John K. Burton, Ph.D.
Professor
I
nstructional Systems Development/Educational Psychology
Virginia Tech
Dr. Burton's Curriculum Vita

What is your highest degree?
Ph.D., Educational Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,1977

Could you describe how you got into the field of instructional technology?
Like much of my formal education and subsequent career, chance was probably the largest factor in my becoming involved in instructional technology. When I was a Ph.D. student at Nebraska I taught undergraduate educational psychology (and taught it and taught it). During my last year, I met Paul Merrill at a social gathering. Paul had just come from Florida State to work at the University of Mid America (UMA), a distance education consortium of several large mid-western universities housed in Lincoln. I subsequently went to work as a GA for UMA (much to the ire of my department head) and eventually went to work in the evaluation shop and stayed on for a while after graduation. With few exceptions, UMA was largely a Syracuse alumni operation. Gary Morrison, now at Memphis was also a GA at the time. A few years after I went to Virginia Tech to take a faculty position in Ed. Psych., Norm Dodl (who had most recently taught and "shopped" at Florida State) involved me as the document or of a large Teacher Corps project. My assignment involved me in needs assessment, formative/summative evaluation, and some design. As a result of the project, I purchased my first computer, (a "Trash 80" Model II - with 16K of memory!) and was soon hooked. Finally, because the Dean of the College of Education at Virginia Tech had decided that "Educational Psychology was not going to dominate his college" - he would not let us offer advanced degrees -we were strictly service. As a result, we combined with a library/media program that had a doctoral degree, but was in need of revitalizing and short on faculty bodies. I began working with Dr. Mike Moore and, in the past decade the program has grown to a respectable shop capped at about 30 full-time docs. The Docs, of course, drug me further from straight Ed Psych into more and more IT.

How would you describe your research agenda? How did you decide to research that area?
My research agenda can be described as two rather distinct thrusts driven (perhaps overly so) by the promotion and tenure process. When I arrived at Virginia Tech I was a hell of a psychologist (if I do say so myself) but, I knew next to nothing about education. My Bachelor's and Master's degrees were in psychology and my doctoral degree at Nebraska had no education courses out side of Educational Psychology. My background was heavily behavioral but my emphasis had been human learning and, at the time, behaviorism was considered out of vogue because it was (ironically) considered to be too descriptive. As a result, I began collaborating with colleagues such as Jerry Niles in reading. Together with various colleagues and students, we combined what I knew about such things as using latencies (reaction times) to a secondary task, what is now called "fast process" research, to gain insight into mental processes during prose learning while answering interspersed (mathemagenic) questions, etc. I published a few articles and book chapters in the IT area, but I became convinced that in order to be promoted to full professor, I had to hold a focus in Ed. Psych. In terms of promotion I'm still convinced it was the right decision. Interesting, although this thrust kept me out of a more active role in IT for several years, it solidified my grounding in the psychology of learning and ultimately my "slant" in IT.

What are two or three books or papers you have written that you believe are especially well done or interesting?
Of the books I've worked on, I'm probably most pleased by Multimedia and Megachange (1994) which I co-edited with W. Mike Reed at West Virginia and LiuMin at Texas-Austin. Mike was one of my first doctoral students and Min was one of his doctoral students. In a way, the book is very much a "family album" in that virtually all the authors did their degree work at either West Virginia under Mike or at Virginia Tech. In terms of articles/chapters, I am most proud of some of the literature reviews I have done. They are difficult and time consuming to do, but I generally learn the most from trying to synthesize the literature and, of course, it gives me a chance to put my "slant" on a large body of work. Two pieces I am particularly proud of are Computer Programming and Generalized Problem-Solving Skills (1988) with Susan Magliaro (then my graduate student now a faculty member at Virginia Tech), and Behavioral Design, Theory and Research (in press) with Mike Moore and Susan Magliaro. I think the former does a reasonable job of detailing the problems with all research in media although it is focused on using computers to increase problem solving. The behavioral review has just recently been completed so its difficult to say how it will "play." Certainly the topic is not popular. In a way, however, it brings me full circle in my career.

