Tools of the Trade

During this month’s SXSWedu conference, Dave McCool and I met for dinner on the patio of The Cedar Door in Austin to enjoy the weather and discuss the day’s events. We had just announced that Muzzy Lane offers individual licenses to our Author service (free to start; $29.99 per month for a personal license to create and deliver assignments to students).

Before SXSWedu, we had focused on institutional deals. In dining terms, we sold to restaurants and restaurant chains. Now we were ready to sell to the people who make the food.

As if on cue, two chefs walked out onto the patio with black canvas knife bags slung over their shoulders.

“Mind if I take your picture?” I asked.

“Uh, ok, I guess,” the tall one said. He had a beard and arm tattoos.

“As long as it’s not for social media,” the other added. Her hair was pulled back with a green headband and her smile asked who are these clowns?

They had the easy but intense demeanor of contestants on Chopped.

I promised I wouldn’t post the photo, which is why you won’t see them here, and explained that Muzzy Lane makes software tools that help instructional designers create active learning experiences; food for the brain instead of the stomach. That was enough to get the two chefs to talk shop.

Chefs are very picky about their knives.

“Which are your favorites?”

They rattled off a long list of names – too many to recall – but the enthusiasm in their voices was unmistakable. Both agreed that Misonos were the most versatile and held the sharpest edge. The chef with the green headband also likes Henckels and Wüsthof knives for their “everyday chopping power.” She carries both Japanese and German knives in her kit.

“Do you share them?” I asked.

They looked at each other and laughed. They share recipes. They share techniques. But no one touches his or her knives.

Both chefs frequently update the knives they carry. They value the opinions of their peers. But each knife has to prove itself over time to earn its way into their bags. A superior product could replace one of the “chosen ones” at any time.

What a chef looks for in a knife:

  • Affordable
  • Sharp blade that holds its edge over a long period of time
  • Helps you do your job faster
  • Balanced and easy to use
  • Flexible and versatile
  • Suited to a specific task

What a course designer looks for in an authoring tool:

  • Affordable
  • Makes it easy to slice-and-dice (and update) learning content
  • Helps you do your job faster
  • Balanced and easy to use
  • Flexible and versatile
  • Suited to a specific task

Of all the tools chefs work with on a daily basis it’s only knives that they won’t let out of their sight.

Chefs are protective and passionate about which knives they use because knives are the tools that translate their culinary skills into fine dining experiences. If they deliver enough of those experiences they will move on to bigger restaurants and better salaries.

If you’re making courseware instead of food, you carry authoring tools from one project to another. You might use an Adobe tool for one task; Articulate for another, reaching for each based on the benefits it delivers to your students. Such tools become an extension of your design thinking. You use them to put ideas into action. You need to upgrade your tools in order to improve learning outcomes for students.

At Muzzy Lane, we’re passionate about our Author service. We want to earn our way into your toolkit. Our goal is to help translate your course design expertise into engaging and effective learning experiences. We’ll sharpen the authoring tools and leave the content creation to you. It’s fast, cheap, and powerful. Please call or email us at if you’d like to learn more.

Easy Enough Never Is

Product developers need to know the customer they’re building their products for and how those products solve real customer problems. User-centered design employs personas – fictional composite characters that represent key customer behaviors – to focus and accelerate this process.

Personas can range from simple bullet point lists to thematic design canvases to back-stories worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. As long as the personas you create inform great design, help you understand and care about your customers, and result in delightful customer experiences, you’re doing it right. The world doesn’t have nearly enough of it.

At Muzzy Lane, we’ve built personas for instructional designers based on how they describe the demands of their jobs. Every instructional designer, or ID, is different. But IDs share the goals of increasing student engagement and student success. They also share the obstacles of unrealistic timeframes, strained budgets, and resistance from administration and faculty. They want tools that allow them to rapidly iterate on course designs based on input from subject matter experts, instructors, and students.

IDs excel at structuring and sequencing learning outcomes. But they’re not game designers. We wrestle with whether Author can help them figure out how to develop great interactive role-playing activities. But the truth is that building tools for IDs is only part of the design puzzle we need to solve.

