Robert Speed, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Blackboard

Blackboard is a leading education technology (EdTech) company serving higher education, K-12, business and government clients around the world. The company connects a deep understanding of education with the power of technology to continuously push the boundaries of learning. The company witnessed a 3,600% increase in daily global users for its virtual classroom solution, Blackboard Collaborate, when educational institutions around the world closed their campuses during the pandemic. In an interaction with Higher Education Digest, Robert Speed, Vice President, Middle East and Africa, Blackboard, talked about unique products and services Blackboard offers to educational institutions, the company’s long-term goals and much more.


What has changed in the education sector as institutions aim to continue instruction during the pandemic?

Robert Speed: With our deep knowledge and experience in the MEA region, we have played a key role in helping our clients to develop teaching and learning strategies. Digital transformation in education was already happening, and COVID-19 has accelerated the shift that so many institutions were experiencing. Many of our clients were leading digital transformation on their campuses long before 2020 and the pandemic. The implementation of these stratigies were sped up as circumstances required it. We know that this is not a temporary shift. The use of digital technologies for learning is here to stay, both to enable fully virtual courses and complement face-to-face programs.

As an EdTech company, what are the significant challenges Blackboard faced when educational institutions move to fully online courses?

Robert Speed: We immediately focused on supporting our clients across the globe with transitioning to fully-remote instruction. We worked with our strategic partner, Amazon Web Services, to leverage their leading cloud infrastructure and scale our platform by 50 times to support the unprecedented surge in users in MEA during this time from hundreds of institutions.

Blackboard Collaborate Ultra saw an increase of nearly 3 million active users who clocked 2.3 billion virtual classroom minutes across the region during the period from March to May 2020.

How is your accessibility solution Blackboard Ally helping institutions to improve the quality of content in these challenging times?

Robert Speed: Blackboard Ally helps institutions build a more inclusive learning environment and improve the student experience by assisting them to take control of course content with usability, accessibility and quality in mind.

We expanded our accessibility tool’s functionality to work on our mobile app, so students can access the content they need no matter where they are learning. Blackboard has further invested in the Middle East. Ally is available in Arabic to serve educators, institutions and learners.

Tell us about the unique products and services Blackboard offers to educational institutions. How does the company intend to stand out from the crowd?

Robert Speed: Blackboard is a leading education technology company supporting over 150 million learners, parents, educators and administrators in every region of the world. With our global footprint, powerful technologies, and education expertise, we are uniquely positioned to lead the industry to a personalized experience.  This journey to personalization is critically important because we believe that learner success at scale is achieved through personalized user experience. Our mission to advance learning is in service of learners, educators, and institutions.

We offer an integrated cloud EdTech platform which includes our leading LMS, Blackboard Learn, our virtual classroom solution, Blackboard Collaborate, our accessibility solution, Blackboard Ally, and our data platform, Blackboard Data. In addition, we help to drive technical fluency and skills development through our Blackboard Digital Teaching and Learning Series, a global, solution-agnostic professional development offering.

Describe the team behind Blackboard and the experience that the team brings to the table.

Robert Speed: We have teams on the ground and work with partners in the region that know the local challenges. We work very closely on the ground with our partners and customers to advise them of the continuous investments we make in our software and technology.

What are the critical trends in EdTech to follow in 2021? How is Blackboard planning to drive the innovation in this sector?

Robert Speed: Personalized learning and hybrid learning are here to stay. Blackboard has access to the data that is needed to bring this personalized, learner-success focused vision to life,

It is not about highlighting grades, test scores and performance data in every interface. It is about creating products and services that leverage data from disparate sources in a way that identifies latent patterns, visualizes these patterns and insights for learners, educators and administrators. We leverage these insights into our own innovation. We pair these insights with the ability to take meaningful action inside our products and solutions.

We also believe that AI, machine learning, automated solutions, and partner integrations are critical components of innovation that deliver the personalized experience for learning. And this all comes to life through the user experience. This experience takes a whole student approach, thinking about much more than academics.

