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67: Making User Experiences Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational with Dr. Michael Allen of Allen Interactions

Published March 2, 2021
Run time: 01:08:53
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There’s no content that can’t be made interesting to learn. Even installing a printer can be fun as long as the experience is made to be “meaningful, memorable and motivational.” Dr. Michael Allen of Allen Interactions joins the show to chat about how his company builds interactive learning programs around organizations’ best practices that leave people asking for more and shares his advice for designing impactful user experiences.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • What games teach us about learning
  • How an interactive learning program can make any topic interesting to learn
  • Tips for creating user experiences that are Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational
  • How designing around authentic situations creates a more effective experience
  • How psychology and software engineering overlap

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded February 8, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Allen Interactions website

Allen Academy for Learning Professionals

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

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Today we are chatting with Dr. Michael Allen. Today's guest really knows elearning. We're not talking about distance learning or zoom lectures where your boss or teacher is babbling on while you try to keep your head up and your mind focused. No, this is the kind of elearning that's interactive, that gets people engaged and perhaps even excited for the task at hand. Dr. Michael Allen is the CEO of Twin Cities based Allen Interactions. He's a pioneer in the field of elearning, dating back to the 1960s. And since then, he's worked on creating a wide variety of elearning programs for top companies around the world all with a focus on the experience being meaningful, memorable and motivational. So without further ado, here is my interview with Dr. Allen.

Dr. Allen, welcome to the show.

Dr. Michael Allen 1:38
Thank you very much.

Tim Bornholdt 1:39
I'm excited to have you on. So I know your background in elearning dates back to the 60s. Tell us how you got started in this field.

Dr. Michael Allen 1:48
Well, I sure will. Happy to share that. And I'll start by telling you that when I was little, and my friends all wanted to be cowboys and police officers and firemen and so forth, I proudly announced that I was going to work for IBM when I grew up. I don't even know what that meant, I don't think. But I watched Flash Gordon on TV and I saw those ridiculously fake computers with all of the controls on them and flashing lights and meters and stuff. And I thought, that's for me, I want to do that. I did get into doing some of the same stuff when I was a kid with rockets. And we had just basic little rockets that mostly were pumped up with air and water pressure and you'd pull a string and it would release them. But we built these control panels that had knobs and dials and flashing lights on them and stuff. And we'd convince all the kids in the neighborhood that this was really scientific stuff we were doing. And so we'd have to adjust all the dials and everything. And then underneath, you know, we'd have a little ring that we pulled that string and the rocket would go.

So when I went to the Ohio State University, I was really interested in what was called human factors, or human engineering at the time. And it was basically a user interface that I was excited about. And I wanted to continue building those battles. But you know, for real this time, not just fake. And it was a great place to be because actually IBM had a big demonstration center there for their latest products. And those, of course, were mainframes at the time. And there were multiple centers around the university, and I had a chance to work on some of the latest 360 systems there. And one of my professors pointed out that we had on campus another demonstration center by the National Science Foundation to demonstrate the latest in educational techniques. And he thought that I might really be interested in bridging the computer science and teaching. And I thought that sounded really interesting.

So I looked at what was going on in the center. And just briefly to tell you this center had this revolutionary idea that they wouldn't have standard classes anymore. So there was no scheduled class you had to go to, only a final exam you needed to take on a preset date. And you could go into this Learning Center that was just rich in learning materials, even had videotapes, although the videotapes were enormous machines that rolled around on carts and had a little screen, you know, like a six inch screen that you could watch. It also had audio that you could play from your study carrel via phone, and you would enter the number on your phone, and that would call up an audio recording. And you could pause it to go forward and backward and so forth. But there were also facilities there for students to study such as fruit flies. So instead of just reading about an experiment with fruit flies, you could do one, and faculty members were there to answer all of your questions. There were little study groups that you could join, and so forth. And this was their notion of the future of education. So no going to lectures and, and taking quizzes, and so forth.

It was just an amazing flop, it was a total failure. Because students wouldn't go there until like a week or maybe two before that exam. And then they wanted to cram. And this was not a center set up for cramming, you know, it just didn't work very well. And and we had, you know, 68,000 students at the University at that time. So the number of students that were enrolled in in biology, one to one where we were doing this experimentation, were far more than could fit in that Learning Center at any one time. And yet, they all tried to cram in there. So I got this idea that we would set some computer terminals up in that space. And we would let students essentially sort of practice on the final exam. So I got the faculty to write a huge bank of questions, we put those questions on the computer, and we would generate tests, starting with the basics, in what was normally covered in that course. And we would actually let you go on this test until we had found what you know, and what you didn't know, on those basics and going up to more advanced material. And when we found an area where you really needed to study, we'd stop the test. And we'd say, Okay, you're proficient in these things. But here's something you need to study. So here's a list of things you can do in this learning center. And when you feel like you've mastered that material, come back, and we'll test you again. And it really worked. It was just phenomenal. And students loved the system. And the faculty loved it. And we got people in earlier, because they could find out how much studying they were going to need to do. And if they didn't need to do much, that was good news.

