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Chris Cardell

Interview with Michael Allen (ZebraZapps)

ZebraZapps is a cloud-based system for building interactive media applications.

I interviewed Michael Allen, ZebraZapps founder to find out more. This is the hundred and forty first in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Michael!

Describe ZebraZapps in under 50 words.

ZebraZapps is cloud-based technology for building interactive media applications for fun, sharing, teaching, and training. Its editor allows non-programmers to quickly create spectacularly interactive, animated, media-rich applications. Its publishing capabilities allow distributing apps through on-line shops, or embedding them in blogs, Facebook, and other social media.

Describe yourself in one sentence.

Someone who just won’t give up trying to improve learning experiences offered everywhere, through any means, so that no one ever needs to be embarrassed or frustrated while trying to reach their full potential.

What frustrates you?

People staunchly defending presentation of content as sufficient and appropriate learning support. If carefully organized, beautifully presented information were sufficient, we wouldn’t need schools; libraries would suffice. We know so very much about human learning and have such powerful tools to support it, and yet people continue to serve up mounds of boring content.

Effective instructional concepts are not complex to understand and employ, yet so much money and effort continues to be wasted by focusing on content presentation instead of the learner’s needs and the learning experience. PowerPoint-based instruction? Add quizzes? Are you kidding me? When did we get so lazy, insensitive to learners, unwilling to create inspiring learning experiences, and happy to relinquish learning opportunities? We know how boring meetings can be with endless bullet and clip art slides. Why would we inflict the same on learners?

What motivates you?

Seeing our work benefit a learner. There’s nothing better than helping someone learn what they’ve previously struggled with.

You are best known today for founding Authorware where you designed and built the technology that led to the formation in 1992 of Macromedia which revolutionized multimedia software development. You are also a bestselling author. But what people might not know is that you contributed to the first Internet-based solution demonstrated to reduce the spread of HIV, reduction in school gang violence, and academic success by those failing in traditional education. Could you elaborate on how you started out and tell us about some of the most interesting things you have worked on?

I have been blessed with being in a good place at the right time, over and over again. To have had the opportunities and experiences I’ve had is truly a blessing. Sometimes people must wonder why I persist in trying so earnestly to improve the levels of individualization in e-learning. Even why I’m still at it at 66 years of age. I take no credit for this, but rather point to the amazing things I’ve seen happen when technology and good instructional design come together. They inspire, motivate, and reveal how much good can be achieved. They also reveal how much work is necessary to turn the inertia of rapidly thrown together, content-focused, “tell and test” e-stuff in favor of courseware that genuinely helps learners use their time efficiently and productively.

When I started my work in this field, I had great prior insights to build on. Early pioneers in the field, such as Patrick Suppes, Seymour Papert, David Merrill, Don Bitzer, and Peter Fairweather, saw technology not primarily as a convenience or cost reduction, but as a means to providing more individualized and effective instruction that was possible through any other means. Computer time was expensive then, but the possibilities of providing exceptional quality learning opportunities, study and evolve them continuously, brought serious thought to instructional paradigms. No one just dashed something off, but rather gave very careful attention to adapting activities to each learner’s needs.

Working with the advanced NSF-funded learning lab at The Ohio State University where every available technology was made available to present content to learners, I created software that would help learners decide what would be the best use of their time in the lab. It’s fair to say the lab had been floundering because, even way back in the 1960s, too much focus was on content delivery and not enough on the learning experience. But with our software, not only could we detect various learning styles and abilities, such as reading comprehension, and help students learn, but we could also help learners go beyond just learning the material to build sustaining confidence in their new knowledge and skills.

One student had been failing in every other course she was taking, but with the software’s assistance in Biology 101, she earned perhaps the first A she had ever received in school. After watching this success, seeing how it changed her, and seeing all the benefits occurring through effective technology-enabled instruction, how could I stop doing all I can to share what it takes?

What made you decide to start working on ZebraZapps?

There are more development tools than ever in the market, but none of them, with the exception of hardcore programming, gives us the flexibility and power that good learning experiences require. They don’t have the strength of Authorware nor the power my studios need to create learning experiences that justify the consumption of precious learner time. We—and everyone, I believe—need tools that can produce adaptive, individualized, action-oriented learning experiences and help us produce them much more quickly and easily than programming. ZebraZapps does this.

