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Education professor wins prestigious book award

May 26, 2010

When James Klein decided 25 years ago to make a career switch from being an elementary school teacher to being a university professor, he didn’t realize he would be expected to do research and publish in addition to teach.

Now, Klein is one of the leading scholars in his field.

A professor of educational technology in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Klein has won a prestigious award for a book he co-wrote with Rita Richey of Wayne State University. The book, “Design and Development Research,” received the James W. Brown Publication Award from the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

Publications are selected for the award based on their significance to and potential impact on the field of instructional technology. Overall professional and technical quality also are important factors.

Klein first decided to study instructional design and technology when it was described to him as a cross between education, psychology and communication. He had an interest in all three disciplines, so he knew it would be a good fit.

“What we’re really about in this field is looking at human learning and performance to discover how we can best enhance people’s ability to be motivated to learn, and then to apply that to their job or their life,” Klein said. “We use a lot of processes and tools to help them do those things.”

Klein has focused his research in three primary areas. The first, active learning strategies, involves using techniques such as collaboration, problem-based learning and gaming to get students actively involved in their own learning. The second, performance improvement, involves applying concepts about learning to help people perform better at their jobs.The third is design and development research. That involves conducting research studies on learning and performance to determine what actually works.

Before publishing his award-winning book on the subject, Klein noted that there was a dearth of research in the field. While serving as development editor for the journal Educational Technology Research and Development, he saw that few authors were submitting empirical data to support their theories and ideas.

“At the time, there were a lot of people talking about how to design good online learning, for example,” said Klein. “But very few people were collecting any data to show that it was actually impacting learning and motivation.”

Klein began advocating for more empirical research. That led to his co-authoring a chapter in the "Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology," considered the bible for his field. That chapter was so well-received that Klein and his co-author, Rita Richey of Wayne State University, were persuaded to write an entire book on the subject.

“We would go to conferences and meetings, and people would say, ‘You really ought to write a book on this stuff. One chapter isn’t enough; we want more,” Klein said. “So partly out of a labor of love, we said we were going to write this book.”

Published in 2007, the book was named outstanding book in the field of instructional design in 2008 by the design and development division of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. In 2009, it won the AECT’s James W. Brown Award as outstanding publication in the entire field of educational technology.

“The book serves as an excellent means of helping researchers identify important research issues, and it provides researchers with the skills necessary to conduct that research,” said Robert Reiser, distinguished teaching professor and Robert M. Morgan Professor of Instructional Systems at Florida State University, who recommended the book for the award.

Klein has already noticed that, since the book’s publication, more doctoral dissertations are incorporating design and development research. That gives him hope that more research-based journal articles will follow.

“The goal is to get people to actually do this kind of research,” he said. “Our field is an empirical field. If you believe that, you collect data to see whether or not the techniques and tools you are using are having an impact.”

Klein’s own impact as a scholar extends well beyond one book. In an article published last fall, he was cited as the third most-productive author in the field’s leading journal during its first 20 years. Klein was first, second or third author on a total of 17 articles in ETR&D from 1988 to 2008.

His influence clearly has far exceeded his original aim. Back when Klein first set out to earn his doctorate, after teaching in the K-12 system, he had a single focus in mind. He wanted to teach teachers.

“When I was teaching elementary school, I got the sense that everybody was always telling teachers what to do,” recalls Klein. “Teachers weren’t being treated as professionals. So I decided that I’d go back, get my doctorate and be one of those people who would help teachers know the best things to do in their classrooms.

“While I still do that,” he said, “I do much more than that as a faculty member. Luckily, I enjoy all of it.”

Written by Barby Grant