Monday, July 09, 2007

Educational Media: A Personal Retropective and Hopeful Prediction

"I have my life planned out until I'm 26," Kat announced as us girls had lunch together at Taco del Mar. "I'll finish high school, then work as an EMT while I get a nursing degree. After I graduate from college, I'll work for two years in trauma, and then I'll go back to get my Physician's Assistant licence so I can be a surgical PA." Starting at the ripe old age of 26.

Elisabeth talked of getting a graduate degree after working for a few years -- though she loves her current job so much (and she has more perks than most seasoned professionals!) that she'd probably go to school in conjunction with working.

All this talk of the future and possibilities prompted me to look back and wonder -- would I do it all differently if I were my daughters' ages, looking ahead? If 26 -- or even 36 -- were ahead of me instead of behind me, would I plan my career (not to mention my life) any differently?

In 1981, when I finished graduate school at Stanford with a degree in education and an emphasis in media, landing a "first real job" at Walt Disney Educational Media Company was a dream come true. I don't remember my official title, but I was essentially a producer, creating, designing, and managing the production of (don't laugh!) filmstrips. My first was called The Research Paper Caper. I worked with a wonderful writer/producer named Ron Kidd, who showed me the ropes of production management. (Reminder to self: Google him to see what he's up to!) I then managed the production of a filmstrip called Winnie the Pooh Discovers the Seasons, for which I worked with a wonderful -- legendary, even -- animator and artist named Geppy Vaccaro, who took me under his wing and taught me so much about Disney, about art, about production, and about being just a plain ol' good person (think Geppeto in Pinocchio -- they even share the same name!). I was truly in my element at Disney, positive that I had chosen the right career path, one that allowed me to be creative but also played to my organizational and people skills. I worked with a fabulous team, doing really fun work, and I truly looked forward to going to work each day -- in spite of an hour-long commute (each way) on LA's Ventura Freeway.

After a year or two of producing filmstrips, I was called into the VP's office. He told me that I'd now be producing something called "personal computer software." I freaked. But I hate technology! You have the wrong person! Ask someone else! "I'd love to," I said. "Thanks for the opportunity..." And for the next three years I was one of the original team members of what has become Disney Interactive.

We hired programmers and artists, and together we designed and created the first educational computer games for machines like Apple IIc, Commodore 64 and the first Atari computers. Remember, this was a looooong time ago -- especially in "computer industry years." We didn't just license our characters to huge production companies back then. Instead, the five of us worked with individually contracted artists (not "digital artists," but Disney animation-style artists, who were grappling with the technical aspects of the new medium as they went along) and programmers (who worked with 1200 Baud capabilities -- on cassette tapes and, later, 5.5" floppy disks... I told you not to laugh!) and we were intimately involved with every detail of the design and production of the games.

I'll never forget bringing a completed game to the VP for approval. We had pushed the limits of the technology available at the time -- which was a whopping 16 pixels per square inch and 12 available colors to work with. In terms of what we had done with what we had to work with, Mickey Mouse looked great. But to a Disney executive who was used to the beautiful hand-painted artistry of the legendary Disney movies, Mickey looked horrible.

"His ears aren't round!" the VP shouted. "Make them round!" At that point we tried to explain that 16 pixels per square inch don't allow for "round."

"Fix it," he demanded. "What do you have to do to fix it?"

"We need to wait for technology to improve," we told him. He didn't believe us -- or maybe our answer was just in such a different realm than his experience, that he couldn't fathom what we meant. In any case, we went back to "fix it." Fortunately, technology improved quickly and Disney executives were made aware of the differences between the traditional Disney medium and new media, and the next time we asked for approval, we received it.

Still, Mickey's ears weren't round. That would only happen a few years later.

In those days (oh goodness, I sound like Uncle Remus), designers and programmers had completely separate roles. Designers like me dictated what we now call "look at feel" and "user interface." We wrote scripts, designed screens (I still have my stick-figure drawings for each screen), determined educational content (based on our gut and experience as educators, not determined by formal educational standards), and did everything else except write code and create the images.

I was in my element and I absolutely loved working at Disney. But by 1984 I had married and had a baby, and the long work day and the two hours on the LA freeway was taking its toll. One of my co-workers had also just started a family and we requested a job-share, something completely novel in those days. Disney, the "family company," said no.

So I moved on to Educational Insights, where I designed everything but software. I was still able to be creative, designing everything from table-top games for the classroom like Listening Lotto-ry to writing stories for "Big Books," which helped kindergarteners learn to read in days of "whole language" and were truly BIG, at 3 feet tall. Unfortunately I worked there for less than a year, victim to a company-wide lay-off -- which came at a fortunate time, as I was pregnant with my second child.