How did you come up with the name?

Steve Birth, chief software engineer for Authorware and again for ZebraZapps thought the name should begin with a “Z”. If it did, we could say we’d produced instructional software “from A to Z.” So we were looking for a distinctive Z word. When my son, who I’m proud to say is working with me on ZebraZapps, returned from his African safari honeymoon and was sharing some great photos, we spotted a Zebra. A Z word! Because Zebra stripes are unique and distinctive, and our authoring and publishing system was too, the name fit.

When we saw how fast Zebra users could zap out apps, we just coupled it all together and got ZebraZapps. Zebra zaps out apps!

What was technically the most challenging part of developing ZebraZapps?

It’s always user interface. Processing functions are almost always trivial in comparison to user interface. Our goal is to give people an extremely high percentage of the flexibility and power of a programming language, but with the simplicity of use so that children can learn and use it easily. This means direct object manipulation and visual representation of logic. Through testing prototypes and alpha versions, we’ve verified that we’re meeting this challenging goal.

Has ZebraZapps got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

Yes, given that we haven’t been pushing it much. Although Joe Ganci, industry pundit, observed that ZebraZapps has far more capability than would be expected or necessary for a first version product, we’ve wanted to do everything necessary for people to feel comfortable switching to ZebraZapps as their tool and platform. So while we already have thousands of subscribers, we’re continuing to pound on it and use it to produce our own apps. We will eventually begin marketing campaigns, but just now it’s more important to make the product “insanely great.”

Can you give us some examples of how ZebraZapps is being used?

The range of uses is exciting and rewarding. Browsing through all the ZebraZapps applications published is a greatly rewarding experience for us. We can see that it’s being used for everything from animated and interactive “hold the date” wedding announcements to military tactical simulations. Kids are using it to “show what I know,” creating simulations of processes to reveal the depth of their knowledge. CEO presentations allow stakeholders to suggest alternatives that can be simulated to see what the expected financial outcomes would be. Serious games. Holiday cards. Vacation diaries. And, of course, ZebraZapps is being used for the full range of e-learning paradigms, from making dynamic tutorials out of YouTube videos, to competency tests. Just about anything you can imagine.

In your view, what does the future of e-learning look like?

I wish I had more confidence in my ability to predict. As I mentioned, when the field was in its infancy, we expected instructional courseware would be scrutinized continuously, evolving and improving. We expected there would be competition among educational and training courseware products to motivate producers to create the most adaptive and effective learning experiences. Quality would be studied and rise perpetually.

I admit, perhaps foolishly, I’m still clinging to that dream. It think it’s possible, but I wish those so focused on cheaper and faster would instead use their energy not to promote ridiculous avatar diversions but to sincerely take up the challenges of improving the quality of learning opportunities. I’m worried that they never will.

Congratulations on your 2011 ASTD award for Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance, and your 2012 Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) Advisory Committee. Who helped you get to where you are today?

If I could use all the space you have, I know I still would have omitted people who helped me. I’m sure I’m not even aware of all those who have anonymously lent a helping hand. No one gets such recognitions by his own hand. I’ve just been one of the participants in a lot of amazing projects.

I immediately thank my parents and wish they were living. You know they had more to do with your successes than either you or they can even identify. Same with my fantastic wife and children.

But let me name one individual, William C. Norris, founder and CEO of Control Data Corporation. This was one amazing guy who saw social needs as business opportunities. While many kinds of businesses can thrive, he wondered how you could be happy just to make money when the same energy and work could simultaneously do real societal good. If you could make a meaningful contribution and also become self-sustaining so that the contribution could continue, one could reach a much higher level of satisfaction.

Perhaps you can think of it as an enterprise version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization being the reward for being successful in meaningful business.

These momentous awards, both received in the same year, have made 2012 unbelievable. My business colleagues, employees, clients, learners, and friends have all had a hand in this, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I am continually motivated by Mr. Norris’s vision.

In your opinion, are entrepreneurs born or made?

I think they’re born, although nurturing is critical. I say born because my brother, sister, and I witnessed our father’s insatiable entrepreneurship alike. He was excited about fund raisers, community crazy days, selling hot dogs in the park on the Fourth of July. He saw opportunities everywhere, had the energy to pursue them, always worked with integrity, and was still running his 76 year old printing/publishing business when he was 100 years old.