And so we even went a little step further. And we said, you know, Look, if we can test you all the way through all of the content in this course, you'll get an A and you don't have to take that final exam, because we've already tested you. And so it really worked. And so many things came out of that from data collection, such as we could ask people when they came back to take another test, what did you do? And it was okay to say I didn't do anything. And we'd have some students that just think, I'm going to get through this course by just taking the test over and over and over and over again. And because we didn't tell them which question they got right, which one they got wrong, it was futile to do that.

But they would try, everybody's looking for the easy way. They would try. But eventually they find out this is taking longer than it would take to actually learn this material, get these questions right and move on. And so they would do that. But we learned when they'd say, I read this, or I did a group study, or watched these videos, we'd find out what worked for individual students. So some of them were really good readers. And that was the best modality for them. And so we would modify our algorithms to suggest that they do more reading in the areas they need to learn from, or if they were more of a social learner, we would give that priority and so forth. So we started finding that we could map the instructional experience to the individual. And the thing for me is that one student in particular who was failing all her other courses in college was making steady progress with our program, not fast. And at the end, we were on the quarter system, at the end of the quarter, she hadn't learned at all. But she had made steady progress. And we worked with the university to pay her tuition, to just keep going, and see if she could get all the way through. And she did. And she got her A. But the change in her as an individual, having some self confidence that she'd never had before, was just remarkable. And we all knew that this experience was going to benefit her through the rest of her life. So that's why I stayed in this field.

Tim Bornholdt 10:49
I don't blame you. It's super exciting. And it's one of those things like teachers in general, you know, get kind of a bad rap in our society. But it's really crucial to have people that are teaching you and interested in not only teaching you but even going a step further like you are and figuring out what are the effective ways of teaching people any concepts. But I like the biology bend to it. What are some of the, you mentioned some of the key takeaways already, but I'm curious to hear what you have come to learn about how students respond to computers and other similar technology as a means of learning. You know, you mentioned that there's a lot of different mediums that people choose too that, you know, they can learn from such as, like pictures or reading it in a book or watching a movie or doing it. But computers specifically, how do you see that fitting in with learning as it relates to students learning?

Dr. Michael Allen 11:46
Well, first of all, when we started exploring this instruction via digital technology, there were many people who were immediately opposed to what we were doing, especially the University, where the notion was that you need an inspiring charismatic instructor who is going to teach you. But in classes, especially in ours in undergraduate anyway and even in graduate schools, I had, you know, my first class that I went to graduate school had 180 students in there. So we were in a decent size auditorium with the instructor with a spotlight and podium up at the front. So that's not really mentorship, for sure. And it's more of a performance. What we know is that we're all individuals, we learn at different speeds, we have different misconceptions, we have different abilities going in, and what engages us in learning are those things that match our profile where we are. In classroom instruction, that's very, very difficult to do. And in today's distance learning as so many people are experiencing now, it tends to be even worse when you're trying to replicate a classroom. Because you don't see the body language as well. And you don't have the inner communications and maybe just general warps that you have when you're connecting face to face. So we know that we need to use different models of instruction and our team at the University at that time decided we weren't going to try to do just as well as face to face instruction in our use of computers, we were going to try to do better. And that was setting the bar pretty high. So we looked at what are the deficiencies in normal paradigms of instruction? And how could we overcome them? Because we knew we had weaknesses in ours. Our computers didn't even know if you were there or not, you know, so you could be studying along and then go to the restroom, or go get a cup of coffee or take a phone call or whatever. If we time things such that if you didn't answer your question correctly, and started saying okay, well, you clearly don't know this instruction, you know, you'd just be furious with this machine, you know. And so we needed to make sure that we use algorithms that would allow us to really engage learners, so they'd forget really, whether they're using a computer or not, and they'd just be thinking about the content.

One of the ways we would do that is that we would continually adjust the challenges we were putting in front of you to mix some challenges that we were pretty sure you would meet just quite readily with some that were just a little bit beyond you. Some really great work was going on at that time out at Stanford in mathematics, and they were working with children and giving them problems to work and diagnosing the mistakes that they made. So you know, if they were subtracting numbers, and failed to borrow from the next column over, you could detect that. And so then you would give them simpler problems to work, pointing out how they needed to borrow. And as they would get it, then they would start to have more complicated problems.

Well, this is just like playing a game, really, that's just leveling up. It's what we do today in creating computer games. And we're finding that computer games teach us a lot about learning. In fact, games in general, are about learning. You keep playing against somebody else in order to beat them, right. But what you're doing is improving yourself, you're learning from somebody who's better than you, and you're emulating them and you're trying to do better than you did before. We apply now those same techniques in a lot of the elearning that we do, and it gets people to not want their lessons to be over because they want to keep doing more, keep doing better, get to the top of their ability. That was a profound learning experience for me and it's directed my work all these decades later.

