An interview with Donald Doane, CEO of ConnectYard.

Once upon a time, e-mail was the fastest and easiest means of facilitating asynchronous electronic communication, particularly when the message needed to reach a large group of people or required an attachment – a photo, a document, or a slide deck. Today, we have lots of channels available to us for posting and sending messages and files to individuals or large groups of people – whether through voice or written communications.

Just think of your own personal and professional channels. If you are like most tech-savvy people today, you are posting, sending, or receiving messages and files via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Dropbox, in addition to e-mail. If you are teaching or taking a course, you are probably using your institution’s learning management system (LMS) to communicate, too. There are channels that you probably check more often than others – some many times in an hour, others hourly, daily, bi-weekly, weekly, or even less frequently. Most likely, others in your personal and professional circles have usage patterns that differ from yours, so messages that you send to them through various social and broadcast channels – individually or in groups – may not be read for hours or days.

If you are teaching at a college or university, your students are likely to rely heavily upon texting and social channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to send and receive important one-to-one and one-to-many messages. Email may not be as important to your students as it is to you. So, how can you, as an instructor or school administrator, leverage the power of students’ social networks – the ones they used most often – for communication and collaboration, without the need for to you to be logged into all of these networks? This is the set of problems that Don Doane and Grant Warner sought to address when they co-founded ConnectYard in 2007. Jeanne Heston recently interviewed CEO Don Doane to learn more.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was the inspiration for ConnectYard when you and COO Grant Warner started the company back in 2007?

Don Doane (DD): In 2007, Facebook was just starting to take hold and the popularity of social media was on the rise. Grant was an instructor at the time and I was running a software company that provided products and services to schools. One set of challenges that we had encountered was around communication – from an instructor to one or more groups of students – especially when it was important that the communication be received and responded to within a certain timeframe. For the most part, Email and LMS systems were not efficient; it was often too late by the time students checked it. As a result, students often missed important announcements or discussions.

Grant and I asked ourselves the question, “How can we leverage social media for instruction and learning?” It was around that time that Grant had created a proposal for Cornell University – to explore the use of social media channels for communicating with students. For one year, we ran focus groups with instructors, asking them and their students how they want to use social media.

JH: What did you learn from that project?

DD: Instructors told us that they did not want to learn another technology. They did not all feel comfortable using Facebook and Twitter, yet they were aware that the online communication environment that they were most comfortable in – e-mail – would soon be a thing of the past.

In their ideal world, instructors said that they would be able to use their existing tools, like the LMS and e-mail, while leveraging the power of texting and the social media tools that their students preferred. They wanted to have all of the functionality that they needed – for two-way communication with large and small groups of students — in one central location, instead of having to log in to multiple systems.

At first, we tried to use Facebook directly, but there were a few problems with that approach. For one thing, students would have to either “friend” their instructors, an option that students and their instructors would not find appealing, or they would have to remember to make frequent visits to the class Facebook group. The other set of issues was related to regulations associated with the Family Educational Regulations Privacy Act (FERPA) and content ownership. We needed a way to communicate through social media, but not in such a way that that communication content would be saved in the channel itself.

JH: How did that research influence your project plans?

DD: We used the information that we had gathered from the Cornell project to develop a platform that would enable us to build tools and services to meet the needs of the instructors we had spoken with. That was in 2008. In 2009, we were able to deploy the first version of our Campus Communications solution. As we brought on more schools, we kept on running focus groups and doing additional research to ensure that the solutions that we were designing were useful for schools of all types and sizes – not just Ivy League schools.

One interesting finding during this phase was the realization that the demographics of community colleges affected their communication channel preferences. Adult learners expressed a strong preference for texting and e-mail, in contrast with “traditional” college students, who overwhelmingly prefer Facebook and Twitter.

JH: Have you found that the education community has some unique needs that you do not typically encounter when working with a corporate customer?

DD: The biggest difference that we have seen is in the process of adopting new technology. In a typical corporation, we often deal with a single decision-maker who determines which technologies will be used across departments or across the entire organization. In the higher education community, students and instructors need to buy into the technology, and various committees may need to review it, before it is adopted across the institution. FERPA is also a big issue in the education community. If privacy of student information cannot be ensured, the technology cannot be adopted.

JH: Can you provide some examples of ConnectYard applications that have surprised you over the past few years – usage models that you and the team had not considered?

DD: There were two applications that surprised us soon after we released the ConnectYard solution. The first was the use of our service to alert all students and faculty members of school closings and other emergency situations. Of course, it makes sense, but this was not one of the original applications that we had considered. The second application was one that we heard about for first-year students. The school invited students to enter a photo contest – to take pictures around campus, post to their social networks, and collect “likes.” ConnectYard enabled students to do this across social networks and to respond to the messages and pictures that other students had posted.

JH: Where do you see this technology going over the next several years, especially in the education community?

DD: We see the technology being used across the both the physical and virtual campuses to connect learning communities and to facilitate collaborative learning, leveraging the power of social networks and contributing to increased student engagement and retention.

ConnectYard is a member of the Cengage Learning MindShare Alliance. The ConnectYard SLS technology is embedded within the MindTap family of products, via a MindApp. 

How do you use social media channels to communicate with your students? We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.