Most Innovative Companies

How the “Netflix of education” is using big data in the classroom

D2L is using analytics to revolutionize the teaching and learning experience—and boost grades

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D2L founder and CEO John Baker at the company’s Kitchener, Ont. headquarters.

D2L founder and CEO John Baker at the company’s Kitchener, Ont. headquarters. (Portrait by Thomas Dagg)

There were 2,000 students in professor Jaclyn Broadbent’s first-year health psychology course at Deakin University in Australia. Even with 25 teaching assistants, the 32-year-old lecturer struggled to keep track of her sprawling class, which included students from four different campuses and distance learners in other countries. “It’s such a large unit that it would be easy for students to get lost and for us not to notice,” she says. It took a computer program to make her feel connected to them.

Broadbent’s university had previously delivered course content using Blackboard Learn, the world leader in what are known as learning management systems. But in 2011, it switched to Brightspace, made by Kitchener, Ont., company D2L. Broadbent saw that Brightspace shares basic features with Blackboard, but it has unique functions that let her personalize the learning experience for her students. It checks for warning signs that a pupil is falling behind—if he or she hasn’t logged in or posted on the class discussion board recently, for example—and sends a friendly, cautionary note. If a student deserves praise, Brightspace sends personalized congratulations. Sometimes, it even sends virtual animal stickers. (The students love the stickers.) They also love feeling cared about as individuals, says Broadbent. “I was like a little kid in a candy store, thinking of how I could redesign the course to make it more personalized and flexible,” she says. “I found D2L was 10 times better than Blackboard.”

The man behind these innovations is John Baker, CEO of D2L. The company develops software to help teachers manage classes, accept and grade assignments online, and even stream lectures. For students, D2L’s platform provides a place to ask questions and interact with classmates, in addition to other features. When Baker started D2L in 1999 at the age of 22, he became an early evangelist for technology’s potential to improve the classroom. Baker recalls envisioning “a learning platform that could really engage students and help them reach their full potential.” The market for education software is crowded today, but D2L has kept ahead of its competition by listening closely to educators, experimenting constantly and having faith that the market will catch up to its ideas. Some concepts that Baker has been kicking around in his head for years are only now possible to implement.

D2L (formerly Desire2Learn) has 15 million students using its platform worldwide and employs 900 staff in offices across Europe, Australia and Brazil. Learning management systems like Brightspace are used by 99% of American post-secondary schools. The education software market is only expected to grow, as teachers contend with ballooning class sizes and an increase in distance learning. Spending on this type of software was already projected to hit US$2.5 billion globally at the end of last year, according to Deloitte, up 52% from 2012. That’s good news for D2L, of course, whose products are used in roughly 50% of all kindergarten to Grade 12 schools and higher-education institutions in Canada.

While most competing teaching platforms offer the same features as they did 15 years ago (like delivering quizzes and publishing grades), D2L is already leading a major shift in the industry: It’s harnessing data and analytics to become the Netflix of education. Just as the streaming service can predict whether someone will enjoy a Judd Apatow movie, Brightspace can forecast the grade a user will receive in a biology course and customize the learning experience to increase her odds of getting an A. Welcome to the future of school.

John Baker hails from the tiny fishing town of Wesleyville, Nfld., and still speaks with a hint of Maritime lilt. Although he wanted to become a doctor, his parents encouraged him to pursue engineering. While studying systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, Baker noticed something peculiar about the dot-com boom then underway. Software was completely transforming every industry, except one. “It was completely missing in my educational experience,” he says.

He started to imagine designing software that could automatically grade student assignments to provide instant feedback, as well as perform other tasks. In his third year of university, in 1999, Baker founded D2L to put some of his ideas into practice. He initially did all the coding himself, though he eventually made a few hires. (Some of his early employees are still with the company today.) Later that year, Baker signed his first big client, the University of Guelph, which incorporated tools he designed into its new MBA program. These features, which included a way to take notes online, an instant-messaging client and a discussion board, formed the core of the company’s software. “He came with an entire package that was well-established and user-friendly, and had a customizable look and feel,” explains Peter Wolf, then a distance education designer at Guelph.