What are two or three books or papers by other people that you found very provocative or informative?
Outside of the area, the books that had the most impact on me (and I highly recommend for all graduate students) are Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and all of Douglas Adams work including his four-part "trilogy" of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and the Dirk Gently holistic detective series. Catch 22 I read for the first time when I was in the army and I thought it really was about the military. I have read it many times since, and I now see it as about all large institutions, including universities, corporations, etc. Douglas Adams has too many "pearls" to detail here but for someone starting out I recommend they pay particular attention to how he deals with number/statistics and the whole notion (central to Dirk Gently's approach) that if you just get started with the investigation, you may not get where you wanted to go, but you will probably get where you need to be. On the scholarly side, the works of B.F. Skinner, particularly Verbal Behavior (which for some reason he sold as a sophomore text and, in fact, the first time I read it was as a sophomore psychology student), The Technology of Teaching, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. In recent years, students have stopped reading Skinner and, as a result, he is probably the most misunderstood and misquoted individual in psychology, and education. I constantly hear people "quote" Skinner or "behaviorists" in a manner that indicates that they got what they "know" second or third hand. Skinner must be read a few times and no student should allow him or herself to miss his work. A second influence would be Dave Jonassen's recent works on social constructivism design and evaluation., In a very real sense, Dave's work allowed me to reconnect with Skinner and to connect Skinner with John Dewey and George Meade. Dave describes his own focus as eclectic, but he is arguably "the man" in our area. No one is better at translating new theory and philosophy into something meaningful for IT. If students are interested the future of IT research and theory, they should keep up with Jonassen's writing. He has been the bellwether for what will be, and, since his energy level doesn't seem to be much affected by the passage of time, will no doubt continue to fill that role in the future.

What practical work experience do you have in the IT field? What has been the relationship between work experience and research?
As I said earlier, I started with UMA as an evaluator and have served as an evaluator on several large projects (e.g., Teacher Corps). I have also served as a designer and programmer for several large projects including one in England (with a colleague, Colin Harrison from Nottingham University) to assess technical literacy. Currently, we are designing IT modules for delivery to teacher education students. I don't think you can ever get enough of doing it and, at least for me, it is the easiest way of mastering a new language, authoring system, technology, etc.: by hands-on.

Who are two or three people who have had the most important impact on your career?
I suppose it is traditional to credit your advisor when asked such a question, but it is true that to the extent that I've been successful in academia, Roger Brunning at Nebraska-Lincoln deserves the credit. He taught me how to conduct research and publish it and, more importantly, he taught me how to mentor graduate students and new faculty. At Virginia Tech, Mike Moore (who behind Frank Dwyer is probably as big as you get in visual learning) and Norm Dodl (who is the most logical and complete thinker and writer I have ever met and also the best at building, and milking, a budget I've ever encountered) have had a profound influence on me personally and our program generally. Dave Jonassen (now at Penn State) has been the most important outside influence in recent years, not only because of what he has written but because of what he has caused me to write (and rewrite). In both regards he's responsible for where I am today in terms of my view of the area. Our ISD graduate students generally, and those I have had the opportunity to work with specifically, had made it fun to come to work in the morning and taught me a great deal about IT (and life for that matter). I owe a great deal to all of them but particularly Sue Magliaro, Wayne Nelson, Mike Orey and Mike Reed

Could you describe one research project that you found particularly interesting or worthwhile? What made it so?
In terms of providing a lesson to me (and perhaps the younger folks reading this), I think the most worthwhile was a piece on mathemagenic questions I did years ago. Jerry Niles and I had done a cognitive capacity study that I presented at AERA in New York. I was very green and, because it was scheduled for a 4:00 session I assumed it would be poorly attended and therefore I was not well prepared. When I got to the session I realized that the only name I didn't recognize on the program was mine. Bruce Britton presented a piece on reading and a mathematical catastrophe model (really!). Ernie Rothkoff presented a study involving the measurement of 20,000 eye movements a second. Just (of Carpenter & Just) presented their model of reading. I literally don't remember the presentation I made. The place was packed and I was scared to death. Anderson (the reading guy, not one of the smart ones) was the discussant and "cooked" us all. Everyone except me responded (Rothkoff was really mad!) I just wanted to get out. Several years later I got a letter, I think from Tom Andre, asking me where we had published it. We hadn't. I had put it away and forgotten about it. Later we reworked it and published it in the Journal of Educational Psychology arguably an excellent journal. Several things can be learned from this. One, I never went into a presentation again without having my act together including overheads and a detailed outline - I never take presentations for granted no matter how old I get. Two, I learned that it is very easy to critique research in such a way that it can hurt graduate students and young faculty. (Anderson glibly characterized the four studies as model driven, date driven, paradigm driven, and theory driven - we were paradigm driven). I take the task of discussant very seriously and try to be as positive as possible "onstage" and share any real concerns with the author (s) away from the dais. Third, I don't take negative criticism or negative reviews too seriously. If I think the piece is good - I continue to work to get it out the door and into print.

