Formal Systems

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These articles by Phyllis B. Maguire were published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

Software’s Hit Parade

What must surely be the world’s oldest profession

— teaching — is getting several new twists through computer

software. The whole wealth of multimedia — audio, music, 3-D graphics,

animation, and video — has been pressed into the service of learning.

For all its multimedia distinctions, the experts think educational

software is very similar to tutoring. "It duplicates that one-on-one

dynamic, rather than the static dimension of a classroom lecture from

a primary teacher," says Tim Cottrell, founder and president of

Princeton Teaching Associates Software Inc. at 15 Main Street in Kingston.

"That’s our core intellectual property. There is a big difference

between primary and supplementary education, and what we do is very

much supplementary as far as materials and experience."

The Princeton area has scores of developers for software, multimedia,

and education systems (see listings accompanying this article). "It’s

a great location to do business," says Cottrell. "The hub

of software development may be San Francisco, but here, we’re close

to not only Princeton’s educational community but to New York publishing.

That’s great for the kind of software we make." And interactive

software, says Cottrell, is ideally suited to adapting the art of


The 33-year-old Cottrell discovered his teaching talent as an assistant

instructor at Princeton University. Raised in western New York, with

a B. S. from Syracuse, Cottrell was working toward a Ph.D. in chemical

engineering when he won several Princeton teaching awards. Tutoring

some local high school students in math and science, word-of-mouth

on Cottrell was so successful that by the time he got his Ph.D in

1994, he was offered $80,000 by his high schoolers’ parents to set

up a professional tutoring service. Goodbye, chemical engineering;

hello, Princeton Teaching Associates.

"I can communicate complicated subjects in a very down-to-earth

manner," he says. "Too often, education has an investment

in making subjects seem harder than they really are. While I was tutoring,

I paid attention to what I did and wrote down what I called the PTA

Learning Algorithm, or series of steps."

Cottrell first laid out an overall context for a subject.

He would then model how to solve problems and help students through

them, giving them feedback as they went along. "Then I’d have

them do problems on their own, and after we discussed the results,

I’d leave them with very good notes about the session." The steps,

Cottrell says, encompass the experience of education. "A student

learns how to learn, becoming stronger because of that. Once you experience

yourself learning, you can apply that process to any subject you want

to master."

Point of view is just as important. "It’s not just a recipe for

how to teach. A crucial component, especially with teenagers, is the

ability to speak to them from a peer point of view, instead of setting

yourself up as an authority." As PTA grew to include 50 students

— and Cottrell himself gained 5000 teaching hours — he tried

hiring other tutors. "I found out it’s not a skill that’s easily

transferable," he says. "I was successful at it, but I couldn’t

find 10 others. People who could communicate with teenagers usually

worked out well, but that’s really what led me to software. I could

put more of what I knew about teaching into a program and make it

available to more people."

The first software issued by PTA — which turned it into PTAS —

was entitled AP Honors Chemistry Teachers’ Tool, "curriculum software

for teachers that didn’t incorporate much multimedia," Cottrell

says. "It was more like an online library." Many more multimedia

dimensions found their way into PTAS’ project with Penguin Electronic

Publishing: a CD-ROM complement to the book, "Acing the New SAT"

by Marcia Lawrence. "We won the contract in 1995 and the software

was released in May, 1996," says Cottrell. "But almost immediately,

Penguin decided to discontinue their entire electronic publishing

division. We bought the rights to the software and started making


"Acing the New SAT Version 2.0" debuted in the fall of 1997. It

reinstated certain language that earlier editors had assured Cottrell

"weren’t Penguin words," while programming changes made the software

more user-friendly; a hybrid CD allowed compatibility for both Mac

and PC, and the full spectrum of multimedia got engaged. "We wanted

the software to be as visually captivating as what kids are used to

with video games. We wanted them to see us putting as much work into

making test-taking interesting as the people who design gaming software."

Led by five different virtual tutors, students proceed

through a building with floors and stations that correspond to different

steps of the Learning Algorithm. The entrance features a Quick Start

Intro Video and a Diagnostic Test to pinpoint areas in which a student

needs to improve; ratings range from basement "Beavis" to

stellar "Spock," with "Calvin" and "Hobbes"

in the middle. Level 2 is the verbal floor; level 3 is the math floor,

with different technique and concept stations, while levels 4, 5,

and 6 are practice tests of increasing difficulty. A student compiles

her own Diary of tips and strategies, explained at each station with

synchronized animation and voice-overs to mirror one-on-one tutoring.

Once you "check out" of a practice test, the program explains

the answers to questions covered.

Do each of the teenage tutors exemplify a different learning style?

"The tutors have much more to do with identification," says

Cottrell. "The point is you don’t have to be a `brain’ or a certain

kind of person to understand test-taking strategies." The program

provides 12 hours of instruction, and the $44.95 list price —

or $600 per year for a network version for schools — makes it

an affordable, self-paced alternative to SAT prep courses.