Despite some early success, the years ahead weren’t easy for D2L. The company spent its first decade just trying to convince the market that its software was more than a nice-to-have. A major barrier was the idea of using technology in the classroom in the first place. “Back then, professors wouldn’t even have projectors in the rooms,” Baker recalls of his experiences talking to teachers about education software. “I’d have all my PowerPoint slides printed on acetate overheads so you could put them on the old projectors in the classroom, and they would shine up on the chalkboard.”

Then came one of the biggest challenges of Baker’s career. In 2006, Blackboard filed a lawsuit against D2L, alleging patent infringement. The fight ultimately took three and a half years and a huge chunk of the company’s resources. Meanwhile, Baker was forced to watch Blackboard cement its dominance and become the most popular learning management system worldwide. (Today Blackboard is used by 42.2% of U.S. institutions with more than 2,000 students, according to one independent study, compared to 11.4% for Brightspace.) D2L eventually prevailed in the courts, and Baker says it emerged even stronger. “That’s probably why we’ve been able to grow so quickly in the last four years,” he says. “We learned how to lead through tough times. We learned how to stay close to existing customers.”

That customer relationship, in fact, helps fuel innovation. D2L is constantly quizzing clients and thought leaders in education about how Brightspace can meet their needs. Talking to educators helped D2L develop one of its modules, the ePortfolio, which students fill with samples of their work over the span of their degree. At graduation, they’re left with a picture of how their writing has improved. University program designers can review a cross-section of portfolios to glean invaluable information about whether their programs are helping students develop core overarching skills, such as writing, ethical savvy and critical thinking.

Another key to D2L’s innovation process is constantly testing ideas in the marketplace. In a process known as “continuous delivery,” the 300 members of D2L’s R&D department release new bits of code at least once a month—sometimes as often as once a day—to Brightspace clients. Users can give feedback right away, allowing D2L to tweak services all the time. One-quarter of the updates D2L made in its 2015 winter software release were based on feedback from users, many of whom are active on the Brightspace Community, an online hub for clients to get support and share suggestions. Every three to four months, D2L also holds a weeklong hackathon, where employees drop what they’re doing to work on a new product or bug fix. The events foster the notion that hatching new ideas and solutions is everybody’s job, says Baker.

D2L’s focus on innovation has attracted the attention of investors, too. It raised $80 million in funding in 2012 and another $85 million last year. Both included sizable contributions from OMERS Ventures, the VC arm of the Ontario municipal pension fund. “D2L’s been innovative when it comes to keeping pace with the maturation of various technologies,” says Kevin Kimsa, managing director at OMERS Ventures, who sits on D2L’s board as a non-voting member. “The management team has committed to ensuring they’re a leading platform in the marketplace.”

The cash will help D2L rebuild its platform as a data and analytics powerhouse, and take advantage of its biggest secret weapon: 15 years of student data. That information is being used to develop predictive algorithms. By comparing a student’s transcripts against a database of tens of millions of past student records, Brightspace’s Degree Compass feature can tell what letter grade he or she will get in any given course with 92% accuracy—before the first class starts. Due for release later this year, this feature will help students select the courses that are right for them. “These are things any great teacher would be able to do for a small group of students in a particular classroom,” Baker says, but D2L can do it on a massive scale.

Baker predicts a data and analytics model will help D2L grow. By harnessing the power of its data, the company is developing all kinds of new features, some of which Baker says are “inventions clients don’t know they need yet.” One such creation is the LeaP adaptive learning module. Released this month, the program’s algorithms automatically build students’ class assignments as they work, according to their performance. If a student falls behind in fractions, he or she will be asked to repeat fraction exercises until there’s improvement.

D2L’s most unorthodox offering yet—and one that’s already gotten rave reviews—stems from Baker’s desire to combine gaming and education, something he’s thought about since he was a teenager coding his own video games. The module, Game-Based Learning, lets educators design games, complete with leaderboards, avatars and trophies, to integrate with their courses. It’s automated too, so teachers don’t have to learn to code to use it. In a pilot program with Mohawk College in Hamilton last year, Game-Based Learning boosted course completion rates by 25%. D2L is planning a big rollout this year.

It may sound far from what traditionalists would define as classroom learning, but it’s all in service of getting students excited and passionate about education, Baker says. He believes big data will give educators the information they need to improve their programs and help personalize teaching so students can learn in the way that’s best for them. “The hope is that we’re graduating a generation of learners who have exceeded the achievements of the past,” he says. High ambition for a software developer—but don’t count him out.