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Dr. Jerome Johnston: Riding the Technology Wave

Jere Johnston
"As teachers, we have to take students through experiences where they realize that, yes, they can learn and they begin to take ownership for their own learning."

"The latest books about how people learn math and science show that the entire process is one of discovery. We can help people learn, but we can't tell them. Education becomes providing opportunities for discovery. Technology has the potential to guide learners, but we have to have good teachers to go with it."

Biography
Long before cell phones and iPods were ubiquitous, before video games were childhood necessities and PDAs reminded us of our next appointment, even before rooms were designed around televisions, Jere Johnston was intrigued by technology.

As a child, Johnston discovered ham radio and its potential to connect people who had similar interests but were separated geographically. Johnston talked with people he could never have met otherwise and quickly grasped the power behind the technology.

Then television came along. Like other kids, Johnston was caught up in the fun and escape from reality this one-eyed addition offered, oblivious that in education circles, television was being heralded as a silver bullet that could open the doors of learning to everyone and cure myriad social ills in the process.

Then computers arrived, mesmerizing Johnston with their seemingly infinite potential. Johnston plunged in to the exciting technology, learning all he could about the new marvels and their potential to revolutionize the future.

Meanwhile, Johnston was busy getting a formal education. Despite his intrigue with everything technological, after graduating from high school, Johnston chose a career path that was focused more on the past than the future. He decided to major in history.

After graduating from Yale in 1963, a young Johnston began teaching high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While teaching from 1963-1965, Johnston was intrigued once more-this time by the educational process. Deciding to return to school himself, Johnston enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned his master's degree in social psychology, then completed a Ph.D in education and psychology.

His study of psychology gave him an understanding of the learning process. He soon realized that learning was not synonymous with memorization but rather occurred when an individual created his or her own understanding of the meaning of information.

In the 1970s, Johnston found himself studying television and its potential for educational change. For the first time, his interest in technology melded perfectly with his newfound interest in education and psychology. It was back to the future for Johnston.

In 1975, Johnston began studying Freestyle--a national television series created by KCET in Los Angeles. Funded by the Department of Education, the series attempted to follow the educational model established by Sesame Street but use material designed for children in grades 4-6.

In the 1980s, Johnston researched an array of matters involving television and education. He looked at how television might improve mental health of teens. He delved into television's potential for teaching and for learning. In the late 1980s, he even researched various computer programs and their ability to promote learning. The one constant was that his work focused on how technology could aid in the education of children.

A new venture in the mid 1990s shifted that focus from children to adults.

"I got involved in doing research on Crossroads Café--a television series for immigrants trying to learn English," Johnston recalls. "I was fascinated with the different challenges posed by the adult learner."

Johnston then did a series of studies for TV411-a television series for adults who had bad educational experiences and dropped out of school in junior high or sooner. The experience produced some strong insights on literacy and education.

"What the Internet has really allowed is for asynchronous communication to take place very easily. Teachers can almost never come together at the same time (synchronous communication), but most of them can find two hours in their schedule to correspond by e-mail (asynchronous communication). That is the advantage of the Internet and e-mail. The teachers can do this on their own schedule."

Views on Literacy
"At some point, everyone has to recognize that yes, they can learn and that learning is an opportunity you make for yourself," Johnston says. "It is not someone else's responsibility to make the difference. As learners we are in charge of our own learning. As teachers, we have to take students through experiences where they realize that, yes, they can learn and they begin to take ownership for their own learning."

Along the way, Johnston has also been involved in evaluating other products designed for adult learners such as LiteracyLink® Workplace Essential Skills and GED Connection, educational products that combine print, television, and computers to help adults learn.

Today Johnston has a new challenge called Project IDEAL and a new focus—the professional development of those who teach adults.

Project IDEAL is a consortium of states working to develop effective distance education programs for adult learners. Located at University of Michigan, the innovative program helps member states by developing training materials and Web-based tools. Johnston and his team also provide technical support in the areas of research design, data collection, data analysis, and reporting.

