John Baker's Desire2Learn Is Leading Education Transformation

Apr 23 2014, 5:00pm CDT | by

A Series of Forbes Insights Profiles of Thought Leaders Changing the Business Landscape:  John Baker, Founder and CEO, Desire2Learn

Desire2Learn (D2L) is transforming education through technology.  The Waterloo, Ontario-based company is positioned as the leading SaaS provider of learning technology for the education and the corporate markets.  “We can leverage technology to have a fundamental impact on student learning outcomes, or in corporate cases, to really rethink performance management. Imagine the old way students sit in the classroom.  Everyone would proceed through the course material at the same pace, take the same assessments and have access to the same content.  As we go digital, all of a sudden we are introducing things like adaptive learning, so that an individual student can have a personalized learning experience, understand that they’re falling down on this one particular outcome, and  automatically create new resources for them to reassess the material until they get it, before they move forward,” says D2L founder and CEO, John Baker.

John founded D2L in 1999, at the age of twenty-two, while attending the University of Waterloo as a systems design engineering student. Today the approximately 750 employee company is one of the leaders in the burgeoning e-learning market.  The company also has the distinction of having received the largest investment ever for a Canadian software company, when it took on $80 million in a series A funding in 2012 led by  New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and OMERS Ventures.

The  investment interest in the segment is not surprising given the size of the market.  According to Baker, education is a $5.9 trillion market worldwide, all done today mostly manually with relatively little penetration yet for education platforms like D2L.  “There are 157 million students in higher education today globally and that’s expected to grow another 100 million by 2025.  Over the next 11 to 12 years we’re expecting to have another 100 million students coming into the system.  And I think the demand’s actually greater than that. Yet as big as those numbers may be, they represent a small percentage of the world population,” says Baker.

According to research from Global Industry Analysts (GIA), the global market for eLearning is projected to reach $168.8 billion by 2018.   The study states that the eLearning market is one of the most rapidly growing sectors in the global education industry. eLearning initiatives hold an edge over conventional learning modes due to their ability to reduce overall training costs based on overall program and factors such as offshoring, deployment of forms and range of content as well as Learning Management Systems (LMS). eLearning also offers additional qualitative benefits, unlike conventional methods, in the form of anytime, anywhere learning, access to worldwide mentoring resources for maximum skill development, and administration as well as control of training calendar from several locations. Globalization and the increasing need to remain competitive are driving companies to change operational strategies and modify training approaches offered to the employees

Not surprisingly, D2L is growing fast and now has offices around the world in Toronto, Waterloo, Vancouver, Boston, U.K., Brazil, Amsterdam, Singapore and Australia. Today, D2L provides its open and extensible platform to over 1,100 clients and 13 million individual learners in higher educationK-12healthcaregovernment and the corporate sector, including Fortune 1000 companies.

One of Canada’s most accomplished entrepreneurs, Baker is also a strong believer in community involvement. He devotes both his personal and business efforts to supporting young entrepreneurs who are developing and applying technology to improve society worldwide. He was a Waterloo Region Top 40 Under 40 award recipient in 2009, and was also inducted into the Waterloo Region Hall of Fame as an Intrepid Entrepreneur that same year. A four-time recipient of the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 award in consecutive years (2006-2009), he was named the Waterloo Region’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008 and received the University of Waterloo Young Alumni Achievement Medal in 2010. In February 2013, John was appointed to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). As a prominent voice for both education and technology, he serves as Chairman of the Board at Communitech and also sits on the boards for both the National Ballet School (in Canada) and Canada’s Technology Triangle (CTT). Additionally, he is an affinity board member for Memorial University and a University of Waterloo Alumni Council member.

Like many entrepreneurs, Baker’s path to building a business didn’t follow the standard linear path.  While he graduated from the University of Waterloo with an Honors B.A.Sc. in Systems Design Engineering, with First Class Honors and an option in Management Sciences, his ideas about how to help change the world started earlier. “My parents were educators.  I studied engineering thinking I was going to go on and become a doctor and saw the opportunity here to really have a transformational impact. My dad encouraged me to think I could do engineering and go on and become a doctor and have a unique perspective on the field. Systems design engineering provided me with a  pretty broad discipline.  In my third year of engineering, we worked to re-invent the crutch. We came up with a cool design that allowed you to go up and down stairs using a lot less energy and solved a lot of medical problems that people have with crutches. That experience of being able to apply engineering and design sparked me to go down this path of solving problems,” says Baker.

At that time Baker still thought about becoming a doctor (albeit one with an engineer’s mindset) when the proverbial light bulb went on. “I remember walking across campus  thinking what do I really want to do with my life?  I was going through the co-op (what Canadians call internships) interviews and  found out that none of them were in the medical field as I had originally hoped.  And I thought, ‘Well what else in the world can I do that can have as big of an impact as I would hope  to have?’  And I thought about education.  I thought with education I could work to transform it and help people in the medical field reach their full potential.  This would help thousands of doctors and nurses lift up their abilities so that they are better able to save many more lives than I could if I was just doing it myself as a doctor,” says Baker.

He then took the  semester off and starting thinking through how to start a business around this insight.  “I remember doing it for the summer, thinking it was just something fun and never really thinking I was going to do it full-time. It was more of an experiment,” continues Baker. In his fourth year he began thinking about the skills required to start a business.  He  took PhD level courses on design thinking, did databases,  took programming and entrepreneurship classes–all the courses he  could think of that would help him become an entrepreneur.

When he graduated in 1999 at the height of the Dot com craze, no one thought that starting an education tech business made sense.  VCs  he talked to said the idea was not fundable. “It was a tough go. You had to convince people to change.  We had to evangelize for the idea and spent the first ten years largely trying to convince people to think about a new way to doing education.  It was tough in the early days,” says Baker. They went through some hardships.  For example, the company was entangled in a nasty litigation with its main competitor for three-and-a-half years.  “I took us to trial in Texas. We lost. And then we persevered through that.  We actually took it all the way up to the Federal Circuit level and we got a complete vindication,” continues Baker.

“It’s only been in the last two to four years that we’ve seen this tipping point, where  it’s no longer an “if”, but rather it’s now a “when” people will adopt e-learning.  We’ve seen this growth acceleration as a result.  In 2010 we had 140 employees and today we’re at approximately 750 globally and we’re hoping to add another 150 or more this year.  I feel like we’re just getting started,” says Baker of the company which he keeps very much in the family.  His sister and two brothers also work for the company.

Baker also sees his e-learning platform as a way to bridge the gap between the “haves and have-nots” in education resources. “The attainment gap is a great example where it’s the have nots that have this gap:  46 percent of students finish at a four-year program in six years.  That’s the average for across the U.S. The education system is not working for them. We’re closing that gap by helping schools improve their retention.  There’s a school in Mobile, Alabama with a significant ‘have-not’ population.  We took the graduation rate for that school up to 100 percent, using our technology for that achievement.  We received a beautiful quote from them saying this wouldn’t have been possible without D2L.  It’s changed the lives of our students and we couldn’t be happier. That gives me hope that we can use technology to close these divides,” says Baker.

“We have 13 to 15 million people logging in using our technology every day.  We want to see hundreds of millions of people around the world use our platform and have a positive impact on people’s lives.  For example, recently a parent told me that his child had autism and was failing out of high school.  He started taking courses at Virtual High School using our platform and instead of failing now he’s getting 90s and 100s, and has just been accepted to college. We’re building the foundation for real education transformation. I feel like we’re just getting warmed up,” concludes Baker.

Bruce H. Rogers is the co-author of the recently published book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders.


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