Like them, we care most about whether students benefit from what our partners create with Muzzy Lane Author. We don’t control the content or flow of what IDs build. Our ability to influence and improve the student’s experience must reside within the tools themselves.


Tight feedback loops drive continuous improvement. While IDs carefully sift through feedback to improve the organization and presentation of content (which they can edit and re-release without any involvement from us), Muzzy Lane studies the same audit trails for clues about how to make navigating and interacting with the tools and activities more intuitive and polished. Our guiding principle: Easy enough never is.

If you’re a tool developer and there’s a content builder between you and consumers (whether it’s students, employees, or something else), it helps if the personas you keep in mind for those consumers are real people, not mash-ups. That way you can’t fake whether you care about them. You either do or you don’t. It will show in your product.

Our research on The Potential for Game-Based Learning to Improve Outcomes for Nontraditional Students, funded with a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, provided us with an opportunity to interview and interact with hundreds of students.

We learned a lot from their stories and channeled those lessons into developing Muzzy Lane Author. Here are two examples.

Meg (not her real name) studies part-time at a community college where she seeks a phlebotomy certificate. Her classes are a mix of in person and online. She’s in her late thirties, married with two kids. “Actually, I think of my husband as my third child.” She claims to get five hours of sleep per night but concedes she often gets closer to three or four. She works full-time as a home health care assistant. Any day can turn into an unintentional Take Your Daughter to Work Day. When she’s in a line at the store or waiting to pick up one of her kids, she fits in school assignments on her phone. Her schedule is a constant juggling act:


Joe is single in his mid-twenties. He works full-time on the 11p-7a shifts as a certified nursing assistant at a large hospital. “I hate being a CNA but I still try to do a great job every night.” He sleeps for a few hours in the morning before going to the gym to jumpstart his brain for schoolwork. Joe’s a full-time student working toward an associate’s degree in computer science. Once he earns that he hopes to complete his bachelor’s degree at a four-year school if he can swing financial aid. His most essential study tool is his phone. He uses it for everything from video and audio lectures to flash cards to actual programming (yes, he codes on his phone). Full-time employee. Full-time student. No support system. What could possibly go wrong?


Meg and Joe identified time management as their #1 challenge. Family demands, financial pressures, and work conflicts can trip them up at any moment. So they need learning activities and assessments that fit into the cracks between their other responsibilities. By necessity they learn in sips, not gulps. Quick concentrated learning on their phones holds appeal. Mobile first assessments that function as virtual internships can help them prepare for real jobs. They want value and they want it fast.

As its name implies, active learning means getting students to do something: role-play a job, solve a complex problem, or apply what they’ve already learned. If your user’s active and engaged, getting automated feedback and understanding it, failing safely while progressing through a series of micro learning challenges, you may be onto something. There are several great tools out there for building such activities.

Retention and completion percentages don’t lie. The educational odds are stacked against Meg and Joe. But all of the forces that could derail them are what make the schools, publishers, and technology providers that serve them so determined to help them succeed. For us, little things, like knowing that Meg’s daughter gets bored when Meg takes her to work and doesn’t do her homework, and eventually Meg caves and lets her watch TV, motivate us to do the best job we can in the tiny slivers of time Meg can give us. Her daughter needs to get an education, too.

Our cloud-based Author service recently turned one year old. In software years, that puts it roughly in middle school – full of potential but still awkward and gangly, trying hard to impress and fit in, pimply but increasingly attentive to its looks. From a developmental standpoint, our Author partners and their end users are helping us raise Author to maturity. It’s a thrilling and occasionally terrifying process, just like raising real kids.

We try to keep ourselves honest by conferring upon users like Meg and Joe the status implied by the relative sizes of those snug-fitting Russian dolls. “How will it work for Meg?” is a great question to ask alongside “How will it help IDs?” before implementing any new features. “How can we help Meg get outside of (i.e. consume, master, digest) these learning objectives most effectively?” If it doesn’t work for the people we care about most, why are we doing it?

