Fast Company — Blackstone Multimedia

he Globe & Mail — Fast Com­pany
Septem­ber 1999 — 1130 words
In 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.”

work5a.gifBut 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 software¦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.

work13c.gifThis 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.

work14a.gifFor 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 online¦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.”

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