A Conversation with Art Willer, President of Bytes of Learning

A merging of computer knowledge, education and publishing

by Dr. Rod Berger

Art Willer has been around computers and education for a long time and has seen first hand the evolution of computer assisted learning. Dating back to his days at Colgate University, Art has remained impressed at how computers can manage complex mathematical and scientific information.

Since his early exposure to computer learning, Art has pursued a fulfilling and varied career in education. As he puts it, “I've been a classroom teacher. I've been a teacher of teachers. I've been a leader in technology in education and, subsequently, a publisher and developer of educational learning tools.”

Necessity was the mother of invention for Art as a district shortage of computer programming led to his development of publishing software. Art found himself in a large school district in Canada that had a surplus of computers but no software to run them on. In response, Art supervised the development of high-quality software that eventually became the brainchild of a publishing company for educational learning tools.

Today, Art is President of Bytes of Learning, a company that develops software tools and supporting materials for many areas of education, including UltraKey the very popular keyboard typing software.

Interview

Rod Berger:  Art, let's look back. In your experience in education, what makes you think about the past and gives you pause?

Art Willer: I actually go back forty-five years. Interestingly enough, it was forty-five years ago that I had my first experience with computers in education as a learning tool.

It was at Colgate University where we studied computer oriented calculus and computer oriented physics. The complexity of the subjects aside, what we were using the computer for was the model for the concepts. Even then, I couldn't believe how powerful it was as a creative tool to get concrete understandings of phenomena.

Since then, I’ve pursued a career in education. I've been a classroom teacher. I've been a teacher of teachers. I've been a leader in technology in education and, subsequently, a publisher and developer of educational learning tools.

RB:  With that, how can we best support communities around the country and the world that are not in education.

How can we better prepare them to be ready for change, to embrace it, to be excited about what those changes can do to support students and teachers?

AW: Interestingly enough, it’s in communities around the world that we're seeing some of the best uses of technology. This goes back to years ago, one of the best uses of technology I ever witnessed was in Costa Rica, where a teacher had an old clunky computer in the corner. She had five, six, and seven-year-old children working as a team to develop educational software. They weren’t coding; they were using a product that was subsequently published to create the program. And it was a leading tool developed in Costa Rica, and its purpose was to engage children in incorporating multimedia so that they could express themselves.

I witnessed not only that one little classroom but subsequent classrooms where she had children working as a team using computers as learning tools. It was very powerful.

So that's where we can begin, to recognize the excellence in different pockets around the world. We in North America would like to believe we’re the leaders, and we are to the extent of how much we’ve implemented technology, but instances of brilliance can be found anywhere in the world.

RB: Given the knowledge and the experience that you've had in education, tell me what it was like when you decided to look at publishing, to look at the next chapter of your life and how you could provide benefit to the learning environment as a whole?

You could have gone down a number of different paths; you chose this one. Why did you choose it and what was the impetus for you to say, “This is where I can make my mark”?

AW:  Like a lot of things in life, there are circumstances that often cause things to happen. We find ourselves with an opportunity or in a situation. The situation in my case was that I was directing software development for a large school district in North Canada. And the reason we were developing software was to fill the gap. Computers had come along, but we had almost nothing to run on them. So the idea was we would develop software until better stuff arrived.

One of the things I noticed was that better stuff didn't arrive. Stuff was arriving but was often not well designed from an education perspective. The other thing we realized was that we were building significant stuff and, unfortunately, it couldn't be published. A publishing company is needed to distribute information and media.

So that was how we got started. It wasn’t on a particular product idea, it was on a product development process where we involved practicing classroom teachers, subject experts, curriculum experts ─ that’s my background ─ and forward-thinking technologists and computer programmers. We came up with some really top-notch products we developed technically well as well as educationally.

RB:  There's a lot of interest from folks who say, “I am in the classroom and I want to engage in the business of education.” What was that learning curve like for you to go from classroom to the boardroom?

