David Schaller, Founder and Principal, Eduweb.com

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.


  1. Amber Glen says:

    I found Dave’s discussion around using the word ‘game’ quite revealing and still true today. We’ve all been raised to think of games as fun, social, extracurricular events that limit the amount of information learned. However, Eduweb.com and other educational interactivity sites allow users to play while subconsciously learning. I think that the stigma behind ‘game’ is slowing being transferred to ‘interactive’. It’s expected that history museums have at least one interactive item per gallery, that developing new exhibits can create a cringe factor in staff. (At least that’s what I’ve seen in smaller museums along the west coast.)

  2. cherie says:

    I really appreciated David’s examples of creativity (history assignment to market based economy game was great), but his most telling moment came near the end with his remarks about the fact that not every topic lends itself to, or should be made into a game. I’m often confronted with clients who are dead set on the problem…and the solution…and I always wonder why they came to me in the first place. I agree that not everything needs to be turned into some other technological equivalent. As much as I enjoy the JHU online program, I’ve been a classroom teacher for almost 30 years and I still love being in the live classroom with real humans. I think he is on the right track of not calling them ‘games’ and using interactives. For some reason, we don’t embrace our in child often enough and call it what it is. I’ve had adults play with Legos in business writing classes where they had to build something and then write the directions for someone else to perform and they were like kids in a candy store with ‘toys.’ The participants were always surprised at how well they could apply the concepts in such a fun way. I never was surprised. The games trainers play.

  3. jared says:

    This is a field that should only be expanding in the future, for all types of museums. Having a target audience of 3 or 4th grade to 8th grade is the ideal audience for games, but I’m glad that David and Eduweb still cater to adult populations for games as well. I think the reason these aren’t focused on is more because this audience is so diverse in what they are looking for on a website or exhibition, but as Cherie said, everyone enjoys games, at least once they start. Something David mentioned that I hadn’t thought of was the amount of moderation that is needed for these games and sites. The internet attracts all sorts of people, and without moderation the experience can be ruined for everyone. This can bring up some grey areas about what to censor, and is another issue that museums also have to deal with.

  4. angela says:

    Like Bart, Dave also shared a lot of insights from the real world. When asked about how research plays out in the development of his online game projects, he mentioned that those done during the first 5 years when his company set up were more based around wild guessing, and that gradually changed to more reliant on formative testing. I like the fact that his team takes action to learn, kind of like a trial-and-error mentality that aligns well with the learning attitude and style inherent in gaming! Another thing that struck me was when he said that sometimes comments and feedback wouldn’t come until the site goes away – it proves again that most content on the internet stays unless you really try hard to eradicate it.

    He also described how developing games for students has to align with a lot of top-down requirements, meeting curriculum needs, goals, and standards, while in the commercial world it’s more bottom-up, just “follow the play, follow the fun.” This makes me wonder if that’s the reason why educational games are generally less fun or appealing to students than commercial ones. Fun and playfulness are essential to the success of games. If so many other factors have to be considered, it would be easy for a game to lose its edge. It must be a fine line to walk for professionals in the industry like Dave.

  5. ryan says:

    I thought Dave’s interview was fantastic. It is great to hear from people who are pushing the boundaries and I understand how the word ‘game’ sounds to some museum people. Just last week I was trying to promote a location based mobile challenge with the help of a JHU alumni and we used the word ‘game’ in our talk. From the looks on some people’s face, it was like I dragged my nails down the chalk board. I now understand the importance of calling them ‘interactives’. I was also impressed with how knowledgeable and passionate Dave is about his work and how he has kept at it all this time. For me, I would feel overwhelmed keeping all of the aspects of game design straight. Not to mention the curriculum, institutional goals, standards and ROI.

  6. Emma says:

    I really enjoyed Dave’s interview and thought that he offered a lot of wonderful insight into the online games and interactives. I found what Dave had to say especially interesting because it directly relates to my web development project, a children’s website for the St. Louis Art Museum. I have been struggling a little bit with how to evaluate and test usability with my project and think that Dave offered information, like using Wolfquest or embedding code in Flash from Google Analytics, that I hadn’t thought of and be very helpful.

    Another part of his interview that I found interesting was his discussion about the online games/interactives and the social experience. He stressed the fact that this kind of interaction occurs both within the game and outside the game (others watching a person play, talking about the game and making it a social experience). I thought his reference to the role of online forums (with discussion of games, different tips/cheats etc) as a type of social experience was a good point. It really highlights that social experiences don’t not only occur in the physical world, but also the virtual world (and maybe even more so).
    Recognizing the importance of the social experience is crucial to museums as it connects both online and in-person visitors.

  7. Averie Buitron says:

    Dave had a lot of fascinating things to say. I liked that he gave an overview in great, yet understandable detail about the aspects of his job and what goes into making games interactive and educational for all ages. When he was talking about technological advancements, I found his opinion about embracing new technology wisely, very helpful. My final project has me considering two technologies, one older and one newer. Dave mentioned to recognize issues like browser-compatibility, software installation and the costs of newer technology may bring. These are very important aspects to think about and have already got me thinking more carefully as to what my decision will be.

  8. megan says:

    I’m so glad that all of you have gotten so much out of the interview, and was curious to know if you would all like for me to share your e-mail addresses with Dave so that we will be on Eduweb’s mailing list? If so, please email me at mbyrnes6@jhu.edu.

    Many of you mentioned the “game” vs. “interactive” terminology. While there still a negative connotation with both, “interactive,” in my experience is more widely accepted, as Ryan and Amber also expressed in their posts. However, my impression was that Dave seemed to use both relatively interchangeably and that he expressed that some people feel that games are more trivial due to a fair amount of bad examples online, and a lack of understanding of how intricate and complex game rules and design can be. Still, I think certain depts. in even more traditionalist museums are becoming more receptive to them regardless of terminology, with the rise and pressure to incorporate more Web 2.0 technologies, and the need to compete with other leisure and entertainment options.

  9. juliana says:

    Hm, I had thought I had responded but apparently not. Sigh.
    I really enjoyed Dave’s interview, and really identified with how he got his start — museum studies is truly the “refuge of the generalist”. I also enjoyed hearing about how the best games have rules that stem from the subject matter itself; it seems like this sort of system would ensure that the game is fun for all ages, and is genuinely interesting (and educational) to play. I know a lot of museums and non-profits struggle to make education fun without trivializing it. I wonder how often they hire people from game design backgrounds as opposed to people from education backgrounds.
    Lastly, I wasn’t surprised to hear that monitoring the privacy and appropriateness of content, especially for children, is a full-time job. For a lot of museums that can barely afford to create interactive games or online exhibitions in the first place, knowing they’d need full-time staff to monitor the community might discourage them completely. So how can you create a community on the cheap, but without it feeling tacked on? Especially since people expect glossy, high-quality content for free?

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