Tim Bornholdt 16:48
Slightly changing gears a little bit you know, your company, Allen Interactions, is based here. We were just talking about how beautifully warm and cozy it is outside today with negative nine degrees. Your company focuses on creating individualized elearning solutions that are unique because, and this is your words, they're meaningful, memorable and motivational. Can you talk about those three words and explain what that approach means and how you build engaging experiences that produce meaningful outcomes?

Dr. Michael Allen 17:22
The techniques that we apply in elearning are in general techniques that would be useful to any form of instruction. But because there are limitations to what we can do with technology, by the way, when I started doing this work, I was using a teletype, if you can imagine. And I suppose there are very many people listening today who have ever seen a teletype or heard one, because they were so noisy, and they would rattle and they would shake and they would type only uppercase characters, go to the end of the line, and then you'd wait for the carriage to return and go back and it was printing on paper. But we were actually experimenting with these instructional techniques way back then with that kind of equipment. All of our dreams and wishes have come true. You know, we even got lowercase characters. And then the ability to draw vector graphics, you know. And then, wow, I mean, we can integrate video today. And we have beautiful animation capabilities, audio capabilities. We can detect where you're looking on the screen and so much more that we couldn't do back then. But in a way, I think we benefited from our limitations. Because to make this work, to make this deliver educational experiences that were even better than a classroom with a good instructor, was really forcing us to understand what works in learning, what works in instruction then how we can make these experiences really effective.

Well, what's effective? Well, one way to describe it is through those three words, meaningful, memorable and motivational. So if what you're studying isn't meaningful to you, you don't really know what's going on here, then it isn't going to benefit you in future performance. Right. So the first thing to do is to connect with a learner. If you're too far advanced from where that learner is now, like when I took my first calculus class in college, because the college thought that because of other things I was doing, I must have had advanced calculus in highschool, which I did not have. I was sitting in a class, and the instructor was talking to students and asking them questions. I didn't understand what the question was. I had no idea. They were all talking a foreign language to me. Well, that was kind of a dramatic case of this is not meaningful, isn't that meaningful to me, it's not helping. Similarly, if there's something that you already know, really, really well, and somebody is trying to teach you that same thing, you're just going to be bored to death. I know this, I know this, how long can I sit here and have somebody tell me stuff I already know. It's really, really boring.

So we knew right away that it needed to be adaptive to the individual to make it meaningful, then if you can't remember it, the second memorable, then it really doesn't matter that you learned it at one time. And now all you can say is, you know, I used to know that. I used to know how to do that. I used to know how to do long division. I can't do it now. To me, it was for a while, I used to know how to use the slide rule. And then I really kind of forgot about that, because I never use one. Nobody does anymore. But anyway, it needs to be something that you can retain in order for it to guide your future performance. And so that means practice, you know. The way children learn, the way adults learn, all of us learn, is through practice, over and over again, do it over and over again, until it really sinks in. And we have advanced models and understanding of how the brain works to support all of that. But we all know this without any science at all.

Then the third thing is we need to be motivated to apply what we know. And that motivation comes from underpinning having some confidence in what we are able to do. If we were able to do it in the classroom, but haven't built the confidence that I can do this in any setting, then you probably won't perform what you could have. And so we need to work on helping people transfer what sort of academic learning into their actual, authentic, situational based performance. Those three M's are just absolutely critical. And again, as I mentioned before, games can demonstrate how to teach people these things, if they're constructed well. Now there are a lot of games that teach you things that are useless in the real world. People argue that, well, they teach you, you know, hand eye coordination, and so forth, but at some point, using a computer, you know, you get mousing down pretty quickly. And so, you know, but that's pretty different than using the cockpit controls, you know, in a triple seven aircraft. So we need to make sure that we find ways to help people have meaningful, memorable motivational experiences. And I argue that, you know, as a mathematician, that those are multiplicative. And so if any one of those is zero, then you get zero performance improvement outcome. So if you can't remember it, for example, that's a zero, but it was motivational and memorable,you know, it isn't going to work for you.

Tim Bornholdt 23:28
Well, and hearing you explain that, like you said, you know, I know you've got scores of papers and the literature to back up what you're saying, but I think it's so intuitive. Just thinking about my own college experience, I got into the University of Minnesota's IT school and they had a math test that you took beforehand. And I took the test and I thought you know, well, I took calculus in high school so I must be able to take it in college. And I completely did miserable on it and had to like go back a step and take precalculus just to get kind of caught back to where that point was. And it was just like the way that I learned in that class, there wasn't a whole lot of, like the motivation wasn't really there for me deep down and the content was kind of going over my head as well because it was still stuff that I theoretically learned in high school but must not have stuck. Because getting it pulled back out of you, you're just kind of sitting there stuck. So I think we can all experience that.