AW:  First of all, way back to the 1850s, publishers began to develop learning resources for school use. For me, like I often say, I'm an educator. I happen to be on the commercial side of the education world.

Of course, that means that I need to make a profit. I need to deal with money. In fact, whenever an educator suggests to me that I'm motivated by money, I say, “I'll tell you what. We'll just not drop your paycheck in the inbox this month.”

When we have that conversation, people realize that's why we're all here. We just happen to operate privately. One of our advantages is that we can actually do what needs to be done. We're not governed by politics; we don’t have to please a lot of people except for shareholders. My aim is to make great software for our schools to use.

I'll add that it's through very constructive and positive partnerships with educators that we have been successful ourselves. That's been a very key element, and it's one of the things that I'd suggest to anybody looking to do business with publishers. They should look at that aspect. Is there a way to connect with them and have input into product development?

RB:  Art, from your perspective, are we doing a good job of integrating educators ─ their thought processes and their expertise ─ into the technologies that we are developing?

AW:  At the risk of sounding negative, I'll answer “no.” But, on a positive side, there is lots of room for improvement. And I don't think it takes a lot to improve. We just have to come to grips with a few realities.

One of the things I often say is that technology changes very quickly. People do not.

That's not a put down on people. Some of the best educators I know are those who have been around for a while; they've experimented with different things, but they don't jump in on new wagons once a day. They're very plodding people.

One of the things I see is the more successful school districts move slowly, carefully, and persistently. They don't just do the shopping for computers. They ask themselves, “How are we going to implement this technology?”

When we want to change anything in education, what we're really saying is we want to change the people. We can bring in the technology and change the environment, but if we don't change the people, we don't get anything out of it. That includes buy-in.

I have teachers tell me, “Oh, the technology department decided to take all my computers and replace them with iPads.” Who made that decision? Why was it not decided with teachers? And what on earth was expected to happen?

I was talking to a technology director who said, “Oh, the principal said to me he wants to buy iPads for our kids.” And the technology director asked, “Why?” The principal couldn't answer the question. He couldn't give him a good, educationally sound answer.

That takes time to think, and it takes time to plan. And until we have that, we really shouldn’t be doing anything.

RB: What excites you about the world where we have young children using technology in a ubiquitous fashion? And the fact that they can become the next innovator, the next breakthrough curriculum specialist who understands and figures something out that we haven't been able to thus far? What’s exciting to you about the world where these young children get to experience technology as just a part of life, and how that might change their own creativity and contribution to education?

AW:  I'm sure you would agree that the greatest skill you and I can have is the ability to communicate, the ability to empathize, the ability to understand what's going on in another country, in another county, and in another community. What excites me about computers is the wonderful real-time communication it provides us.

Take Facebook, as an example. Because of Facebook, my family is now connected. Because of Facebook and other media that we have, there's the opportunity for kids in our classrooms to reach out and be everywhere.

As a teacher myself, I'm proud to say that for twenty-two days of the year, my kids were actually out of the classroom. They were traveling to the library, to the zoo, or down here, down there. The class trip wasn’t just a treat. It was something we used for education.

One of the things I see today is that technology lets us make virtual trips everywhere, any time of the day. We can go anywhere we want. Timbuktu if we want to. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

RB: What a wonderful opportunity, and I think what the young people don’t realize is that we are the benefactors because we get to learn and watch what they create.

Art, it’s been a real pleasure and continued success. It’s great when someone can talk about their legacy and the breadth of that, looking at 45 years of contributions in education. Thanks, Art.

AW: Thank you, Rod.

About Art Willer

Art Willer has a Master of Education degree in curriculum from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (U of Toronto). He is the founding president of Bytes of Learning Incorporated.

Art likes to say he is "always ready for new ideas and creative ways to move forward".

Art values your input. Give him your feedback by starting a conversation thread with Bytes of Learning.

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