Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 3, NO. 1 / APRIL 1984




Assistant Editor

John Victor, president and CEO of Program Design, Inc.

Education has been a major factor in the life of John Victor and in the life of the company he founded in 1978, Program Design, Inc. (PDI). A graduate of Michigan State University, where he earned a B.S. degree in psychology, Victor did graduate work in educational psychology at Michigan State and worked toward an MBA at City University of New York.

He began his career as a designer of programmed instructional materials at Resources Development in East Lansing, Michigan. Then, in 1967, he moved to New York City to work as an editor and consultant for Grolier Educational Corp., a major publisher of reference books and encyclopaedias.

Victor has also developed course-ware for the American Management Association, the National Pest Control Association, and the U.S. Army. He has written a book that explains how to take the SAT (published by the Associated Press) and numerous articles on computer-related subjects.

In 1976 Victor formed a company to publish computer-education Products. Two years later the company was incorporated as Program Design, Inc. PDI was the first educationnl software producer in the home computer field, and has a number of firsts in that field. Its prodtuct line of more than 40 titles consists of fourty types of home computer software: pre-school games and interactive story-books, computer tutorials and courseware, educational games, and arcade games. The following interview with John Victor; president and CEO of PDI, was conducted at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 7, 1984, by ANTIC Assistant Editor Christopher Rauber.

ANTIC: What products of interest to Atari computer owners will your company introduce here at the CES?

VICTOR: Basically, we are winding up a series of products we started a few years ago -- the Interactive Story Books. These are programs with human voices that teach certain concepts to preschool and younger school children. The top end of this series is a product called Robin's Halloween that teaches words by sight recognition. Robin is a little girl who encounters some creatures from outer space. As the child listens and watches, he or she has to pick words to help Robin move from one part of the story to another.

We have another product called Penny's Balloon that is also a reading/writing program. Those complete our Interactive Story Book line. We also have some other products here, including a program called Picture Blocks, which is a computerized jigsaw puzzle, and Giant's Tooth, a logic program that puts objects into categories.

But we're shifting the focus of our products right now from education/entertainment to more serious, content-oriented educational products. We're coming out with a French course for the Atari, and one on algebra, and we're working on the Montana ReadingProgram ...

The industry, at this point, seems to be in transition. We're shifting from the hobbyists to mass consumers. These groups have different needs and different ideas about what constitutes good educational software. We're trying to appeal to the mass consumers. We think they are less familiar with the computer, less likely to be impressed by graphics, more likely to be impressed with content.

A: What is the focus of your company, and how have you evolved over the last five years?

V: Good question. This is our transition year. We started this business in 1978 with very definite ideas about what constituted good educational products. Unfortunately, I think we were overly influenced by what other people were doing in the industry. They were interested in show biz and gimmicks, and we got ourselves tied up in that too much. We didn't forget our initial ideas, but we got caught up with games and show biz, and lost sight of what good educational software really should be doing. This year we're going back to serious education, particularly because we think that's what the mass market wants, and those are the people we want to sell.

A: How would Clipper Around the Horn fit in with this? Is it part of the transition phase?

V: No, that's part of our show-biz phase. Although it is a good intellectual game, it really isn't a mass consumer item like the Montana Reading Program, or our tutorial on how to program. Those are more serious educational programs.

A: So you're moving towards the hard core educational market?

V: Right, but for the home consumer.

A: You recently completed a survey on computer-assisted teaching for pre-school children. Do you have any comments on the results of that research?

V: Yes. We think it was unusual and valuable, because people in this industry do very little research to see what the effects of software are. They may test it to see if it holds interest or operates correctly, but they never test to see what the software produces.

Our survey indicated some surprising things. First, we found that most "preschool" software is really designed for eight-year-olds. We found that the level the industry thinks a typical four-year-old is at is nowhere near the actual level. The second thing we found out was that our preschool products were very effective at teaching, and not for the reasons that the industry usually believes. We found that kids were less interested in graphics, and more interested in being able to control whatever it is that's on the screen. That's an important discovery for us, but unfortunately you've got to be able to sell it to adults, and adults don't necessarily like crude graphics. Kids don't seem to care one way or the other, but they like the idea of having something they can control on the screen. We believe that a lot more research has to be done by the industry on its products. And that includes games. I really don't think the game developers understand the man-machine relationship. They know what the computer does, but they aren't quite up on the relationship between the person and the machine. That goes for all kinds of software.

