There are items in life that give us a sense of security in the event of a ‘break the glass’ moment. Take insurance, for example, or an inhaler or EpiPen—if these interventions are needed, they are available. For education, technology became the EpiPen for a community struck by the fallout of a pandemic that forced instant changes to environments of learning everywhere.
Schools were empty. Lockers were missing books and memories. Buses were sent back to garages, and teachers were left without the job they had always known. It was a ‘break the glass’ moment. Forever nice-to-haves like Zoom and other online platforms became mainstays for keeping learning afloat. Digital learning setups saved the day by creating a bridge connecting students and teachers to the faces they had welcomed into their classrooms only months before.
When students returned from the Covid-19 calamity, online learning had taken root. Recent McKinsey research now shows teachers and students eagerly request the continuation of classroom learning technologies adopted during the pandemic.
Fittingly, in the form of a poetic Hollywood script, the founder of the iconic sector juggernaut, Blackboard, would emerge as one of the leading voices to pull education back from unknown depths. Michael Chasen, former CEO and co-founder of Blackboard, saw what his children were experiencing in a ‘Zoom’ world and wanted to find the next in digital learning experiences. Class Technologies Inc. took form at the Chasen kitchen table and is now positioned to be the exemplar for an education sector free from the natural tethers of geography and embarking on borderless experiences for teachers and students.
I sat down with Chasen at the ASU-GSV Summit in San Diego to better understand his journey. He showed a natural poise and keen awareness in knowing that to lift his recent venture, Class Technologies Inc., to an even greater height, it will take a team that mutually shares a sense of passion and drive.
Rod Berger: What was it like in the early days, and what was the moment that you realized you had what it took to be a CEO in this space? Entrepreneurs often struggle with knowing if they have the skills to be in the leadership lane. So, how did you know early on that running a company was in your wheelhouse?
Michael Chasen: When I look back on my history, I was always starting little side businesses or hustles as a kid. I had a computer early on and, at 10 or 12 years old, started writing code charging $50 an hour. I was always doing business and creating, so I think it was a natural part of my personality. I was interested in computers and leadership, believing I would someday be president of a computer company. But it wasn’t an overachiever mindset; instead, I simply followed my interests.
I went to American University, receiving my undergraduate degree in computer science, and then to Georgetown for my MBA. I always thought that to be a leader in tech, you needed the hard skills of computers and business skills combined.
My roommate at the time was Matthew Pittinsky (co-founder of Blackboard). He was getting his undergraduate degree in teaching and earned his master’s in education from Harvard and Columbia. During those early days, we were always talking about different entrepreneurial ventures.
We both ended up at KPMG in their higher ed technology consulting group in downtown D.C. We worked with many schools during a time the internet was just beginning to integrate on college campuses.
We saw schools were spending millions of dollars wiring the dorm rooms and the classroom to the internet, but with no software that could be useful for teaching and learning. We realized these schools would need software to put their courses online, which became the start of Blackboard. We knew we were sitting on an idea that could radically transform and improve education, not just here in the United States, but worldwide.
Berger: What was the education environment like during those early days?
Chasen: Back then we would speak with schools who would say, “We’re not going to put any of our courses online. First, the teachers are Luddites and don’t know how to use technology. Also, the students aren’t asking for it. And by the way, putting your grades online is probably illegal.” That was the environment, but it showed no one was doing it. For all those reasons, we knew it was a big opportunity. When Blackboard is mentioned as inventing online learning, people think it was an obvious transformation, but not early in the process.
Berger: How has the environment changed since Covid-19 and explain how it positioned you to develop Class Technologies Inc. as a result?
Chasen: Before Covid-19, the world thought that the future of online learning would be mostly asynchronous because people thought there was no way to hold live classes that would place thousands of teachers and millions of students online. It wasn’t possible and things just didn’t scale in that way.
The future of online learning was thought to be people using such things as Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn (D2L), or Canvas. It would be self-paced learning with a teacher during office hours to guide them.
