Raves for Reading Raven

Early Ascent is a Seattle start-up that recently captured Apple’s attention with their new Reading Raven iPad app.  The app market is filled with products for young children that claim to teach them to read, but Reading Raven actually follows through on this claim with a variety of activities, from letter and sound recognition, to vocabulary and word building, to rhyming and reading aloud.  With engaging, colorful activities and adorable audio feedback featuring kids’ enthusiastic voices, as well as options to customize lessons to present just the right amount of challenge and options for learning to read and write a variety of fonts (such as D’Nealian and Zaner-Bloser), Reading Raven is sure to be a hit with children, their parents, and their teachers.

Reading Raven has been enthusiastically received  by both the consumer market and the educational market.  As Jennifer Bogart of Apps for Homeschooling states, “Finally – a seriously educational app that leads children from early phonological awareness and phonics right up to reading full sentences while integrating printing skills and teaching through games. Reading Raven for iPad is an incredible learn-to-read app, easily the best I’ve encountered to date in the App Store. I’m in love.” 

And Teachers with Apps raves, “(Reading) Raven has what it takes to get kids on the road to reading and the developers have done it brilliantly, by following a proven reading program. Reading Raven is phonics-based, and unlike other learn-to-read apps, even phonics apps, it takes children all the way from learning foundational pre-reading and reading skills to reading sentences and very short stories.  It is obvious that they took the time to create a top-notch learning tool. Each activity respects children’s natural desire to explore and learn at their own pace.”

Sandcastle Educational Consulting is equally excited about Reading Raven and is thrilled to be working with Early Ascent on the educational and developmental aspects of their learning games.  We look forward to a long and fruitful partnership!

This is an easy job to love!

Posted in Apps - pre-school | Comments Off

Now THAT’S a friendly and intuitive user interface!

What a glorious way to deliver content. Brilliant!
Posted in Content is King | Comments Off

Done right, business IS personal

I have come to loathe the phrase “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

Is this something they teach at those high and lofty business schools? Because if it is, I think the MBA curriculum is in dire need of an overhaul.

How about teaching the phrase “It’s good business to do the right thing”? How about making that the credo of a good business school?

I firmly believe that done right, business IS personal.

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ROI, bottom line, profit margins and all that goobledygook doesn’t mean a thing, in my opinion, if all you take from business school is how to make a buck.

Do the right thing for your people. Treat your people as you’d want to be treated. Stand by your word. Be trustworthy. Those are the values that not only make a good citizen and a good friend, they are qualities that I believe make a good business owner and manager. The rest – the profit and the growth – will follow if your first commitment to your business is to doing right by your people – and to doing right by all the people your business impacts.

The best boss I ever had never even got a college degree, yet she has all the qualities that make for a successful business person. Most importantly, she knew that her greatest resource was her people, and she expressed her gratitude to us on a regular basis – not because someone told her to, but because she truly believed that a strong team is the basis of a strong business. She worked her way up from the very bottom rung of the ladder, from cleaning toilets to secretarial work, on up, to eventually becoming the Vice President and Business Development Manager of more than one successful company. She never forgot what it was like to be “the worker,” and I believe that those experiences influenced every decision she made as a boss. She had exceedingly high expectations of the people who worked for her but offered us the support, the resources and the trust every step of the way, so we could perform – and so we WANTED to perform – at the top of our game. Unless she had to keep secrets (and she’d always tell us if this was the case), she was transparent and honest with us, giving us a strong desire to work as a team, supporting each other with the same commitment to each other that she provided to us.

Now THAT is a powerful team. THAT is good business.

Quite simply she just plain did the right thing all day, every day. That philosophy drove all her business decisions and amazingly enough (not!), they almost always positively affected her bottom line as well.

Isn’t this how the Googles and the Costcos of the world got to be so successful? They didn’t begin with the philosophy of ruthless profit and bottom line; they began with the philosophy of creating a great product with a great team and moving both forward together, building upon successes in both areas, knowing that they are interdependent.

There was a time when medical schools taught only the science of medicine. The courses focused on the science of disease and the technicalities of surgery and medicine, ignoring the importance of the heart and the spirit in the healing process. Then, in the past 20 years or so, the faculties of the great medical schools began to infuse their curriculum with classes that focused on the importance of “bedside manner” and relating on a personal level to patients and their families. They suddenly realized that healing sick people is not simply a matter of science, but also of psychology. They realized that being a good doctor also means, to some extent, just simply being a good person.