A: Why is computer-assisted education more effective than traditional methods, and how can parents help this process along?

V: There are five elements that have to be there for learning to take place. First, the learner must interact with the material to be learned. People seldom interact in the classroom. They sit and get stuff laid on them. With the computer, you interact. Second, you need feedback on how well, or poorly, you are doing. With a textbook, you don't get any feedback; in class, you get some. But a computer is an excellent feedback mechanism. Third is motivation. There has to be a reason to do the learning. Sometimes it's enough just to learn, to be right. Sometimes you need a little extra. Traditional education seems to be very negative; it's what you do wrong that is noticed. Computer programs don't do that nearly as much as traditional classroom teachers. Fourth, the subject matter needs to be presented with continuity. You learn one thing and build on that. Computers don't guarantee continuity, but they facilitate it. Finally, control. The more the learner controls the learning situation, the stronger the learning.

A: It seems that educational software tends to the extremes of being too game oriented or too deadly serious. Do you think you can find a happy medium in your new products?

V: There is a meeting point, and I don't know where it is. However, if you test your software, you can discover what it takes to keep people's interest. The industry assumes that certain things will be interesting to kids that really aren't. Kids will work on drill and practice and not be as bored as adults think they will be. Very young children have a high tolerance for repetition. Thep'll drive you crazy listening to the same thing over and over and over. Young kids love repetition. And you've got to direct your software to the end user. If a three-year-old wants repetition, put it in. Don't design preschool products for adults.

A: That ties in with the distinction between education and learning that was made recently by James Morgan, chairman of Atari. He said that "education is something that is done to you; learning is something you do for yourself."

V: If a learner feels that something's being done to him or her, it destroys the learning process. Learning is physiological. There are chemical changes taking place in the brain. If the learner isn't ready to learn, learning isn't going to take place. And the best way to make sure that the learner is ready to learn is to put the learner in control. In traditional education, the learner is rarely in control. Children are forced to learn when they're not ready to learn. What is learning? It is the ability of an organism to do something after going through an experience (for example, a program) that it couldn't do before the experience. If you want to evaluate the effect of a program, you find out what the student can do after using the program that he couldn't do before.

A: What specific skills are your programs designed to teach, and which ones can you measure after the program has been used?

V: Okay, let's talk about preschoolers, on whom we just did this study. Our preschool program teaches basic cognitive skills related to reading readiness. Now, what is that? It includes the ability to look at two pictures and see if they are the same or different; to see four objects and pick the one that doesn't belong with the others; to recognize letters of the alphabet -- not necessarily by name -- but to distinguish them from other marks and from each other. We might include some shape and sound recognition. These are the skills that tests of reading readiness usually measure, and these are the ones that we develop. That's how we accomplished the 48 percent improvement rate for our kids on the standardized tests.

A: Let's move from software to the area of your company's growth In 1983, PDI reported a 40 percent increase in sales over1982. How do sales look for 1984, especially in the Atari segment of your market?

V: Our 1983 figures were affected by Atari's problems, and its failure to get the new computers to the market as expected, but we think1984 is going to be much better. I think we can experience a 100 percent growth in sales this year.

A: What do you see as the growth rate for educational programs in general over the next few years?

V: Atari is a very strong educational machine. The mass merchandisers report that 20 percent of all the software they sell is educational. That's a big increase in educational software sales over previous years. For Atari, I think the educational opportunities are extremely good. It's an affordahle machine with superior capabilities. A lot of publishers see it as a panacea, especially those whose game market is softening. They think educational software is going to bail them out. It may not, but we're going to see a lot of action around Atari.

A: Tell us about your product development program. How do you decide what products you're going to make?

V: We ask our distributors what kind of products the consumers are asking for. We look at these interests to see if we can devise a legitimate educational package within the price range that the distributors want. Sometimes it's ridiculous -- they want a course on how to use your computer and they want to sell it for $14.95. There's no way a software publisher could make money on such a product. But, given the realities of the restrictions on software development, that's the way we do it.

A: How do you get your software authors?

