Michael Allen, the CEO of Allen Interactions, is known for pioneering multimedia

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ABOUT Dr. MICHAEL W. ALLEN (CEO and Chairman, Allen Interactions Inc.)

Michael Allen, the CEO of Allen Interactions, is known for pioneering multimedia learning technologies, interactive instructional paradigms, and rapid-prototyping processes—bringing each forward into leading corporate enterprises. He was the founder and CEO of Authorware, a revolutionary eLearning authoring tool. Authorware merged with MacroMind/Paracomp to become Macromedia, which was later acquired by Adobe. With a PhD in educational psychology from The Ohio State University, he is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, a sought after conference speaker, and a prolific writer.


Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.


1. Learnnovators: With over 40 years of experience in e-learning, both in academic and corporate settings, you are widely acknowledged as one of the most experienced ‘E-learning Gurus’, and are known for your obsession to eliminate boring, ineffective online learning from the face of the earth. How has been your journey (to save the world from boring e-learning) so far?

Michael: Each and every time I feel I’ve helped someone learn and gain a skill, I am energized to do my best to help more people build their abilities. I feel especially rewarded when I can do this through e-learning because once the learning experiences are built, they can be shared with an unlimited audience at nearly no additional expense. The sad thing is that the technology is just as willing to disseminate e-learning that’s boring. Boring instruction ranges in effectiveness, but resides in the area of a total waste of time to an unfortunate loss of opportunity. It continues to frustrate me that I can’t get more people to commit to making a better use of learner time. It’s not that difficult.

2. Learnnovators: You were part of many studies conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of e-learning to change behavior. What are the latest trends in organizational learning & development, and performance support? What do some of the interesting research findings and survey results point to? How exciting is the scenario? How do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support workplace and social learning?

Michael: I did have great opportunities for research, especially at The Ohio State University and again at Control Data Corporation where I had very sizeable funds to support learning technology research around the country. I believe in research-based designs, but red flags rise quickly for me when I see people freely generalizing results where we can have no confidence they apply. For example, I see people reporting that optimal learning experiences can be no longer than five to eight minutes long, or that blended learning is always superior to either instructor-led or e-learning alone. Specifics make huge differences. The findings may well be true in certain circumstances, but completely wrong in others.

Research on human learning can be quite informative, but research on instruction is difficult because of the many circumstantial variables that have impact. Instruction research requires many repeated studies across varying contexts to determine what holds up as a solid generalized guideline.

That’s why I so strongly adhere to an iterative model to literally make each project something of an experiment. We use research and experience as a guideline, then reserve enough resources to modify our programs, perhaps several times, based on realized outcomes with our learners in the context in which they learn and perform.

3. Learnnovators: For decades, you have been concentrating on defining unique methods of instructional design and development that provide meaningful and memorable learning experiences through “true” cognitive interactivity. Where do you think instructional designers stand with respect to their skills in designing learning experiences for today’s workforce? What would be your advice for them to upskill themselves for designing effective learning solutions for today’s situations?

Michael: Many people responsible for instructional design today just aren’t ready to take on this complex task. This is the primary reason we see so much “tell-and-test” or “text-and-next.” It’s often not their fault; they’ve just been given the assignment by someone who doesn’t appreciate the fact that instructional design is a professional undertaking requiring a good deal of knowledge, skill, and talent.

While I’m fighting everyway I can to establish greater understanding and respect for this important profession, I’m also trying to help define methods and guidelines that simplify the process for everyone. As I’ve worked to define foundational principles and processes, I feel I’ve clarified concepts we can all use to speed up our work and help our clients participate. For example, it’s really helped to note that effective interactive instructional events are constructed of context, challenge, activity, and feedback (CCAF). There are other important constructs as well, of course, but CCAF is a pretty surefire path to successful instruction. By carefully constructing each of these components and making sure that they are tightly tied to each other, it’s hard to go wrong.

