How software company D2L revolutionized the way classrooms function

When five twentysomethings founded D2L, technology was everywhere—except the classroom. So they decided to reboot the education system.

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Students in class (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

When John Baker was a third-year student at the University of Waterloo, he found himself musing on this not-at-all-grandiose question: “What’s the key problem that I could solve that would have the biggest impact on the world?” As an engineering student in 1999, Baker needed only look around his classroom for an answer. Assignments were still printed and delivered by hand; professors used markers and acetate slides for their lectures; cellphones were absolutely not allowed in class. “It was easy to see how technology could change your life,” says Baker.

In fact, it mostly already had—except on campus.

Baker’s then-classmate Jeremy Auger remembers the same era and its similarly low-tech approach to distance education. “You’d put your assignment in a manila envelope with a stamp and throw it in the mailbox,” says Auger. “The prof would get it, eventually, and mark it up and mail it back to you. Three weeks later you’d get your assignment back—but you would have already done two more so you’d just throw it in the garbage.” Classmates would likely never meet each other, students would rarely interact with the professor. “It just wasn’t an engaging process,” Auger says. “It was a lonely, isolating process.”

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With a bit of foresight, Baker and Auger could see that the education sector was due for a massive transformation. Baker came from three generations of educators while Auger’s passion lay in e-commerce and web applications. With these complementary interests, they teamed up—along with two other classmates and Baker’s sister—to form Desire2Learn, now known as D2L, with Baker as president and Auger as chief strategy officer. Twenty years later, the global cloud software company employs 750 people in offices across Canada, the U.S., Singapore, Australia, Europe and Brazil. It’s also been recognized multiple times on Deloitte’s list of the Best Managed Companies in Canada.

But back in 1999, the twentysomething entrepreneurs found their first client in the University of Guelph, which sought to modernize its distance education offerings. “The first step was literally just digitizing the classroom,” recalls Baker. The initial innovations now seem rudimentary but at the time were novel, cutting-edge tech. “Take a quiz online, submit your assignment in a dropbox, communicate with your classmates and professor online.”

When they merged these capabilities in a single software model, D2L found themselves with a widely applicable and marketable product suited to any number of classrooms or workplaces. “Eventually we brought the platform to market, and then word of mouth led us to selling [it] globally,” says Auger. In 2006, a lengthy legal patent battle with U.S.-based competitor Blackboard stalled progress; both sides eventually settled and Desire2Learn rebranded as D2L. With the weight of a lawsuit off their shoulders, D2L expanded into a younger market with secondary and elementary schools, as well as an older one by serving workplaces and the corporate space.

How do you possibly make a product that’s useful for everyone from kindergarten kids to seasoned CEOs? “That’s the challenge,” explains Auger. “Whether it’s for a five-year-old or for the boss trying to transfer his knowledge to employees before he retires, it’s all done with a single platform. The platform is tailored by language, imagery and content, but otherwise it’s all the same technology.”

Sometimes this is easier than other times, naturally. When D2L moved further into elementary schools, they scooped up Cheryl Ainoa from Yahoo to join the team as COO. Ainoa’s husband is a teacher and she has two young kids at home, so she’d seen how slow schools were to get on board with changing times. “Even though my kids were in a really good school, education in general hadn’t adopted technology in a way that actually leverages it to do things better. They just took the off-line and moved it online. They never asked, ‘What does technology give us the opportunity to do now that we couldn’t do before?’”

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Here’s just one example: D2L’s Brightspace Portfolio platform can be personalized for a very young learner who can’t yet read. “They [can] choose a monster—a friendly monster—as their log-in and avatar,” explains Ainoa. When you open the laptop or iPad, the monster wakes up and talks. “Can I see some of your cool work?” says a three-eyed pink monster. A photo is taken after a countdown—no pressing of buttons required—and a motion sensor helps capture a clear image despite wiggly little hands. The photo is automatically uploaded to the teacher’s computer, and parents can log in to follow along, read comments from the teacher and provide their own encouraging feedback. “When parents get involved, ask questions, see and care about what their kids are doing at school,” says Ainoa, “studies show that this involvement has orders of magnitude for success for students for many years.”

Besides providing an easier, interactive experience for kids and teachers, Brightspace does something radical. “Whereas interactions in a [traditional] classroom would generate zero data,” says Auger, “we generate a ton of data that then allows instructors to gather insight.” A student’s whole year (or many years) of progress can be logged and monitored, pulled up and referred to as needed by teachers in ever-growing classes. “There was no way for a teacher to closely monitor 30 kids learning in 30 different ways,” says Ainoa. “Now we can use our data to fine-tune the educational experience—how do they learn best? Videos or interactive quizzes?—and make it the most effective for every user.”

For post-secondary students, ample analytics can deliver hard stats on any facet of education. “For example, we can identify risk factors for underperformance or dropping the course far in advance. We can flag these factors for instructors and intervene earlier,” says Auger. Working with corporations, meanwhile, D2L can use online learning to retrain workers in an economy where jobs are increasingly lost to automation and AI. The software is well-suited to workers who these days expect video-based coaching and immediate feedback from all corners of the globe.

“Like everything else in our life, we want education on demand,” says Auger. “I don’t buy a TV guide to tell me what’s on anymore; I turn on Netflix and it’s all personalized. We can deliver lifelong learning to people’s mobile phones for them to do on the train.” Though D2L has been working on this for 20 years, he adds, the feeling that they’re just getting started is palpable.

Deloitte’s Anders D. McKenzie, who works with D2L through the Best Managed Companies program, says Baker’s mission has remained steadfast despite technology exploding around it in ways that nobody could have predicted. This consistency is at the heart of D2L. “What always impressed me is this crystal-clear vision that John has and he’s cascaded it down through the executive team to middle management and out to the sales force,” says McKenzie.

Baker has cultivated an office environment that’s perhaps the exact opposite of a bland high school math class; tons of natural light helps showcase the 150 pieces of original work produced by D2L’s artist-in-residence program. The artwork hangs on the walls to spark ideas and foster inspiration. “Google actually toured our office before they built their Canadian office,” brags Baker (he could boast even further: Meghan Markle’s show Suits borrowed some of the artwork). “We’re harnessing technology to make the education system more human versus just making more technology,” says Baker. “That, for me, is where the vision comes from.”

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