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American Today



Blackboard Founders’ Roots at American University

By Anne Kelleher

First published in American magazine, Winter/Spring 1999, with the title "Working with a Net"

Matthew Pittinsky ’94 and Michael Chasen ’93 are still roommates. But instead of sharing a dorm room at AU, as they once did, they now share a spacious sixth-floor office overlooking 19th Street in downtown D.C. There they preside over Blackboard, Inc., the company they founded in 1997 that makes software to enable colleges and universities to develop virtual campuses on the Web.

Pittinsky came to AU planning to become a high school social studies teacher and followed that plan through senior year and a teaching practicum at Alice Deal Junior High in the District. But at the suggestion of School of Education dean Fred Jacobs he decided to defer those plans to pursue a master’s program at Harvard in educational policy. “I’d always been interested in how schools are organized and the way instruction is delivered,” he says, “and I’d always been interested in technology. At Harvard, I focused on how the two intersect.”

Chasen, on the other hand, always planned to start a technology company, he just hadn’t planned on the Internet, which “wasn’t around yet” when he began studying computer science at AU. He finished his AU program in three years and next pursued an MBA at Georgetown, phase two of his training plan to be a high-tech entrepreneur. The experience of applying to eight undergraduate programs and four MBA programs left Chasen figuring there had to be a way to simplify the application process. That idea led to his first business venture with Pittinsky. While both were in graduate school they started a small company called the Search and Apply Group, which helped universities create online admissions application options.

After Harvard, Pittinsky went to work for KPMG Peat Marwick. When KPMG heard about the Search and Apply Group, they offered to acquire it to augment KPMG’s education services. That brought Chasen, who by that time was in law school, to KPMG where, with Pittinsky, he worked on technological solutions to university administrative problems. It soon dawned on the pair that although universities had a wealth of technology in place, very little of it was focused on instruction. So they set out to build a series of software products that could support courses on-line.

They now offer three interrelated products — Blackboard Classroom, Blackboard Course Info, and Blackboard Campus — and their original staff of five has grown to 42. Gross revenues for 1998 were expected to top $1 million.

Blackboard Classroom is a Web site where instructors can access a free and easy program that helps them create a course Web site. They can upload documents, announcements, learning materials, audio-visuals, or tests that grade themselves automatically. The hope is that this taste of the company’s wares will send instructors running to administrators singing Blackboard’s praises, leading administrators to buy Course Info. Once the software package is installed on a university’s computer system the entire faculty has access to standard tools like classroom for supporting courses online.

Their newest product, Blackboard Campus, takes the idea one step further and integrates the course management system with “back-office” or administrative systems, like the bursar, and services, like the campus store, to create a customized virtual campus.

The company recently secured $3.1 million in venture capital funding, the signal that high-tech investors think they’re on to something big.