V: Every way you can imagine. It's a problem for us, because developing educational software is a particular kind of skill. We have some very good outside authors, but in the future I think we're going to try to get teams of writers and educational designers and programmers together, and to do it that way. It's too hard to get programmer/educators, as we have done in the past.

A: You've been in the educational field for some 20 years. How has that affected PDI and its products?

V: My experience dates back to the 1960's when I worked on developing programmed instruction. A lot of what we learned then is totally unknown to the people designing computerized educational products today. I don't know why, but they're just not familiar with the research and products that came out in the 1960's. I'm trying to bring that experience to bear on the products we're designing at PDI today. There's a quote going around that applies to the whole software industry: "Never have so many based so much on so little." It's amazing how much stuff people have said about education, and how little evidence they have to back it up. For example, Logo. It's reported to be a fantastic educational programming language. Who says? The people who developed Logo never did any research to back that up. I have never seen a single study showing that Logo is a better teaching language than BASIC. But they sold the industry on it. I can't figure out how or why that ever came about. They should have had to demonstrate that the language had the qualities attributed to it.

A: Do you see any solution to this problem of a lack of research?

V: Yeah, do research!

A: Do you think the developers should do the research?

V: Sure. Seymour Papert could have done it for Logo. Take two classrooms. One gets Logo, one gets BASIC. Six months later, test them. Find out which group developed the best programming skills, the best style -- if that's the point he was trying to make. There were lots of things that could have been evaluated. But they just gave Logo to a bunch of kids, and after a while they asked them how they liked it. "Gee, it's terrific" That's not scientific. I wouldn't have accepted that conclusion. Still, Logo is used in a lot of schools. They have a big base on which to draw research information, and they're just not doing it.

A: Does PDI plan to do research in the future?

V: Yes. And we're going with tested and developed stuff. The Montana Reading Program was fully tested at the University of Montana. It was compared to the best traditional reading methods. The kids in the computerized Montana program did 22 percent better -- pre-test to post-test -- than the ones who used the traditional method.

A: Adequate documentation is a problem in the industry in general and the home market in particular. What is PDI doing to make sure that documentation is comprehensive and understandable enough for the home user?

V: Here's a controversial statement: "The best documentation is no documentation." Nobody reads it. A product should be self-documenting. I'll give you an example. I use Letter Perfect as a word processor. Why? Because I don't have to read the book. I can sit right down and start word processing. All its features are built-in Atari features. I tried that with the first Atari Word Processor (not Atari-Writer) and after five minutes I chucked it. I didn't want to read that giant manual, and nothing was natural. I think that 90 percent of the people who use software react like I did. Business software is different; you have to have well-developed documentation. But games should be self-documenting.

A: So you're going to move away from documentation?

V: Oh, we'll have documentation; the reviewers pan you if you don't. But if you can't use a product without reading the documentation, I don't think it's a good product.

A: Do you have any comments on the issue of protecting software from infringement?

V: Tough issue. My guess is that the mass market consumer is the least likely software thief. I don't think our company needs to worry too much about that. The computer hobbyist is also much maligned; oh, there are some who are just out-and-out thieves, but in the Atari market it's not a major concern. I think the major problem is what I call "institutional piracy." Schools are the worst. Schools are such pirates that they have eliminated themselves as appropriate markets for educational software. How do you combat it? I don't think disk protection gives you a whole hell of a lot. Any scheme yet devised can be broken. But there are ways to market products that are tough to steal. We make kits. It's tough to steal a kit. You have to copy disks, cassettes, books, etc. It gets to be so much trouble that you might as well buy it.

A: What do you think makes PDI unique? What do you offer that other companies don't?

V: For one thing, we were the first in our area, and we've been imitated. This industry loves to play follow the leader. Whether many people know us or not, there are certainly many development houses that have copied the kinds of things we do. We did the Interactive Story Book, the sound-and-picture presentation that follows a story line. We did the first SAT preparation program. We did the first "How to Program" tutorial, and we haven't been copied on that; it's very hard thing to imitate and do well. But, in general, we've been the first, and then other people have come in... We have been innovators, and other people have copied us.

A: Any special characteristics that your programs have that you would like to talk about?

V: The most important thing with us is human interaction and learning. We have tied our future to Atari in a big way. We've made a big commitment there, and as Atari goes, so we go.