4. Learnnovators: You are known for your role as the primary architect in creating Authorware ― one of the most successful authoring tools ever created. And, you are the innovative force behind your recently launched authoring and publishing system, ZebraZapps — your award-winning instructional design approach and authoring environment for creating serious learning games and simulations. As we know, Authorware became a groundbreaking authoring tool combining power and ease of use, and ultimately the industry standard. With ZebraZapps, you claim to help turn boring into scoring, transforming knowledge into performance…turn even the driest content into exciting challenges that are meaningful, memorable and motivational.How do you compare and contrast ZebraZapps with Authorware? How do you differentiate ZebraZapps with the wide array of rapid e-learning development tools available in the market that claim to enable people with limited instructional design background to build learning interventions that are powerful and effective? You have built a community engaged in constructive discussions around your product. How significant is this synergy in your development scenario? How do you think your community is driving innovations in your products?

Michael: Authorware made a huge impact on our field, and it’s such a tragedy that Adobe has discontinued development and support of it. My colleagues and I designed it to meet our own needs, and we were delighted to find there were so many people who had the same needs. Beyond our wildest dreams, it quickly became a universal standard.

Concurrent with Authorware’s phasing out has been the downgrading of typical e-learning, from fascinating instructional experiences created by Authorware users to the rapidly built, simplistic presentations and interactions produced in bulk today using so-called “rapid” authoring tools. I don’t know that there’s a cause and effect relationship, but I do realize that much of today’s e-learning is strongly biased by the tools used to create it and not in a good way. Authors tend to do what tools make easy.

Authorware and ZebraZapps were both designed to be as unrestrictive as possible. We wanted to encourage authors to do whatever needs to be done for learner benefit, whether we as tool designers thought of it or not. We tried to make interactions of any design far easier to build than with other tools. Authorware and ZebraZapps are alike in this goal, and it’s certainly true that by using ZebraZapps you can build complex freeform interactions, simulations, and serious learning games faster and more easily than with any other tools I know of (and we use a wide range of tools in our studios, so we’re quite familiar with the alternatives).

ZebraZapps provides and enhances many of Authorware’s innovations. Being able to edit a program while it continues to execute is one of them. For example, while in Authorware you could do a bit of editing to a running program, in ZebraZapps you can do much more: In Authorware, you could reposition text, media, and graphic objects in a running program, but in ZebraZapps you can also edit text (perhaps to translate, improve, or just correct), replace graphics with others while retaining all the functionality, and even add graphics while the program continues to run. You can instantly see the results of your edits. Since there’s no delay for compilation, authors can make a series of edits and evaluate them instantly. This allows authors to make iterative improvements very quickly and easily. With comprehensive “undo” and retrieval of every saved version, authors can experiment without risk.

While no tool provides every desired feature, we’re investing hugely in ZebraZapps to the advantage of our clients for whom we build turnkey courseware as well as all ZebraZapps users. Inspired by a TED Talk I heard on “Crowd Accelerated Innovation,” we developed a facility in ZebraZapps so that our users can create reusable objects to extend authoring facilities. We even created a publishing platform for these objects (we call them “gadgets”), so that authors can either give them to the public or charge a fee for them. Gadgets can be small widgets, such as an animated hourglass for timing or a spinner for random selections, or full-blown simulations and everything in between. The non-programming authoring capabilities are so capable in ZebraZapps that these extensions to the system can be built by users themselves.

It’s been very interesting to receive all the helpful feedback and suggestions we get from users. We’ve completely realigned some of our priorities based on user feedback so that we can help people produce exactly the apps they want. For example, many early users began building very large applications straightaway. I guess because you can build applications so quickly in ZebraZapps, you tend to put more into them without even realizing it. While the typical size of a project we anticipated loaded from the cloud quickly, large projects and some very complex events caused noticeable loading delays. We couldn’t have that. So we temporarily set aside some super-advanced interactivity projects to focus on download speed innovations. Loading has become very snappy, indeed!

We’ve built handy feedback provisions into ZebraZapps. Authors can even write and sketch on their authoring screen, add thoughts and documentation as they wish, and send everything to us with a click of a button. We can see exactly what they’re doing, test it ourselves, and respond. Sometimes we just complete what users are building and send it back. Other times, we provide suggestions or examples, explain options, or fix problems. We enjoy being very close to our users, working with them, and receiving their guidance.

5. Learnnovators: It is a well-known fact that you cannot use yesterday’s tools to solve today’s problems. Most of us in the e-learning domain have been following ADDIE – a process that has been at the core of the instructional design discipline for years. However, ADDIE had its own limitations since it was made before we had today’s tools, challenges, and opportunities. Hence, those of us who haven’t been fully satisfied with this (process) have been using our own slightly varied adaptations.That is when you gave us Successive Approximation Model (SAM) – an agile development model that claims to help improve development efficiencies, and hence the effectiveness of learning experiences. How is the community and the industry looking at your call for leaving ADDIE behind? How is the response to your book ‘Leaving ADDIE for SAM’?

