Interview | Jason Ohler, Digital Humanist

Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus, speaker, writer, teacher, researcher and lifelong digital humanist. Well known for his passion, insight and humor, Jason has worked for more than 25 years helping to usher students into the Digital Age. He passionately promotes “Art, the Next R” in reinventing teaching and learning with innovation, creativity and digital know-how. He is a champion of safe and wise use of technology by students, so that they might become informed and productive citizens in a global digital society. The author of numerous articles, books and teacher resources, Jason continues to work with teachers, administrators and students. A futurist, he is actually more a nowist—working to help educators use today’s tools to create ideal living and learning environments. His most recent book, Digital Community, Digital Citizen, is available through Corwin Press and on Amazon.

Victor: As an educational expert and more specifically as an educational technology expert, tell me a little about yourself and your educational philosophy and/or mission.

Jason: A number of beliefs drove me in educational technology. First, I believed from the earliest days of desktop computing that the technology revolution affects everyone and therefore should involve everyone; it shouldn’t be limited to corporations, large organizations and the government; it should empower the non-tech people of the world, particularly teachers, so that everyone can have a say about how the digital world evolves. This is how we keep our eye on the ball, digital humanism.

Second, I always wanted a perspective in my program that promoted understanding technology’s impacts. I didn’t want my program to produce rampant technophiles, but rather teachers who understood technology’s limitations, as well as its opportunities. I wanted graduates who could balance these. I was fortunate to have Marshall McLuhan as a teacher during the 1970s, and he helped me understand that there is no such thing as “neutral technology.” All technology comes imbued with bias and social perspective. I wanted my students to understand this, as well as have a great time using new tools with their students.

Later on, as the software evolved, a third primary belief emerged, and that is the meta-message of the digital age is that finally everyone gets to tell their own story in their own way, and to do so on the great stage of the internet. Because of the vast opportunities offered by multimedia tools – many of which are free and easy to use – everyone has a voice.

In terms of the program I helped to establish, I saw a need early on, and helped create one of the earliest online master’s degree programs in educational technology in response to desktop computing in classroom in the early 1980’s. At that time I knew computers weren’t an educational fad, but were here to stay, evolve and become more and more a part of the educational landscape. I received funding through University of Alaska (where I was living at the time) to create this program, even before the IBM PC was out.  Our first computer lab consisted of Lexitrons, Apple IIes and dumb terminals hooked to the mainframe. I have been involved in this field for 30 years.

Victor: You recently published, Digital Community, Digital Citizen. What was your motivation for writing this book? Tell me about this experience. Who is it particularly tailored for? What did you learn in the process? What research or indicators did you look at when creating this book? What does ‘going digital’ really mean?

Jason: If everyone finally gets to tell their own story then suddenly we need ask ourselves- so, what’s our story? As I mentioned earlier, from the earliest days of the master’s degree I directed, I insisted on including a course on the social impact(s) of technology, which have now spread to new domains. Students now need to navigate a much broader social mediascape, which embraces many time zones, cultures; in addition they need to embrace the real and virtual, and somehow integrate these. Out of these concerns has emerged “digital citizenship” as a new area of inquiry and opportunity for K-12.

My book addresses this area, but looks at how to help people assess technology’s impacts, how to “see” technology clearly on balance; it addresses essentially “character education” for the digital age, and about how school boards can take a fresh look at the needs of K-12 students in terms of helping them develop digital skills and perspectives needed in the 21st century.

This is sixth book I’ve written. The first book I wrote, Taming the Beast, addressed some of these issues. I was very gratified when it Neil Postman, Howard Gardner and Howard Rheingold offered to write quotations for the cover of that book . This gave currency to me as a writer and I went on to write five more books; I am currently co-authoring a book about what Leonardo da Vinci can teach us about the digital age. This should be out in the late Fall.

Victor: Where can the book be purchased? Have you authored other books?  

Jason: You can find all of my publications through a link on my website at http://www.jasonohler.com/, or go directly to Amazon.

Major titles include:

Digital Community, Digital Citizen. This is the book referenced above. (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1412971446)

Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity. This has been widely adopted as a guide to having students create new media in the classroom. (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1412938503)

Then What? Everyone’s Guide to Living, Learning and Having Fun in the Digital Age. This is a novel about the future of technology and learning; in many ways it is my favorite, a fun rollercoaster of a book that allowed me practice my art of fiction writing. (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0971182418)

Victor: Of course you’re involved in several projects most recently, Stories of Culture and Place.  Can you describe this project and it’s goals/achievements?

Jason: At the University of Alaska, I was given the position of the President’s Professor, an internal distinguished professor’s position, which freed me to pursue those projects that were near and dear to my heart. First and foremost that involved helping teachers in the classroom who wanted to use new media narrative- this involves students creating digital stories, movies and other kinds of narrative in ways that supported what they are learning. That program, Stories of Culture and Place, I am happy to say won WCET Outstanding Work Award.

Other projects are almost too numerous to mention, but include project evaluation of online learning projects, 1 to 1 laptop initiatives, and numerous educational technology grants. In addition, it involves my work in Fielding Graduate University Media Psychology Ph.D. program. Also, I work with rehabilitation centers, helping clients use digital storytelling and new media narrative as part of their rehabilitation process. And I am on a plane a lot, keynoting internationally about all these topics.

Victor: I understand you’re in great demand as a consultant, workshop presenter and keynote speaker. Tell us about the master’s degree program you’re developing now.

Jason: In partnership with NaMaYa PD, I’m trying to capture in 4-6 courses the most important skills and perspectives that I think teachers need to be responsive to the needs of 21st century students and citizens. This includes, developing skills in social media and new media narrative and using these thoughtfully in order to advance their students in the 21st century mindset and skill set. Everything in the degree program is embedded in the reality of teaching K-12 students. It is designed to help teachers not only use digital tools but also use them effectively, creatively and wisely and to teach their students to do so as well. This is a worthwhile effort that I am very happy to be part of. My courses will be available beginning in June. Please look for them at www.namayapd.com.

Victor: What do you hope to do or plan to do in the next one to five years?

Jason: More of the same: keynoting, workshops, consulting, writing! As I mentioned above, I’m co-authoring another book called Learning Leonardo, which is consuming my immediate attention, along with a chapter in the Oxford Handbook on Media Psychology. I hope to find more time to do my own music, media, and other artistic media projects that have been on the back burner way too long. Above all, I plan to continue to promote what I call digital humanism.

Victor: Any advice or final thoughts you want to leave us with?

Jason: NaMaYa is to be commended for its efforts in putting together the educational technology masters degree. It is not easy to capture a moving target, like the world of evolving technology, and present it to teachers in a way that is helpful and understandable. But the program I am creating with NaMaYa does as good job as I have seen, given the number and hours of the courses. Teachers will walk away with an excellent foundation for using technology with digital kids in their classrooms.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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