And I think another point you made too with gaming. My family plays a lot of Mario Kart these days and watching my four year old daughter even playing the game and just seeing how, you know, there's times where she figures out, you know, you can throw different like bananas and shells and stuff at your opponents and just watching her go through that interaction of, Okay, I keep getting nailed by these items. I don't know what they are and then she realizes, Oh, I can throw them too, or oh if I go off of this different colored jump, I go this way. And just seeing these like, little things click. It's interesting, like we were talking about beforehand how people think that kids and adults learn differently. But I think if you really distill it down to those three points, kids and adults learn, maybe in different ways, but deep down, I think they really want to learn in that exact same way, making things meaningful, memorable and motivational.

Dr. Michael Allen 25:26
Right. I often when I'm speaking to audiences, ask them, if you were a teacher in a classroom, and you needed to teach students how to identify which of 300 bricks in a brick wall would give you 10 points to tap, how would you teach them to do it? Because kids who play Mario Brothers can do that, with wall after wall after wall, they know exactly where to run, what to tap, what to jump, so forth. Almost no classroom teacher has a ghost of an idea of how to teach you that, right. But we can do that through computer games that keep kids doing this, you know, for hours and hours on end, because they want to. And so we can construct learning experiences, I'm convinced, on any content. People will say, Well, you can't make this topic interesting. And I'll say, wrong. There's no topic that you can't make interesting. It's how you go about teaching it.

Tim Bornholdt 26:40
I couldn't agree more with that. That's like such a huge point. Because I think there's so many people that I meet just, well, I mean, now take that back, maybe like a year ago, there were so many people I'd run into you, you don't run into people these days, all that much. But even still, whenever I meet someone new, and you ask them what they do for a living, it's like they could say something as mundane as they, you know, work on sewer systems. And just you could dive in endlessly because it all comes down to how you engage with the content. Like just think about like Oregon Trail, for example, how many, you know, kids, my age and a little bit younger learned about the Oregon Trail just because someone made a game about it, and someone in Minnesota too for that matter? Like you said, you hit it on the head, you can really make any topic interesting if you get the right, you know, you get the right things in line to do so.

Dr. Michael Allen 27:33
Any topic at all. So, in around 1995, I had one of my first studios developing training programs for various clients, and they had some content that they said, This is just so boring, there's no way we can make it interesting. And that's when I asserted just as I have here with you today, that there's no content that can't be made interesting. And and in fact, we don't teach people stuff that has no intrinsic value in it, right? Because we don't want to go through the effort of teaching you something that there's no application for, especially employers, because they don't consider themselves educational institutions, you know. They only teach employees certain skills because they can make money based on the good performance of those skills. So just going into it, you know, somebody sees some value in it.

But I challenged them. I said, so, Okay, you go find some content you think cannot be made interesting. And you bring it to me, okay? And so, at that time, Windows 95 was coming out. It was late, but it came out and setting up your machine and going through all of this is just both frustrating and boring. You know, everybody just wants to turn on the switch and have it work. But no, you have to install all this stuff. And you have to go through all of these settings and stuff. It's boring. I said, Oh, I love it. Thank you very much. And we built an interactive application. Admittedly one of my earliest attempts. I would do something more sophisticated now but with basically a hot and cold game like we played as kids. And so as you moved your cursor around on the screen, say you need to, the challenge is install a printer. Okay, so as you would move your cursor around on the screen, there was a little meter there that would move from you're cold to you're hot and as you moved in areas where there was something that you needed to do or could use to set up that printer, that thing would read hot. And eventually we changed that to little animators. And so you could change that hot, cold thing to a little fisherman who, you know, cast out. And as you got closer, he started reeling a little fish, a little weightlifter that was getting his weight up off the ground, or whatever, just to be more entertaining and be something maybe that relates to you a little more. But we would never make that hot area so small that there was only one thing you could do. We would just reduce the number of possible things for you to explore, to find where the options you needed were. And we'd let you make mistakes in simulation. And eventually you back up and say, I didn't get anywhere with that. So you could back up to your previous hot hotspot and work again. We put humor in it, we put you know, funny comments. If you went and did something a really bizarre way, we had some various cartoons that would slide onto the screen and and make fun of you in a polite way. In international convention that year, it won the People's Choice Award for the Best Instructional Software.

Tim Bornholdt 31:33
So that probably stuck it to the people that said you couldn't make installing a printer fun, right?

Dr. Michael Allen 31:41
So I still maintain today that there's nothing that you might want to ask me to teach that I can't make so interesting that people will go back to it voluntarily.

Tim Bornholdt 31:54
So speaking of this application you just worked on, I mean, you've worked with some really notable companies. I'd love it if you could share some of the programs that you've designed for them and some of the results that they might have seen.

Dr. Michael Allen 32:08
Be happy to. So first of all, let me mention that after we've realized how to teach effectively with computers, and by the way, most of the things that people are doing today and distance learning is not at all what I'm talking about, you know. I'm so saddened to see people experiencing what they are now especially with their kids out of school at home. We have a neighbor whose son said, I'm not doing this anymore, and you can't make me. I don't blame him, right. I mean, we're in front of those screens all day long, and they don't get very much out of it. And it's not at all when I'm talking about elearning, which is highly individualized and responsive to your strengths and your needs. And it's fun. I think fun is really, really important. If it isn't fun, doesn't meet my standards.