Michael: This has been interesting. Far more people are responding to SAM with great enthusiasm than I would have expected, while many others are kicking the tires and checking it out. I understand that when you’ve invested a lot of time learning and applying a process, you’re reluctant to give it up even if it’s giving you fits. If you’ve built workflow aids, defined roles, and settled in, the potential upheaval of switching to a dramatically different process is frightening. Even minor tweaks to an ingrained can be tough.

Some take the stance that SAM isn’t very different from ADDIE. I’m not sure whether this reveals that we’ve done a poor job of explaining SAM, or whether people have modified their implementation of ADDIE to the point that it’s very SAM-like, or if it’s something of an excuse to avoid change. If you really get the fundamental concepts, SAM and ADDIE are very, very different, even though SAM recognizes that all the tasks identified within ADDIE are important. SAM is really quite a lot simpler, much faster, more cost-effective, and tends to produce more innovative instruction.

We tried as best as we could to explain SAM in Leaving ADDIE for SAM and to contrast it with ADDIE. Of course, we do recommend continuance of whatever you’re currently doing if it produces the quality of product you want within budget and on schedule. That’s a major achievement that shouldn’t be disrupted. But we also try to point out that you shouldn’t set your sights too low because your current process can’t give you the impact you need within the resources available. SAM does well producing the best product possible within whatever constraints exist.

6. Learnnovators: How encouraging is the learning landscape with the kind of possibilities thrown open by new learning technologies (such as mobile learning, wearable techs, and learning analytics)? How do you visualize ZebraZapps evolving to harness the power offered by these technologies?

Michael: Let me start by saying it’s rarely clear at first what’s going to make a significant difference and what’s not. I think our field actually expects a panacea, especially one that avoids what is and surely always will be critical: good instructional design. Good design takes skill, patience, and effort. Creativity is important, too. But there’s a perpetual desire to sidestep these critical ingredients. We look for easy solutions, and we are too easily convinced that each new technological advance is the magic bullet.

As I’m fond of saying, if information without instruction were sufficient, we’d dispense with schools, colleges, and universities. We wouldn’t prize mentorships. Libraries and TV would be sufficient.

All this goes to say that I judge technology advances by whether they address the big challenge of preparing and delivering effective instruction. I get as excited as anyone else when new technologies become available. Wearable devices, for example, seem like a lot of fun and should have practical advantages. I hope to do early experiments to see how they can be used to help people realize more of their potential. But while I’m all for the convenience of portability, does it facilitate better learning? Will it add instructional design challenges? If it requires special accommodations in our instructional design processes, what are they? Will we make them?

It’s important not to assume new technologies suddenly obviate learning design. What if they actually made instructional design more challenging but delivered greater impact? I’m afraid some would judge this outcome as a disappointment. Of course we’d all welcome easier design and greater impact, but if we were doing proper analysis, we’d often find greater benefit from putting more effort into courseware that takes greater advantage of what technology can do.

On the other hand, technology can facilitate creation of better learning experiences. As mentioned above, ZebraZapps is focused on just that—the primary challenge of creating effective learning experiences and making them widely accessible. Because of its speed and flexibility, it helps designers explore more alternative designs. It makes more complex interactivity affordable and frees authors from the restrictions of templates. It is also a means of harnessing evolving technologies, such as mobile, social networking, data gathering, personalization / individualization, and online collaboration, and integrating them into meaningful experiences as well as performance support.

7. Learnnovators: Today’s learners start learning on a device and then move on to continue the same learning using other devices. What are some of the exciting possibilities for designing powerful learning experiences in these multi-device learning scenarios? What are the challenges?

Michael: Devices are becoming less differentiated by computational power and fundamental capabilities, leaving size as the primary difference. For example, desktop monitors, laptop computers, tablets, and phones all have cameras these days. They all have crisp color displays (when was the last time you saw a monochrome display device?), audio and video playback, microphones, keyboard entry, Internet and Wi-Fi connectivity, ability to make phone calls, and video conferencing.

