next year we plan on significantly ramping up hiring, expanding the Desire2Learn footprint in emerging markets and making investments to our infrastructure that will continue to push our gold standard of customer service. Analytics, mobile, and cloud computing are technologies that are pushing a growing acceptance of new education models, so we are heavily investing in these areas as well. We are always thinking of new ways to improve our technology and we will do that by working with feedback from students and instructors. Ultimately, these are the people that we need to please so customer feedback is a critical component to how Desire2Learn evolves its products. 

Victor: With your company’s somewhat recent $80 million investment, what are your plans for use over the next few years?

analytics_oJohn: We plan to use the funding to support Desire2Learn’s client experience, innovation, cloud services and development of new markets—for both geographic and vertical expansion. We have always been a client-centric company and will continue to expand our focus to consistently deliver market-leading client experience for learning solutions to an increasing number of potential customers. 

Victor: Looking forward, what’s the most important thing your LMS clients should know about D2L’s direction over the next five years? Anything product related? Company related?

mobileJohn: We want to continue to make a lasting impact on society, local communities and their economies by bringing the best of knowledge to life. By transforming the teaching and learning experience, we not only improve ourselves, but the world around us.

The educational landscape has changed tremendously in the past decade and there has never been a greater demand for education than now.  We are currently seeing significant changes in technology—from students engaging with mobile devices to universities adopting cloud-based solutions and the need for digital content and more advanced analytics.

But truly, change is not just about technology itself—it is about new and improved teaching models. Desire2Learn is committed to supporting change management within today’s education system including the shift towards outcome-driven pedagogy to flipped classrooms. These new, exciting models create engaging learning experiences that move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to create more of a personalized environment.

We see a big change in how education is supporting blended learning teaching techniques. Blended learning is not just about bringing technology into the classroom for its own sake or “wow factor”; rather, we want instructors to strategically integrate technology to create more personalized learning experiences for every student. We want to spark real engagement in new ways by tailoring instruction to the individual, and interacting with new stakeholders across the organization.

As we continue to embark on this exciting journey, our focus remains on helping our customers blaze a path to re-shape the future through excellent service, innovative tools and premium performance.

Victor: What have or are you doing to separate Desire2Learn from the competition?

learning-suite_oJohn: We pride ourselves on the level of trust we have earned with our clients. With over 98% client retention over the years, it is a very rare event to see a client depart from Desire2Learn and, of the small percentage that have left, many have already returned to using our system.

Client retention is incredibly important, and we’re proud of our client retention rate. Our strategy today is what it has been throughout the company’s history: provide end users with the leading technology and best possible teaching and learning environment that help them achieve their goals and provide timely and amazing service. This seems like a simple credo, but it’s a philosophy that takes an enormous amount of time, people and resources to achieve.

Victor: And now for a broad question – what are your thoughts on education these days?

learning-repository_oJohn: Change management is a given in today’s learning institutions. The statistics of the traditional educational model are damning; we can’t continue to rely on techniques that originated in the 1600’s with today’s learners and hope for better results. After all, Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Educators throughout the world need to appeal to today’s technologically sophisticated learners with new, exciting techniques that keep students engaged. We are working tirelessly with our customers on new technology and strategies to put the “interest” back into education.

The statistics of the traditional educational model are damning; we can’t continue to rely on techniques that originated in the 1600’s with today’s learners and hope for better results.

We are greatly interested in the “flipped classroom” experience that gives students the option to learn the material on their own time. Education should not be confined to the classroom so we feel that empowering students with anytime access to course materials and shifting the role of teachers from the primary information source to conversation moderator/problem solver for students is the best option in today’s knowledge economy.

Education has the potential to be what we make it to be. If we stick to our traditional methods, nothing will change and we’ll always be wondering “what if?” There is a higher demand for education than at any time in history so we can’t let geographic, societal or cost barriers inhibit a well-educated society. We feel this is a basic human right and – with the proper planning and technology in place – could become a reality through the efforts of companies like Desire2Learn.

Victor: What is your take on the future of education? What is a major trend or trends that you see may be the ‘watch-trends’ as we move forward into the next few years?

eportfolio_oJohn: As we’ve said previously, Desire2Learn is a big believer in the Flipped Classroom model because the new approach to learning presents opportunities for teachers to become greater facilitators of learning as opposed to deliverers of content. Students can better leverage teachers’ attention because they will have had time to digest the information and identify challenges they have with the content before class begins. This model better represents life in today’s knowledge economy. Rather than focusing on memorization, students learn how to solve problems given the tools they would have in a normal situation (Internet, mobile, etc.).

There is another major trend involving the combination of online and mobile platforms, personal device proliferation, cheap bandwidth and wireless infrastructure that has created an environment that supports course material consumption outside the walls of the class. Teachers are no longer the sole information resource for learners. This fosters greater collaboration and learning outside of the classroom and enables teachers to use class time to problem solve and focus on outcomes, not testing memorization.

Predictive analytics will help educators track, analyze and assess achievement to guarantee their students are on the right track to gain success. Access to insights and analytics allow the entire learning community to collaborate on achieving better learner outcomes. Building these “learning communities” with teachers, students, parents, and specialists allows everyone to work together to identify and implement plans to improve student performance.  Insights allow us to increase teaching effectiveness, improve student outcomes, and enhance operational efficiency.

Faculty members will know which students need assistance to improve their performance and which can be entrusted with additional materials to further their education. For example, a first warning sign of a student’s flagging interest in a course is that they stop going to class. Until recently it was not practical to track the attendance of hundreds of students. Nor was it thought necessary. This statistic is just another data point that is created in a student’s file that can be leveraged by educators and administrators to predict performance. These insights are critical to boosting retention and graduation rates as they quantify what was previously thought to be an unsubstantiated action.

Today, academic institutions are realizing that this country needs more positive results from the efforts put into its education curriculums. And with hard data fueling business intelligence systems in the private sector, many academic institutions are starting to change their teaching methods and pedagogical models to make better use of learning analytics. As broadband Internet becomes ubiquitous, more instructor-student interaction is digitally based, which means that students can generate many more data points than they did just a few years ago. Students are coming around to the digital learning approach as they’ve grown up with their entire lives surrounded by digital technology, to collaborate on thoughts and coordinating activities with fellow peers.  Research has shown that a mixture of online and classroom time has improved student comprehension of the material, and has lead to better grades and fewer students dropping out.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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