The first computer lab for psychology students had just been initiated in 1992 when Professor Jeffrey Graham, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, was hired to design the lab curriculum for the course PSY100 – Introductory Psychology. He had been writing and developing educational software projects since high school, so Graham assisted in developing an operant-conditioning simulation called “Psycho Mouse,” an early version of today’s “Sniffy the Virtual Rat.”
With his research area primarily based in cognitive arithmetic, Graham originally started developing software that would accelerate the learning of math by tailoring the curriculum according to each student’s individual abilities. However the research focus for him these days involves the creation of adaptive learning software. “What we’re using in PSY100 now is an offshoot of a tiny little program that used to fit on a floppy disk for teaching kids arithmetic,” says Graham.
In 2002, with financial support from the Instructional Technology Courseware Development Fund (ITCDF), Graham and his colleagues were able to run the adaptive learning software in PSY100, giving birth to inventions that would later turn into educational software for various purposes. Once Graham communicated the details of his software to the University of Toronto, the Innovations & Partnerships Office picked up on the invention and assisted with its commercialization in 2006. The result is a company called DeckChair Learning Systems that provides the software for students in PSY100 today. The software is a “tool” or a “word processor” to help others to teach online more effectively, says Graham.
The CEO of DeckChair Learning Systems is Allan Sura, a friend from Graham’s high school days at the University of Toronto Schools where they learned to program in Fortran on a card-reading mainframe computer. Sura helped develop Sniffy the Virtual Rat, as well as the arithmetic training software, and is a co-author of the patent under review for the online learning software project.
Although there are a multitude of applications for research with the software he has developed, Graham does not really see himself as a researcher. “I’m a developer,” says Graham. “My research is in adaptive learning software. [The University] is encouraging us to make a tool that’s really useful…not just in PSY100. It’s going to be useful from kindergarten to old-folks’ homes.”
Graham juggles both teaching the PSY100 lab component (which comprises 22 lab sections), developing Sniffy the Virtual Rat and, for the last few years, acting as Chief Scientist for DeckChair. Thus far, the company has provided the technology for academia, sports training and, recently, corporate training purposes, which now makes up the company’s largest market.
DeckChair Learning Systems also currently has a contract with the Ontario Hockey League to train sports officials, such as referees. DeckChair hopes to be part of the delivery platform for the online learning research team at Seneca College, Canada’s biggest pilot-training school, providing simulation technology to test pilots and train them to teach students.
The Seneca College Aviation Project is only the beginning. Graham describes the technology as a “skyscraper” of which he and his team only laid the foundation. In the next five years, Graham aims to continue building his invention with his team at DeckChair Learning Systems, which consists of a few business partners and three programmers.
“A small team of us [at DeckChair] are trying to keep this ship afloat and the University of Toronto has been beside us all along to help commercialize all of that,” says Graham. “We have a massive vision. Every few months, we’re coming up with new ideas. The applications are just huge. Our challenge is to find ways to teach people that type of material in a way that isn’t just a page-turner.”
Graham, whose extracurricular interests range from rock-and-roll music to archaeology and ancient civilizations, is now coming up to his nineteenth year at UTM, which he calls “a beautiful little gem of a campus.” His vision for DeckChair is often shifting with the discovery of new avenues and possibilities for further innovations, and he feels “blessed with a team of people who are fun to be with,” says Graham. “One of our biggest problems is that we grin so much our cheeks start to hurt.”
By Larissa Ho