Speak & Spell: An Interactive Learning Muse

The year was 1980 and I was in the first-grade. Mrs. Taylor, a terrifying presence, was in her final year of teaching before retirement–a second career, as she had previously served as a commander in the army. (She is scowling and wearing big boots and bright red lipstick in our class picture.) During the first week of school, our teacher assigned us each a number according to our last name. Mine began with an “F,” so I was #7. All year long, #7. “Get used to it!” she barked at us. “Because by the time you’re in high school, you’re going to be a number, not a name anymore!”

So this was my introduction to the future of technology. Fear, cynicism, and the sense that we might as well give in now, because it’s going to take over in the end anyway. Cold, mechanical, impersonal.

Thankfully, my first impression of our horrible computerized future was quickly replaced with an awe for technology that I developed in second grade when I received a Speak & Spell for my birthday. As archaic as it might seem now, Speak & Spell opened new worlds (and words) for me. Sure, its voice was creepy. But it “listened” to me and adjusted the level of difficulty as I responded. And I became a fabulous speller. Speak & Spell even had a special “decoder” that translated every letter in the alphabet into a different letter. I memorized this code and used it to write notes to my friend who had also memorized the code.

Speak & Spell was just the gateway. I moved on to Speak & Read, Speak & Math, Commodore 64, Atari 2600, Apple IIe, etc. The graphics and effects were all so pixelated and simple. But sometimes it’s easier to grasp the story when there’s not much flash and clutter. And I think it’s the straightforwardness of the early computing systems that makes them seem not only charming today, but quite effective in retrospect.

During a visit to a Chuck E. Cheese-type of venue years ago with my young daughter, I noticed that she was initially attracted to the noisy, flashy machines. But she ended up spending more time with the games that had a clear purpose and a mission that she understood within the first 10 seconds. If she didn’t “get it” in a reasonable amount of time, she walked away.

These experiences and observations inspire me today in designing content for interactive learning. My goal is creating engaging experiences with a hook, a purpose, and a voice that people really want to listen to. People should know what they’re getting into right away. They want to be involved. And so I work on combining the great things that have evolved in technology–like smooth effects, transitions and layering of interactivity–with the age-old principles of storytelling to draw the learner in. Minus the creepy voice, of course.

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