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Toying With Education

The blossoming field of edutainment offers job opportunities to students who want to help people enjoy the learning process

By David H. Chasey

Everybody likes playing games. And everybody loves to learn, too, right? OK, that's a stretch and it may be why entertainment and education are coming together, as software developers race to create interactive programs that make learning—for both kids and adults—an enjoyable experience.

Toying With Education

The emergence of "edutainment" can be seen in the development of programs like "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" the mystery game that teaches kids geography. "Edutainment has come to have a specific meaning: products that are educational but that have some entertainment value," says Jim Schuyler, Ph.D., vice president of distance learning solutions for Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio Inc., located in Emeryville, Calif.

The term most typically applies to children's software in which the entertainment elements are obvious, but has also come to loosely include interactive multimedia learning software for adults. This market is generally custom-designed for corporations, often for the teaching or enhancement of employee skills, such as instructing assembly line workers, through sound and video, on how to be more efficient. Much of multimedia learning incorporates edutainment dynamics and, for the engineering or computer science student exploring career possibilities, both segments offer exciting opportunities and challenges.

This is No Game

The current market for edutainment/multimedia learning software is by all indications large-and the growth prospects appear exceptionally promising, especially as the Internet promises wider bandwidth and a greater capacity for data delivery. With its expansion, the possibility for providing sound, video and other interactive media could be limitless. Piggybacking on that is the recognition of technology's communicative powers.

The challenge in engineering the software is to combine enough play value to prevent boredom, with enough educational value to make the experience worthwhile.

Gregory Sales, Ph.D., is president and director of multimedia development at Seward Learning Systems Inc., a company with 15 employees specializing in "performance improvement/training software development" in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. "The field is growing exponentially," he says. "We're faced with a very pleasant situation where virtually every organization with more than a few hundred people is looking at technology as a key part of how to disseminate information."

David Palumbo, PhD

David Palumbo, Ph.D

"I'd definitely say we're on the elbow of an exponential growth curve in the learning technology industry," agrees David Palumbo, Ph.D., vice president of learning technologies for Human Code Inc., an Austin, Texas, company with 200 employees that specializes in developing interactive media for business, education and entertainment.

"There are a lot of small companies as well as major corporations competing in this space," he adds.

Within edutainment, specific indicators of explosive market growth can be seen in technological business developments over the last year:

  • No. 1 seller of software in 1998, measured by unit shipment, was Havas Interactive (formerly Cendant Software). With the acquisition of Cendant, the gaming and educational niche is now a Havas specialty, with products such as The Blaster Pals, a series of programs that invite children as young as four to embark on a "math mission" to space, helping the cartoon figures while building arithmetic skills.
  • Edutainment giant The Learning Company has gained 40% of the reference software market, a segment which grew 20.9% in 1998.
  • As an industry, edutainment has succumbed to the "big fish eating the little fish" phenomenon, a sure-fire indicator of aggressive capital chasing attractive assets. The Learning Company was recently acquired by Mattel-just as it had previously consumed edutainment giant Broderbund Software.

Swimming alongside edutainment leviathans like Mattel/The Learning Company are rich schools of small-to-medium fish—a diverse array of companies responding to the field's wealth of opportunities.

With all of this activity, observers say the edutainment market is highly competitive. Nicholas Matelan, Ph.D., chief technical officer of Learn Technologies Interactive Inc., a New York, N.Y., company, describes the current edutainment environment by saying, "There are a lot of people who want to be in it... but it's not easy. It's a tight market. If you have the capability to build these products, you've got a long-term future."

A Spoonful of Sugar

While edutainment may be a simple enough concept, developers must actually consider the complex psychological processes of stimulation, learning and reward that must be written and engineered into the products. The most successful items achieve that delicate balance between fun and instruction. Interactive Studio's Schuyler explains, "It's obvious that children who are using [these products] know that it's supposed to be educational software. They aren't fooled for a minute. The question is, is it fun enough that it keeps them playing with it for a long enough period of time? The challenge in engineering the software is to combine enough play value with enough educational value that the kid will think is fun and that a parent or teacher will immediately recognize as having educational value."

Toying With Education

A Seward Learning Systems program displays an activity screen to test learners' understanding of proper lifting techniques.

Companies in this market have quickly discovered that the two interests can commingle and bring about great benefit. Matelan's corporation has even built its mission statement on that foundation: "We at Learn Technologies Interactive believe that the best entertainment is truly educational, and the best learning is truly entertaining-and that technology makes this possible."

For Seward Learning Systems, a well-developed instructional design is the key to producing quality interactive multimedia. Make no mistake, the essence of its products is education, the company notes, applying principles that provide guidance, encourage practice and offer feedback. The underlying philosophy? Entertainment engages and motivates—and it enhances learning. What a designer with an entertainment background may call a hook—something to catch and hold the user's attention—is in the parlance of instructional design motivational strategy.

"Interactivity is the main feature of edutainment and that really pushes the way the programs look inside," says one software executive.

Sales says, "We come at technology-delivered training from an uncommon direction. My background is as an academic in instructional design. When I started the company I made sure that remained an emphasis."

