I was thinking about my next directions, and it led to me to think a bit about my foundations. And I realized I’ve been very lucky (and I’m grateful). I’ve had good parents, mentors, colleagues, and friends. But I’ve also had some fortunate timings, and it’s worth reflecting how I’ve been lucky on foundations upon which to build. (A personal reflection, not necessarily worth your time ;)
It started with college, really. I’d always been a typical lad, but with an extra serving of geek (I didn’t fit in with any clique so hung with a few similarly chaotic-good chaps :). I started college interested in marine bio, but there was no formal link between undergrad study and Scripps. The bio program was all cut-throat med, and while I could cut it, it was all rote memorization and deadly boring. So…
I took some comp sci classes, and was tutoring for extra money on the side. Lucky chance: I got a job doing the computer support for the office that coordinated the tutoring. That sparked my awareness of the connections between computers and learning. Of course, back then, at my school, there was no such program. Luck 2: my school had a program where you could design your own major. I found a couple of professors doing a project on using email for classroom discussion (circa ’78; we had the DARPAnet, otherwise there was no email; more luck). They agreed to sponsor my project.
After graduating, I looked all over the country for an org that wanted someone interested in computers and learning. More luck, I finally came across Jim Schuyler, and as he was starting DesignWare, I got a job! And, importantly, it was designing and programming on the earliest personal computers. And I realized that there was real potential for learning in games! But I also realized that we didn’t know enough how to design them. And then I read about ‘cognitive engineering’ (applying what we know about cognition to the design of systems).
I was accepted into the cog program with Don Norman, who’d written the article. And this was another major stroke of luck. While Don’s students were researching how to build systems for how people think, my twist was about how people learn. I got to study behavioral, cognitive, social, even machine learning! Also, Don’s lab partner Dave Rumelhart was conducting his research with Jay McClleland on what became neural nets. You can’t help but get exposed to related research through lab meetings, seminars, and more, even if you’re not active in the particular work. And Ed Hutchins was doing his work on distributed cognition. This was a fundamental shift in perspective from formal to situated cognition.
The lab ran a Unix system, so I was getting steeped in computing systems to complement my personal computer work, along with the cognition focus. I subsequently did a post-doc at LRDC, getting deeper steeped into cognitive learning, and then joined a school of Computer Science, getting further background in computation. I was on the internet before there was a web (and foolishly was rather complacent about it)! And it’s enabled me to keep an eye on new developments like mobile and content and more, and understand their core affordance.
I also got steeped in design, having a chance to look at graphic, industrial, software, architecture, and other approaches (more luck). I combined that with a study of the academic literature, of course. These three foundations have been the basis of my work: applying cognitive and learning sciences to the design of technology to create learning and performance systems.
There’s much more to the story, of course. Serendipity continued in jobs and people to guide me, I’m happy to say. Mentors being shy, you can’t really thank folks enough, so if I’ve been lucky in foundations, it’s my job to pass it on. I hope that this blog helps in some way!