When will this happen to business schools? When will they begin to teach that good business is also a matter of good personal actions and interactions? That investing in people IS good for profits and that the best way to lead a company really comes down to the same basic philosophies as the best way to lead a life: integrity, compassion, trustworthiness, and honest personal connections?

When will business schools begin to teach that doing the right thing as a person means you’re doing the right thing as a business?

Posted in Business philosophy | Comments Off

If B2B marketing e-mails could talk

You won’t be receiving one of these from Sandcastle anytime soon! 

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Microsoft is back in the education arena – this time in a BIG way!

The education arena is not a new one for Microsoft.  The company has dabbled in educational media on and off for decades.  But it seems that each time they do, they go through an identity crisis of sorts and, a few months or years in, they quietly retreat.

I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, from the quiet demise of Microsoft’s Actimates Interactive Plush Toys and Microsoft Kids in the 90’s to the disintegration of the Education Products Group more recently.  At times, these quiet retreats affected me personally, as I’ve worked on a variety of Microsoft Education teams and I’ve been personally saddened and frustrated each time the company decided that maybe education isn’t their forte after all.

It felt to me like the company was, in effect, saying “Yeah, we tried, but we’re not really good at this.  Apple really owns this market…” 

And each time that happened, the parent and the educator in me wanted to take Microsoft by the proverbial shoulders, look lovingly in the company’s soul and say, “Well, if you don’t believe in yourself, what do you expect?!  You can be amazing at this, you know, if only you’d commit and give it your ALL!”

Finally, it seems, Microsoft has done just that – fully committed to the kids’ market and given it their all!  And it looks like this:

I am thrilled for Microsoft and I believe that, given the perfectly suited Kinect technology, their new partnerships with Sesame Street and National Geographic, and their commitment to building a dedicated and knowledgeable team, this time, by golly, they finally HAVE it!

Posted in Microsoft, Kids, and Education | Comments Off

“Toddl-ology” (Toddlers and technology)

This is Abby, my adorable 18-month-old neighbor, playing with my iPhone. No one ever taught her how to navigate around an iPhone; no one needed to.  Abby, like most children her age, figured out this technology by herself through innate toddler curiosity and intuition – it’s what I call “toddl-olology.”

Is Abby’s comfort with my iPhone a testament to Apple’s ability to create extremely intuitive products?  Definitely.  But there’s more going on here. 

I believe that, as the user interface of technical devices become more intuitive and as children as young a year old make their way easily around iPhones and intuitively fire up the family Kinect simply by walking into a room and waving their hands in the air, toddlers and technology will co-exist in a happy, seamless, oblivious partnership. 

I would even say that, because children today have such vastly different experiences with media than their parents did as children, and because this relationship begins so much younger than ours did, their brains are actually being “wired differently” than ours, and they will grow up using their brains differently than we use ours.

My children, who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, were taught by instructors who didn’t grow up during the digital era, so the technical disconnect between teacher and student was, in many cases, quite significant.  It wasn’t unusual for a teacher to come to a student for instruction on how to navigate the technical world.  By the time Abby enters school, though, chances are that her teachers will be vastly more comfortable with technology than my kids’ teachers were.  As that digital divide shrinks, I believe that education will go through a metamorphosis of sorts, resulting in a cohesiveness and effectiveness that we can only imagine now.  

Fast-forward ten years.  What are your predictions for Abby’s 6th grade year, regarding technology and her education?

Posted in Developmental Information | Comments Off

Teaching cursive: Antiquated or still appropriate?

When I was in elementary school, third grade ushered in two significant events.  One was that recesses would now be spent in the Big Girls’ or the Big Boys’ yard instead of the Little Kids yard.  (Just when we started to be interested in each other, they separated us!)  The other was that we’d be learning cursive.  This was a significant milestone, as it indicated that we were almost adults (in my mind) and that we would soon be placing our pen on the paper at the beginning of the light blue line and pick it up only at the end of words or lines, as opposed to at the end of each letter.  Something about that said mature, sophisticated, and almost ready for the career world.  Clearly, I was in too much of a hurry.

When my kids were in third grade around the mid-90’s, they learned keyboarding.  By the end of the year they were doing what I still haven’t learned to do: type quickly without looking at the keyboard.  These days they are all lightning fast keyboarders, as are all their friends.  And it’s no wonder, since the vast majority of their communication is done via a keyboard – on their laptops and on their phones.