For students to meet their goals, they need support inside and outside the classroom. They must be able to self-pace, access individualized instruction and content in a way that works for their unique needs. They need nudges, outreach, and access to solutions that help them stay on track. Younger students need parents not just to be informed but to be engaged.

We believe that this approach can help learners realized their goals at a new scale, and by focusing on a common goal of learner outcomes, educators and institutions are empowered to achieve their goals as well. We are the only EdTech company able to support this approach to personalization—gathering data insights from across the student journey and quickly delivering learner-success focused innovations.

Post-COVID-19, what are the opportunities Blackboard sees in the education market?

Robert Speed:

Leveraging Data

We bring this approach to the market in what we call a learning experience ecosystem. It is a holistic solution for driving a personalized experience fueled by data. And through the learning experience ecosystem, we enable educators, administrators, and learners to access personalization and improve learning outcomes. Data is the foundation of the ecosystem, informing functionality, features, and development. Our work is grounded in data in much more than a conceptual way – it is the backbone of our platform approach.

The data gathered through the personalized experience – like the 25 billion weekly interactions in our learning management and virtual classroom systems that I mentioned earlier – feedback into our data foundation, informing what’s next in our capabilities. This continuous improvement approach is critical to driving learner success today and tomorrow.

Delivering Professional Development

In these last four years, we shaped a different approach to educators’ professional development. We know educators need time and a safe space to explore and experiment with teaching, as well as the opportunity for critical reflection, to produce innovation. That’s why our courses provide a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities with a cycle including practical tasks, individual reflection, interaction, feedback and application.

We have created Blackboard Academy. It is not sufficient to just train teachers with technological advancements and solutions but instil overall professional development. This begins with the development of the educators’ pedagogical and digital capabilities bringing about the creation of the best possible online learning experience for students.

Digital teaching and learning tools have evolved over the years to deliver a personalized, anywhere-anytime, seamless and connected experience suited to the needs of today’s ‘digital natives’ than traditional classrooms.

Over the last year, our community has grown significantly. More than 12,000 participants from 38 countries have taken at least one of our courses. Through the DTLS programme, we have issued over 1,900 certifications. We extended our courses to not just institutions, but individuals too. Educators, independent of their institutions, can now sign up for Blackboard’s courses or programmes.

Tell us about the plans for Blackboard. What are the short-term and long-term goals?

Robert Speed: The importance of distance education in an increasingly uncertain world of global pandemics and other dramatic disruptions is without a doubt. Institutions will likely integrate virtual teaching and learning formats and practices into their infrastructures and harness it to develop a more robust system.

Our technologies are built for this very purpose, and we have quality solutions in place to accommodate the specific needs of each institution. We are also proactively collaborating and engaging with our clients in the Middle East and around the world to anticipate their current and future user needs.

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly put an increased focus on online and distance learning and continuity of education, we believe that the future will include more blended learning and flipped classrooms. In this situation, cloud-based solutions will continue to grow in importance as they can rapidly scale to meet institution’s needs and we are working hard to ensure success is maintained to meet and exceed the aspirations of the 2030 vision

What is your advice to the educational institutions who are looking for a technology partner?

Robert Speed: Universities can learn from the experiences of institutions that have in the past had to transition to online models in times of crises. We have created the Continuity of Education space on the Blackboard Community Site for institutions to learn from their peers and share resources and plans with each other aimed at maintaining the quality and continuity of education.

About Robert Speed

Robert Speed joined Blackboard in May 2017. Robert is an experienced global executive who is passionate about education, software and technology in education with over 15 years of experience. Before Blackboard Robert served as the Head of Middle East Region for Promethean, a global k-12 education company. Besides, Robert has served in progressive leadership and director roles in the technology manufacturing industry. His business skills are steadily guiding the Middle East & Africa team at Blackboard to support and retain 110 key customers in the Higher Education with leading Institutions and to secure over 90% of the market share has certainly established the company’s name within the industry.

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