Week #2 – 2: Reflection on Michael Chasen

Michael Chasen is the co-founder and former CEO (for 15 years) of Blackboard, Inc., the eLearning software company which provides software for a large portion of higher education institutions (in addition, now, to providing many other services to many other audiences). He currently is CEO of his second startup, SocialRadar, which explores ways that geolocation and social media networks can provide useful data for people in the 21st century.

Michael’s visit on Monday impacted me in three major ways: he instilled in me the ethical obligation to run a company responsibly, gave advice to work in an industry and become an expert in it before disrupting it, and sparked in me an idea to use the digital badge Georgetown is developing as a model for whole person education in an online environment.

Ethics and Sustainability

Michael was sharing an anecdote to demonstrate the importance of incremental, long-term growth. He discussed a competitor that came up out of nowhere and suddenly had customer numbers that paralleled Blackboard. However, it was providing its software free of charge, and while it was valued at $800 million it only had $100 million in revenue. 18 months after this company came on Michael’s radar, the dot com bubble had burst and the company went under. The point? There are no overnight successes. “Blackboard was an overnight success: a success over 2,555 nights.”

This lesson stuck with me largely because of a small, almost side comment Michael made after relaying the anecdote: “Now all those schools were suddenly left without software.” It made me realize that running a business responsibly is not merely a matter of ensuring that one continues to grow, make profit, etc. It’s also a matter of upholding commitments, of continuing to provide services people rely on. It may seem philanthropic to provide services free of charge in the short term, but in the long run, if a service is not sustainable we are doing a disservice to those we strive to help.

Expertise before Disruption

Somebody asked Michael how you can know if your idea is good or not, and he emphasized that you cannot rely on others to tell you: “If it’s truly a new and innovative idea, and no one’s thought of it yet, everyone’s going to think it’s stupid.” Instead, the solution is to become an expert in the field and than evaluate the idea yourself. He worked at KPMG as a higher education consultant before he founded Blackboard, and he knew the industry inside and out.

As a senior trying to figure out what I’m going to do next year — one of the reasons I’m taking this class — I’ve been wrestling with whether or not I should start a venture right out of college (the third lesson I got from Michael explains an idea I have). I don’t want to, honestly: I don’t feel ready, I don’t feel mature enough or that my idea(s) are refined enough. My plan has always been to work, pay off loans, and pursue entrepreneurship in five or ten years if I have a truly innovative idea. But there’s always the question: am I just afraid and coming up with reasons to justify my fear? Additionally, I don’t want to get stuck in some job I don’t love and not be able to leave because I get used to the money — and I don’t want to have a smaller identity capital in five years than I will this May as a recent graduate.

Michael’s reflection gave me permission to pursue a job in the industry I’m interested in — education — without feeling like I’m shirking my duty or calling. Thankfully, Allison was still there, and I made sure to get her card and have followed up with her. Maybe Learning Objects will be my KPMG.

Whole Person Digital Badging 

I’m a member of the Digital Badging Working Group here at Georgetown, which is a collaboration between many university offices and centers. This year we’re piloting what we call the Catalyst Digital Microcredential (we realized the term ‘digital badge’ was foreign and meaningless to students). After a year of discussion, we settled on this digital badge because we realized we don’t want to badge a skill that can be learned easily, once-and-for-all. This sets us apart in the digital badging world, since most digital badges (in education and in other fields) recognize something very tangible and concrete. In contrast, here’s a description I wrote for marketing the badge when looking for students to participate in our pilot project: “Thank you so much for expressing interest in joining the pilot cohort for the Catalyst credential, a digital micro-credential we’re piloting which identifies students who embody the Jesuit ideal of contemplation in action by serving as catalysts to spark creative change. We’re excited to work with a group of self-starting students who want to translate their learning to employers and empower other Hoyas to do the same.” You can view the powerpoint we used at our information session for students here.

How does this relate to Michael Chasen? I asked him a question on Monday about how whole person learning can still be possible if education is completely digitized. I understand the benefit — the democratization of technology leading to the democratization of education — and support this development. I just want to make sure that a focus on the whole person is maintained and fostered throughout the process. As I followed up Monday, pushing Michael’s initial answer a little, “how can people learn 21st century skills and communication abilities if they’re not talking to other people?”

He aptly pointed out that we will never deliver to everyone a Georgetown education, and honestly I’m not sure a Georgetown education teaches to the whole person: hence the need for this Catalyst Digital Microcredential we’re piloting, hence the need for the Designing the Future(s) Initiative and CNDLS. But we don’t need everybody to have a Georgetown education. We do need everybody to have an education that fosters a sense of life purpose. At the second annual Formation by Design Symposium hosted at Georgetown this June, Susan Albertine (Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at the American Association of Colleges & Universities) emphasized the importance of “life purpose for everyone,” especially community college students and students at non-elite universities.

Considering Michael’s answer to my question and follow-up, I reflected on the potential of using the model we’re piloting at Georgetown this year to create a digital badge focused on the whole person — one that can be scaled and used as a way to foster lives of purpose and meaning for students whose only higher education experience is online. The democratization of technology will bring the democratization of education — but we have an obligation to ensure that with it comes the democratization of lives of meaning and purpose.


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