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There is a common thread spanning across James Collins’ personal and professional life: storytelling. Hailing from the U.S. Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution before that, James is on the frontline of education innovation. With a constant eye towards improvement, James has made it their mission to tell the stories that so often go untold. Their belief that storytelling can both inspire imagination and minimize digital inequity is the foundation upon which they forge new relationships and partnerships in his role as Director of Strategic Partnerships and Government Relations at FableVision Studios.

According to James, “People have a habit of repeating the same stories over and over again. Familiar stories are comforting, but education asks us to look more broadly at the world. Where are the stories of those who do not have a voice? The underserved school districts in rural states and on tribal lands, the non-profits working to protect vulnerable populations, the scientists and think tanks trying to turn their research into a call to action… These stories can be easy to forget, but it is vital that they are shared. I would love to work with anyone who feels that their story is not being told.”

Roll the dice and draw a card to learn about how James is building a home for FableVision in Washington D.C., their goals to push the boundaries of storytelling in his new role, and their tabletop game recs!

James, tell us about your journey to FableVision!
When I was a kid, I played a lot of DOOM. My mother (an engineer) bought me my first computer science book and challenged me to do something more than just shoot demons. I learned how to hack the game and realized that I had more fun building, exploring, and coding than I did shooting. My path since then has focused on finding ways to change the narrative. We learn from every game that we play – why not learn something beautiful? We tell stories every day – why not tell ones that inspire?

I knew that I wanted to work with a team that understood that.

James and the team at the U.S. Department of Education participating in the #ReadWhereYouAre campaign.

James and the team at the U.S. Department of Education participating in the #ReadWhereYouAre campaign.

You talk a lot about stories. How has your love of stories shaped your professional path?
When I worked at the Smithsonian, we devoted a huge amount of resources to telling the stories of physical objects. Curators, exhibits, special events. The digitization crew there was just starting to really convert some of those physical objects into digital ones. But what do you do with those? How do you tell the story of a digital rock?

For me, the answer was clear. Museums put objects into context. A rock in a glass container is interesting just as a rock. A rock in a prehistoric forest with dinosaurs grazing nearby tells a more meaningful story. With technology, we are not bound by physical limitations. We can hang a painting on a digital wall in a digital museum, but we can just as easily show Picasso hiding that painting from the Gestapo as he lives in 1940s Paris. Which is going to fire the imagination more? Which is going to help us better understand our role in history and the importance of art in times of darkness? How does the approach change the connection we have with objects?

I took some of that same perspective with me to the Department of Education where we wrote vision documents including the National Education Technology Plan and a joint policy brief on using education technology for early learners. Each focuses on positive stories and principles being used out in the field today. We even hosted a story map telling the stories of all of the amazing work that schools are doing across the United States.

Our world revolves around stories. Stories that matter, stories that move.

Image by Darren Milligan licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

Image by Darren Milligan licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

You worked in education technology for the U.S. Department of Education and the Smithsonian prior to joining the FableVision team – how were they different?
I worked as a liaison across all of the offices at the Department. At one point, I was leading our work on early learning, informal learning, and broadband/school infrastructure. Those can look unrelated from the outside, but what you begin finding is how interconnected education is. For example: what about a preschool that partners with a museum to create new learning experiences for their students? That’s an amazing partnership for a preschool near a museum, but what about those that are in rural areas without a strong museum presence? Improving broadband infrastructure could provide a similar experience to those disadvantaged students.

At the Smithsonian, we would ask the same question: how can the children of Maryland, Michigan, and Montana all have a meaningful experience with the Smithsonian’s collections? It shouldn’t matter whether you were born in Baltimore, Detroit, or Billings.

Even though we asked similar questions, we would approach them in different ways. At the Smithsonian, we would partner with outstanding youth organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of America, 4-H, or the Girl Scouts to reach children where they already were. At the Department, we would find ways for those organizations and others to work together to advance equity in education more broadly.

I am looking forward to working with more of those partners now that I am here at FableVision, and I am thrilled to be associated with FableVision’s studio so that we can build the tools, experiences, and stories that we have been dreaming up.

James pictured here with the Office of Ed Tech and Education Secretary John King

James pictured here with the Office of Ed Tech and Education Secretary John King

Where do you see the future of ed tech going?
Full disclosure: My research background is in machine learning, so I am biased toward data, data, data.

If I had to guess, I would say that a significant seachange will be when highly individualized technologies like blockchain and broad state-wide data systems begin working together. At that point, you will be able to capture a full picture of a learner’s trajectory.

As former Education Secretary John King once said to me, data can reveal inequity. I believe that using and capturing data smartly (and with adequate privacy safeguards!) will show us the path to removing institutional barriers to education.

As a parent, you have a front row seat to observing how media can influence children’s education – what are some ways you incorporate ed tech in your personal life?
The important part isn’t the technology, it’s being present in the moment. We love walking through the forest when it’s muddy, looking for squirrels and birds. We love trying to dance ballet while we watch Swan Lake on our tablet. And we love making troll pizza in Zoombinis too!

Whatever the format, we look for experiences that we can share together.

This March, you’re taking wing at SXSW EDU! What’s warranting this exciting trip?
Two years ago, I led a roundtable at SXSW EDU on game-based assessment. We had an amazing group of educators, students, corporations, non-profits, and others join us. That conversation showed me how valuable SXSW EDU and other conferences can be at bringing together people who don’t normally get an opportunity to collaborate. I am looking forward to meeting even more new people and finding ways to connect more of this wide-ranging community together.

I have to give a special shout-out to The Tribe of educators that will be out there too. Being able to meet up with so many expert teachers using games in the classroom is always energizing.

James’ Favorites:

The "Tribe" of Game-Based Educators

The "Tribe" of Game-Based Educators

Classic Tabletop Game: Diplomacy
Released in 1959, this light WWI simulation was Kissinger and Kennedy’s favorite game. It’s completely luck-free (a rarity for war games), and it even has a Youngstown, Ohio variant (my hometown)!

New-Cool Game: Gloomhaven
I’m on the bandwagon on this one. Gloomhaven is 20 lbs. of epic, strategy-based dungeon crawling.

Museum in the D.C. area: The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building
A&I was the first national museum ever opened – and has just been reopened with an eye toward innovative, tech-infused programming. I’m so excited to see what living, breathing exhibits they share with the world.

Most recommended D.C. restaurant: The Board Room
How could I not recommend Dupont Circle’s only board game bar?

Fantastical world you wish you could vacation in: Stardew Valley
I hear they have really good produce.

Must-listen video game soundtrack: Chrono Cross
But an honorable mention to the underappreciated Baten Kaitos OST.

Item that’s always within reach of your desk: A ready to play copy of Quarto!
See how I snuck in another tabletop reference?

Catch James Collins and the Rest of the FableVision Team at
SXSW EDU 2018! 


Join FableVision’s Peter Stidwill and Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Andrew MacCartney and Laura Evans as they discuss the intricacies and production process behind the award-winning Georgia Race Through Time game at SXSW EDU!

Immersive Learning: Teaching History Through GBL
When: March 5 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Room 17B, Austin Convention Center