On Tuesday, March 8, 2016, I interviewed Chad Udell, solutions architect for Float Mobile Learning, a strategy-consulting firm that guides industry-leading companies to understand and leverage the power of mobile learning. Chad creates strategies and designs and develops mobile-learning web and app solutions for industry-leading Fortune 500 companies. He is recognized as an expert in design and development, and speaks regularly at conferences on design, development, and mobile learning. Chad, who holds a BS degree in graphic design from Bradley University, is the author of Learning Everywhere: How Mobile Content Strategy is Transforming Training and Mastering Mobile Learning: Tips and Techniques for Success. Chad was named a Guild Master at The eLearning Guild’s mLearnCon 2015 Conference & Expo in Austin, Texas.

Chad Udell, Float Learning

BB: Welcome, Chad! Let’s start with a little history. How did you get started in eLearning and mobile learning?

CU: My background is in graphic design and art history—that’s what my degree is in. My first job out of school was doing web design. I worked for RollingStone.com and a number of other high-profile music web sites. These sites had what I consider pretty complicated information architectures—they operated much like a Wikipedia of music in some regards. They were some of the first listening stations online. They had thousands and thousands of pages and the data was assembled dynamically. It was still in the days when database-powered sites were relatively rare. It was the late 1990s and the web was pretty new.

I became very interested in how to quickly and easily display lots of information in a highly searchable, findable, memorable kind of interface. It’s not much like eLearning, except for the fact that it’s almost exactly like how eLearning should be designed. I began to build a lot more interactive elements into our web sites. We started building games out, interactive media players, and things that would be skinned for the latest bands or for commercial clients that were coming online.

Then the dot-com bomb hit and took me and almost all my colleagues out. So I spent a lot of time in freelance work. I just slid naturally into game design and development. That work blended a lot of entertainment and educational stuff. I was doing work for brands like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, Veggie Tales and PBS, and other educational web sites. So I began to slide into the learning realm in the early 2000s. I ended up getting a job at the Iona Group, the company that started up Float, and moved from gaming into designing wholesale interactive educational kiosks for museums and trade shows.

We did a lot of work throughout the mid-2000s for just about all the major museums in the Chicago area—the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry, and The Field Museum. For example at the Museum of Science and Industry we did work related to the U-505 Project, we did work at Shedd related to how they stock and fill their aquarium, and how they acquire and care for their animals. We did work with Adler Planetarium related to planetary exploration.

Those were didactic, interactive kiosks—essentially eLearning without a lot of measurement and assessment, but they are truly created for educational information and access. In addition, we were doing a lot of work at that time with some of our corporate clients for their learning management systems. They were bringing some of the first learning management systems online in the early to mid-2000s.

About 2009, we said, “This mobile thing is really taking off!” The app market started to emerge and that’s when we founded Float. We were focused on bringing our learning content and chops and skills to the mobile market. That’s been where we’ve been ever since. We continue to move into all the cool new emergent technologies that we’re currently working on.

BB: You got into xAPI pretty early too, didn’t you?

CU: xAPI didn’t really get started until late 2010 and early 2011. The steamroller didn’t actually get rolling until late 2011. As soon as I saw a presentation done by Tim Martin of Rustici, I was sold. I saw the intro video and I saw the potential. I thought, this is absolutely where it’s at. The previous methods that we had been using for tracking and storing assessment data, eLearning measurement data, just was really archaic. Since I had a pretty good background in web analytics and other types of data acquisition for usage and tracking, this was in my blood. I always felt hamstrung by SCORM, so I saw xAPI as a very freeing kind of thing.

BB: Who are two of the people who have had great influence on your career—what did each of them contribute to your understanding or passion about learning?

CU: Robert Gadd has always been a tremendous influence on me. For about as long as I can remember, when we started dabbling in mobile, he was already there with a pretty good presence and a real positive mindset. The thing that has always kept me going and had me keeping an eye on Robert is his attitude and his positivity. He’s such a great force. He doesn’t ever let the market get him down, he doesn’t really seem to be begrudging. You know, some people can have this negative attitude toward certain types of technologies and trends. As much as it can be frustrating when people don’t want to think outside of the course or outside of the way they’re currently getting things done, Robert is a man of the people and he understands that this is like an aircraft carrier and it takes a while to turn the entire thing, it doesn’t just happen overnight. He’s always been a tremendous influence on me. He’s another Guild Master—I think his reputation precedes him.

On the other end of it, when we were founding Float, I kind of gravitated right away toward people who had already written pieces in the marketplace. Gary Woodill, who was with i5 Research at the time and before that with Brandon Hall, had already written The Mobile Learning Edge as well as a couple of other books. I really liked what he had to say about mobile. Gary’s a futurist at heart, so he’s always kind of had his head in the clouds, seeing what people are going to be doing five or seven or ten years from now. While he understands current applications and he’s a tremendous researcher on current trends, he’s also an excellent forecaster. Whenever I need a little bit of insight into where things are going to be headed, he’s about the first person that I call.

BB: What technology today are you most excited about applying to learning?

CU: There are so many! We just wrapped a pretty good-sized project with the government related to augmented reality and virtual reality. In that project we did a lot of work with object detection, spatial recognition, and facial detection and recognition as well. That aspect of learning excites me. I think augmented reality is a huge avenue of research and development that’s going to pay tremendous dividends.

I also think that machine learning is a big deal. People always talk about “big data,” but big data to what end? One of the things that big data actually powers very well is this concept of machine learning. These are systems that get progressively better and get smarter as they adapt to conditions and understand the world around them. If you apply machine learning to augmented reality, it becomes really powerful. Right now augmented reality, or virtual reality, is something in which you basically have to create the world around you. You have to inform the system about what things are. That’s pretty hard right now. There’s an API that Google has opened recently called TensorFlow that Float’s just started to mess around with—that’s a super powerful tool. I think machine learning, coupled with big data and augmented reality, will be a huge, huge area for us. Definitely an area of interest for Float.

BB: How do you see machine learning affecting what we’re doing with human beings?

CU: If we have smarter bots, better and more competent agents around us, that would be almost the ultimate performance support tool, right? If we’ve got little digital friends that can help us understand and interpret what’s going on around us, and what the things are that we should be prioritizing, focusing on, or understanding, that’s going to be a tremendous benefit to us. Situational awareness, everything from maintenance and technical applications, even soft skills. Imagine a system that can guide you and let you know about social norms and customs in a contextual area that you’re not familiar with, or potentially alert you to people that are in the space with you that you should know about. There’s so many different aspects. From a performance support and machine learning perspective, that’s a really powerful combo.

BB: Are you looking at Internet of Things (IoT) along with that?

CU: Without a doubt. The thing that makes machine learning so powerful or that makes augmented reality so powerful is when there’s instrumentation or sensors on devices or in the area or context in which the experiences are being used. IoT is really an umbrella term that includes things like sensors and beacons. Sensors and beacons are pretty vital for ensuring that people in the space know what they need to know about the space.

BB: Chad, thanks for your time and for sharing your experience with our readers! I look forward to seeing you at Learning Solutions 2016 in Orlando and our FocusOn event this summer.