The year was 1993. The sign over the door said, “Incredible Universe.” It was a massive store, blending retail with a theme park motif, located in Arlington, Texas.
I was in the computer section when I saw it. There, on the shelf, was one of the first PCs with a color screen and a built-in CD-ROM player.
But what really grabbed my attention was the problem-solving detective game with realistic graphics that was playing. My first thought was, “This would be great for my kids!” aged 5 and 7 at the time. When I returned home, I bought the first Apple computer with a built-in CD-ROM and color screen, the Macintosh IIvx.
I was mesmerized. Before long I realized the impact this could have on my profession in enterprise learning. I started a newsletter about people using technology in learning. I’d interview them, and then share that information via the newsletter and talks at conferences. I was rejected at every conference I approached that first year. “Who cares about technology?” they said.
But being in the middle of Silicon Valley, at the hub of multimedia and later the Internet, I was in the right place at the right time. Beyond the newsletter I began writing reports. I refinanced my house a few times to cover costs, but when the Internet boom hit, we were solid.
Along the way, new learning technology companies sprang up seemingly overnight. A new category of software emerged, far different from typical class registration programs in use. I didn’t know what to call them — the vendors all had different names. One day in a meeting at Saba, I thought “learning management systems.” It seemed to click, so I titled the report I was writing the same, and the term stuck.
Of course, CD-ROMs and the Internet weren’t the first use of technology for learning. For that, one has to go back to Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press. For the next technology bump, speed ahead to Michael Moore, who began teaching in eastern Africa in 1963. When he could not get around the countryside to all his students, he used the radio for distance learning.
Moore, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, started The American Journal of Distance Education, helped design the British Open University and established the concept of transactional distance, which attempts to clarify the geographical, psychological and educational factors that affect learning when the learner and instructor are not co-located.
I met Moore last year at the International Conference for E-learning and Distance Learning in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We talked about recent comments from Udacity, the popular Stanford University-born massive open online course company. The company was discovering that MOOCs needed to consider issues of learner engagement and testing.
It’s amazing how we all go forward without the lessons of history. It’s ironic that Moore, an early inventor of distance learning, should have to listen to these concerns as if for the first time when he has spent the last 40 years researching and writing about these issues.
Skip ahead past the 1960s, and you will discover Michael Allen, who helped develop the computer-based training system PLATO at Control Data Corp. in Minneapolis. Allen later went on to build Authorware, the best tool for designing interactive content via CD-ROM, now owned by Adobe. Along the way he founded custom developer Allen Interactions Inc. I consider Allen the godfather of interactive self-instruction, and he has parted the seas again with a robust alternative to the ADDIE model, the SAM, or successive approximation model, of iterative instructional design.
The Allen brothers, Steve and Rex, co-founders of Allen Communication Learning Services — not related to Allen Interactions — were the first to connect the laserdisc video player and the Apple IIe computer. The result was high-quality video combined with interactive and engaging learning for large customers, including a railroad and the U.S. military. There are countless other early figures, such as Gloria Gery, with her amazing foresight in performance support, whose contributions to learning technology should be remembered.
For those few noted here, for all the rest who brought us to this place, perhaps including you, consider this Native American saying: “When you drink the water, remember those who dug the well.”