As head of Project IDEAL, Johnston's official title is now senior senior research Professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

"I am trying to understand how we can use the Internet and other forms of virtual support to keep teachers engaged in a careful examination of their teaching behavior," Johnston says. "We assume that teaching at a distance is a very different form of teaching.

Therefore, new skills need to be learned. Learning those skills requires more than a one-day workshop. It requires on-going opportunities to learn new skills and practice them."

Accordingly, Johnston has developed three on-line courses about distance learning and is continually evaluating those courses to see how they help or don't help teachers.

"Technology came along and offered a great deal of promise," Johnston says, "but that promise has been unproven. Many people had hoped technology was going to be a silver bullet that could do what human teachers were unable to do. But research has shown that good technology is most effective when coupled with good teachers."

In fact, Johnston says that you can't capture good teaching entirely in technology.

Still, technology has proven an effective tool in many cases. The Internet is a good example. "What the Internet has really allowed is for asynchronous communication to take place very easily," Johnston says. "Teachers can almost never come together at the same time (synchronous communication), but most of them can find two hours in their schedule to correspond by e-mail (asynchronous communication). That is the advantage of the Internet and e-mail. The teachers can do this on their own schedule."

This is especially important for adult education teachers because many work part-time, Johnston notes.

"We only ask the teachers for two hours a week," he says. "They can do the work on their own time and at their own location rather than trying to take two days off and travel somewhere. That allows many more people to participate. I think the advantage of Project IDEAL is having so many states exposed to best practices in professional development because of this involvement. Our model of professional development really fits into the teachers' life patterns."

The heart of the model is the study group where a small group of teachers do case studies of their most difficult teaching/learning problems. Perhaps a student hasn't been able to grasp a new concept such as fractions or citizenship and the teacher needs help analyzing what the problem is and brainstorming innovative solutions. The group offers assistance and support to one another.

"We certainly didn't invent the study group here," Johnston notes. "Study groups apply to teaching in any setting. Their unique quality is that rather than an expert trying to tell teachers what they need to know, the teacher looks at his or her own behavior and identifies problems. The new skills and understanding that result mean much more to the teacher because they own both the problem and its solution."

The results so far have been encouraging.

"One of the things we found is that teachers identify study groups as one of the most important forms of professional development they have ever had," Johnston says. "After engaging in study groups for as little as 20 hours a large percent of the teachers report that they have a real change of understanding about how to teach a particular topic."

Official results from this research will be available on-line this fall at http://projectideal.org

A second aspect of Project IDEAL is looking at the conditions under which adults can learn on their own, according to Johnston. What are the requirements of distance learners? What conditions need to be in place to make the educational process work for a distance learner?

The answers to these questions are going to be increasingly important, according to Johnston because as Congress provides more money for adult education, there are going to be more strings attached to the dollars, mirroring what has happened with K-12 education and the No Child Left Behind legislation.

"We have the potential in a small way for distance teachers to be more effective than they would be otherwise," Johnston says. "Distance teaching can be frustrating for a teacher. It is much more difficult to figure out how to help a learner when you don't have the learner sitting in front of you. What these study groups are helping teachers do is to hone their skills of teaching 'blind'-helping a student learn when they can't go to the blackboard to explain a difficult concept or read a student's face to see if they understand."

Johnston believes that teaching students at a distance will help teachers put more responsibility for learning on the learner, and that this will ultimately help the learner become more self-directed in their educational pursuits.

"The role of the teacher is to check to see that the learner knows how to make sense of this material," he says. "When you have three students, each will come to understanding in their own way. Your approach may work for one of those students. The secret of good teaching is to find out what is standing in the way of learning for students two and three."

And that is a process of discovery for both teacher and student.

"The latest books about how people learn math and science show that the entire process is one of self-discovery," Johnston says. "We can't short-circuit the process by simply telling students what others have figured out. We can help people learn, but we can't tell them. Education becomes providing opportunities for discovery. Technology can help, but we have to have good teachers to go with it."

Meet some other Forum guests.

Questions and Answer Forum
Visitors to the website are invited to e-mail literacy-related questions to Jerome Johnston. You can read his answers on the website now.


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