On Tuesday, October 4, 2011, we interviewed David Schaller, and asked him about a variety of topics related to educational game play and interactive design.
David Schaller is the founder and principal of Eduweb.com, an educational digital learning game design firm based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. Since the company’s founding in 1996, Eduweb has created over two hundred digital learning games and interactives for museums, zoos, and other educational organizations Schaller himself oversees the overall creative direction of the company and has played a role in all stages of Web development, working on websites from their “conceptualization to launch, guiding their development closely so they embody the clients’ goals and offer an engaging and educationally sound experience.”
Learn more about Eduweb and its award-winning educational interactives: http://www.eduweb.com/index2.html
The Path to Founding an Interactive Design Firm
David, a self-described generalist, has always had an interest in film-making and writing. Before starting Eduweb, Schaller worked as an exhibit developer for historical and natural science content, and has experience working in interpretation, print, exhibit and web media. He received an M.A. in Geography and Museum Studies from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. in Humanities from Macalester College. After receiving positive feedback about an educational website that he had made about ecotourism in the Amazon for his geography degree, David decided that he could use his skills from filmmaking and writing, and apply the same types of principles and goals from exhibit design to education programming. In 1996, he founded his own business, Eduweb.com. Today, Eduweb is a small business of eight full-time employees, including Dave, his wife who is a former art teacher, a lead developer, project manager, graphic designer, illustrator, flash/html developer, a lead software engineer for 3D game design, and a few junior developers.
Selecting Projects and the Development Process
Most project proposals come to Eduweb, and they select the ones that are most interesting to them, based on topic. One of the things that Dave loves about his work with museums is the diversity of the projects that he can choose from and learn more about (art, history, science, technology-based, etc.).
A typical project begins with an initial 1-2 day planning meeting with the client organization and main stakeholders. Generally, the client comes to Eduweb with a clear audience, goals and subject topic in mind. Once these “three pillars” of the design process are established, Dave and his team work on researching the topic in more detail to look for content elements that they can use to develop strong game rules. Other guiding factors for game development for a student audience include researching curriculum standards, audience needs, subject matter and content to ensure that the game supports what the teacher already has to teach in the classroom.
During the rest of the planning and design phase, the team continues to write and revise the draft design document, add more content and functionality and test prototypes, soliciting early formative feedback from teacher advisory groups and others. Finally, digital prototypes are made, layers of content and functionality are added and tested with the target audience to refine the product into its final form before it is launched.
Research On Learning Styles and Targeting Audiences
According to Dave, the first five years at Eduweb consisted of a lot of trial and error regarding how to construct different learning experiences for different audience types. After this, the company became more focused on conducting research about learning styles and online activity types. Their findings, as written in the 2007 paper, “One Size Does Not Fit All: Learning Style, Play, and Online Interactives,” revealed that while there was a clear connection between adult learners and preferred learning activity styles, kids were more flexible, and more concerned about the “playfulness” of the activity. The reason why designing interactive educational games is so appealing to Dave is that “games offer something that can have a broad appeal, that can get you past learning style,” as well as gender and age, to a certain extent. As much as possible, Eduweb incorporates research on learning styles and theory into their projects.
While most of Eduweb’s projects are designed for kids in Grades 3-8, they have also developed interactives for older kids, general audiences, and college students/adults. However, Dave often prefers the 3-8 grade group because of the potential to introduce these kids to something that they might never have thought was interesting and engaging them to learn more about the topic.
Game Design and Building Community
In his professional experience, Dave recalled that the word “game” had a negative connotation among museum educators in the late 1990s. He himself didn’t become more convinced about the utility of gaming as a learning tool until he began to learn more about gaming theory in the past 5-6 years. Dave believes that the key to creating a complex, scaffolded learning experience in a game format stems from selecting a core set of game rules that are derived from the topic’s content. For example, he cited using economic rules derived from state history standards to guide the actions of players in a game for the Detroit Historical Society. Such rules can provide players with goals, motivation, and feedback as they proceed through the narrative.
