Becoming a father was John Schnurrenberger’s “aha moment.” After having his own children, he wanted to impact the lives of other children. Seventeen years ago he found a way to do that when he helped found Istation. John is Istation’s Senior Vice President of Technology Development and one of six founders who remain with the company today.
What motivated you to help found Istation, and why have you stayed for 17 years?
“I was an avid gamer in my younger years, which, along with my drive to always be learning something, naturally led to programming and writing various game engines in my spare time. I think anyone who has played a lot of video games realizes that intrinsically, games have all the underpinnings necessary to take learning out of the constraints of the classroom and into new and fresh directions where the learner is no longer just a student but is an active, participating discoverer. So after working several years as a commercial game developer, the idea of taking part in a start-up that was going to combine learning with game-like environments felt like a very natural progression for me.”
Based on your research and experience, what really draws kids in and keeps them interested in a computer-based learning program?
“I have a strong engineering background, so my mindset is, ‘Give me a problem and I want to solve it.’ We want to engage students and educate them. The cool thing about using computers to do that is that they allow you to reconstruct or create all kinds of incredible worlds. You can transport anybody anywhere. You can take them inside the body or take them to Mars. Those simulations seem ripe for learning and exploring your environment. It’s not just having lessons forced down your throat. We can let a student explore and find the fun in learning. When I started having children, I gained a new perspective. It became important to do something that had a good chance of impacting lives. My daughter was 1 year old when we started Istation and she is now starting college. As she and her sister grew up, I was always kind of over their shoulders to see what they liked about Istation and other computer games. Even now when I go to a basketball game and sit in the stands, I watch to see what kids like to do on their phones.”
“I think kids are a lot more similar than adults think — even kids who are high achieving versus kids who are struggling. The ones who are struggling just need to be taught in a different way or given a little more time and encouragement. Cool animation and cool characters gets kids’ attention, but interaction and participation keeps them interested. And then there’s the environment where you can fail privately. When I was in school, I didn’t like to raise my hand and give answers because I was afraid I’d look silly. With computers, that’s one of the cool things with them: nobody’s there to laugh at you if you say something silly or mess up. You just do it. You can try again and again, learning the value of persistence, which is essential in having a successful career.”
You’ve done quite a bit of research on how memory works and how children learn since Istation was created. How has that research impacted Istation?
“Our education system is centuries old, and it has almost always had the same approach: teachers try things and see what works. It’s trial and error. By putting a kid in front of a computer, it’s a totally different environment than you have with one teacher and twenty students. Now it’s one-on-one and you don’t necessarily have to do the big lecture that you do have to do in a class environment. The thing that interests me is to have a scientifically based foundation for learning, and then, instead of making kids conform to how adults think they should learn, present it in a format that interests them and is digestible by their brains. I’m not saying everything needs to be a game, but let’s take the elements of games that keep kids interested for hours and put them into practice providing educational material. And we need to do everything we can to make teachers’ lives a little bit easier. They are the critical piece. We need to free up their time so they can focus on the human and social elements necessary for learning. That’s incredibly important.”
Describe the early days. What role did you play in helping Istation grow from idea to reality?
“We all knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to help teachers, engage students, and provide a serious educational focus. There was, and still is, a lot of edutainment content out there — like apps where you learn letters of the alphabet — but not much more than the basics. We wanted something continuous with a structured approach that would teach everything ‘between the cracks’ and give teachers some strong, accurate data. Schools back then were using modems. Everything had to run on early 1990’s model computers, and the only way to deliver our product was to tailor our code. So we had to write it ourselves and make it fast. The code I wrote does the visuals: the graphics, the animation, how scenes are put together, etc. And as soon as we got one part of the program finished, we had to create the tools that would allow us to build the content, and then we could finally get to creating the content itself.”
Were there a lot of sleepless nights along the way?
“We were very much a struggling start-up for a few years. It was really a long road!”
Istation now serves more than 4 million students across the world. The growth has been phenomenal, and still the opportunities for educational technology seem limitless. Where do you think this industry is headed?
“It’s an interesting but tough time. It’s now in an arena that’s a lot more visual, a lot more public, and there’s a lot more investment. It’s a huge competitive market. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we stay current or ahead of the arc. We have gathered so much data over the years, and we will continue to analyze it, mine it, and then advance our program based on what the data is telling us. We are still in the early pioneering days of computer-based instruction — the possibilities are near limitless. The exciting thing is technology will continue to have a big impact on how kids are taught, and knowing that I’m affecting kids’ lives matters most.”