Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the March 8, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Jersey Cow Wows China

Could New Jersey’s top export to China really be creativity?

Bob Wickenden, CEO of a Franklin Park educational software firm with an unusual name, Jersey Cow software, thinks so. He and his 15-year old son, Robert, helped lead full-tilt American-style art workshops in two cities in China in January. Their goal: to help China – long called the world`s "sleeping giant" – wake up to America’s education methods.

After working with scores of enthusiastic Chinese teachers and students for a solid week, Wickenden and his son believe that university-based educators in China are trying to revamp the educational system to make their country more competitive in the world market. "The Chinese realize they have a system that goes back thousands of years, but in today’s globalized world that’s not good enough," he says. "While they are very interested in reaching out to the rest of the world, they are aware of their limitations with respect to being able to think creatively and innovatively in things like problem solving – all those things that Americans do really well."

Aimed at children in third through fifth grades, the workshops were part of a pilot project that could ultimately connect schools in China and the United States and lay groundwork for other long-term international learning collaborations. Held in Beijing and Guangzhou, and sponsored by Peking University’s Allied Elementary School and the Guangzhou Children’s Palace and Museum, they allowed 80 students in each city to participate in hands-on, art project-based learning activities that foster creativity and innovation.

Creativity and innovation are the name of Jersey Cow’s game. Founded in 1983, it is an education software pioneer and boasts such clients as Scholastic, IBM, and the Children’s Television Workshop. With six full-timers in Franklin Park it taps numerous freelancers, including the CEO’s son Robert, who is the preferred presenter in China. "They ask for him," says Wickenden with a laugh, "and I tell them that if he comes, they have to take me too."

The workshops, or camps as the Chinese call them, were developed by Davis Publications, the Massachusetts-based century-old arts education company that publishes School Arts Magazine. The workshops have been translated, adapted, and localized for use in the U.S. and China. Teachers attend professional development presentations and workshops throughout the week. Fees collected from the campers amount to one-third of Jersey Cow’s project budget, and Jersey Cow underwrites the rest.

Key facilitators at July’s workshop were Nancy Walkup, educator and editor of SchoolArts magazine; Bill Yarborough, Walkup’s husband and an art educator; Jianping Xu, CTO of Jersey Cow; Maura Carey, Jersey Cow’s interactive designer, as well as Wickenden and Robert. Workshops are under way in Washington D.C. this month, and more are scheduled next summer in both the U.S. and China.

Robert, an avid computer gamer who attended the Hun School and is in his first year at Princeton High, is both a workshop presenter and instructor. "My dad talks about things in a theoretical sort of way, while I focus more on the examples of what he is talking about," explains Robert. "It’s like being way up in the clouds where you can see only general things far away on the ground, but once you get down there you can tell that this is a field, this is a truck. That’s my job."

One of the more popular exercises is mural making. Designer Carey begins with a lesson on the history of murals and shows examples. Then she asks the children what they think should be in their mural. After the children draw their ideas, working individually or in small teams, everyone comes together and decides how to put all the various parts together. The real fun begins when everyone paints the modified design creating one big mural. By the end of the week, three different groups have created murals.

Wickenden says that one of the nicest parts is when the parents are invited to see the art. "They are very excited and they take photos of the kids," he says. "The kids love to point out each part they painted or designed." The children "graduate" and receive a laminated certificate from Davis Publications and Jersey Cow to take home.

Virtually every elementary school teacher in the United States knows how to use mural making to teach innovation, creativity, and cooperation, but Chinese art educators have traditionally focused on the craft, the skill, and the finished product. Creative problem solving is a skill that is valued in America, Wickenden points out, and the Chinese want to learn how to teach it.

"They realize that they have a system of education that they call `knowledge-based,’" says Wickenden. "What they mean by knowledge is different from what we mean. Here we mean the ability to think, to create, and to solve problems in uncertain circumstances. What they mean by knowledge is the ability to recite facts, and not necessarily to put them together in the big picture."

The Chinese are beginning to take a practical view on competing in the world market, says Wickenden. "In a fast society like the world is becoming, there are a lot more unknown problems than there used to be. Things used to be stable for longer periods of time. That’s not the case now."

