A personal reflection, read if you’d like a little insight into what I do, why and what I’ve done.
Reading an article in Game Developer about some of the Bay Area history of the video game industry has made me reflective. As an undergrad (back before there really were programs in instructional technology) I saw the link between computers and learning, and it’s been my life ever since. I designed my own major, and got to be part of a project where we used email to conduct classroom discussion, in 1978!
Having called all around the country to find a job doing computers and learning, I arrived in the Bay Area as a ‘wet behind the ears’ uni graduate to design and program ‘educational’ computer games. I liked it; I said my job was making computers sing and dance. I was responsible for FaceMaker, Creature Creator, and Spellicopter (among others) back in 81-82. (So, I’ve been designing ‘serious games’, though these were pretty un-serious, for getting close to 30 years!)
I watched the first Silicon Valley gold rush, as the success of the first few home computers and software had every snake oil salesman promising that they could do it too. The crash inevitably happened, and while some good companies managed to emerge out of the ashes, some were trashed as well. Still, it was an exciting time, with real innovation happening (and lots of it in games; in addition to the first ‘drag and drop’ showing up in Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, I put windows into FaceMaker!).
I went back to grad school for a PhD in applied cog sci (with Don Norman), because I had questions about how best to design learning (and I’d always been an AI groupie :). I did a relatively straightforward thesis, not technical but focused on training meta-cognitive skills, a persistent (and, I argue, important) interest. I looked at all forms of learning; not just cognitive but behavioral, ID, constructivist, connectionist, social, even machine learning. I was also getting steeped in applying cognitive science to the design of systems, and of course hanging around the latest/coolest tech. On the side, I worked part-time at San Diego State University’s Center for Research on Mathematics and Science Education working with Kathy Fischer and her application SemNet.
My next stop was the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research & Development Center for a post-doctoral fellowship working on a project about mental models of science through manipulable systems, and on the side I designed a game that exercised my dissertation research on analogy (and published on it). This was around 1990, so I’d put a pretty good stake in the ground about computer games for deep thinking.
In 1991 I headed to the Antipodes, taking up a faculty position at UNSW in the School of Computer Science, teaching interface design, but quickly getting into learning technology again. I was asked, and I supervised a project designing a game to help kids (who grow up without parents) learn to live on their own. This was a very serious game (these kids can die because they don’t know how to be independent), around 1993. As soon as I found out about CGIs (the first ‘state’-maintaining technology) we ported it to the web (circa 1995), where you can still play it (the tech’s old, but the design’s still relevant).
I did a couple other game-related projects, but also experimented in several other areas. For one, as a result of looking at design processes, I supervised the development of a web-based performance support system for usability, as well as meta-cognitive training and some adaptive learning stuff.
I joined a government-sponsored initiative on online learning, determining how to run an internet university, but the initiative lost out to politics. I jumped to another, and got involved in developing an online course that was too far ahead of the market (this would be about 1996-1997). The design was lean, engaging, and challenging, I believe (I shared responsibility), and they’re looking at resurrecting it now, more than 10 years later! I returned to the US to lead an R&D project developing an intelligent learning system based on learning objects that adapted on learner characteristics (hence my strong opinions on learning styles), which we got up and running in 2001 before that gold rush went bust. Since then, I’ve been an independent consultant.
It’s been interesting watching the excitement around serious games. Starting with Prensky, and then Aldrich, Gee, and now a deluge, there’s been a growing awareness and interest; now there are multiple conferences on the topics, and new initiatives all the time. The folks in it now bring new sensibilities, and it’s nice to see that the potential is finally being realized. While I’ve not been in the thick of it, I’ve quietly continued to work, think, and write on the issue (thanks to clients, my book, and the eLearning Guild‘s research reports). Fortunately, I’ve kept from being pigeonholed, and have been allowed to explore and be active in other areas, like mobile, advanced design, performance support, content models, and strategy.
The nice thing about my background is that it generalizes to many relevant tasks: usability and user experience design and information design are just two, in addition to the work I cited, so I can play in many relevant places, and not only keep up with but also generate new ideas. My early technology experience and geeky curiosity keeps me up on the capabilities of the new tools, and allows me to quickly determine their fundamental learning capabilities. Working on real projects, meeting real needs, and ability to abstract to the larger picture has given me the ability to add value across a range of areas and needs. I find that I’m able to quickly come in and identify opportunities for improvement, pretty much without exception, at levels from products, through processes, to strategy. And I’m less liable to succumb to fads, perhaps because I’ve seen so many of them.
I’m incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to work in the field that is my passion, and still getting to work on cool and cutting edge projects, adding value. You’ll keep seeing me do so, and if you’ve an appetite for pushing the boundaries, give me a holler!