"Courses can cost $600 to $800," Cottrell points out. "The

software we publish is just as good, if not better, than prep courses,

and it doesn’t segregate one family from another on the basis of affordability."

The program has garnered many industry kudos and excellent reviews;

rated "the best interactive multimedia educational product in

the U. S." by ABC News’ "Cybershake," the software received

a four-star rating from PC Magazine this January and was voted the

head of the prep software pack, ahead of SAT offerings from Kaplan

and Princeton Review. "We’re a little company that has bootstrapped

our way along, competing with much bigger companies and development

budgets. Our first step was to make good software for other people,

but our own software is going head to head against the competition

and getting reviewed as the one parents should use."

"Acing the New SAT Version 2" may be holding its own against its

CD competitors, but "the software industry is still in its beginning

stages," says Cottrell. "People at home still don’t see software

as the solution to a problem they have. It’s not established in society’s

collective consciousness the way books are, so a parent worried about

a student will bring a book home instead. The Internet has demonstrated

how computers can gather information, but most people still don’t

experience the computer as a learning tool."

It is the awareness of educational software for teenagers

that needs to be heightened. "Educational software for little

kids is booming. Their parents are younger and more adventurous, and

there are great pieces of software out there for younger children."

PTAS’ success with "Acing the New SAT" has stepped up its

plans for other educational software. This year, the company will

release an "Acing the ACT" — the American College Test,

the standardized admissions test used in the Midwest — with software

analogous to the SAT Version 2. It is also working with Films for

the Humanities and Sciences in Princeton to expand their Teachers’

Tool series to include study guides and student tutorials in chemistry,

calculus, and biology, and to tailor each subject to advanced placement,

honors, and general classes. That series will be released next fall.

With an array of standardized tests — such as the GED, GMAT, and

LSAT — still the benchmark for admissions, "I don’t think

there’s any reason PTAS shouldn’t be the company developing the best

software for each of them," Cottrell says. "We’re increasing

our production capacity through recapitalization and continue to design

educational software, but since we are a small company, we still spend

a portion of our time doing work for other clients." Those clients

include ETS, Lucent Technologies, NEC, Merck, Apple Computer, the

National Science Foundation, and Peterson’s Publishing.

And Princeton University Press. The other program that has put PTAS

on the software map is "The Multimedia I Ching," released

in 1996 and the winner of two Invision awards — industry awards

for CD-ROM makers — from "New Media" Magazine. It was

PUP’s premiere venture into electronic publishing.

Presenting the Wilhelm/Baynes "I Ching" translation that has

been a PUP Bollingen Series bestseller since the early 1950s, the

multimedia version of the 3,000 year old Taoist classic was very different

from the thoroughly modern SAT. "In one, I incorporated MY strategy

for learning; in the other, there was nothing I could do to make the

book better. Our approach was one of respectfulness, and a desire

to create an environment that would satisfy not only scholars of the

Book of Changes, but everyday people who use its philosophy. Our emphasis

was on making it as visually beautiful as the book deserves."

Very successfully, apparently; a review with a four star rating in

"Macworld" Magazine speaks of the software’s "sacred ambiance"

and "quiet refuge."

But while PUP’s electronic publishing experiment has been a critical

success, Princeton University Press has not yet broken even on it

and has no plans to start another multimedia project. The problem

for niche software — and educational software in general —

is distribution: software stores stock games, while bookstores that

carry CD-ROMs are pulling back.

The other PTAS principal is Patrick Dooley, a chemistry major from

Berkeley with a master’s from Stanford and a Ph.D. — again in

chemistry — from Princeton University this year. Dooley is PTAS’

vice president of technology. Both collaborate on writing the software,

a discipline Cottrell first learned while training as a chemical engineer.

"The pragmatism of an engineering education has helped a lot,"

says Cottrell of his career as a software developer. "We’re continually

confronted with problems that need to be solved, and that’s really

what we were trained to do."

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Formal Systems

President Steven Just — who is 49 — named his

company Formal Systems, Inc. (at 100 Thanet Circle) after the theories

of Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. "In Piaget’s sequence of cognitive

development, `formal thinking’ is the highest level," he explains.

Piaget claimed formal thinking made it possible for adults to make

hypotheses and master abstract ideas; Formal Systems marries technology

to corporate training.

In the nine years since Formal Systems hung out its shingle, the use

of computers in corporate training has snowballed. "When we first

started promoting computer-based training in the late ’80s, it was

a tough sell," says Just. "The PC saturation of corporations

just didn’t exist. But there were companies at the forefront of technology,

and those were our original clients. They set up clusters of computers

we developed into training centers."

Just majored in physics at State University of New York at Stony Brook

and came to New Jersey, in 1968, for two masters degrees from Rutgers,

one in physics and the other in computer science. Then he worked for

the New Jersey Educational Computer Network, a non-profit corporation

that provided computer services to state colleges. "We did research

into the applications of computers in education, and that was when

I really became interested," he says.

After earning a doctorate in educational psychology from Rutgers in

1979, Just spent four years with Princeton’s Mathematica Policy Research

as director of their research computing group. He then got an offer

from Bell Labs to work as a consultant on course-ware development

for a UNIX authoring system — a system that formats training programs,

the way a word processing system formats text documents.

"By the late ’80s, I finally got enough contracts to hire people

and cut back on my commitment to Bell Labs," says Just. "I

had zero capitalization but since I wanted the company to grow organically,

I never sought venture capital or investors." The Princeton office

was opened in 1989 and employs 12 people now.

Many of Formal Systems’ first clients — it now has over 100 —

were pharmaceuticals, and they still are. "The pharmaceutical

industry was among the first, and certainly the most proactive, to

supply laptop computers to their sales forces," Just says. "Laptops

were originally distributed for territory management, but it made

sense to find other applications. We met that need by supplying training

programs." The evolution of Formal Systems’ training software

mirrors the methods with which pharmaceuticals have trained sales

reps over the last decade.

"When a company used to launch a new product, it would put together

a thick binder to be mailed out to everyone in the field," says

Just. "Depending on how important the new product was, the whole

sales force might be flown in for training. Gradually, computer disks

were added and eventually replaced the binder. Then computer disks

morphed into CD-ROMs when multimedia came along, and now CD-ROMs are

being replaced by, or at least coexisting with, corporate intranets."

The trend, Just says, is away from large, formal training programs.

"Classroom training is being replaced by the notion of ‘just in

time’ training, where up-to-date information is always available over

a corporate intranet.

Using an intranet allows a company to slant training programs to different

users, according to their corporate division or job profile. "Training

is most effective when it speaks to an immediate need and is tailored

to a specific situation," says Just. "For pharmaceutical sales

reps, that might include materials on specific drugs, or on how to

approach doctors in individual practices rather than physicians working

in managed care companies." Since training can be self-administered

and interactive, it is credited with increased retention, as well

as reducing time spent off the job. Along with pharmaceuticals, Formal

Systems works with the telecommunications industry — both AT&T

and Lucent Technologies are clients — and with financial services


Technology has not only changed how training programs

get delivered, but transformed its role within corporations. "Another

trend we’re seeing, and it is really affecting our business, is the

concept of enterprise-wide solutions," says Just. "Instead

of developing a training program for a small segment of a company,

we now link it to much larger corporate information systems."

A cornerstone component of enterprise-wise training is Formal Systems’

Pedagogue Testing and Assessment System, a template-driven authoring

system first developed in 1990 that is now available in Version 4.5,

with Version 5 due this summer. The software allows companies to create

their own tests from different game formats and question types for

electronic employee assessments. The program, deployed through E-mail,

intranet, or Web site, tracks responses and gives feedback to participants,

and it sells for $2,995, though licenses for more than one operating

site will raise the price, says Just.

"An unlimited number of site licenses could push the cost to $30,000

— though we do a fair amount of customizing Pedagogue for particular

corporations, which can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars,"

he says.

Just emphasizes that the concept of corporate testing is more accepted

now than it was in 1990. "Employee testing varies a great deal

from company to company. There are companies which take a very strict

approach, who want to find out what their employees know and when

they know it." There is often an assessment phase to corporate

re-engineering, with Pedagogue now part of Deloitte & Touche LLP consulting.

"But other companies use it more for self-assessment," Just

continues. "Their attitude to their employees is, "We’re not

trying to find out what you don’t know, but what you DO know so we

can promote you and give you opportunities to learn.’" While Pedagogue

can be purchased solely for employee assessment, "it’s the first

tier of an enterprise-wide training system," Just says. "Corporations

are putting more money into what they call corporate universities,

and the trend is to establish virtual training centers over company


With virtual training, employees themselves access courses they want

to take or need for promotions. "Or your boss may assign certain

courses he or she feels address areas you need. Those courses get

logged into a three-tiered data model, with Pedagogue at the lowest

level with a certification exam proving you’ve mastered a particular

course — or producing a study plan if you don’t. Over that is

a training management system that maintains data on where you are

in a progression of courses, and above that is the corporate-wide

employee database for the human resources department. Virtual training

centers also set up virtual libraries with access to all corporate

educational materials and built-in search engines to research particular

topics. It’s a training system that lets you take charge of your own

learning and direction within a company."

Although Just — like Cottrell — won’t discuss company revenues,

he breaks his business down into rough and very fluid percentages.

"Pedagogue represents about a third of our business, with the

other two-thirds being custom program development." But the emergence

of corporate intranets is changing Formal Systems’ own corporate focus.

"A year ago, we were doing very few intranets," Just says.

"Most of our work was multimedia development of computer-based

training. But intranets are becoming an increasingly large part of

our business, and over the next few years, I think the virtual training

center concept will dominate the company."

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