With cloud-based services and Learning Record Stores (LRS), all these devices can share data. Personal learning information from a wide variety of activities and sources can be gathered quite easily.

A major advantage of e-learning is its ability to use learner time to the greatest advantage. The more the courseware knows about you, the more it can determine your needs and the more it can avoid boring redundancy. It can provide learning through the types of activities you most prefer. It can deliver on the devices you have handy in various contexts, such as traveling or last minute preparations.

I think it’s probably time for yet another new term: “smart” courseware, because it’s clear that there are two approaches to e-learning: 1) use e-learning primarily for its inexpensive delivery of information and 2) use e-learning to provide optimized learning events. In my first work on e-learning, I expected all e-learning would become smart, adapting to individual needs in real time. Why would you bypass the opportunity? Over the decades, I’ve reluctantly learned that e-learning is prized more often for cost-cutting than benefitting learners. We’ll get smart eventually, and so will our courseware.

8. Learnnovators: You say, “We have been deeply concerned about the state of elearning. We’ve talked about it, lamented it, grumbled to each other, and wondered how things might change. Finally, we have decided to do something. The Serious eLearning Manifesto is the result.” We support the manifesto and all the 22 principles that it contains. However, like many out there, we too are of the opinion that this wonderful initiative shouldn’t be limited to only ‘e-learning’ and should encompass all forms of workplace learning. What are your thoughts?

Michael: Yes, nearly all of these principles are applicable to all forms of instruction. We framed the Manifesto in an e-learning context simply because all of the authors are known primarily for their work in e-learning. We didn’t want to overreach our credibility to the detriment of impact.

9. Learnnovators: You say, “Things have to change…too much e-learning is on the wrong track.” Today’s workforce learns more from workplace (on-the-job) learning experiences and social sharing than from formal training interventions. It is exciting to see a growing realization that people learn primarily through ‘doing’ rather than ‘knowing’. Formal learning (that includes e-learning) constitutes only a tiny part of the spectrum. In this context, how do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support these workplace learning styles/preferences?

Michael: We all look for learning experiences that are most beneficial and comfortable—even enjoyable. Observing that formal learning often gives way to informal just confirms for me how awful most formal learning is. It doesn’t mean that structured learning couldn’t be more effective as well as comfortable and enjoyable. Indeed, it can be such a great experience that learners encourage their friends to check out e-learning they’ve really enjoyed. We see that all the time with cleverly designed e-learning. People are smart and they vote with their time. If they have alternatives to boring, ineffective learning, they take them. If they find great e-learning, it can not only become their learning mode of choice, but by using e-learning the organization can be assured that learners are receiving accurate and up-to-date guidance that’s not always characteristic informal learning.

10. Learnnovators: What according to you is the future of e-learning? How do you look at the interesting shifts happening in learning paradigms (such as social learning, flipped classroom, Bring-Your-Own-Device, etc.) fuelled by the enormous possibilities thrown open by emerging technologies?

Michael: I’m really excited about some of the more recent paradigms. For example, when we discovered that ZebraZapps was so easily learned and used by children, we saw the means for students to create interactive presentations on what they’re learning. Although some school teachers have both the time and skills to create their own courseware, most don’t. Ironically, we’ve found their students can do it as part of their studies.

I think most people have had an opportunity to teach something to others. In so doing, you discover you learn more in your preparation and delivery of instruction than your students do. So, when students prepare to share what they’ve learned with their peers, they benefit from learning more deeply as they prepare e-learning. This hasn’t been possible without the power of contemporary tools, which now facilitate developing interactive learning without having to program it. A side benefit is that teachers can take their students’ work and evolve it into more sophisticated learning experiences as time allows.

11. Learnnovators: What is the role of creativity and innovation in e-learning design? Will our jobs (as instructional designers) be taken over by robots in the future if we do not believe in and practice these qualities in our work? How would you look at this scenario? Could you share your thoughts with our readers please?

Michael: I suppose it will surprise readers, but I do expect instructional design to be automated eventually. In many ways, I expect computers to eventually become smarter than humans. But we’re talking about a future that’s still a way off. Still, it’s beginning to appear that an automated design system wouldn’t have to be terribly smart to produce something more interesting than some portfolios of work I’ve reviewed recently.

