Five Questions with D2L CEO John Baker

July 10, 2023

‍D2L is an education technology company based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. They’ve been in business for more than 20 years, founded by_ CEO John Baker when he was still in university.

Today, D2L supports learners in K-12 schools, in universities, and in professional development training for mid-career professionals. John Baker recently sat down for an interview with CCI President Benjamin Bergen , to talk about the future of technology-enabled learning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Benjamin Bergen: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, John. For people who aren’t familiar with D2L, can you give us a bit of background on the company? How did you get started, and what kind of services you offer today?

John Baker: I started D2L in my third year of university, 24 years ago, to go out and transform the way the world learns.

For me, it was answering the question: What’s the most important problem that I could solve that would have the biggest impact on the world? And I couldn’t think of anything bigger than transforming the way the world learns. It has this wonderful ripple effect through our communities, across campuses, across our companies, and from one generation to the next.

So, in our case, we built a learning platform that breaks down barriers to high quality learning experiences. It engages and inspires people to ideally achieve more than they ever dreamed possible. And today, we are serving clients in schools, universities, and companies, all over the world. Our learning platforms is used by over 16 million people globally, in 40 different countries, and we feel like we’re just getting started on this journey to build better learning experiences for folks of all ages.

BB: That’s great. So you started in universities, and obviously now you’ve really expanded, doing education in high schools and businesses. What have you learned, as a company, as you’ve broadened the scope on education services?

JB: Yeah, we initially thought if we can improve the educational experience for universities, we set people up for a great career, a great outcome in life. And what’s become very clear to us over the last number of years working on this problem is that we can probably have just as big — if not a bigger — impact by supporting lifelong learning — the ability for folks to get the skills they need for the next promotion, or to stay professionally current. The ability to constantly learn is critical as people look at their career growth and career development.

So, we’ve made a big change here at D2L, to move beyond simply thinking about this as an education challenge. We now think about this as a lifelong learning experience. And it became very clear to me, after talking to over a thousand companies and CEOs, that learning in companies really hadn’t evolved much since the day they started. It’s really just pulling people together face-to-face to deliver a learning experience, or you know, just simply watching some videos and reading some content. That tends to be the state of affairs in today’s companies. We’re trying to change that, to modernize the experience.

I think it follows a very similar adoption curve that we’re seeing in education, where first you start by cobbling together some digital tools to digitize what used to be face-to-face — whether that’s through Zoom or through other technologies — but then you start to embrace technologies like ours, to start to optimize for a better outcome. So that could mean building a better onboarding experience that leads to better retention, better engagement with employees, defining very clear career paths, and showing how to provide the upskilling to enable them to accelerate through those career jumps.

It could also mean transforming the actual learning experience itself. We’re using next-generation models like competency-based learning, where you measure the skills, and as you demonstrate the skill, you progress to the next level. You don’t have to spend a certain amount of time doing a certain job or spend a certain amount of time going through a compliance course. It just allows you to progress based on demonstrating mastery. So these things will save time, they will help learners prove the actual overall outcomes, and ideally, improve the journey for many companies around the world.

BB: Even just thinking about my own kind of learning on the job, in the past it has been that very formulaic approach. It’s great to see innovation in this area! In terms of how people learn and embracing all the different approaches to learning — whether we’re visual or auditory learners, or something else — how is D2L engaged in that space? Are you looking at different ways for people to receive the material?

JB: Yeah, lots of folks think learning is simply a consuming experience, but we think about it as an opportunity to create. With problem-based learning, it could be working on projects. It could be working in a cohort with colleagues across the company, to work on particular problems that might exist.

Learning, at its core, is a very much a human experience, and what we’re trying to do with the technology is to make it easier to build connection — connection to the skills that you’re learning, connection to your colleagues, connection to the instructor to help you to gain the skills you’re going to need for the future. That human connection is what we’re trying to foster within the learning experience. And that shows up in all of the tools that we’ve created.

One example of a product we just launched is called Creator+, which makes it easier to take all the learning science that we’ve built over the last 20-plus years, and to build interactives and practices. So as an employee is going through an onboarding, for example, or maybe even a compliance course, they get to interact with timeline tools or flip cards, or maybe they do a little practice assessment, which gives them real time feedback on what was right, what was wrong, and why.

If we can build a better learning experience to help people get into a job and get to productivity faster, it can reduce churn for new hires, and for some of our companies that have been using this technology for a while now, they’re saving millions of dollars per year based upon the fact they don’t have to go out and hire 20% more people. They’ve reduced that churn, such that they’re able to reinvest it back into other areas of their business to drive better productivity, and better efficiency.

