he Globe & Mail — Fast Company
September 1999 — 1130 wordsIn a modest office building on the south side of Edmonton, a small company is bracing itself for a battle of biblical proportions. Blackstone Multimedia is the David of this heroic tale, and Canada’s educational system would be Goliath.
“Our role is to change the educational system,” says Ron Manke, Founder and Vice President of Blackstone Multimedia. While some may think that decree rather grand, Mr. Manke considers it pragmatic. “It’s nice to have big goals, but obviously we can only do as much as we can in our limited life span,” Mr. Manke explains. “In order to change the educational system, you have to create tools, ‘cause there’s no good tools out there.”
But that’s about to change. EON (Educational Operating Network) is a collection of tools and technologies created by Blackstone that address this need. “It’s a teacher-centric front-end for educators, a student-centric front-end for deploying the content anywhere in the world, and an administration-centric back-end for system administrators and managers,” Mr. Manke explains.Teachers will use it to manage an exam, monitor student performance, and even create course content and homework materials. “Its main benefit to the student was that it was designed to be student-aware,” Mr. Manke says. “It would adapt itself to the student’s age group and learning level.”
The delivery method of the course material is also under the student’s control. Using different presentation methods such as streaming video, web content, and java applets, students can often choose the best way to view and absorb the material. If the student can’t read, the graphical interface has verbal and audio support as well.
But the educational system isn’t the only target in Blackstone’s sights. Mr. Manke suggests that businesses with in-house training facilities are equally able to use EON. “We wanted to create this software that would apply to both corporations and the K-12 market,” he explained.
While one marketplace loved the idea, the other was skeptical. “The tough thing was corporations weren’t interested in funding the software unless it was for their particular business” Mr. Manke said. “There aren’t too many out there that want to create a universal tool for education. They’d rather just have something specific to their own needs.”
As it turns out, those two markets are the bread and butter of Blackstone’s daily operations. Originally a large portion of the income was derived from corporate contracts. But now, with four commercial products on the market, the company is developing their own projects and direction. “We go to corporations to fund our operations so we can create this K-12 softwareÂ¦it’s not easy!” Mr. Manke says. “Because it distracts you from your goals sometimes when you’re doing the corporate thing.”
But it’s the ‘corporate thing’ that manages to pay the bills and can, occasionally, lead development off in a whole new direction. Last year the company developed an Internet based interactive Golf game (golfgame.alberta.com) as a promotional tool for Telus, the western Canadian telco that is the primary sponsor of the Alberta Open golf tournament.
According to Mr. Manke, they based the design on a real golf course. “What we did is separate the content [course layout] from the tool [the game mechanics]”. This allowed them to create a core Golf program that could be customized.
Blackstone then secured the rights to use the code and features in upcoming products. By using their existing proprietary Golf program, and building custom courses for clients, they create a new product exclusively for the use of each customer. “We licensed this to the Canadian PGA”, he comments. “They have Glenn Abby online now, we just changed the course data. And we also licensed it into the States”.
Canucklehead, another Blackstone creation, is a zany, game-show-like quiz. It’s currently found in McClelland & Stewart’s Canadian Encyclopedia.
This fall in Banff, the tourists can test their knowledge on a kiosk version of Canucklehead, which will be installed in the Parks Canada information centre.
But it’s not all fun and games — Canucklehead has more serious roots. “Canucklehead is based on a product we prototyped,” Mr. Manke explains. That product came to be named Conjecture, an employee-learning tool targeted at businesses with lots of information for new employees to learn.
The basic program uses Internet, database, and multimedia components to deliver questions to users. Since Conjecture is an automated process, results can be tallied for management and users are directed to reference material for further study when wrong answers are given.
For Canucklehead, Blackstone started with the core Conjecture program and created custom characters to suite the atmosphere of the CD-Rom and the encyclopedia. Then questions were gleaned from the encyclopedia and incorporated into a database. All the multi-media components were custom built too, such as animations and actors voices. The final trivia game, though based on a more serious training tool, turned out to be very entertaining and educational.
It’s not what you’d expect from a corporate training program, and that’s exactly the type of product Ron Manke wanted to make when he co-founded Blackstone Multimedia in 1994. Blackstone Multimedia currently employs ten full time staffers, in a variety of design, programming and creative positions. The company hires contractors whenever they need a particular skill set not found in house. On some of their larger projects, they’ve had up to 40 at a time. “We all had a basic vision of wanting to do something that would improve the educational system in Canada” Mr. Manke says.
By using the emerging technology offered by the Internet, and the adapting the content rich environments offered by CD-Rom, Blackstone Multimedia is changing the way educational content is delivered. “That product [EON] would have very little use if it didn’t have a network attached to it” Mr. Manke says. “All the content is stored in a central place so students from all over the world can access the content for courses. If it was CD-Rom or disk based it just wouldn’t make sense.”
Online content is king, in the educational marketplace. “Two years ago, for teachers, it wasn’t a high priority to get their stuff online. Now it’s to the point where the students are demanding that the content is onlineÂ¦so that they can access it at two o’clock in the morning.” Mr. Manke explains.
And little by little, Ron Manke and Blackstone Multimedia are changing the face of corporate and public education, even at two in the morning. A small David slinging small stones at a very big Goliath. “I like it just ‘cause it’s fun,” he says. “That’s what gets me up in the morning. When I see kids learning and improving themselves. Which is why we started this company, we wanted to see people improve themselves.”