I led work on intelligent instructional systems at Control Data Corporation some years ago and had a chance to get up-to-speed on various efforts around the world. Although there was some thoughtful and sophisticated work going on in artificial intelligence (and still is), it also became clear that practical solutions for e-learning were not at hand. And then, as you note, there’s the question of creativity.

I actually have a conviction that computer systems will achieve creative abilities as well. My graduate school advisor was a specialist in research on creativity. From my exposure to his work, I’ve held an interest in creativity. This, combined with my exposure to artificial intelligence research, makes it clear to me that digital problem-solving systems will eventually become creative. That is, by rapidly scanning through vast volumes of knowledge, scoping beyond what is evidently related, they will propose effective solutions that are far from obvious. Until then, however, we know that learners need to be inspired and engaged in order for learning to have maximum and lasting impact. That’s one of the many reasons why SAM (discussed previously) is such a valuable process. It stimulates creativity while providing a process that manages time and budget.

12. Learnnovators: Our hearty congratulations to you on being awarded:

How do you look at these honorable achievements?

Michael: Oh, goodness! These recognitions are very meaningful and encouraging. As you can see, I’m not afraid to say what I think about what’s good and bad instruction. Making learning experiences fun and effective is so very important, I can’t resist doing everything I can to discourage certain practices and encourage others. But I know I must upset some folks, if not infuriate them. I rarely hear such reactions, actually, but I’m sure they happen. Mostly people thank me for saying what they are thinking but are afraid to say. It makes me feel I might be helping.

I can’t thank these organizations enough for their encouragement and for giving me the privilege to stand at the podium. I feel a tremendous responsibility to use this privilege to be helpful.

13. Learnnovators: You have many decades of professional, academic, and corporate experience in teaching, developing, and marketing interactive learning and performance support systems. As one of the co-founders of Allen Interactions Inc., you are instrumental in managing all activities at your company. You have led the company to receive many industry awards for learning design, including:

  • Training Industry’s Top 20 Content Development Company (continuously from 2011) 
  • Training Industry’s Top 20 Content Authoring Tools – ZebraZapps (from 2013)

It is inspiring to see how you continually produce award-winning learning for your clients. Would you attribute the success to the tools and processes that you follow in your organization? Could you share your secrets with our readers please?

Michael: I’m so proud of our studios. Their courseware productions win so many awards; even though we’re constantly adding shelves, we have boxes full of awards we have no space to display them. And, of course, both Authorware and ZebraZapps have won tons of awards as well.

One of the cultural values at Allen Interactions is that we openly share pretty much everything. In our webinars, workshops, presentations, and publications, we quite publicly share what we do and how we do it. Of course, you can tell someone how to play a violin, but to play it yourself, you need a lot of practice. Our teams have a lot of practice.

I guess the one “secret” I’d share is this: Always think what you’d want as a learner. Are you providing that? Would you want people to just tell you how to do something or would you like to try it yourself, getting guidance when you can’t succeed? I know what I’d want and what I think most people want and need. Why not use this as the criterion for the instruction you deliver?

14. Learnnovators: You continuously strive hard to give us not just new thoughts and recommendations, but also tools and processes that are aligned towards good (or serious) e-learning. What is your vision for the e-learning community? In other words, how do you plan to continue help creating ‘serious e-learning’ further for the new age learners with their own unique styles and preferences :)?

Michael: I do get the most meaningful personal rewards from innovation. I’m constantly trying to understand what prevents us from providing those learning events that inspire and engage pretty much everyone. I so admire the creativity, innovation, technology, and business success of Disney. I guess my true aspiration is to be the Disney of e-learning.

Authoring, simulation, and interactive technologies have a long way to go to give us what we and our learners need. It seems they’ve stagnated if not regressed in recent years, so I think this is a space where I may be able to make some important contributions. I hope so. The first thing I need to do, and I’m finding this to be a major challenge, is to get the e-learning community to set higher standards, insist on meeting them, and defend themselves as professionals. We need to reverse the trend toward simplistic, cheap, text-and-next of negligible value and work toward making effective use of learner time.

In general, you can count on me to continue trying to kick us out of whatever ruts we may fall into. I want us all to be creating one epiphany after another for our learners. What’s more rewarding than realizing you’ve helped someone become both competent and confident in a new skill? I wish that for myself and everyoneLearnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Michael. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!

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