So after we figured out how to do this, we also realized that programming these things wasn't easy. And we weren't going to be able to give this challenge to school teachers, many of whom have never had programming 101 anyway, and many languages are not particularly suitable to the kind of interactive multimedia experiences that we wanted to build. And so one of the first things that I did was wonder if we could create some tools that would allow non programmers to essentially create programs and not simplistic programs, obviously, but ones that could be detecting learning patterns in an individual student and implement algorithms that would adjust the upcoming experiences to be just what they need. And so that's when I invented something that was called Authorware, which was really a visual programming language, with a lot of strengths to it. I think a lot of people think that visual programming languages are just always going to run into limitations that don't allow you to do what you really want to do. And my intent was to prove that wrong. We created a thing called Authorware, which were way back then, Macworld was a big publication that I couldn't wait to arrive in my mailbox. And they wrote a beautiful review of it, which said, If you don't know what object oriented programming looks like, look at Authorware. And not only was object oriented in concept, which was a brand new thing for many people, but the visualization represented the objects, you know, so it really tied things together. And what we found is that this empowered many, many more people to experiment with using computers in education. In fact, here locally, as I was working on that, we had an eager and fun group of nuns that were teachers and volunteered to test the things I was doing. And one of them taught physics and one of them was math, and one of them was languages, and one of them was history. And I got them all to create highly interactive learning experiences without any programming experience at all before, using Authorware. So that was really great.

And, you know, I'm really pleased that we were able to take our company public, which was Macromedia and eventually bought by Adobe for about $3.4 billion. And honestly, I retired. I thought I had made my contribution to this field. And the learning experiences that would go forth and be developed with these tools would be things that I could slightly pat myself on the back and say, Michael, you know, you helped make that happen for all of those learners out there that are now going to get a better learning experience. Unfortunately, what I saw happening and is still happening today is that people now know how to use these authoring tools, as opposed to programming tools that are faster for these users. But they don't know the lessons of meaningful, memorable, motivational, how to use game theory, how to use the interactivity, how to algorithmize, if that's a word, your instructional protocols to adapt to individuals. And so they're doing really dumb things with this amazingly capable technology. And so my anticipated joy turned into depression. I've enabled all of this awful stuff to go out there. And I'm thinking of all these poor learners out there, who are now victims of this bad stuff. So that's when I formed my current company, which is Allen Interactions. And we build interactive programs, custom programs, generally around an organization's best practices, so that, you know, they can be more competitive in their chosen fields, or safer or more effective by whatever measure is important. And, you know, so we worked for Google and Apple and American Express and AT&T and Hilton Hotels and Mary Kay cosmetics and various pharmaceuticals, and you name it. We're in many, many different fields, creating learning experiences that we really think make a difference. And instead of these programs being painful to learners, why, we have them asking for more. That's really rewarding to us.

Tim Bornholdt 38:39
It's really, I think, the lesson to take away for me, first of all, I have used a ton of Macromedia products in my day. So thank you for helping a young entrepreneur as myself get launched off into this field of computer science, because it's fun to see the tools and play with them. But like you said, there is a lot of crap out there that people make and it's fun to be like, Well, I think I can do better. And I can use the same tools to do something a little better. But that leads to my question of, we kind of talked about this a little bit before we got started. But people using software in unintended ways might be something really interesting to our audience, because with software, you can do so many things with it. And when you set out to build a tool to help people do task A, B, or C, you always end up getting people that use it for tasks like three. You're not even talking about letters, you're talking about numbers. They just take your software and do way different things than you had ever envisioned with it. Have you or is there something you're trying to do with your current job to like, you know, steer people into the right direction? Or just how do you cope? How do you end up coping with people trying to take your software and run with it and do things that you really didn't intend them to in the first place?

Dr. Michael Allen 40:01
I've never been asked that question before. That's a very interesting one. Because, you know, our company, Macromedia, I thought was a pretty fine company, and we were enabling people to do pretty much whatever their imagination interested them in doing. I never have thought that it was appropriate for us to try to set up barriers and prevent people from doing things, you know. It's kind of a free speech axiom, I guess that you should be able to do whatever you want. But there are so many needs in our society that are unmet. And by doing really worthwhile things with the software tools can not only be personally rewarding, but it can add to the health of our country. And there's probably no time more than now that that's been needed. And I have this notion that education is a way to peace and understanding and I just firmly believe that it's not something I just say to sound good. But I think that if we understood each other better, we would have a lot less friction. If we could do problem solving together, we would have fewer problems. And we have tools out there to help us, whether it's as simple as Miro where we post notes up there together and move them around and so forth. Those kinds of tools for social decision making are really powerful, even though those same tools can be used to arouse people toward misdeeds, you know. I just hope that our better nature will come out when enabled with tools to do better things. The capabilities of today's technology allow us to expand our imagination of how we can work together, and how we can have a better world. And my real goal, which, you know, I hate to say I'm almost 75 years old now, but I'm not quitting. My real goal is to find a way for us to learn from each other, aided by technology for free. So, you know, there's no reason why we can't create these great learning programs and distribute them globally. And imagine that we had 15 cents per student on some basic areas that we all need skills and common understanding. If you had 15 cents per person, you'd have more money than you could ever find a way to spend on creating and creating great learning experiences. And really give them away because you could find benefit factors that could give you all the money that you need to get them out there. I don't know why we're not doing that. Because today's technology allows us to produce these learning experiences that are meaningful, memorable, motivational, effective for everyone, useful for everyone. And it should be out there now on the world platform.

