Thursday, November 15, 2012

Heuristic teaching challenge

I am excited. Our company is taking a huge step in the direction of completely individualized learning, and we are hiring a lead server engineer to that end. Here's the listing, just in case you want to help us find that person:

This position is SO important to me that I want to discuss how the person that takes it is going to change the learning experience for our students. My hope is that we can have an open discussion about this project so that it improves everything for everyone. Certainly work of the type described here is being done in different areas, but since this is going to be so unique to our programs, I feel that it is completely okay to speak of this openly.

Some background on our company: we have a series of educational products that teach vocabulary and critical reasoning. They are amazingly effective and they do actually adapt to students' knowledge. But they could be so much better.

Some background on me: I've been making video games for 20 years. I believe that we can take gaming concepts and apply them to other fields, like education. That's why I'm here at FastPath.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) within video games can create situations that make for truly memorable and engaging experiences. If a game's AI is too easy, the game is boring to a player. If the AI is too hard, the game is considered unplayable. Neither of these are acceptable in the gaming market. However, when the AI is neither impossible or too simple, it can be called "just right," the experience is then considered "fun." This can also be called "pleasurable frustration."

The challenge of creating an experience filled with "pleasurable frustration" is that a players' ability to play or interact with a game continually changes, whether it's because they are gaining experience or maybe because they are having a bad day.

This can be adjusted for in gaming by adding "handicaps" such as in a foot race where you give someone a 10 second lead, or on a carnival midway when the barker gives you a couple of extra softballs to knock over the milk jugs. But those are done with people that can continually assess the situation.

The same can be said for having a teacher that understands their student well. They can take what they know about the student and use that to adapt their curriculum accordingly. For instance, they may be a soccer player so their physics discussions surround making a goal in a vacuum, or they may be sick and they need a few reminders in order to keep their mind focused upon the current topic.

In a video game, creating a dynamic experience that adapts to the players' performance is a challenge, but it is a common practice. Some games adjust the likelihood that you will get hit by a laser bolt, while others may make the enemies move slower so you can catch them easier.

In an automated online educational product, measuring a students' knowledge and wisdom is a challenge. Currently we use an assessment test that creates a score based upon a series of questions with different difficulties. The performance of a student in that assessment determines how far we move a student forward. This is a very valid way to customize a program, but it is not perfect.

Our challenge is to create an educational program that constantly adapts to an individual students' performance from every conceivable angle. This will create an educational version of "pleasurable frustration" that will also result in "fun."

We have a plan in place that, more than anything, needs a special person to make it a reality. I don't think I'll find the right person without making this plan somewhat public. So here goes my attempt at explaining my current take on it:


We take the data from all of our products and add it to a single database. This means we can then edit everything and preform analytics across programs.


This is where, I believe, we can start grading and sorting the data about how students perform in a way that we can build patterns of performance from. For example, we can compare the data for everyone that missed question 1 and begin predicting what other questions they may miss or get right.

To accomplish this, we'll need to build some serious analytics tools and some creative data storage concepts.


All data must be served up and measured / tracked based upon A/B testing so we can ascertain that we are providing students the best learning experiences. The types of things we could choose to test: audio files, questions, answers, button sizes, button colors, page layouts, etc.


Once these pieces are in place, we can track and measure performance of each user, find trends within groups of users, change the level of difficulty to determine if a student is ready to jump forward, and find many other ways to provide students a completely unique learning experience that is heuristically determined to be the "best" content for them at that moment.

If this sounds interesting to you, and you want to make it happen, then we need to talk. Now.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Old-fashioned Management Memes: Who do You Want to be as a Leader When You Grow Up?

What do I know?

Feel free to look me up here.

meme mēm noun: an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

As a manager (and reader of a bunch of stuff) for the past 20 years, I have had requests for management tips. Some things work; some don't. Some are magical wins. Some are spectacular failures. Your mileage may vary. Whatever the case, these techniques have worked magic for me, time and time again.

This tip is for managers that are not 100% sure of who they are... yet. You're welcome



A good writer should write about what they know. I know about me and my experience. Maybe you'll get something out of this. Maybe not. My plan is to expand a lot of these ideas in future blogs, so this might be a good place to start when I've done enough of these.

Over the last few years, I have gone through some interesting changes in my career. I have owned my own studios, contracted my services to others, and have even been hired by "the man." At each company, how my leadership style worked with the company's style has been fascinating.

As a leader, I believe in complete transparency, I attempt to live up to a standard of total, painful honesty, and I live within the realization that I don't know everything. 