The discussion about learning cursive came up at the dinner table a few days ago.  We were all marveling about their 86-year-old Nana’s impeccable, flowing penmanship.  When she was in elementary school in the 30’s, penmanship was a major curriculum area and students practiced cursive for an hour a day, writing flawless sentences, comprised of flawless, perfectly formed letters. 

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Nana is very proud of her perfect handwriting – as she should be.  We all marvel over the art that graces the front of the envelopes and the cards she faithfully sends each grandchild on their birthdays.

But Peter, 24, suggests that cursive might as well be considered an art form of yesterday: “I don’t think one language should have multiple letter sets!” he insisted.  Not one to sugar coat anything, he continued.  “I just find cursive obnoxious.  I have a hard time reading it and it’s antiquated and unneeded.  We might as well start using well and quills again!”  His siblings fully agreed and their father and I admitted that we hadn’t written in cursive in many, many years — though we. like their grandmother, learned it in school and were “forced to” practice cursive.  (My husband’s words; personally, I enjoyed handwriting lessons…)

I was surprised to read the comments following this article, entitled “In the Digital Are, Is Teaching Cursive Relevant?” on the PBS website.  I would have thought that readers would be in Peter’s camp, but no!  Quite a few readers believe that cursive is still relevant and should still be taught in elementary school. 

What do you think?  Is teaching cursive in elementary school antiquated or still appropriate?

Posted in Education: Then and Now | Comments Off

A peek into the very early years of Disney Interactive

During yesterday’s cleaning frenzy, I came upon this under my son Aleks’ bed:

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This is a relic from my very early career (the early 1980’s) when I designed educational software for a brand new, tiny — and definitely experimental — department called Walt Disney Personal Computer Software which lived within the (now defunct) division of The Walt Disney Company (then, simply called  “Walt Disney Productions”) called Walt Disney Educational Media Company (WDEMCO).

Our offices were down the street from the Disney Studios in Burbank, on the top floor of an old worn-down building  with a giant sign jutting from the roof (“HYPMOVATION”!)so passers by on the Glendale Freeway could, I assume, be motivated to be hypnotized from miles away.  There was no mention anywhere on the building of a bunch of young media producers and educators who created educational films, books, comic books, and (get this!) filmstrips for classrooms.

Way back when Aleks was very young, this ancient computer was already very old.  Now it’s positively ancient.  My current resume in a simple Word doc is 30K.  It alone would have barely fit on this computer.

But at the time “32K” was exciting enough to include right on the front of the computer because it was a huge amount of memory!

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Here are some more features of this vintage 1982 personal computer:

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Wait!  Is that the earliest known emoticon?!

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Obviously, this was a personal computer for people who wrote code.  I never was one of those people!

I couldn’t hook this thing up to anything today…

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…which means that I can’t run the software that we designed for it:

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This was “my” game and I loved designing it!  It was for really young kids – pre-school and kindergarten – and taught letter recognition, differentiation of upper and lower-case letters, and very early reading.    And it ran on this software:

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Yes, that’s an audiotape – and yes, that’s 600 BPS… which stands for “Baud per second.”  What is a “baud”?  I have no clue, but it was state-of-the-art software back then.  Huge stuff!  Fast!  (Not.)  If you look really carefully, you can see the copyright date – 1983 (the year Tom and I got married!).

It took about 10 minutes for all 600 Baud to load on to the machine, and we even alluded to the long wait time, as well as to the very likely chance of an error, in the user’s manual:

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Unfortunately, because the Panasonic Computer never saw the light of day, Winnie the Pooh’s Lucky Letter Game was never released. 

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But we also designed for the Apple II and the Commodore 64, and the Personal Computer Software Division (does five people constitute a “division”?) created three games that year:

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And the technology has improved by leaps and bounds, just within a few months. Instead of ancient 600 BPS audiotapes, we now designed for this:

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A 5.5” floppy!  Astounding!  And instead of designing for a 32K machine, we had loads of room… 64 whole K!

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By the time Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood adventure game was released (yes, these games actually hit the market – and did quite well), Elisabeth was almost 2 and sat for hours in from of our old Apple II computer, pressing the up, down, left, and right keys to move Winnie the Pooh around the Hundred Acre Wood, in search of objects to bring to Christopher Robin, and always weary of the Blustery Wind “blowing” her items away, or Tigger over-enthusiastically bouncing her to another part of the forest!