But neither my brother nor my sister would claim to be entrepreneurial. We all three have professional psychology backgrounds, although with different field emphases, but I’m the only one with the insatiable entrepreneurial streak. I think I got the necessary DNA.

What do you love being most – software developer, educator or author?

I wouldn’t be happy being just one. And while my educational aspirations are what reassure me that I’m trying to do the right things, learning that my writings have actually been of value to others sends incredible joy through my veins. I really, really love the challenges of software design—especially the incredible complexities of user experience design. But when I know what I want in the software, I want it immediately. The individual conquests one experiences in software development are each rewarding, just like winning a game of chess; but my patience for pulling it all together and getting software products in use is really the hard part. I want to know how it enables people, and I want to know now.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

Thinking that the quality of instructional software would automatically rise as a function of tools that make it faster and easier to create. I was so slow to realize easier to learn tools would foster creation of so much of the boring, ineffective, content-centered stuff that so disappoints me. In fact, by enabling the multitudes without instruction design skills to build courseware, the noise is drowning out the good. We succeeded at in our chosen goal only to arrive at a place needing more help than ever.

I’ve learned that the primary barrier to excellence isn’t the development challenge, although that factors into the mix, but rather having good grasp of what it takes to facilitate learning and influence behaviors. Role models are so important, not only in business leadership but also in the many professional skills that our industry requires.

Which other entrepreneurs do you admire?

My dad, Bill Norris, and Steve Jobs. The first two gave me excellent guidance, but everyday I also aspire to be a little more like Jobs was. Not in personality, diet, or personal hygiene, of course. I actually disagreed with him once and felt that he acquiesced to my position. I understand that was not a common outcome, and I’m a bit proud of that moment yet to this day. But boy, did he ever get a lot of things right. What I especially admire is the organization he built, his ability to instill his personal standards and aspirations, and see them executed so well and faithfully throughout his company. I hope everyday to achieve a little more of what he did in that regard.

Having Authorware under your belt, do you ever worry that the bar is set quite high for future successes?

Oh, yes. Authorware was an amazing success. It still returns many rewards through comments I receive from people about how valuable Authorware was to them. In quite a few cases, I learn how people still use it. I mean, I was in Kuala Lumpur, checking into a hotel, and a guy in the lobby introduced himself to me. I’m not sure how he recognized me. He learned Authorware and credited it (and me) with his career in the Malaysian air force.

There are so many cases where people have failed to achieve a second success. That worries me, sure. I think in many cases that people once successful feel they know how to do it. Just turn the page and repeat. But I think successes are the culmination of many intersections. You can do everything right and not have a success. So I’m not over-confident; just really hopeful. One thing I’m repeating: I designed and built Authorware as a tool I really wanted and needed. It turned out a lot of other people wanted the same thing. I’m doing the same thing with ZebraZapps and hope I’ll have company once again.

With substantial experience in business and entrepreneurship, what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up?

This is actually an easy question. The key to success is persistence. In any difficult pursuit, there will be moments that feel like failure. If you give up, the feeling becomes real and you’re stuck with failure. But if you keep going, even when you can’t see how you can keep going, you’ll eventually have a success. All those failures will have contributed to the success and people will ask you for what one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up.

If you asked for a second piece of advice, it would be this: There are many tasks that have to be done in starting up. It’s unlikely you relish all of them. Since you’re much more likely to be good at tasks you like, don’t force yourself to do tasks you really dislike. Instead, surround yourself not with people as similar to yourself as possible, but rather with people who really like to do what you don’t. Together, you can be quite successful.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

It would be our daughter’s upcoming wedding. But beside pride in our daughter, her fiancé, and other joyful family matters, it would have to be ZebraZapps. If this product is what it seems to be, we really will have a new opportunity to return to a seriousness in e-learning that characterized the early promise: that e-learning introduces an opportunity to see extraordinary learning opportunities emerge. Continuously improving educational opportunities could be available around the clock, around the world; quite conceivably free. Crowd accelerated innovation in learning could bring our most talented, knowledgeable and creative minds together, working to create rich libraries of learning experiences.

Finished reading? Check out ZebraZapps!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 at 11:23 pm GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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