When we got everything that we really wished for, one of those things we wanted was interconnectivity, which we didn't have. I remember the first time I went to an Apple presentation, and they showed connecting a printer again, with just the simple little telephone wire. What? Are you kidding me? You can do tha?. And then they showed that you could connect computers to each other almost as simply as that and the whole idea of networking so that we could distribute multimedia was far in the future, but it came amazingly fast so that now we didn't have to use CD ROMs, which in and of themselves were a godsend. But now we could pop pictures up everywhere. And we thought that is absolutely the most fundamental and important thing for educational technology to have is this internet or this connectivity, so that now we can distribute educational programs worldwide. We can update them for everybody, instantaneously, you make a change to it, you make a correction to it. And everybody gets the benefit of this. What barriers do we have now? We don't have any barriers, right? Well, what happened is that connectivity changed people's thinking and habits. And so we saw this most horrible, mundane stuff being distributed worldwide. And with the tools like those that I and my companies invented making it easy, now everybody could build whatever they wanted. And a lot of people weren't building very nice stuff or beneficial stuff. And it comes back around to your question about with all these tools and these capabilities, are we headed in the right direction? And I just say we're headed in more directions. Some of them are good, some of them are not. Would we want to take the possibilities away from everybody to prevent the bad directions? Probably not. But I will say that my field in educational technology took a real step backward with the advent of the Internet, and to a certain extent of mobile computing, as well, not so much with mobile, but more with the internet and the easy tools, because people who don't know what they're doing, are now doing it. And so even at the at the corporate and school level, we now have enabled people to build training and educational programs. Anybody can do it. But there's a lot to know about this field as we've covered in our conversation. And if people don't know the principles of individualized education, they don't know anything about spaced practice, they don't know about cognitive scaffolding, and so forth, all of these things that help create great learning experiences, they're going to create other kinds of learning experiences. And so there's never been more opportunity to bore people to death and help people think, Well, I'll never be good at leadership, I'll never be good at math, I'll never be good. Because I'm having so much trouble with this program I'm supposed to learn from. Clearly it's me. Well, no, no, no, it's not. It's not you. You probably have far more capabilities than you have any idea of if you were educated or if you were trained properly. So it's definitely true that the bad is watering down the good. But I have faith that eventually everybody is going to catch on.

Tim Bornholdt 48:10
Me too. I always, I think a lot about my resonance was more of like pre-social media post-social media, and seeing how, you know, it was cool to have the internet and be able to send emails and have that kind of communication, early chat rooms, that kind of thing. But as soon as social media really clicked like in the the mid, you know, zeros, I don't know what you call that decade, but just like 2005 to now. It's just you see this like race to the bottom in terms of like the kind of content that captures people's attention. And it's gotta be hard in the elearning space, especially when you want to teach people you know, something important or something, just I guess even a fact, where now it's with with getting hit with dopamine rushes and finding ways to gamify it, not in a positive way, to encourage them to learn something new and to think critically and to absorb that information. It's like this race to the bottom of how can I hit your dopamine sensors by filling you with fear or doubt or riling you up in some other way? And it's like you said, it seems like, every time we make a leap forward, it's not necessarily we're all moving in the same direction. It's now just like shotgun scatter, where certain people see the advantages of these new technologies and can move towards doing good things with them. But then you've got you know, all these other pellets that are flying in the other direction where people are like, Oh, I could make money off of people doing it this way. Or I can, you know, spread this, you know, falsehood easily this way. It's really, really interesting your insight on that. I find that kind of relates back to you were talking about with students in the lab coming in two weeks before the test was to start. It's like humans have this proclivity to just like put things off to the last second, make it as easy as possible for themselves and not push themselves. But it stinks when you have this great technology that we could use for good. And it just stinks seeing it being exploited for nefarious reasons instead.

Dr. Michael Allen 50:22
For sure. And even people who are trying to use it for good often don't know how to use it most effectively for good. And so we have many people who are understanding that there are huge advantages of elearning, designing and building elearning that doesn't use those advantages effectively, that don't use those advantages effectively. And so my studios who build this for organizations, win awards, over and over and over again. It's pretty much everything that they do wins awards, which sometimes I'm a little bit embarrassed about, but also proud of.