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(We partnered with Sierra Online when the company really was in the Sierras.  We’d fly to Fresno and then drive to Oakhust, near Yosemite, where we’d design with Ken and Roberta Williams on the deck of their beautiful riverfront home.) 

Our next venture was the design of Disney’s Comic Strip Maker and Disney’s Card and Party Shop, which we created in partnership with Looking Glass Software.

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As ridiculous as it seems now, this was Disney computer art at its finest:

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The technology simply didn’t exist to make it any better than this!  Hell, there’s only so much you can do with 12 pixels per square inch!  I remember, in fact, a meeting with the President of Disney’s Consumer Products division (the umbrella we lived under) who sent us away, telling us not to come back until we could make Mickey’s ears perfectly, smoothly round and make our work “live up to Disney standards.” 

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It took a bit of explaining to convince him that the technology simply didn’t exist to make Disney characters anything close to the quality he was used to seeing in Disney animated movies!

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So yeah.  Now I feel really, really old.  But I also feel really, really fortunate to have played a part in the very, very beginning of what is now Disney Interactive – where Mickey’s ears are now, again, perfectly, smoothly round.

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Posted in Classic Educational Software | 1 Comment

Countdown to re-launch

A few months ago, in a hurry to get back to what I love, I launched this company under the name Carol Snider Educational Consulting.  Oddly enough, the name just didn’t seem to fit. I decided to resurrect the name of a business that a friend and business cohort from Disney days and I started back in 1987.  That company was called Sandcastle Designs and we created classic (then high-tech!) learning games for the computer for  companies like The Learning Company.  We were creative, responsive and forward-thinking, and it was one of the best and most productive periods of my career.

In considering the reinstatement of our previous company name, I called Melissa (my Disney co-worker) who is now an educational psychologist in LA who has her own company providing educational therapy to kids to ask for both her permission and her blessing in resurrecting a nod to our previous company. She was excited about my new venture and even agreed to sign on as an educational therapist who can consult as needed.

Exciting stuff!

Biz plan mug biz card

So here we are, in the final countdown toward the official launch of Sandcastle Educational Consulting!  Once all the social media venues are in place and working and once my website has been polished and is whirring along, I’ll officially launch this baby!  If you received this post via feeds or Facebook or LinkedIn, you’ll be among the first to know when this happens.

When it does, I’ll fill that mug up with champagne!

Posted in Sandcastle Biz | 1 Comment

Project, program, and product management – what is the difference?

At various times in my career, I’ve held the titles of Project Manager, Program Manager and Product Manager.  Although these titles sound quite similar, the roles represented by them are actually quite different — in spite of the fact that even those within the industry sometimes use them interchangeably, which I attribute to a combination of innocent ignorance and actual industry-wide confusion.

So, what’s the difference between a Project Manager, a Program Manager and a Product Manager, especially in the development of educational media?

In my experience, a Project Manager has chronological A-to-Z responsibilities, shepherding a specific product from initial concept through final delivery.  The Project Manager usually has cross-departmental responsibilities, interfacing with, say, marketing, graphic design, engineering, and QA to effectively and efficiently see the project to completion, maintaining a consistent voice, look & feel, and user experience.  It is usually the Project Manager’s responsibility to devise a budget and a timelines for the project (although sometimes they inherit those from other departments), and then to stay within those guidelines throughout the life of the project.   The Project Manager assures consistency and cohesiveness across all departments, which ideally results in a strong, cohesive product.

A Program Manager is responsible for a ongoing (as opposed to finite) projects which combine to address one or more business goals.  These programs tend to be on-going, evolving and changing (hopefully strengthening!) over time and they tend to be less chronological in nature.  As opposed to “getting a product out,” a Program Manager focuses on creating and maintaining ongoing programs that become part of the company business and culture.

A Product Manager tends to be the most confusing of the three titles (in this arena, anyway) it has come to mean just about anything having to do with the creating and or marketing of a product!  I have held the title of Product Manager for  positions both solidly in product development and solidly in marketing!  But I think that a person with the title of Product Manager should ideally be focused on the marketing message of a product and on outreach to potential customers (as opposed to on the creation and development of the product).  One way to think of it is that the Product Manager works with the Project Manager (and others) once the product is ready to be marketed.

I’m curious to know what you’ve encountered in your career regarding the use of the titles Project Manager, Program Manager, and Product Manager. Leave me a comment and let me know!

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