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The Rock Stars of eLearning: An interview with Clark Quinn

By Rick Raymer / April 2013

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I had the pleasure of spending time with Clark Quinn at the 2013 Learning Solutions Conference, and while it is tempting to keep his secret identity intact, I am bound by my journalistic (ahem) integrity to be forthcoming with my conclusions. So, without further ado, it has become obvious to me that Clark Quinn…is Superman. Now I know what you're thinking, this is just some silly play on his name. But you must admit that it is hard to deny that our mild-mannered Clark bears a striking physical resemblance to the Clark Kent of superhero fame. But, that is just the start of the irrefutable evidence my keen investigative mind has discovered.

Point one. I invite you to visit Clark's website, You'll immediately notice two things: The page loads incredibly fast and, being a master of presenting complex subject matter in a straightforward manner, Clark uses bullet points to outline his areas of expertise. Faster than a speeding bullet? Check!

Point two. In describing Quinnovation, he states it is, "A vehicle through which Clark Quinn delivers capabilities." A vehicle facilitates locomotion, and Clark chooses the word "through," indicating the power to move from one side and out another side. More powerful than a locomotive? Check!

Point three. In describing when to Quinnovate, Clark responds, "When you need to take your solution to the next level!" Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Check!

While I'm sure no further authentication is required, I submit one final piece of mind-shatteringly awesome evidence. One of Superman's main enemies, Gog, was granted powers by a cabal of gods who also gave powers to a member of the Green Lantern Corps—a man obsessed with Superman—Rayner (whaaaaaaaa!?!). The name of this cabal…The Quintessence.

BOOOOOM! Clark Quinn is Superman. (Or, at the very least, a really super guy.) So, with that inconceivably amazing introduction, I give you my next eLearning rock star, Clark Quinn.

When people ask you, "what do you do?" What is your response?

The short answer is that I help people leverage technology to achieve their goals to work smarter. The longer answer is that I help organizations use technology more strategically to improve performance, shifting from courses to learning experience design, making performance support an effective component of the solution, and leveraging social media to support successful cooperation and collaboration.

If you were going to classify the industry you are currently a part of, what would you identify this industry as? What motivated you to get into this industry?

I like to think I'm in the performance technology industry (finding problems with the terms "learning" and "instruction"), though others might say I'm in Learning and Development (but I'm across K-12, higher ed, corporate, not-for-profit, government, etc.). I am excited about how technology complements our cognitive capabilities, and recognize that people need help cutting through the hype and seeing the core affordances on a principled basis.

Why are you passionate about what you do? What makes you enthusiastic about what you do?

I'm passionate about learning and helping people, hence the focus on learning and performance, and, frankly, I like playing with shiny new technology. I'm an attentionally-challenged optimist, so it's easy to be enthusiastic about the huge opportunities to make improvements, and there are continuing new developments to keep it fresh and interesting.

What are some of your "big ideas" for improving yourself, your learners, the industry, society, etc.?

One idea is to push how you use technology to improve yourself. I started seeing how far I could push my original PDA (Palm III) to make me smarter, and continue to do so today. As the lotteries will have it, you have to be "in it" to win it. I also continue to investigate the "emotional" aspects of success, and their impact on the design of learning as well. We need to pay more attention to the conative as well as cognitive aspects of learning and performance, and really more to the real science behind learning, not folk wisdom or hype. We also need to go beyond smart to "wise," thinking about the values and impacts long-term and across society, not just meeting in the moment needs. Overall, we need to reflect more and focus on "speed" less. The outcomes will be better.

What suggestions do you have for "turning your learners into fans"?

Asking ourselves on their behalf: "What's the least I can do for you?" We need to focus on minimalism, meeting their needs (what I call "the least assistance principle"). We need to focus on meaningful change, not knowledge dump. If they need new skills, get them there, without any additional "nice-to-have" knowledge. That is, giving learners real value. And we need to address their emotional needs: anxiety about learning and motivation to learn. Help them know why it's important, give them the least to "get it," and get them back to their external goals.

What are some of the best examples of eLearning that you have seen? What is considered "state of the art" in our industry?

I see bits and pieces of what we could be doing, though there's little I think that does it all well, unfortunately. On intros, I like what Michael Allen did on the flight attendant safety checklist, or what we did on another project using comics, e.g. humorously or dramatically indicating the value of the coming learning. Speaking of which, Scott McCloud's Google Chrome comic was cool. Similarly, we used comics for examples in a media-skills training (as an industry we underuse graphic novel formats). I like game-based practice, like the game we did for CalTrans on project management for non-project managers. The 2012 Lingos Giveback award winner, IPT for Tuberculosis in HIV patients had some challenging scenario-based practice that illustrates the ways we need to go. We've seen some preliminary use of alternate reality games (cf. Tandem Learning), which is an approach I think has more potential, and mobile will provide new opportunities. I also think we'll rediscover the key affordances of virtual worlds now that the hype has boiled away, such as the insurance-adjusting example Masie & American Family Insurance generated.

What needs to change in our industry? How will it evolve?

We need to step away from the flaws in the "event" model of learning, and start looking at what really works, and how technology can help. There's a steady progression: moving from folk wisdom to science-based learning experience design, including the emotional component. We need to step away from everything being "in the head," and start looking at what support can be "in the world." And that includes really looking at how we start working and learning together. I see this evolving by beginning to measure what matters; measuring cost per hour isn't the right metric. How about cost per impact?

Who are some of the people that you consider to be the "rock stars" of our industry, and why?

First of all I think of my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance: Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, and Charles Jennings (there's a reason I joined with them). Off hand, others include Ellen Wagner, Roger Schank, Allison Rossett, Don Norman, Jane Bozarth, Will Thalheimer, Ruth Clark, Marc Rosenberg, Julie Dirksen, and John Seely Brown. I'm sure I'm forgetting others.

About the Author

Rick Raymer is an eLearning consultant specializing in gameful design. Previously, he was a primary solution architect at Serco Inc., working with integrated product teams to design, develop, and deliver state-of-the-art learning games, interactive courseware, and simulations. In addition, he designed and managed production of eLearning, games, and simulations for the North Carolina Community College System's BioNetwork organization, and was the VP of Product Development for Oasys Mobile, a top 10 mobile games publisher. Raymer has been designing videogames professionally since 1996. He has produced more than 40 games, with titles on every major gaming platform including consoles, PCs, handheld devices, and mobile phones.

© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/04 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2460459.2465423


  • Mon, 22 Apr 2013
    Post by Nancy Munro

    I completely agree with Clark when he talks about getting people emotionally involved in the learning process. I've done a lot of research recently about the cognitive impact emotionally engaged learning can have on the brain. Cognitive scientists have proven that there is a chemical reaction to engaging someone emotionally and will place this information into long-term memory. So anything trainers can do to involve the learner with an emotional activity such as humor, the use of color, simulations etc. will increase the chances of knowledge transfer.