What do you see as the future of IT?
Short term, at least, the future of IT looks rosy. Agencies tend to see IT as a way of increasing efficiency and effectiveness in a climate of diminishing resources. I worry that expectations are too high - that in the long term there will be a backlash. Again in the short-term however, we may see universities and schools realize that their expectations for teachers/faculty to develop software and devise models for using technology in the curriculum (which never made much sense to me) are unrealistic and they will turn to us for more direct involvement. Hopefully, business and industry will form more partnership with universities to out source their instructional/training needs in a way that helps both partners. Without such connections, the economic/political climate for universities doesn't look good. Philosophically, as you might expect, I see a resurgence of behaviorism as the logical outgrowth of the social constructivist movement. I see us turning away from structuralism back to functionalism/selectivism.

What advice do you have for IT researchers who are just beginning in the field?
1) Ideally, as a graduate student, you should find faculty to work with who are not only publishing but publishing with their students. The rumor mill is good on this; vitae are better. Start doing research with them early in the your program. Pay attention not only to publications, but also to whether the faculty you are looking at get their students "out the door" in a timely (3 or 4 year) manner. You will need publications, pre-doc, to hired at most research institutions.
2) Don't let the pipeline get empty. Always keep your research/writing going such that some is out being reviewed, some is in progress, some is planned, etc. The promotion and tenure timelines for assistants in short and the lag time to publication is long. If the pipeline dries up, you will not have time to restart.
3) Stay focused/related early in your career. It is very hard to "get into" anew body of literature. Build a bibliography and stay with it, at least until you are promoted the first time.
4) Much is made of sole publications and indeed a couple are a good idea, but as an assistant professor you should look for a mentor; a senior collaborator. If you can find someone early who knows how to publish, how to find resources internally, how to write grants, etc., it will make life a lot easier.
5) Connect with sources inside and outside the university who need development work even if initially it comes out of your "hide." Worse case you'll learn from it and probably publish, best case you'll connect for the future when it's not out of hide.
6) Avoid internal politics/governance early in your career. Minorities are particularly "jumped on early" in this regard. Do only what you are advised to do to get promoted. Don't get flattered into being on search committees, curriculum committees, etc. that take a lot of time with little or no pay off. Your job is to do research, present it, and publish it. Let the old folks who are paid the big bucks worry about the tedious and incredibly dull aspects of running the university, college, and departments. You'll get more than your share of it before your career is over, I promise.
7) If your institution has a doctoral program, avoid taking on the chair of a committee for the first few years and preferably until you make associate. It is a huge responsibility and you don't know enough (no matter what you think) or have the time, to do it well. Never forget how it was when you were a graduate student and treat your own accordingly. It amazes me, for example, how many faculty run search committees as if they can't remember how it feels to look for a job. Treat graduate students as colleagues to be mentored rather than annoyances to be hazed. We are not a Greek social group. We have no secret handshakes. We are a profession that depends on the ideas and energy of our young people to move forward. Think down the road until when your students are asked the questions that I have been asked here. Twenty years after the fact will your students credit you as I have credited my advisor? Will your more junior colleagues credit you as I have credited the more senior colleagues that I worked with at Virginia Tech. You won't lose any "power" if you don't bully people - they'll still know who you are and where you stand in the pecking order - but you'll get a lot more out of them, and the advisor/advisee relationship, if you never think, let alone act, like you are superior.