When questions were raised about the ability to build in more collaborative game-playing elements using Web 2.0 technology, Dave was quick to distinguish between the community that organically occurs around a single player in a room, with other people watching and commenting, and the kind of community/social interaction that can develop online around a game amongst players who have common interests. He also stated that while the technology does exist for multiplayer games, not all games are suited for a multiplayer format.
While many clients want to create a type of interactive community for a game, most don’t understand the “fairly substantial effort to have a community,” including an open-ended commitment of resources to maintain and monitor the site, especially if it is designed for kids. Schaller pointed to Wolfquest.com as the only example of his work that really developed a large and active fan community. Although the site launched years ago, Wolfquest still requires a project coordinator who registers and approves people to take part in the forum to make it a safe and kid-friendly site, as well as additional volunteer moderators who read all of the posts. The difference in audience response to Wolfquest versus the other sites that Eduweb has developed has taught Schaller that “You can’t create a community, you can attract a community.” Wolfquest was able to tap into a pre-existing young, animal-loving and game playing audience, whereas his other sites have not.
Evaluation And Testing/Feedback
Dave stated that Eduweb does some form of evaluation for every project that they develop, especially formative evaluation. Different prototypes are employed for usability and play-testing which does a lot to inform the development process, and if the client has committed a budget for this, summative testing is done. Most summative approaches, in Schaller’s opinion, have difficulty capturing a sense of what users are thinking and experiencing, and he has only been satisfied with one qualitative data assessment conducted for Wolfquest.
Google Analytics, as well as ways to embed code in Flash or a bug in the game, can provide some information about game playing behavior by tracking peoples progress, rate of attrition, etc. but can’t tell you if the game is really working or successful. In Dave’s opinion, more informal qualitative measures, such as formative and summative user-testing and interviewing kids about why they liked or didn’t like aspects of the game are more insightful in determining learning and the engagement level of the players than metrics. Eduweb also receives feedback from teachers and parents about the utility of games in the classroom, and sometimes people ask for the return of a game that has been taken down from the web because it is an effective teaching tool. Examples like the removal of an interactive that he has designed frustrates Dave because he feels this overlooks the value of the content, and the increase of visitors to the site overtime.
Technological Developments and Challenges
According to Dave, one of the main highlights and challenges of his job has to do with the constantly changing nature of technology. He sees so much potential in developments like mobile gaming and transmedia (multi-platform) games that combine real-world and online experiences, but is still trying to wrap his mind around how to use such a platform to create a complex, learning environment.
As the manager of Eduweb, Dave generally tries to be more conservative about the adoption of newer technologies for his projects, including Flash when it first came out. Although he is experimenting with Flash alternatives like HTML5 right now, he is very cognizant of the browser-compatibility, software installation and cost issues that newer technology can cause, especially since one of the main audiences that Eduweb targets is schools. The only exception to this conservative technology approach is the use of 3D game software for Wolfquest.com, which has now become more of a ubiquitous format in the gaming world.
Dave also tries to remember the fact that not every topic lends itself to, or should be made into a game. Sometimes, other formats or approaches are more appropriate. He still struggles to incorporate a certain degree of flexibility in his interactive design, as many projects come with a lot of prescriptive “top-down” elements, instead of proceeding from an indie-game world focus on designing to “follow the fun.” Yet, in the final analysis, Dave welcomes many of these challenges and finds them to be personally rewarding, learning experiences.
This interview with David Schaller, and learning more about the types of projects that Eduweb has brought to life, has personally expanded my perspective about online gaming and interactives. I have learned that these interactives, and the use of game design, can thoughtfully facilitate different learning styles, interests and audiences in a way that doesn’t have to sacrifice accuracy or content as I had previously thought as a museum educator. As a result, I have become more receptive to this concept and look forward to seeing what he and other educational interactive developers have in store for us as learners for the next ten years to come.
Listen to the interview
Access the streaming audio recording.