Who are your Megs and Joes?

We still have a ton to learn. If you are a software-as-a-service provider with similar challenges, an instructional designer or SME test-driving interactive authoring tools, a teacher or champion of cutting edge UX, or a student/employee, we would love to hear and learn from you.

Experts Debate Edtech Pros & Cons

NYCtickerAfter buying a $5 street umbrella on my way to the Tyton Education Summit last week, I looked up at the news crawlers ringing Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square and wondered, “If the headlines were about edtech, what would they say, and would anyone care?”

Our industry has never been short on hype. The problem is that like street umbrellas turning inside-out in the wind as soon as they’re opened, many products struggle to do their jobs.

Tyton recognizes this and brings industry leaders together to explore more durable solutions. Once inside the impressive TimesCenter — a 600-seat auditorium with a glass-walled atrium framing a tall stand of birch trees behind the stage — Tyton served up a thoughtful program for edtech investors, practitioners, and consumers.

Here are some of the ideas, issues, and questions that struck me as worth sharing.

Measureable outcomes | Adam Newman of Tyton asked: “Can we better reverse engineer the outcomes we want and make the systemic changes needed to meet those outcomes?” This theme of setting and measuring results without unnecessarily impeding innovation recurred throughout the conference. “In pharma you can’t get a drug approved that causes a small amount of arrhythmia in a tiny fraction of patients,” said Paul Freedman, CEO of Entangled Ventures. “But we don’t measure education nearly as closely.”

Broken system | Bill Hughes, Chief Strategy Officer of Learning Objects, summed up a view of K-12 procurement shared by many: “The system is broken. We’re spending $10,000 per kid but where does it go?”

Loyalty is a two-way street | Paul Freedman also cited a rising source of corporate angst: Employee training no longer ensures employee retention. Starbucks has partnered with Arizona State University to offer free courses to all of its employees. Many corporate-university partnerships have followed. Will lifelong learning as an employee benefit become the new normal?

Network fit | Perhaps retention depends more on hiring the right people in the first place. Jean Martin, Executive Director and Talent Solutions Architect at CEB, puts it this way: “Network fit is what companies are most hiring for now. Not a cloud engineer but an Apple cloud engineer.”

Maximize learning. Minimize debt. | Mohua Bose of Excelsior College articulated a formula many online schools want to put into practice: “For non-traditional learners how can we maximize education while minimizing debt and time away from the workforce?” Schools that succeed in delivering on this value proposition could put schools that don’t out of business.

Don’t forget the learner | After the session Are You Ready for the Workforce? I met Diane Inverso, Senior Director of the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy in Philadelphia. Diane has spent 25 years working with disadvantaged adult learners. She thought we had heard too much about meeting the demands of employers and not enough about serving the needs of learners with limited literacy skills.

Life skills needed | Doug Walcerz of Essex County College expanded on this topic during a session on Institutional Change Management moderated by Rahim Rajan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Essex graduation rates have risen from 5% to 10%. Math remains the key barrier to graduation. With just $4,000 per student to spend on a total population of 13,000 (95% need remedial help), great adaptive programs like ALEKS can only do so much. Walcerz says math instructors need to teach other skills like time management and learning strategies.

MOOCommunities | Chris Liedel, President of Smithsonian Enterprises, asked this question about MOOCs: “How do we keep the community going when the class is over?”

Critical thinking | Jeff Braden, dean and professor of psychology at North Carolina State, and his colleagues are working on better ways to assess critical thinking. This is a key focus at Muzzy Lane, where we’re developing tools to automate such assessments, so I was grateful to meet Jeff and learn more about how NCSU’s tackling this important issue.

Uber Edtech | The phrase “We are the Facebook for [edtech burning need]” seems officially to have been replaced with “We are the Uber or Airbnb for [edtech burning need]” but the underlying substance of such claims remains dubious. Prasad Ram, CEO & Chairman of Gooru, framed market inefficiencies this way during a session called Will Free Models Win?: “Like Airbnb if Airbnb also needed to worry about supplying the linens.”