What we've decided to do is to share everything we've learned on a continuing basis, because we want everybody to benefit. My notion about this is that when a student entrusts their time to us, we need to use their time effectively and to their benefit. Because they can't get a refund on their time. If they find out that this course I just took didn't benefit me at all, there's nothing in here. I'd had done better playing dominoes with a friend than doing this. They just can't get their time back for that. And so we're custodians of a learner's time. And it's important for adults and especially important for children that we not waste their learning time. We give them benefits. And so I've asked all my studios to share every tip and trick and process that they use to create these great materials. And we'll keep learning ourselves, keep improving how we do it, and we'll share all of that. And this last year, we've gone to an extreme in that directionm and that's that we formed the Allen Academy for learning professionals. And it teaches people how to use these great technologies, including mobile technologies, and all digital technologies in ways that are really beneficial to learners out there. It's not going to waste their time. It's really going to be something that's meaningful, memorable and motivational. So for those people who are out there who want to do really good works with this amazing technology that we've got, but they don't know what some of the really most effective things to do are, we invite you to come in and enroll in the Allen Academy. And it's not just our studios, but we've got some of the most famous people in in the field of educational technology on our faculty that are teaching and not only are they teaching but they're willing to mentor people individually after classes. So if you're working on a project, maybe one of your first ones and you'd like a real expert to be on your shoulder and guide you, why our faculty members are available to do that and we're just really excited about the Academy.

Tim Bornholdt 54:05
Do you guys have a website or anything you could plug that we could send people that way?

Dr. Michael Allen 54:09
Yeah, well you can go to the AllenAcademy.com comm or AllenInteractions.com. And both of them have information on those programs and and the things that we do and the tools that we use. And it's all pretty practical but also leading edge stuff.

Tim Bornholdt 54:37
Excellent. Last question for you. Many of our audience members are non technical individuals that get charged with building technical products. From your years building Allen Interactions and like you said, your company is really into sharing information, which is fantastic. What advice do you have for these people in regards to creating user experiences that are meaningful, memorable and motivational?

Dr. Michael Allen 55:04
So I often give presentation on topics of, you know, like, six fundamental notions to producing great educational technology. And they're not technical, these notions. So I start with the one that I think is absolutely the most important one, even though it's kind of a simplistic notion. And that's, Don't create or design anything that you wouldn't want yourself. And, you know, I've addressed audiences of instructional designers, and I've asked them, So think about the last project that you did. If you had your choice of learning from what you built versus learning it any other way that you could imagine, how many of you would opt to learn from what you built? So sometimes, you know, I only get a few hands kind of halfway raised from that. Well, then don't build it, you know, don't design it. If it's not something that you would really appreciate, then probably nobody else is going to either. So that's one one thing to start from is to make sure.

Then storytelling is so important, you know, so write a story about the user's experience with what you're thinking of building, and consider how the person is going to be feeling. This is something that so many people just disregard. They think it's all about information. Well, it matters how people feel. And this is an area of my own research, just recently, of if you're feeling anxious about learning, your cognitive abilities are diminished. Your your brain actually shuts down a lot of your logic ability when you're fearful or anxious, or whether you just lack so much self confidence that you just are focused on the likelihood of you're failing. Or if you are overconfident, you're likely to think, Yeah, I know that. Yeah, I know that. I know that. Oh, yeah. Yeah, sure. I know that. And you didn't really. You're not really honest with it. So you need to write a story about how different people are likely to experience what you're designing. And that will lead you to design something very, very different than if you just start out by saying, Okay, here are six really important principles. Now, it's important that you learn each one of these by heart. Let's go through them one at a time. And you think as a learner, Why? What's in this for me, right? You haven't put anybody in a authentic situation, where like, you might say, oh, you know, we've done work for Target, for example, and we might be training someone to be at the Service Desk. We could start by teaching them principles. Or we could start by saying, Imagine yourself at the service desk, and a customer comes in with the product, puts it on the counter in front of you and says, I'd like to return this. And you know that Target has never sold that product. What are you gonna do? Well, now, if I would give you six principles on how to handle that kind of a situation, you'd be all ears, right?

Tim Bornholdt 59:06

Dr. Michael Allen 59:07
Because you think, I don't know what to do. And what we like to do is immediately start with a situation that a person could reasonably find themselves in and add a challenge. And so in this situation, we add the challenge. We want that person leaving the store with that product, liking Target even more than they did when they came in the store with that product under their arm. How are you going to do that? And so those kinds of authentic situations, if you throw people into those kinds of situations, and then design your learning experience all around them, will lead you in a very, very good direction. Whereas if you just start with the content, rather than the learner and the experience in focus, if you just start with the content, you're going to want to make sure that you've covered all the situations, that you've got all of your content accurate and comprehensive, and, you know, well written and presented so people can understand it, and you'll put a lot of effort into it. And you'll find that you have not created a very good learning experience or learning program. You really, really need to start by thinking about the individual. And a good place to start is to start with yourself, but then you also have to think not everybody's going to be like you. And so then you should define other personas.