Louise Delagran, a program designer recently honored by AV Video and Multimedia Producer magazine as one of the top 100 multimedia producers, explains, "You need to see how you're motivating people so they'll want to continue and be exposed to the opportunity to learn, as opposed to quitting because they're bored."

A Team Effort

Given the demanding and competitive market, the design and production of edutainment/multimedia learning is generally accomplished through teams of technical and non-technical professionals. Matelan says of the software production process at Learn Technologies Interactive, "There is usually at least a development component and an art component. Most of the projects we work on involve five to seven engineers and probably three artists, plus an interaction designer. And if you get into the bigger games then you'll add a writer who comes up with a script that has to be followed. That's usually laid out in a transition diagram. It's like making a cartoon." LTI will also import specialists in the software's subject matter, often from nearby Columbia University.

National Museum of American Art

Learn Technologies Interactive Inc. produces multimedia software for the National Museum of American Art, showcasing 750 works of art.

The creation of edutainment and interactive multimedia education and training products are collaborative efforts that place a premium upon cross-disciplinary creativity and communications. "From the engineering standpoint, one of the most attractive things is that it is a team approach. When done well it brings together outstanding people in art, music, engineering and content," states edutainment consultant and developer Joyce Hakansson.

A veteran of the Children's Television Workshop, where she initiated the computer production crew, Hakansson has run her own software development, production and publishing companies. Her experience has shown her the need for a cooperative atmosphere: "People have to be able to collaborate and sometimes to compromise," she stresses.

An artist may have ideas that from an engineering perspective might be difficult-to-impossible to implement, for instance. The team approach demands good communications and high levels of trust among different disciplines. "They have to then collaborate to find out what will work and what will satisfy the needs of the [person] who is going to sit in front of it," Hakansson adds. The team must work together, focus on the needs of the software project and collectively develop a product that will meet that need. "Engineers don't always think that way. Nor do artists. Nor do musicians," she notes.

Finding the best way for a diverse group of professionals to work together is one aspect of the edutainment field that is also still in flux. "We're inventing some of this as we go along," Matelan admits. "But that's interesting, too. For me, that's a good reason to be in it."

Matelan, who has been in engineering for 30 years, started programming software for F-111s and F-16s. Surprisingly, he says program designing for fighter planes differs very little from edutainment program designing. "The software's very similar and it's real time," he says. "Once you get under the hood and you have to respond in a certain amount of time to external events, the programs start looking about the same."

Edutainment is all about systems programming, Matelan explains. It isn't just a tool interface or a stand-alone application. "There's multimedia associated with it. You're integrating animation, videos and sound, and there's interface design—a lot of art aspects that have to be put into the right formats. Interactivity is the main feature and that really pushes the way the programs look inside."

While it may incorporate well-worn concepts, what sets the new field of edutainment apart, Schuyler reflects, is the previously unheard of merger of two seemingly dissonant ideas. It is also the aspect that most challenges developers. "We're used to thinking of education as something that's pretty cut-and-dried and not necessarily that entertaining. And we're used to thinking of something that's really entertaining as, 'My goodness, how could that possibly be educational?' That split that we have in our head is what makes it very difficult to do this."

Advice on Preparing for a Career in Edutainment

Jim Schuyler, vice president, distance learning solutions, Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio Inc.:

"My recommendation is that computer scientists and engineers get not just some liberal arts background but branch out into other areas. Get an appreciation of art or design or architecture or education. Take graduate seminars and workshops because if you're in a seminar, you're interacting with other students from other disciplines.

"When I was teaching at Northwestern University, we intentionally went out and looked for students from medicine, journalism, liberal arts, [and other] diverse backgrounds and put them together in a graduate seminar. You get a very good view of the world... from your engineering perspective, which is a science, but also from the perspective of some other areas where things aren't as cut-and-dried."

Nicholas Matelan, Ph.D., chief technical officer, Learn Technologies Interactive Inc.:

"The technology is going to change. It's going more to the Internet so I would say [students] should learn as much as they can about Internet programming. That's the direction of most things. Learn as much as you can about interactive programming, too, where either a person or a machine is telling you to do something and you're trying to respond."

Louise Delagran, program designer, Seward Learning Systems Inc.:

"Know what the latest Web technologies are. There is and will continue to be a huge demand for people who know CGI and the changing technologies-JavaScript, Pearl, etc. A lot of companies will look for someone who can do a Web site."

David Palumbo, Ph.D., vice president of learning technologies, Human Code Inc.:

"Any of the Web environments right now are really hot. Java, Java servlets, those kinds of things are important to understand. C++ is a standard and something we are always in short supply of. One of the things that's interesting is that Director and Lingo programmers are now back in demand, too. That field has gone up and down. First they were worth their weight in gold, then they were a dime a dozen, and now they're worth their weight in gold again.

"If you were going to school right now, you would want to be well-versed in all of those things. Also be conscious that your professional development as a graduating computer scientist, software engineer or electrical engineer is going to continue to change. Education is a process, not an end point."

David H. Chasey is a free-lance writer based in Pittsburgh.

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