After staying home to raise kids for seven years and moving to Washington State, I went back to work for Edmark (of Millie's Math House fame) in 1995 thinking I'd jump right back into a Disney-style producer role, but the technical world had passed me by. Something called Windows 95 was just being released and I was blown away by how much I'd missed. Still, I jumped back in as an Associate Producer, designing and managing the development of a math game for primary grades called Carnival Countdown. This time, educational content was very closely tied to standards (in fact, we worked in collaboration with a major textbook company), engineers worked with far more than 1200 Baud, and artists had a few more than 12 colors in their palette. The technology threw me for a loop and it took me almost a year to "catch up."

At Edmark, I resisted the strong technical focus on design -- and I still do. Instead of designing something amazing, and pushing technical limitations to achieve it, I noticed that programmers themselves were beginning to design according to (and often dictated by) what they could do technically, instead of what would be great creatively or educationally. Something had been lost. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I still believe that design should be accomplished by people who are aware of and comfortable with, but not constrained by, technical thinking. I believe that designers and artists tend to think with their right brains and programmers think with their left brains, but that the strongest products come from using both to their full capacity, pushing each others' limits, rather than programmers designing according to what can be technically achieved.

This isn't as much a concern now, when just about anything is possible, both creatively and technically, but from about 1996 to about 2002 I think it was a big problem. I'll even go so far as to say that I think it contributed to the dramatic demise of the educational software industry during those years. Things are improving now, and I think that technology and creativity are actually becoming melded in the educational game industry (but more, the gaming industry in general), but I've already made the choice NOT to change my focus from education to technology. Mostly because I just have no passion for technology for its own sake and yes, I admit, partly because I'm stubborn about educational technology. I don't think the emphasis should ever be on technology aspect of it; the technology is a tool to enhance the learning, and I believe that it should always remain that way.

There's plenty of technology for technology's sake, and I think a lot of it is pretty dang cool. But when it comes to education, I think educators should be doing the design and even the UI for educational media, and yes, I am nostalgic for the "good ol' days of educational media, when that's how programs were developed. Obviously I'm in the minority, though. And I have a feeling that's why I'm having trouble finding a job that feels right in educational media.

Which brings me back to the lunch conversation with Kat and Elisabeth. If I had it to do over again, would I head down the same career path? I think I would... until about 2001, and then I'd find a job in educational media with a different focus -- like film and health and youth and activism. Oh wait -- I did that!!

So now what? I did what I loved for 25 years. I have no regrets. But the road from here feels different. My dream job now would probably look nothing like what I've done in the past. If I could choose my path now, I'd write. I'd still focus on youth and education and media, but I'd write. If the focus of the health text I was asked to write last year were different, that would have been a dream job.

I'd love to write, design and produce programs and/or products for (and with?!) youth that will somehow enhance their health, their creativity, their relationships and their lives.

Well, either that or be a midwife...

So there it is. That's what I want. It turns out that this was all a selfish exercise. I made you sit through my whole career history and philosophical rant so that I could come up with an articulated preferred focus for my career from here. I'm no longer looking ahead to my 20's with a whole infinite world of possibilities like my daughters are, but I still have choices to make and I must remember, in my panic to "just find a job and support the family," that I still have choices and that my talents, passions and experience still count for something. If I can make it work for both me personally and for the family finances (the mantra of "three kids still to put through collage" terrifies me to the point of paralysis sometimes), I should be fine.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

blackcrag said...

I think it's great Kat as a plan to work to. So did I when I was her age.

But "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." - a quote from John Lennon, I think.

I am now way past whatever age I had planned to--32, I think, for marriage and starting a family. This is after university, getting a degree in something (beyond bachelor) and stating a career in whichever field I was supposed to go into back then. I forget now--and nowhere even close to the plan.

Instead I have a journalism diploma, my first well-paying, steady job at 34, and I am permanently single. I couldn't get a date if I tried, not that I try often anymore; I don't have the energy.

I moved to Ottawa to cover politics and ended up running a coffee shop and thinking of going to a culinary school in Vancouver a year and a half from now, as chef is the only position I haven't worked at in a restaraiunt yet.

Yeah, definitely not to the plan. But I hope I am a more interesting person for being 'unplanned'.

Just a heads-up to your daughter, plans sometimes go awry, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

Related Posts with Thumbnails