Somewhere between a Rockstar, a researcher and an educator: a look into the world of instructional communications with Dr. Zac Johnson

By Erika Ortiz, Emily Lopez, Stephanie Viramontes, and Cody Sargenti

Dr. Zac Johnson

In an attempt to gain better insight into the world of communications research, we sat down with Dr. Zac Johnson, a professor at California State University, Fullerton who specializes in instructional research and student communication. Johnson has been part of research on student confirmation and the effect having a camera on in a Zoom class has on student learning. Johnson opens up to us about what peaked his interest in this field, what problems are brought into it in a post-COVID era, and how he researches these problems himself.

Becoming a communications researcher and the problems facing the field today:

Besides being an educator, Johnson is also a researcher known for examining the ways in which students and teachers communicate among one another. Johnson’s interest as a researcher or even the study of human communication studies was not something he discovered early on. 

“No one starts college saying, ‘I want to major in [human communication studies].’ It’s something people find later in life,” Johnson said.

 Like many college students, Johnson spent his first two years as an undergraduate drifting–not knowing exactly what he wanted to do in life. The dreams and ambitions were endless for him, ranging anywhere from becoming a rockstar to a student affairs administrator. It wasn’t until the second half of his junior year, after consulting a mentor and now friend, that he had realized that he wanted to major in human communication studies. 

After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in human communication studies, Johnson had an even more difficult time realizing he wanted to become a communications researcher. Johnson returned to school to pursue a Master’s degree in student affairs at the University of Tennessee. 

Still unsatisfied with his role in student affairs, he quickly understood what he truly wanted was to be in the classroom, which resulted in his aquisition of a Doctorate in communications and, in-turn, influenced him in becoming a communications researcher. The consistent appeal of student affairs and his involvement on campus, drew Johnson toward his focus on student communication research. 

“I wasn’t meant to be a researcher. There were three people in my class and two of them were going to go be really great researchers, and I was just going to go be nice, good teacher, ” Johnson explained. 

Johnson joked about how those other two in his post-graduate classes went on to be the good teachers, and (although a teacher himself) he’s the one who found himself in research. 

However, within any profession comes the issues and problems that need to be addressed within its field. When questioned about what the greatest problem facing the world of instructional communication reseach Johnson remarks on the issue of making use of the research itself.

“The problem were facing right now is that were doing research that we’re not translating. We’re not making use of the impact of the translation of our research,” Johnson says. 

Johnson claimed there is so much research already done on student communication, but more than often, the research findings and solutions are never put into practice. Lack of research-to-practice implications are not limited to only student communication, but also a common issue for many researchers. 

The role of new media and technology on the field of instructional communications:

Dr. Johnson touched on the topic of experiments, discussing his and his colleague’s findings after conducting an experiment with his students. The experiment consisted of a group of students listening to a lecture over Zoom with and without their cameras on.

The student’s camera use in this experiment was being manipulated. Although the experiment itself proved no differences within the group, Johnson understands that his method of teaching over Zoom does not provoke the same interaction as it would in a classroom setting. 

“Anecdotally, I don’t teach the same when I go into a Zoom room when all of the cameras are off, it’s disheartening, versus when I go into a room and all of the cameras are on. They’re with me, they want to be here,” Johnson said.

As a professor in human communication, Johnson recognized how the usage of Zoom throughout the pandemic has affected students. Though he understands how useful and routine of an application Zoom has been in recent times, he can’t help but see its downfalls. 

“Students don’t know how to interact. I think it’s a really powerful tool. I think it’s important. I’m glad that we have it, but I think it’s really impacted the way students interact in a lot of ways,” Johnson said.

Even still, he doesn’t believe things will revert back to how they once were; he believes things will slowly form a new normal.

In regards to student-to-student communication, Johnson acknowledges the rise in using chat rooms such as Discord and Slack among students. Johnson believes platforms like such are most helpful when left as student spaces, however expresses some concern saying, “My concern with discords and slack and that constant communication is one: learned helplessness for students, and two: the burnout and lack of work-life balance.”

Current & future research and their methods

Referencing the quote made by a former student that came to visit him and his grad students, Johnson agrees that the research he had conducted is in part motivated by his own interest in the subject matter.

“Something that she said sort of resonated with me, she said ‘Research is MEsearch’. I was like, it’s not something I would say, like unprompted, and I’m never gonna say without sort of like saying she said it first,” he jokingly told us. 

For example, he mentioned that his own focus on student research ties back to his experience in being a student and what factors made class that much more enjoyable. While thinking on how to carry out the research process, he gravitated towards basing the research on his interests, experiences, and what he hears about the world.

This same reasoning rings true for a recent research project Johnson started on hockey parents due to the conversations he’d have with a friend who’s daughter played hockey. He then illustrated the measurements part of the research process in this qualitative study and how he built on the measurement of previous literature/work by other researchers while also creating his own. 

Johnson acknowledges that when students look at studies, the research methods tend to, understandingly, be overlooked in favor of the actual results. However, he stated that reading the research methods is what’s really going to demonstrate what we’ve been learning about. More importantly, he emphasized how learning about the research methods can become viable skills in the real world.

“There’s so many research based jobs out there that aren’t research like how we talk about them, but they’re researched exactly how we teach them”, Johnson said. 

He went on to mention a friend who does his own research for several big companies and how he conducts it using the very same methods taught in his class. A former undergrad student of his even told him that although he’s not carrying out research, but still utilizing the thinking in his job.

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