Latest Project Combines Teaching + Technology to Help People with Autism
When students with disabilities learn side by side with other students, everybody benefits, according to research conducted over the past 20 years. This has sparked a trend toward “inclusive classrooms,” a concept that interested an Orlando technology company normally focused on professional services.
Digitec Interactive is now partnering with New York University (NYU) to provide teachers with training and tools developed with input from the autistic community. The partnership is the latest innovation for a company that has been evolving since its start more than two decades ago.
It is also the latest project of Jack McGrath, Digitec Interactive’s president and creative director, who joined the company in the mid-1990s. The organization has been focused on creating effective employee training programs for clients including corporations, membership associations, academic institutions, medical companies and nonprofits.
In the beginning, the company’s offerings were largely based on services, McGrath said. Digitec Interactive originally created custom content for organizations such as The Walt Disney Company that involved the hands-on participation of a videographer, a graphic designer and a writer who all created treatments, characters and storylines for key learning experiences. Soon, however, the company saw that a change was coming — and along with it, a chance to reach even more companies with its services.
“People started to be more interested in ‘off-the-shelf’ tools to create their own eLearning content,” McGrath said. “So we started building learning apps and differentiating the quality of our custom content. It was always about how we could get organizations to teach their people faster with training that sticks. Our learning technology can do that. So we were, and still are, building and releasing applications and products that help our clients better engage with their learning community.”
In 2003, Digitec Interactive launched Knowledge Direct, doubling down on its investment in products with the learning management platform designed to make creating, delivering and tracking learning for employees easy for managers across industries. Today the company is on version seven and has served more than 3 million learners on the platform.
“As we evolved, we discovered that a lot of clients needed the same kinds of things: a testing engine, registration and an easy way to design, maintain and distribute their online learning. With Knowledge Direct, we focused on professional associations to allow them to offer continuing education online, which gave them an additional product to sell,” McGrath said. “We still serve professional associations with the platform. It’s convenient for members because they can get the training they need when and where they need it.
“With this latest version, we’re broadening out to corporate training, focusing more on learning journeys,” he said. “It’s common for people to get so overwhelmed with content and training at the start of a job that in two weeks, it’s forgotten. These learning journeys are role-based, targeted training released over time, allowing learning and development departments to easily create it.”
Being adaptable to needs is crucial to Digitec Interactive, and so is anticipating the needs of the future. Engaging, effective online learning became more important than ever in a COVID-19 world, just as efficient training did when roles shifted and turnover increased.
In the early 2000s, the concept of “gamification” was catching on as companies used the application of game-playing processes to create a more engaging method of learning. Digitec was ahead of the curve, already developing games like one that won the company its first international recognition: a simulation game allowing players to learn how to use credit by living out 50 years over the course of gameplay.
Twenty years later, the company is still proving gamification naysayers wrong with projects like “Mission Timekeeper,” an immersive game created for Disney that involves players traveling through space and visiting different solar systems to learn about the Disney divisions.
The company’s latest venture in forward-thinking sees it in a new world and a new role, McGrath said. In its new venture, Digitec Interactive is working with NYU Steinhardt to develop the Program for Inclusion and Neurodiversity Education, or PINE.
The program is available for primary and secondary schools, with content and lessons designed to offer educators the training they need to understand learners with autism. The content was developed in partnership with members of the autistic community.
“For the content itself, we needed subject matter experts,” McGrath said. “Some of them were people who had autism, and it was exciting to get creative and collaborate on how to deliver the messages. One of our teachers in the course is nonverbal, so we had to challenge ourselves in asking how we deliver the information in a new way.”
The program is distributed through the Knowledge Direct platform, an easy transition for NYU, which already has leveraged it for much of its continuing education and training.
“PINE didn’t realize we had a lot of experience in instructional design and e-learning development,” McGrath said of the early stages of the partnership. “We helped them design these courses around autism and autism education, for administrators and teachers at high schools around the country.”
The two organizations have just wrapped up their third course together. By creating these custom eLearning experiences using the Knowledge Direct platform, they are establishing a model for Digitec to grow its ever-expanding services.
“We provide support for users and managed services to keep the content up to date,” McGrath said. “We’ve become a one-stop-shop, and that’s a model we’d like to continue.”
For McGrath and Digitec Interactive, the next move is determined by a laser-sharp focus on what matters most: delivering information as simply as possible.
“A lot of organizations focus on content first,” McGrath said. “We don’t care about content as much as we care about the outcome. We ask ourselves, ‘What does a learner need to know and do at the completion of this activity?’ Then we deliver that using as little content as we can. Learners are not stupid. They can tell when things aren’t really required, and they tune out. That’s the focus for us.”