September 2013
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TD Magazine

Michael W. Allen

Sunday, September 8, 2013

CEO and Chairman
Allen Interactions
Mendota Heights, Minnesota


Michael Allen is a software developer, author, speaker, and the chairman and CEO of Allen Interactions, a top custom e-learning provider. He is a treasured architect of interactive multimedia learning and is recognized for his many insights, inventions, and presentations.

With more than 40 years of experience in e-learning, both in academic and corporate settings, he is known today for his role in creating Authorware and overseeing the work of his studios at Allen Interactions. Allen has published eight books, including his recent ASTD Press title Leaving ADDIE for SAM.

In 2011, Allen received ASTD's Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance Award. He holds a PhD in educational psychology from The Ohio State University and is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

How did you get started in the learning industry?

A combination of experience and family influence and accident. I had some great teachers and some horrific ones. Some of the best were painfully demanding; some of the worst were really "nice," fun teachers that didn't teach us much. Most, of course, were in between.

My grandmother was on the school board and my mother was a teacher. Both were always encouraging me to help other kids learn things that came easily to me and not so easily to others.

Since childhood I've been fascinated with science fiction and computers, but in college I was an education major who tinkered with computers on the side. I was admitted to a graduate school program in what was then called "Human Engineering"—a combination of ergonomics and user interface design. But the head of the program at Ohio State passed away after I was accepted and before the school year began.

Some of the faculty departed since their "magnet" (Paul Fitts) was no longer there. So when I showed up, they had too many students for the program and we had to be fitted in elsewhere. With my education background, they suggested educational psychology and taking all the computer-related courses I wanted. This was the beginning of my work in e-learning.

How did the earlier days of e-learning, when people were primarily using Authorware, differ from today's landscape with all the rapid development tools?

I think for every action or step forward, there's always a backlash or unintended negative consequence. In the beginning of what we now call "e-learning," it was actually helpful that things were hard and expensive because everything you did really needed justification. You wouldn't do things with technology unless they gave you a real advantage.

In what has become a race for speed, people have lost sight of what's required to make effective learning experiences. Faster isn't better if the end product doesn't help people develop transferable skills. We can, certainly, develop good learning experiences faster with new rapid tools. These advances lower costs to solutions. But churning out a lot of information to be absorbed has never been an effective solution to performance problems. Hastily built courses, with superficial instructional design, have really discredited our profession and industry.

In a sense, all of our wishes have come true: computers are ubiquitous and low cost, we can integrate video, animation capabilities are easy to build, and distribution is easy—yet the quality of learning experiences has dropped, in my opinion. People agree they don't like page flippers, but that's most of what's being churned out. It's just posting information to people and completely sidestepping the real challenge: How do we make this learning time of maximum value to the learner?

How does your Successive Approximation Model (SAM) differ from ADDIE?

Much of my career has been in search of a simpler way of developing effective learning experiences. In a way, I've been in search of the "rapid" solution myself, but not at the sacrifice of effectiveness. After using and teaching ADDIE for many years, I became increasingly dissatisfied with its results and found that in many ways, it stifled creativity and produced products that fell short of hope, expectations, and needs.

SAM is much more practical and less tedious. It's more natural, too, in that it encourages experimentation, changes, and new ideas as you go along, rather than trying to lock in designs and content as early as possible. Successive approximation recognizes, first of all, that no project is going to be perfect. It also recognizes that your best ideas are going to come late in the process, which used to upset everybody.


A big contrast between ADDIE and SAM is that ADDIE asks the difficult question, "What should we do?" While SAM asks the easier question, "Why shouldn't we do this?" And it's this latter question that helps people get creative and specific at the same time.

Do you think SAM could ever overtake ADDIE as the preferred design methodology?

For sure. In fact, I think it already has. When we present SAM, people frequently respond that they have gravitated to many of SAM's procedures already. They've kept the ADDIE name, unfortunately, because it's commonly thought to be the "professional" method.

Almost everyone agrees that ADDIE is too expensive and slow. But SAM is much more than a few modifications of ADDIE; it's really a fresh approach—a new and better way of thinking and working. With many similarities to the popular Agile methods in other fields, it has broad-spread credibility. And with all the benefits SAM users report, there's no doubt in my mind that it will replace ADDIE rather quickly now. It's time.

What's the biggest challenge today's learning professionals are facing?

Avoiding the "rapid" and easy to create what's truly needed: meaningful, memorable, and motivational learning experiences. It seems like the field has been plagued by attempts to avoid the hard work of good instructional design in favor of whatever is easiest. But as professionals, we need to own up to the responsibilities of producing high-value learning experiences.

What still gets you excited about the learning and development field?

As from the beginning, it's having some part in helping people learn and achieve more of their full potential. Whenever I hear, "I get it now!" and "Look what I can do!" I still get goose bumps.

About the Author

Justin Brusino is director of content at ATD. In his role, he’s responsible for developing new content and products, including articles, webcasts, books, conferences, workshops, and more, on a variety of talent development topics. With a strong interest in technology, Justin is always looking at new trends and emerging topics that can impact the talent development industry. He is the editor of the book ATD’s 2020 Trends in Learning Technology.

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