And we tried to do that with any software that we write whether it's educational or not. We think about different personas, people with a lot of related background, whether we're writing some financial related tools and realize some people are going to be expert in the concepts here, and we can use abbreviations and certain technology, and we're going to have other people who are brand new to it, you know, and they're going to need more instructive tools. That is, the tools are going to have to have help and instruction built into them to help for those people. So designing basically based on user personas is just really the way to go.

Tim Bornholdt 1:01:19
I couldn't agree more. I think it's a lot of empathy, at the end of the day, if you can sum it all up in one word. I's putting yourselves in the shoes of the person that's going to be using your elearning solution or your app. We're working with a startup right now that's trying to build software where when you get pulled over by the police, you can launch the app and get connected with an attorney who can consult you in real time, you know, what you should do, what you should say, all that kind of stuff. And when we've been talking about the design of it, the first thing that I thought of is, if you're in a situation, you know, when you're getting pulled over by the police, your mind shuts down, right. Like you had said before, you're not in a moment of, Oh, I can think with perfect clarity. It's like people make super dumb mistakes when they're under duress like that. So for us, it was like how can we build an interface where it's as absolutely obvious and simple as possible for somebody who is under the highest stress situation. They're not going to want to read a list of menu items. They're not going to want to navigate through. It's like they want one giant button in the middle that they push, and then they're connected. And it's thinking through, you know, different scenarios like that, that are going to make your app or whatever you're building that much more effective for whoever is going to be using it at the end of the day.

Dr. Michael Allen 1:02:42
Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. Absolutely. So it's very interesting, isn't it, that psychology and software engineering have quite an overlap of their individual Venn diagrams.

Tim Bornholdt 1:02:57

Dr. Michael Allen 1:03:01
Now some programs we don't particularly write for people, you know, they're not really interfaced for, for people. So you know, like the board that controls a furnace, you know, the internal parts of it, you know. We're not involving the psychology of people. But when you get to the thermostat, then we do, right. And so there's much of software engineering that requires some pretty deep thought about how people are likely to behave and think and so many products and so many websites and apps on my phone, are written, and after I figure out how it works, I realized the mindset that the designer the programmer was in and why they thought they knew what a person was going to do. Because they thought they would be thinking about this just like they are. But that's a bad assumption to make.

Tim Bornholdt 1:04:04

Dr. Michael Allen 1:04:04
If you if you know how something works internally, you'll know how to use the controls for it in an optimal way. If you don't understand how it works internally, then you only understand what you see and what you can control. And so I think the thermostat is a really good example of that. Because many people when they want to heat up a room faster, they turn the temperature up higher. And on most systems that doesn't make any difference. It just means that the heating system is going to run longer. It's not going to be able to heat faster. And so we need to keep that in mind. And all the things that we do is what is the mindset of the user going to be? And how are we going to help them make good decisions and good uses of our software?

Tim Bornholdt 1:04:55
Dr. Allen, this was an amazing conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to do chat with me today. Do you have any last words, anything you want to part with? We've plugged already, but plug again. I'd love people to get in touch with you and be able to use your teachings here to help other people teach more effectively.

Dr. Michael Allen 1:05:16
Thanks for that. So certainly, we would love people to join the Allen Academy, AllenAcademy.com or AllenInteractions.com, where we have tons of demonstrations of elearning that we think is done well. And I tell people, you don't have to invent a new approach to education every time you're trying to teach a new topic. Use good approaches that have have worked before. So what I'm generally saying is, feel free to plagiarize our work. If you see demos on our website that you really like, and it gives you an idea of how to approach something, don't hesitate to do the same thing that we did. We would be flattered and really appreciative that you did that. But if we can help you, we would love to. And we help in a variety of ways. We can do a project from beginning to end. But we also do staff augmentation where we can help round out your internal team. We do internal team mentoring. We can do just part of a project such as we can do a strategic analysis, or we can do the basic design and let you do the engineering or the other way around. You can design it, come up with what you want, and then you can work with us and we'll build it for you. So just our whole goal is to create great learning experiences and productivity. By the way we do general engineering, as well. In fact, we we acquired a company called problem solutions last year, and they do great engineering, you know, like AcuWeather, for example, is now one of our products. And we're really proud of that. And we build a lot of mobile apps and do general engineering. So we'd love to help people who want to do as we were talking, who want to do good, healthy things. We're there for you. Give us a call.

Tim Bornholdt 1:07:30
And I'm sure there's a nefarious way to use a weather app but haven't found it yet. But you know, where there's a will there's a way I suppose. Michael, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Michael Allen 1:07:45
My pleasure, Tim. This was great. Thank you for asking me.

Tim Bornholdt 1:07:50
Thanks to Dr. Michael Allen for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about Dr. Allen and his company at AllenInteractions.com. Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the magnificent Jordan Daoust.

If you have a minute quick before you leave, we'd love it if you left us a review on the Apple Podcast app. It doesn't take much time at all. And it seriously helps new people find our show. Just head to constantvariables.co/ review and we'll link you right there. This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group. If you're looking for a technical team who can help make sense of mobile software development, give us a shout at jmg.mn.