At my own companies, my leadership style is, essentially, the company's style. As a contractor, my leadership style is not for sale but for rent. If clients don't like it, then we don't have a deal. 

MANAGEMENT STYLE FOR SALE As an employee, my style has been bought. If my style does not match the style of the company, then there is some disconnect that I'll have to deal with somehow. I still have the opportunity to walk if I think I'm compromising who I am. But isn't this the way it always is?

Although I have read hundreds of management / self-help / leadership books, I had to learn just about everything about real management the hard way. Luckily, I had the opportunity to learn on "someone else's money" at other companies. The culture of the places I worked at sometimes fought me while I tried to become the manager that I wanted to be.

I am 100% focused on being honest and factual as a manager. I believe that surprises are the enemy of team cohesion and progress. It's sometimes difficult for people to come to terms with managers being honest, because they are so used to people lying that they think there is another trick up that person’s sleeve.

I have found that being a leader at any company that you do not own yourself is quite difficult. Unless you are the owner of the company, you cannot forge the culture of the group, so you are forced to follow the cultural "lead" of the organization. 

It also is my belief that you cannot make promises if you cannot be 100% behind delivering them; all you can do is make a promise based upon the best information you have available to you.

Ideally, leadership, to me, is: full transparency, no surprises, and team involvement in decisions. When you lead, you must have transparency surrounding your goals so you know what the landscape is all about, whether there's budget, how other projects link together, etc. 

Transparency also means that you have to bare your goals to the world, so that if you’re smoking your own crack... everyone can tell you so. As a leader, you have to be ready to hear about that, too. 

You have to create a plan with your team that accounts for as many variables you can, eliminating surprises and becoming ready for unexpected issues. 

Finally, you have to get your team to help create a plan that will get you to where you want to go. They have to provide you guidance on whether your goals are actually possible given what they know about the landscape where they are the experts. And again, being a leader means being ready to hear about how the experts think things need to happen. It’s all about healthy feedback.

In my world view, more information is better, whether things are going according to plan OR if they are way off track.

My question to you is this: how do YOU deal with things when they start getting scary? Do you share more or do you share less? So far, I've had a lot of success when I shared everything. I don't think it's the standard way of running a company, but I'm not sure why. 

Any ideas? Bring 'em in the comment section!

Thanks, Vishal, for the kick - Lessons from Gaming for the Music Business...

The original thread:

In the late 80s, I was in the music business for a few years as a performing musician, and because I was really interested in learning on how to make a living at it, I took a lot of classes in commercial music management.

After spending 20 years in the video game industry, I think I can compare the two industries somewhat fairly.

The traditional music business is VERY similar to the traditional video game publishing business. You are advanced money that you make a product with, you have to make a commercially relevant product on a schedule, and you have to work with the assets that are available and that the publisher allows you to have. Assuming you release your product, everyone takes a piece of your work. If you are very lucky, you may make something back, but most likely, you'll never see a penny of royalties.

So much of this mimics my experience in the video game industry. I’m sure there’s a novel in there somewhere.

However, what is fascinating to me is that, unlike the music industry, the video game industry reinvents its business model continually. As an ecosystem, it does that because people are willing to try anything to make it work. Companies have tried everything from hard core DRM to giving their product away for free, hoping that people will pay for it if they like it. When a model works, others copy that model and riff on it. The more disruptive the new model is, the more interesting it can be for the customers. This is absolutely healthy and is the most honest way to help connect with your customers. People want to pay for great content. You have to find the way that works best with the people that are enjoying your content.

I think a key component of this is that it works because the people that make the content own it completely. They do not have to rely on “how it is supposed to be done” because they have no buy-in to the system. They are completely free to take chances. And the rewards can be huge, from a ton of money to just being in charge of your own destiny.

Without writing a thesis on all the different methods that have evolved through the years (and wow - game publishing is an infant compared to music publishing, here is what I want to propose to the music industry: challenge your business model. Try something that “won’t” work. Try everything! You see this with smaller bands that have complete ownership of their work - they have nothing to lose so they are inventing opportunities for themselves. Some succeed wildly. Others fail.

Challenge the entire structure of the music business. Publishers, unions, guilds, copyrights, etc. are doing well for some people but not for everyone. What would happen if everyone released their music under creative commons? Whatever you decide to do, make lots of mistakes as quickly as you can. Learn from them and keep doing more of the things that work. And talk about your mistakes openly so others can learn from what you have tried.

Good luck out there!

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