The solution, explains Wickenden, is recognizing the complexities of the various problems and how they counter-balance one another. This is traditionally an American strong point – thinking on one’s feet. "We now have many more optimization problems than we used to," says Wickenden. "These are problems that don’t have one particular yes-no answer, but have a whole lot of different solutions, some of which are better than others. The question becomes, how are we going to decide which are better and which are worse? I think the Chinese have realized that they are not geared to deal with that scenario. That’s when they say, hey, let’s go talk to people who are."

Wickenden and his son work on the theory that there are three different phases of learning: The passive phase in which you learn the rules, and the active learning phase in which you learn how to do it better. Then there is adaptive learning, which embodies the process of building something out of what you have learned. "It is like learning how to play a game and then playing the game well," explains Robert. "The active part is learning to change the rules so that you actually create a new game. That`s where the creativity begins."

The dialectic between craftsmanship and innovation has interested Wickenden for some time. "The way I describe it is that craftsmanship is a manufacturing model wherein you are trying to make the millionth widget exactly like the first widget," he says. "Craftsmanship focuses on minimizing change because change produces error. In innovation, which is much more like a research-oriented program, you are exploring unknown territory. In that way innovation deals with problem solving in uncertain environments."

The idea for the art camps came about in what Wickenden calls a serendipitous manner. "I ran into a lady named Florence McGinn, who originally was a teacher for gifted and talented kids in Hunterdon county. She is a very interesting and innovative lady, a creative writer, a poet, and she was working with James Chang." Chang, originally from Taiwan, had always maintained an interest in intellectually wiring up the world in an educational sense and formed a company, Wayne-based Global Knowledge Exchange.

"They had a lot of very innovative material that they wanted to deliver to China but they had no way of doing it other than having Florence go over and talk about it," says Wickenden. "I said that, with our technologies, we have a means of helping them out with this. We started going to China with them. Our first trip was two years ago, with Florence and James, and we ran a second workshop last summer with Global Knowledge Exchange. Each one got to be the pilot for the next one, each a little bigger."

Jersey Cow’s most recent partner, Davis Publications, is a three-generation family-owned firm, and Wickenden thinks the two private firms have a big advantage over their larger competitors. Davis had been working in China in a small way for five years.

This month Wickenden and his colleagues began presenting an Americanized version of the Chinese workshop in schools in Washington, D.C. Whereas Chinese students looked at reproductions of art in the Phillips Gallery, the D.C. students actually went there. But Wickenden smiles at the parallels. In both schools the students did their creation while sprawled on the floor.

He hopes that the students of both countries will develop relationships to create a kind of international cooperative learning environment. "We’ll get the groups in Beijing and in Washington together, although we’re not quite sure what `together’ means," he says. "We may end up with joint student shows, online even, through the community infrastructures. We may involve other things as well. It’s like now, all the dots are on the map. We are now seeing all the lines being connected by all these players."

The China project, currently a loss leader, is being paid for out of the Jersey Cow’s current revenue. Wickenden is cautious about how much more capital should be plowed into the project. "We don’t have a lot of freedom to go anywhere we want with this," he says. He points to two potential profit centers – infrastructure that allows people to cooperate on projects, and professional development opportunities. "All teachers need to further their careers. The workshops can be the hook for various levels of certifications and degrees."

Born in Flushing, Queens, Wickenden moved to Cleveland with his parents and two sisters when he was 10 years old. "Those are what I call, the Wonder Bread years," laughs Wickenden. In 1959, when the family moved to New Jersey, Wickenden’s father was one of seven founders of Applied Data Research, the pioneering software company that went public in 1965 and sold for $215 million in 1986. Now known as Computer Associates, the Princeton division of the company reports 275 employees at the corner of Route 206 and Orchard Road. "Back then it was one of the original mainframe software houses," says Wickenden. "Computers were really about data processing for banks and inventory – it was hardcore data stuff."

But at that time, computers were something that Wickenden wanted no part of. "I went about as far away from that as I could, which was art school," he says. He enrolled at the University of Vermont in the late 1960s and earned his bachelor of fine arts degree. "I was a traditional printmaker, working on the old craft of stone lithography," says Wickenden. "I loved grinding those stones and creating those very carefully rendered prints."

