New Way of Learning

New Way of Learning

GMU professor wins state career award.

Ever since she bought her first Apple TRS-81, technology has fascinated Dr. Priscilla Norton. Now, as a professor in the instructional technology department at George Mason University, Norton is dedicated to bringing technology and education together for the future. The Loudoun County resident won an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia (SCHEV) for her work and recently sat down to answer some questions about herself.

How long have you lived in the area and what brought you here? I moved here in 1997 to take the job here at George Mason after 13 years at the University of New Mexico. That puts me now in my 10th academic year here.

Family: I am married. I have a husband who is a systems analyst. We have no children but we have a large extended family with lots of children we adopt. They come to visit us for summers.

Education: My undergraduate degree is from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. My master's degree is from what was called Oregon College of Education, it's now Western Oregon State University. I went to United States International University in San Diego, Calif. for my doctorate. That was at the time a very innovative Southern-California university. It was accredited, but it was experimental with a heavy emphasis on trans-disciplinary studies.

Describe the instructional techology department. As a faculty group, we really focus on three emphases, we call them tracks. Track one is instructional systems design, and it really is targeted more toward the adult learner, workplace, corporate governmental design of learning opportunities ... Track two focuses on the integration of technology into K-12 classrooms. Track three is adaptive assistive technology and it focuses on populations with special needs. My main focus is track two, so most all of my work is with K-12 teachers, my publications deal with "how can we use technology to support learners?" But I also do track-one kinds of things in the sense that I'm now working collaboratively with three school divisions and George Mason to build a virtual high school. Activities/interests/hobbies: Freud talks about the difference between a job and work. A job is what you do to earn money to take care of your life. Work is what you do, that you can't not do, that is related to your passions and concerns. A lot of what I do falls into that "work" category. I do a lot of writing, I do a lot of publications, articles, I have books that I've written. While they're contributions to the field, in many ways you're talking to yourself. It's a way of working things out. And it's something I enjoy doing, it's not just because it's my responsibility as a professor.

What is the approach you take in the classroom? Technology is a driver of change; it's not responsible for change but it drives change. One of the consequences of this change is a difference in how we think about truth, how we think and use information, how we work together collaboratively, the nature of knowledge itself. The compelling question, to me, is: how do we prepare our K-12 students? If the culture is a bit different than when we designed schools 100 years ago, then we need to really think about the redesign of schools ... what we have to do is figure out how to use a body of shared knowledge as a vehicle for teaching students to be good problem-solvers and innovators and decision-makers.

Community "hidden treasures:" There are hidden treasures in schools like you wouldn't believe. There are teachers doing remarkable things against remarkable odds.

What is playing on your stereo right now? Right now, an audiobook. There's not much music. I'm very interested in the work of Norah Jones these days.

What is the last book you read or the last movie you watched? I have multiple books going on ... a wonderful book called "Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning," an analysis of what kids take and learn from playing video games, and a new book by a man called Don Tabscott called "Wikinomics," and he looks at the way in which businesses and corporations are leveraging the power of wikis to do collaborative creation. In the domain of fiction, I've recently found an author whose last name is Fford. He posits characters who go into books and keeps the storylines in line.

Did you always want to teach? Actually, no. As an undergraduate I came home for Thanksgiving after taking the first education course and swore like any young adolescent that I would never teach. I actually came to teaching from the back door. I was interested in children with emotional problems and autism ... in preparing for [the special education route], in the state of Oregon the rule was you had to be a regular classroom teacher first. I worked at a residential center for emotionally disturbed adolescents, and then in the public schools for about nine years ... then I bought an Apple TRS-81 out of Time magazine. I learned how to use it and started hanging out with a few fringe people who were also into it. Hippies-gone-geek is really the story.

If you could go on a road trip anywhere right now, where would you go? My parents and my husband and I every summer take a cruise ... this past summer we did a cruise through the Baltic area, and we're booked for a cruise through Alaska this year.

Personal goals: I have writing goals. My first goal is to continue to expand the work that we're doing with the Virtual High School, making sure that more students come to recognize it and similar programs as options. I have plans to write a book that tells the story of the whole project, how we came together, how we formed the collaboration across school districts and universities, how we pulled this all off without needing to do big grant funds. And then someday I'm going to retire, but I don't know when.

— Lea Mae Rice