Yet, the preferred learning method for everyone is live instruction and often the model for how many students learn best.
Covid-19 showed that recently developed technology like Zoom could put every student in the world online. It was mind-blowing. The fact that you could place even one institution online, much less every institution online, and hold classes was incredible. While it may initially have been just a meeting tool, it was a significant breakthrough.
Once you can put everybody online, you can do live instruction and take them out of the meeting room and into the classroom. So that’s what we did in inventing Class; we actually made a Zoom classroom.
While the number one use of Zoom in the world is as a meeting tool, I would argue that the second biggest benefit is online instruction and classes. We invented the online classroom. We mirrored the physical class experience and replicated that online. Zoom had a software development kit, and we added teaching and learning tools to the platform. The opportunities are simply enormous.
Zoom has over 130,000 education institutions that are using their products for teaching online, and of those, we have 350 institutions using Class Technology today. So that’s 129,650 additional remaining.
It’s not just a huge greenfield opportunity, but if you can put live instruction online at scale for the first time, there’s a way to lower the current cost of education and increase access in a way that wasn’t possible before.
You can run Zoom and Class from your iPhone or your iPad, cheaper than a computer, and you can be miles outside the city and another country. If you can access live instruction, for maybe the first time, you can help raise entire societies out of poverty. So, what I’m looking at for Class Technologies, is not just building a great product but a great company. I believe we’re doing something significant. But ultimately, we will do well by doing good for those in need.
Education and Passion
Berger: What have you learned through your education and as an entrepreneur that others entering new ventures could find useful?
Chasen: I have an incredible passion for education. I believe Class can make a difference by increasing access and lowering costs for many more people in troubled situations and poverty to move their lives ahead. Education is one area that you can have the biggest influence.
As far as business is concerned, formal education gives you the foundation you need. I don’t think it teaches you to do anything incorrectly. I think it gives you the foundation that can be used as an entrepreneur to build on to provide you with the necessary tools. But it doesn’t give you a completed house. It just gives you the tools you need to build the house. From there, you will make mistakes and learn from them.
Berger: In terms of the investment world, do you think there is a positive impact of having people outside of the ecosystem becoming involved in the education environment?
Chasen: As a company, if you’re raising capital, you want to get professional investors involved because they can provide insight and expertise from what they’ve seen in building companies and access to financing. On the other hand, it’s great to get the community involved, whether famous people or even those active in the community, because you get ideas slightly outside the box from a new perspective lens.
Even people who just spread the word are helpful. For example, to have Tom Brady retweet one of our messages or send a video to the company saying how excited he is to be part of the team differs from just getting money from a large investment bank group. The trick is to do both.
In the very first announcement of our seed funding, 4,000 institutions reached out to us from around the world. They were interested in buying our technology, but at the onset we had only two sales guys. I gave each one 2,000 schools and told them just to start calling.
Since we began 18 months ago, there are now 14,000 institutions worldwide that have reached out to us. It’s been crazy.
Many founders of iconic brands fear having to repeat public success. Not Chasen. Class Technologies Inc. has grown at an epic clip with over $160 million in funding from prominent Zoom board members and investors, including SoftBank, Salesforce, GSV, and quarterback Tom Brady. Yet, even with early success, Chasen remains grounded in his passion for bringing greater equity in education to the world.
A recent partnership with Intel Corporation shows further proof of a commitment to opening the valve of accessibility to even more learners. Chasen has come full circle with Class Technologies’ recent purchase of Blackboard Collaborate, reuniting him with familiar faces and technology to advance Class initiatives.
Chasen and Class Technologies Inc. unabashedly bring legacy, celebrity, and confidence that education may have weathered the recent Covid-19 storm to reveal a new horizon of opportunity for the long haul.
‘Break the glass’ moments will most likely occur for many of us in the future. Chasen comes equipped with a solution to see the light through the glass that adds a background of success to the process. Maybe we should all consider a change in perspective by embracing Chasen’s Class.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.