In 1973 Wickenden experienced what he calls a life-changing event, when he saw a performance by musician John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham, who led the avant garde "chance" esthetic. They made artistic decisions by chance, using dice, coin tosses, and the ancient Chinese system of philosophy, I-Ching. "I had been reading the I-Ching for awhile, and it literally was an eye opener for me," says Wickenden. "That day the scales fell from my eyes. I knew that I finally `got’ something."

After graduation, Wickenden enrolled in the masters program at Rutgers University. "I applied with a printmaking portfolio, but at that time I was also doing this innovative computer stuff," he says. "So even then I was involved with these two concepts: craft and innovation."

At Rutgers Wickenden worked completely on computer art, focusing on the random use of numbers and chance, and earned his MFA in 1976. "I don’t think the instructors really knew what I was doing," he says. "It was all very brand new then."

Wickenden started teaching at Rutgers, but his work on art and computers only intensified. "I was working on a project on a Hewlett-Packard programmable calculator," he says. "I’d watch it plot Fourier wave transformations, one point about every 10 seconds; it was the physical representation of the quality of sound."

But after a chance conversation with fellow professor Phil Orenstein, Wickenden began to understand how powerful the concept of art and computers was becoming. "Phil was really prescient," says Wickenden. "He had written a grant to the state of New Jersey to buy a bunch of Apple II computers. He got the grant, bought the computers, and set up a lab. About two hours later we had programmed on the Apple the same thing that I was doing on my Hewlett-Packard. It was about a 100-fold increase in productivity right there. I was sold."

In 1983 Wickenden started Jersey Cow Software with Orenstein and fellow instructor Louis Copulski. The genesis of the company’s quirky name comes from the first letters of each founder’s last name. "We were all teaching in the art department of Rutgers University and the name was given to us without ever having to think about it," says Wickenden.

The start of the company also came about almost by sheer accident. "We were all interested in computers for art-making, doing a lot of very interesting stuff, music, poetry, and performance work – anything that was involved with computers," explains Wickenden. "One day someone called the university and said that he’d sold a contract to do some educational software and he wanted to know if there was anyone who could help him. The university directed him to Orenstein in the art school. But the project turned out that it was bigger than he could handle by himself, so he got Copulski. The project was still bigger than they could handle, so they got me."

When one project led to another, the three decided to make their partnership official. "We agreed that we would do it for three years and then see whether we all liked it," says Wickenden. "Phil was a tenured faculty member at Rutgers and after the three years he started to weigh the fact that being a tenured faculty member allowed him to work two days a week against working 90 hours a week in our start-up company. It was a pretty easy choice for him and he bailed out. Louis then decided that if Phil was bailing out then he would too."

Wickenden bought the company from them in 1986, investing "under six figures," and has had it ever since. He is not independently wealthy, even though a vintage Porsche sits in the driveway of his modest home in Princeton. And though the company once boasted a staff of around 25 or 30, Wickenden has pared things down to a leaner core, six staff members plus a lot of freelancers. "I found that my job became going out and finding more work to feed this engine," says Wickenden. That negated the original concept, to explore interesting concepts. "When it came to the point where I was just going out and looking for contracts, that had changed the character. So mostly through natural attrition we just backed off, saying that is not the direction that we wanted to go."

During the past 20 years Jersey Cow has focused on creating educational software. Contracts with domestic publishers like Scholastic and IBM are what Wickenden calls his lunch money. "It puts lunch on the table." Other clients and partners include the American Museum of Natural History, Bank Street College of Education, the Children’s Television Workshop, Harper and Row, Highlights for Children, Texaco, and Princeton Junction-based Cognetics Corporation.

Jersey Cow also gets involved in other initiatives, like the China project, "either because they interest us a lot and/or they have a potential of much greater return," says Wickenden.

