We toasted Eiffelcorp’s 20th birthday celebration at a function in Jo’burg a few weeks ago. I particularly enjoyed the “fire-side” chat with Andre and Gwen van der Merwe. Among ed techies like myself, Eiffelcorp is best known as the company behind Blackboard. I learned a bit more about the history of Eiffelcorp and its origins.
This “mom and pop” start-up was founded by two aspiring teachers. Gwen finished her teaching degree, Andre dropped out to start the business. He flew to Canada, connected with Murray Goldberg, an academic from the University of British Columbia who developed WebCT (Course Tools). They brought WebCT back to local universities like Wits, Pretoria and Free State. Later on Blackboard acquired WebCT. Eiffelcorp and Blackboard became synonymous, at least among ed techies.
By today’s standards, WebCT is clunky and unintuitive. Many LMS packages suffer from this malady. What Andre and Gwen “got” was that they were not only a software company, selling a platform. They recognized the need to create an ongoing partnership with their clients and provide a host of strategic and support services associated with the use of technology in an educational setting. Gwen did training and Andre support, many times over weekends and late at night. Their up-front sales and behind the scenes efforts added value and kept the business growing.
I prefer open systems to proprietary ones. I think that the costs associated with Blackboard are extremely high. The platform does have a tendency to wag the pedagogical dog. However, I also recognize that Andre & Gwen’s company (now with a staff of approximately 40), preceded “disruption” and the “future of learning” hype from Silicon Valley. They built up a loyal base of academic users who are typically very critical and often reluctant to expend effort in teaching,
This fact deserves celebration. Well done to Andre and Gwen. In the next decade, Eiffelcorp must contribute to the development of a community of African elearning practitioners. People, like Andre and Gwen, who were not only interested in sales but who are teachers, intent on the thoughtful and appropriate use of technologies in learning. In the next ten years, if Eiffelcorp can support a community of practice of “ed techies”, who want to enable learning via technology, then I’ll be very pleased to raise a 30 year celebratory toast.
[Disclosure: I am occasionally contracted by Eiffelcorp to assist with staff development and training.]