By Gerald Matykowski, Inside Sales Manager
I am a relatively new employee at Allen Interactions and delighted to be here. In my role as Inside Sales Manager, I am challenged on a daily basis to apply my instructional design, sales and entrepreneurial experience developed over the last three decades. I provide support to our Strategic Relationship Managers and to those of you who come to us for resources and custom services. As I settled into my role at Allen Interactions and began talking with instructional designers about their existing and upcoming challenges, I started noticing history repeating itself. Today, instructional designers face challenges very similar to those encountered in the early 1980s, when the computer-based training space emerged. Let me share some history before I offer an example.
From Film Strips to PLATO
While I did not ride a mastodon to work as some of my colleagues might suggest, I have been around the CBT, CAI, and e-learning industry for some time. Long ago, in an AV Lab at the University of Minnesota, I could be found, along with other education majors, preparing to demonstrate my mastery of 35mm projectors and innovative uses of overhead slides. Of course, it was college, so there was also a good chance of finding the occasional free spirit firing up an old mimeograph machine in search of an altered mental state initiated by its toxic ink.
The AV lab was notoriously cold, and one day I noticed students warming their hands over what appeared to be a pizza oven. This ‘oven’ had an orange window that I soon learned was a computer screen—not a portal to a freshly baked pizza. I asked the AV Lab manager, “What is that thing?” She said, “Oh, that’s PLATO.”
That was the tipping point for me. Since that moment, I have lived on or near the leading edge, and in some wild times, the bleeding edge of learning technology. PLATO, with Dr. Allen, was the beginning.
Pushing the Multi-Platform Envelope
In 1982, an executive in ‘the Tower’ (Control Data’s Corporate headquarters) decided that our organization should build a 64-hour computer literacy curriculum. The curriculum was to include courses on new technologies like word processing, spreadsheets, robotics and artificial intelligence. That was fine if the only delivery platform was to be mainframe PLATO. For those of you who haven’t read ancient e-learning history, PLATO mainframes were computers the size of a minivan that produced enough heat to warm an entire three story building.
Technology advances in the early 1980s fostered rapid development and adoption of Apple, IBM (Intel-based ‘PCs’) and even CDC ‘micro’ computers. The latter platform sported the non-ubiquitous 10.5 inch floppy disks and a CPM operating system – never to be seen again.
In their wisdom, the ‘Tower’ asked that the computer literacy curriculum be delivered on all these platforms, plus the PLATO mainframe.
I imagine that somewhere between the 14th floor of Control Data headquarters and the brilliant technicians charged to make this miracle happen, someone made statements similar to the following:
“So, let me get this straight. You want us to create 64 hours of CBT and deliver it on a computer that has 40 characters across the screen, 24 lines vertically and has the computing capacity and sensory capability of a tapir. Then, we have to deliver it on two other systems with substantially different screen sizes and three different operating systems. Finally, this will all be developed on a mainframe system that weighs half a ton and communicates with corresponding systems via trans-oceanic cables.”
Well, at least that’s what I was thinking.
Hard-Wired ‘Responsive’ Designs
The Control Data computer literacy curriculum is history. It was indeed delivered on Apple IIs and IIIs, IBM 286s, 386s and other Intel ‘PCs’. The CDC 110 and PLATO mainframe systems were also delivery platforms. The challenge included four operating systems, at least three different screen resolutions and varying graphics capabilities. My role in this project was to employ the PCD2 Author System that was created to address the challenges of the day. At the same time, Dr. Allen’s team was working on the first non-template based author system called PCD3. In many ways, the PCD2 and PCD3 teams found innovative ways to harnes current technology to address this hard-wired ‘responsive’ design and delivery challenge. I still consider it an amazing technological accomplishment for 1982.
Many of you reading this have far superior insight and wisdom than I have regarding ‘responsive e-learning’ design. Some of you are working on leveraging context within the environments where the tablets and smartphones are used on the job or during travel. Others are exploring current and future device capabilities to focus effective modifications of designs and/or applications for agile performance support systems and true mobile learning. And now we must consider the three dimensional (or 3D) capabilities just introduced by Amazon on their smartphone.
Fortunately, although these challenges are similar to those we faced at the outset of the technology-based learning system revolution, current technology to address them far exceeds what we had in 1982. We are no longer constrained by the lowest common denominator of screen size and resolution.
Today, we can leverage mobile app publishing tools to generate serious learning games and simulations that adjust to your smart device. One example to consider is the Sunny Side Grill App which helps you understand why you occasionally get cold eggs at a diner. This app was created with ZebraZapps. It downloads to your device with one click and adjusts to your screen size—no underwater trans-oceanic cables required. In 1982, this type of capability would have been considered magic.
On occasion, I still use a pair of huge framed Milton Berle-like glasses that I wore in the early 80’s. Only immediate family members have viewing privileges. Apparently these saucer-like specs are once again considered stylish as my daughter recently wore them to a ‘hipster’ party. Similarly, the CBT challenges of multiple screen sizes (resolutions) and designing for various ‘personal computing’ platforms have also returned in 2014 via mobile learning opportunities. Fortunately, we are better tooled in 2014 and the future looks bright to deploy serious e-learning where our learners need it most.
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