DevLearn 2007 Expo

Wednesday I took a (long) drive to San Jose to check out the DevLearn 2007 Expo. I did not attend the conference because the registration fee was a little high for my non-existent budget, but figured the Expo would be a good opportunity to check out the latest new tools. Truth be told, the size of the expo was disappointing. It was much smaller than I expected in terms of the number of booths. It also seemed the conference didn’t have a lot of attendees because every time I walked by a session room they seemed mostly empty.

The small expo size and small number of people did allow me time to really talk with some vendors about their products in depth. I talked with a dozen or so vendors, but only a few really impressed me, with both their product and professionalism. Most did not impress me, and some were actually rude. I don’t want to dwell on those, but I’ll just say that two of the biggest names in eLearning tools were the most unprofessional and unimpressive companies I talked with.

Rapid Intake

The company that impressed me most was Rapid Intake. A few months ago I gave Flashform a negative review. Garin Hess, Rapid Intake’s CEO, contacted me and did a personal demo of Flashform. I changed my mind about the product and wrote a new review of Flashform. Garin was at DevLearn and spent very long time with me talking about the next evolution of Flashform and even demoed the beta version for me. I can’t say much about it now, but it is cool. Very cool. For the first time (maybe ever) I have seen an authoring tool that I’m genuinely excited about. I wish I could say more and tell you all the awesome features, but Garin swore me to secrecy until they are ready for release. What the iPod did for music this new product may do for eLearning development. It really is that cool. Remember when Authorware was the tool? This may be next. This is one tool worth your attention. Keep an eye out for it.

Also, the folks at Rapid Intake deserve kudos. I’m just a guy that has a blog, but they treated me with the utmost respect and truly valued my opinion. Rapid Intake actually listens to the people in their target market. Other vendors were reluctant to get out of their chair to hand me brochure and give me their robotic sales pitch, but Garin and his co-workers had an actual two-way conversation with me.

Exceptional Software Strategies

Who’s Exceptional Software? I’d never heard of them, but that’s normal for a convention expo, half the companies I’ve never heard of. Exceptional Software is software development company with a division that focuses on eLearning. What made them standout was their game, Never Rest. Never Rest is an Instructional Alternate Reality Game (I-ARG). This game takes scenario based learning to the next level by making it realistic – learners actually do things in the game that they do on the job. “Game” probably isn’t the best word to describe it since it really is training, but cool like games.

MediaEdge (the division of Exceptional Software that developed the I-ARG) has developed a Flex based platform for deploying the training that allows instructors complete control over the environment. I haven’t played with a demo myself, but what they showed was impressive. Well thought out, professionally designed, and very engaging. From what I saw they’ve found the sweet spot where games and training mix. The development team was a combination of Instructional Designers and Game Developers and the strengths of both show in the final product.

It was refreshing to see this platform and talk with them because it was totally different than anything else I saw. Most tools are focused on the traditional development paradigms or try to sell you on “rapid development”. Never Rest is really about making something realistic, engaging, and truly interactive -real learning based on real world scenarios. You learn by doing the job you’re being trained for. I’m going to spend some time with Never Rest and researching I-ARGs because it looks fun.


There were a few other companies and products that I need to look into a little more before blogging about them. There were also plenty of LMS vendors there, but none had anything that really jumped out at me. Same old LMS stuff I’ve seen before, just with a UI face lift.

If you’re looking something to get you excited about eLearning, make some time to look into both Flashform and Never Rest. They are developing new products that will hopefully breathe some new life into the eLearning development tools marketplace.

Better learning through gaming

I think most learning and training professionals agree that games are effective strategies for learning. Making learning, or training, fun makes it more engaging and meaningful, thus more effective. The Wall Street Journal today has an article on the use of educational games in Japanese schools that basically says kids learn faster when they play games. The thing that is unique about the games is the platform – they’re using the Nintendo DS portable gaming platform. Any parent whose kids play any kind of game can attest to a child’s ability to quickly master games, even complex computer or console games. My 5 year old quickly learned how to play Wii sports and even beat me in a game of bowling within the first few games. Imagine that level of engagement and retention for teaching math or a foreign language.

In schools, games and songs have long been used to teach concepts to young children. I still “sing” my ABC’s. Anything you make fun just sticks in a child’s mind. My oldest daughter participated in a Science Olympiad this year. She learned a lot and had a blast. The events were essentially games, so the kids really jumped in and learned. The team placed first in the county competition, and it was the first year our school sent a team.

What’s frustrating is that when learning games are delivered via a traditional game platform, management balks. Why shouldn’t the Nintendo DS, or Wii, or PS3 be used as a learning tool? If you are going to create educational games, or training games, why not take advantage of the best tools – the game platforms? To me it’s just common sense that if you want to create a game then you create it for a game platform. We shouldn’t be stuck with Flash (which I love). The gaming industry has decades of experience developing compelling games and we should be tapping into that experience to create better training and educational products. I’m surprised more schools and training organizations haven’t contracted with game developers to develop better educational and training games. The game platforms are best suited to deliver games, why not use them to create real games for learning?

The argument against it is simple – if you give people a gaming platform then they will play games and not use it for learning. I call BS on that one. Anyone reading this blog has a gaming platform and you probably use it productively most of the time. Sure, people will play games if you give them a Nintendo, but they play games now on their computers and cell phones. Also, the primary purpose of most computers (outside of schools) is not for learning or training – it’s for work. We occasionally use our work tools for learning and recreational activities (how many people check personal email at work?) and for the most part some amount of personal use is accepted (even expected). Why shouldn’t have the same expectation for gaming platforms?

So if we buy grade school kids portable gaming platforms and give them educational materials, we should expect them to play Super Mario Bros as well. But think how much that kid will learn from the educational games (assuming they’re fun and developed well). I think they’ll learn more quickly and deeply by playing educational games and having that reinforced in class, and in life. The same is true for adults. Why shouldn’t a college or corporation buy gaming platforms for learning? They essentially already have by buying computers and corporate cell phones. Also, the Nintendo DS is relatively inexpensive, certainly much cheaper than a laptop.

Games and learning do mix, I think better than text books and learning. We just need to give them a real chance, and make them a real part of curriculum.