When educational technology company D2L (Desire2Learn) launched more than two decades ago, remote learning meant distance education courses delivered by mail. Computers and the internet were revolutionizing the world, with the glaring exception of most education systems.
“For anyone who took a distance education course at that time, it was a pretty bad experience that involved mail, envelope and stamps and very slow feedback cycles,” says Jeremy Auger, chief strategy officer of the Kitchener-based global software company he co-founded in 1999 with president and chief executive officer John Baker.
“This new-fangled technology called the internet was emerging and everything was starting to go online and we thought we could have an impact on education,” adds Mr. Auger.
They were right.
Over the past 21 years, D2L has gone from five to 875 employees and its flagship Brightspace platform delivers online and blended learning for K-12, post-secondary, corporate and government clients in 40 countries.
But while the company’s leaders saw the digital transformation of education, they couldn’t have foreseen the sudden surge in demand for their technology brought on by a worldwide pandemic that closed schools and businesses worldwide earlier this year.
“We’ve seen quite an uptick in demand, with everyone having to go fully online in many places,” Mr. Auger says.
That’s an understatement.
Existing clients went from hundreds of users to thousands, and from thousands to tens of thousands seemingly overnight. New clients were scrambling to put in place fully online programs accessible to teachers, administrators, students and parents, or employees and executives trying to work collaboratively from afar.
“Many of our customers previously were using our system for things like blended learning, so it wasn’t a fully online experience. It was more a technology to complement face-to-face learning,” Mr. Auger says. “When they had to go fully online … all of those users were almost full-time in the system.”
The sudden spike in users put unprecedented demands on the company’s technology infrastructure. Fortunately, D2L decided several years ago to get out of the business of building infrastructure and migrate to the cloud, in particular the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud.
About 20 years ago, D2L’s software was deployed on site, “in some cases under a professor’s desk,” Mr. Auger says. As the business grew, D2L had to build its own data centres around the globe because some countries required local hosting within their borders.
By migrating to AWS, Mr. Auger says D2L is now part of a global network that’s better able to serve its international clients, without having to build its own new data centres.
“It allowed us to focus on our core competencies … including services and products we were delivering, as opposed to the underlying infrastructure, which AWS can do at scale,” he says.
AWS enabled D2L to ramp up quickly when the pandemic hit, and without any major service disruptions.
“If we were to have to address that ourselves in the old way, we would have been buying hundreds and hundreds of servers and racking them in data centres all around the world,” Mr. Auger says. “(AWS) was part and parcel of being able to, in a very short time period, accommodate that massive uptick in usage across almost all of our customers.”
D2L clients, including the Calgary Board of Education, also benefitted. When Calgary schools closed in the spring, the platform helped deliver courses to the board’s 126,000 students.
During this pivotal moment of global need, D2L has been supporting all 50 colleges in South Africa as well as New York University and Carleton University, and they will be rolling out a new partnership with all of Singapore’s Polytechnic Institutes of Technical Education. Numerous companies and industry associations have also brought in Brightspace to train many of the thousands of returning workers in new safety protocols and digital skills as businesses begin to reopen.
The school and business closures have accelerated a transition to online learning that D2L has anticipated for decades, Mr. Auger says.
He believes the focus must now move beyond emergency response to building resilient, high-quality education that blends in-person and digital learning.
“We feel like we’re just getting started,” he says, “and the pandemic has quickly shifted what was a technological evolution into a technological revolution, which will accelerate the next phase of our growth.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.