BB: That’s really interesting. From an individual level, the ability to get that real time feedback on whether or not you’re getting something is so much more valuable than spending weeks or months, thinking that you’ve learned something, then you get to the test, and everything falls apart.

Now to switch gears a little bit, with the pandemic, obviously that had a huge impact on education. What was D2L’s experience around Covid, and what did it mean for your business?

JB: I remember getting the early calls in January of 2020, from clients saying, “Hey, we need to put all of our courses online tomorrow, because we’re flipping to fully digital.” Clients in Australia, for example, were probably two or three months ahead of the clients here in North America in terms of that pivot to fully virtual.

We’re sort of seeing the market start to bounce back for our technology now. Early on, most people stuck with what they had and kind of limped along. In many cases they tried to basically do synchronous education which we know was tough. Most people struggle with burnout and lack of engagement with the learners.

What we’re seeing now is clients rebalance the mix of technology they’re using to support the class experience. But also, they’re offering an option to be fully online, whereas in the past many of these universities or companies might have been zero. We’re now starting to see many of them setting goals for 10, 20 or even 50 per cent of the course load being taken in a fully virtual model.

The other big change is that as students have come back to campus, there has been a real struggle with driving engagement. So, building tools that spark engagement was one of the things that we zeroed in on during the pandemic. I think there’s a bit of a lost generation in education globally. There’s been more than 100 million students that have never returned back into the education system. So, there’s a big effort now to re-engage these folks, and to try to figure out new models of learning because they can’t just simply go back to grade three, when they should be in grade six, or seven.

These are big challenges. But yeah, I’m glad we’re playing a role now to help clients recover, if you will.

BB: Yeah that’s really interesting, you know, the first six months about the pandemic was like, “Let’s just all hold on for dear life.” And then as things began to get mitigated, we started asking what were the things about being digital that we really liked? What were the things we didn’t?

Obviously Covid really disrupted all of our usual routines. But it also feels like things are still in a massive state of flux. We’re thinking a lot about artificial intelligence, and how it’s going to change the way we operate. You were talking about Creator+ earlier. Can you tell me about some of the cutting-edge tools you’re building through D2L and how you see AI playing a role in the future of education?

JB: Well, I think we’re working in a few key lanes.

One, we’re trying to pull AI into the core practices here at D2L, to build new technologies. And we’ve been doing that now for more than a decade, if you can believe it.

We focus on things like our video functionality: all video uploaded into Brightspace supports multiple languages, can be automatically closed captioned using AI, and is also transcoded to stream to any device. We’ve also been using AI to help identify at-risk learners to get them back on the right track. We’re also using early-stage generative AI to create different learning pathways and different questions to prompt students, to be able to help make sure that they’re on the right path for success.

But then secondly, with clients, we’re also trying to use AI to help them identify the risks — how do I help you with your policies, your cybersecurity stance, those types of efforts?

Then we’re working in a research lane. So, how do we apply this to tutoring, to assessment, to the concept of learning itself? How do we engage students in how to leverage these technologies in new ways in the class?

Then there’s the course design piece, which is what you were asking about Ben. You know, how does this change the course? How do we use these tools to support the learning experience? But also, really importantly, how do we actually change the content that’s within the courses to be able to adapt to the new skills that people are going to need to support the educational outcomes we’re striving towards?

In the past, if you took an MBA program, Excel would have been required. Today if you’re in marketing or if you’re going to be a coder, or honestly, probably in most fields, being able to leverage AI is going to be a key skill that you’re going to need to develop.

And then the last lane for us, we see a huge opportunity for education clients to support upskilling. You know, I was just with the deputy ambassador for Canada to Mexico, and she said, “You know, I used to upskill to get to the next promotion. Now, I upskill to stay current and my job.” And I think that’s a huge opportunity to provide the right skills to support the entrepreneur, to support the researcher, to support the engineer. They’re all looking to be sharpening their toolset so that they can be better at the job that they’re in, and also be able to take the next step in their career.

What’s more, if some of these folks are being displaced with AI, how do we upskill these folks into higher demand fields? The jobs exist, we just need to make sure we fill them with the right folks with the right skills.

BB: That’s really great. Thank you so much for taking the time to educate me about what you’ve been working on!

The Council of Canadian Innovators is a national business council of more than 150 scale-up technology companies headquartered in Canada. Our members are job-creators, philanthropists and leading commercialization experts in the 21st century digital economy.

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