John K. Burton, Ph.D.
Instructional Systems Development/Educational
Burton's Curriculum Vita
What is your highest degree?
Educational Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,1977
Could you describe how you got into the field of
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?
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?
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?
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
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
What practical work experience do you have in the
IT field? What has been the relationship between work experience and research?
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?
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
What do you see as the future of IT?
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.