For instance, Jersey Cow is a founder of Language Publications Interactive. For that firm Wickenden and his team created a prize-winning language learning adventure game, "Who Is Oscar Lake?" in 1996. "We thought that if we could mate that focus of critical-thinking and attention with the idea of language then we could have a real winning concept," says Wickenden. "The concept is that a player finds himself in a foreign country, and he doesn’t speak the language. Suddenly he finds that he is the prime suspect in a criminal investigation. So you have to clear your name in the foreign country in the language that they speak." The game has been very successful, and has been localized and marketed in 25 countries world-wide.

The Chinese may want to import creativity, but they may not be ready for creativity in teen styles. Until January Robert had shoulder length hair. "Last summer, when a little kid saw me in Tiannemen Square, he started crying when he saw me," says Robert. "I decided I should take a hit for the team and cut my hair. My ears get really cold, but it’s actually kind of nice with short hair."

Robert could be classified as a computer junkie. A 60th level master of the game World of War Craft, Robert has achieved online prestige among his fellow gamers. "He is playing with guys who are 35 or 40 years old who are looking to him as a leader," says Wickenden. "Robert is very dedicated. We calculated that in six months the actual time that he was playing on the computer equaled 30 days. That’s one out of every six hours. If you take away time for sleep and time for school, it doesn’t leave much time leftover."

Robert’s 10-year-old sister, Keeta, is already somewhat famous in China, because her picture is featured in the software.

Their parents met at Rutgers. "Diane was my student," he says. "At first we did not interact socially, until she was no longer my student. We did go to art shows and lectures together, but not really as a couple. I think that confused her a bit." Diane, who left Jersey Cow when her first child was born, works as an artist and homemaker.

While historically Jersey Cow was primarily focused on developing software, the focus now is more upstream. "We focus on the problem itself and how we are going to solve it rather than just implementing the solution," says Wickenden. "Now we can always sort of go out and buy the solution from people we know and trust and work with, once we understand what the problem is. So now, developing the understanding of the problem is the really valuable thing. It is a longer, tougher haul now. It’s like growing markets rather than just stealing markets from somebody else where there is already a need."

But this is where all the interesting stuff is happening. A whole brand new set of needs and values are surfacing. "A classic example of this is the iPod," says Wickenden. "It’s really unbelievable to watch. Where it gets really interesting, and which is something that we have to keep our eye on, is Pod-casting. Now that the iPod is a video device, video in your pocket is an incredibly powerful concept. Take it with you anywhere video, connected to the internet whenever you need it – it’s the perfect vehicle for numerous concepts."

"I think that is going to have a lot to do with where Jersey Cow will end up, because just having the device is not a solution in and of itself," says Wickenden. "You need people who understand what that device is doing, how to get stuff into that device, to get stuff out, how to wire up people together through that device (the social network theory), and all those sorts of issues are going to come into play."

Wickenden likes to think that the future belongs to individuals and companies who dare to take chances. "One of the interesting concepts is something called the Edge of Chaos," he says. "It says that the universe is at its most creative when it is tuned to that edge of chaos. This means, if things are too chaotic, things are just a mess. If they are too ossified, like cement, there is no action. So the optimum place to be is right at the edge that allows for maximum play in all the factors involved in whatever situation it is."

All learning takes place in that fog between the black hole of chaos and the blue sky of what you already know, explains Wickenden. As soon as you have a breakthrough, up comes the next frustrating challenge.

He relates this to his most recent passion, swing dancing. "I love learning and testing learning methodologies, and dance happens to be one of those disciplines I love learning in," says Wickenden. "I dance, not to compete, but for those learning moments, the `aha experiences’ that come when you realize that you have achieved a certain breakthrough."

Dancing is not only a quest for knowledge but also a shared moment of creation with a partner, says Wickenden. "The first moment of the dance is such an exciting moment," he says. "Everything is in front of you at that moment. The whole dance is waiting to be created."

Probing creativity has been after all, the focus of his life. "At Jersey Cow we create a new process every time we start a new project. A project like the one in China might have to be sustained over months over even years to attain closure, but dance distills the creative/learning process into one five-minute instance."

Says Wickenden: "If you are always learning, you will always be in the fog, and that is the most exciting place in life."

Jersey Cow Software, 3031 Route 27, Suite D, Franklin Park 08823; 732-422-0101; fax, 732-422-0110. Bob Wickenden, CEO. Home page:

Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments