3 Big Questions Episode 4

3 Big Questions with Phil Komarny


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In this episode of 3 Big Questions, we visit with Robots and Pencils CEO, USA Phil Komarny. 3 Big Questions is a recurring feature in the Civitas Learning Space. Access the Archives to see previous conversations with thought leaders from across higher education.
Question 1
You banked pretty heavily on the effectiveness of an iPad for mobile learning when you gave every incoming student one as part of the Griffin Technology Advantage program at Seton Hill. What worked, and what would you approach differently if you were to do a rollout like that again? It takes collaborative communication to successfully support massive change in any organization. One way I met this need was by constructing a community portal that leveraged all of the university’s enterprise data systems. I called it our ‘Platform of Engagement’ as it gave us the ability to break the user experience constraints that historically have been dictated by each vendor. Think about it, each data system has a front end that was built before the iPad was even invented. How could we think that we could support the community the same way we did in the past? By owning the user experience at this level we were able to engage with our community and understand the way they wanted to work. Before we knew it, each department on campus was coming to us, and each conversation started like this, “Can we…”. Training during times of transformational change is also imperative to the success of any program. The Mobile Learning @ The Hill program was constructed on a foundation of a professional development program for the faculty. The E.L.I.T.E. (Engaging Learners to Improve Critical Thinking through Edification) program helped remove ‘tech fear’ by exposing the faculty to a wide array of mobile applications and techniques that they could use to effectively enhance their teaching. This program worked extremely well. However, if I was to do it again, I would expand the program to include the administrative staff as well. So  many of them asked to be part of the program, but the original vision (and budget) did not include this scale. While we definitely hit the mark on a number of successful initiatives, we also missed a few. We held onto our old-school IT thinking. We bound each MacBook to our domain and imaged them to include VMWare and Microsoft Windows.  We thought it would be too drastic of a change for the faculty and administration if we didn’t do this. Huge mistake. In fact, during our second roll out in the Fall of 2011 we did the exact opposite. Each student opened their MacBook and had the expected experience as they turned it on for the first time. I now also realize that the mobile learning program was more about psychology than it was about technology. Making sure that the technological vision is not focused through a financial or academic lens is important. Having a seat and a voice on the president’s cabinet was imperative to focus the vision on the user’s experience.
Question 2
You recently left your post as a highly influential CIO at Seton Hill to join Robots and Pencils as CEO. The company, founded in 2008, makes apps for the iPad and iPhone and other mobile devices. Why did you make the move to Robots and Pencils? Why? I wanted a chance to dent the universe, and I feel that companies like Robots and Pencils will be the types of companies that will have the ability to do this in the mobile era. Robots and Pencils was founded on the vision that mobile computing will be more transformative than the Internet. The company is positioned to foster innovation; it sits at the crossroads of the sciences and the humanities. There is an inherent belief that to build anything, be it in the past, present or future, you need both engineers (sciences) and artists (humanities), hence the name Robot and Pencils. There is a 100-year business plan to support this, and employees are asked to make a 10-year commitment because life is too short for one-off deals and short-term thinking. Although an unorthodox approach, employees who understand they have 10 years together to accomplish great things do just that. What’s unique about the company is that it’s been designed to be a global, long-standing family business. I first discovered Robots and Pencils in 2012 at mobile learning summit at Olds College in Alberta, Canada. The college had partnered with them and the GoForth Institute to create Discover Entrepreneurship, a first-of-its-kind app that teaches entrepreneurial theory and skills through gamified course content. Robots and Pencils’ co-founder, Michael Sikorsky, presented the app and segwayed into a talk about the company’s empathetic design process. I was lucky enough to be seated next to Michael at the summit. We continued the conversation and it evolved into me making a choice to join them, which I did in mid-February. It was a very hard decision to leave my post (and team) at Seton Hill, but opportunities like this one might only come around once in a lifetime.
Question 3
Robot and Pencils has developed or co-developed more than 245 apps to date. Tell us about a few that made you say “Wow, this is cool” and became favorites. Discover Entrepreneurship is definitely one of my favorites; it’s what attracted me to the company in the first place. High fidelity simulations are needed in the education space, and this is a perfect example of merging gaming and learning into an engaging app that is fun to play and learn. It’s a marriage between course content delivered in interactive slides and a simulation of everyone’s first stab at their own business – a lemonade stand. One of Robots and Pencils’ most well-known apps is a new take on a classic 1980’s video game. Robots and Pencils bought the rights for Spy vs Spy from Warners Bros, launched their own version for the game in 2012, and subsequently hit the #1 spot in the App Store in the summer of 2012. However, the one product that really made me say “Wow, this is cool” is PencilCase™, an app maker and publishing platform that we’re currently developing and are expecting to launch later this year. I haven’t seen anything like it and knew immediately that Robots and Pencils was on to something big. With PencilCase, we’re putting app development in the hands of everyone, not just developers. By removing the need to code, we’ve created a platform that lets anyone pull their ideas, content and designs into a mobile app. Users can create apps quickly by dragging and dropping content in the AppMaker, and adding animations, visual effects and physics. Creators can then deploy their apps with one click of the publish button. Unlike do-it-yourself app creator and publishing platforms, there is no limit to the types of apps that users can create with PencilCase. While no coding is required to use the editor, those with the right skills can enhance a PencilCase App using JavaScript. To make this a full-stack platform, we also have Enterprise AppDrop, a customized, branded app store that delivers unparalleled distribution, content management and contextual filtering. Configured specifically for each organization, AppDrop empowers them to keep and distribute all of their apps, PDFs, ebooks, videos and other mobile content using one service. People who have seen the preview of PencilCase have been completely blown away by it. I think we’re on the path to completely changing the mobile market.

Phil Kormany

Phil Komarny is the CEO, USA, for Robots and Pencils making iPhone and iPad apps in use by more than 9 million people. Formerly the VP/CIO of Seton Hill University, he is a highly social, entrepreneurial, award winning senior executive with a 17-year track record of delivering innovative, high value solutions by aligning existing problems with emerging technologies.

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