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Educational Technology

Innovating in Education: A Conversation with Dr. Jon Pennington

In the rapidly evolving landscape of educational technology, Educational Technologist Dr. Jon Pennington stands at the forefront of integrating emerging technologies into teaching and learning. With a tenure of three years at Mid-Pacific, Dr. Pennington has been instrumental in helping our teachers and students harness the powers of technology to innovate. We sat down with him to discuss his role, his passion for technology, and the future of learning.

Q: How did you come to work in educational technology at Mid-Pacific?

A: My path to Hawai‘i was set in motion by a vision. At the time, I was teaching Spanish at a high school in New Jersey. I had recently completed a Master’s in Education leadership and was exploring Edtech doctoral programs when, one night, I had a vivid dream. I wore the robes of a scholar and was working in a school set in a lush forest valley surrounded by waterfalls and rainbows. I remember awakening with a sense of fulfillment, followed by a determination to find a university that matched the place in my dream. As a firm believer in the power of living by design, not by default, I took proactive, deliberate actions to shape the future I desired. 

I found the University of Hawai‘i, set in the Mānoa Valley—clearly the place I had been looking for. Once I graduated, equipped with a Ph.D. in Learning Design and Technology, I was energized and eager to put my learning to practice when the opening at Mid-Pacific presented itself to me. Education is the gateway to opportunity, and this one was the path to fulfilling my professional aspirations.

One of my favorite books, The Alchemist by Paulo Cohelo, introduces the notion of a person’s “personal legend,” or destiny in life. The story reveals that when one pursues their personal legend, the universe will conspire to help them achieve their goals. I can’t help but think back to how I got here and how right it feels to be here. Working at Mid-Pacific empowers me to use the skills and knowledge I have honed over the years to inspire the next generation of innovators, artists, and individuals. This is my life’s work.

Q: Can you share how your experience shaped your approach to education?

A: My roots played a big part in this. I grew up in a little house in the heart of New York City with my mom, a school principal, my dad, a technologist, and my grandparents, who were Cuban immigrants. My family instilled in me the value of education, a deep appreciation of culture, and an insatiable curiosity about the potential of technology. I spent my childhood tinkering with computers and networks, fascinated by how technology could help us do wondrous things, things that seemed impossible. Knowing that technology could push the limits of possibilities, that is how I used it when I got my first job as a high school Spanish teacher. 

I remember coming to the conclusion that the best way for these kids to learn Spanish was for them to have authentic conversations with native Spanish speakers, so I had to help them do that. Well, this just happened to be the time that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology was first becoming popular, through online tools like Skype. This technology enabled computers to voice call each other for free and phones anywhere in the world for a few pennies. So, that is what our class did. Once a week, we used our school laptops to call people all over Latin America. We designed structured conversations in which native speakers helped us with Spanish, and we helped them with their English.  

This educational approach integrates technology in connection with instructional strategies that are designed to engage students. By providing a real social experience, the purpose for why they needed to develop their Spanish skills was evident. Students were granted the agency to choose their conversation partners and shape their conversations according to their interests and preferences. They were also able to use a variety of different support mechanisms like sentence starter sheets, conversation guides, and even partners at times. It was an exhilarating and memorable learning experience for all of us. That was the beginning.

I later studied theories such as “Zone of Proximal Development” and frameworks like “Universal Design for Learning,” which helped to further develop and refine my approach to education through research-based practices. When we integrate technology and instructional strategies through a design-based approach centered on the learner, students are more likely to be successful in reaching their goals and develop habits that encourage lifelong learning. 

Q: How do you see AI and LLMs (Large Language Models) impacting educational settings?

A: Generative AI (Gen AI) provides us the power to revolutionize teaching and learning, bringing both unprecedented opportunities and considerable challenges. I must say that is one of the most exciting times in history ever to be a teacher and learner. I’ll share a bit about how this is playing out at our school.

As a forward-thinking school that values innovation and deeper learning, we quickly made Gen AI available to high school teachers and students, providing guidance and resources to support implementation. We also formed an AI Advisory Council composed of students, teachers, parents, administrators, board members, leaders in industry, and university professors.  This group has been key in advising the reshaping of curriculum, instruction, and policies.  We also have an AI Innovators group of students, teachers, and admin that models the process of learning, experimenting, and innovating with AI. Teacher adoption of AI has been growing gradually. Our mid-year survey showed that teachers are using Gen AI tools more often and are using a wider range of tools than at the start of the year. The five most popular ones are Chat GPT, CoPilot, Claude, Firefly, and Canva.  

It’s been exciting to see teachers creating projects for students to use Gen AI in a variety of ways. Students are using AI to gather information, find connections and patterns in data, support the various stages of the writing process, and generate images that enhance their writing. I especially enjoy co-designing these types of projects with teachers! One of the most unique affordances of Gen AI is that it enables teachers to develop agents that reference and apply knowledge and pedagogy. These agents can serve as assistants, tutors, and simulation facilitators to make the learning process much more personalized and engaging for students. Using natural language, teachers now have the agency to build highly customized teaching apps without knowing how to code or having to rely on tech companies.

Q: What does a typical day look like for you?

A: Working with our high school teachers and students, each day is uniquely diverse and consistently filled with fresh intrigue. This dynamic environment is shaped by our school’s extensive selection of elective courses and rich arts and exploratory programs, along with our culture that deeply values deeper learning and embraces innovation.

Recently, I’ve been working with the Museum Studies class, using the most advanced 3D scanners in the industry to digitize historical artifacts provided by local Hawaiian and Japanese cultural centers. Once we have a detailed 3D model of the artifact, we help these centers showcase their artifacts through mixed-reality exhibits and provide them with 3D-printed replicas of the artifact, offering greater accessibility to educate others about history and culture. 

I’ve been actively supporting our film production students as they use our fleet of FPV drones to capture scenes from thrilling new perspectives. I’ve also been working with members of the Game Studio club to use motion-capture suits to animate original video game characters. One of my favorite roles is serving as the facilitator for our student technology leader program. This program empowers students excelling in engineering, digital arts, and computer science to explore curricular applications of technologies, develop instructional products, and provide tech support to their peers and teachers.

A big part of what makes each day so great at our school is the people. I’m so incredibly grateful for the collaborative and supportive spirit of our tech team and high school faculty, who brighten my day, every day, with their compassion, optimism, and good humor. At Mid-Pacific, technologists and teachers work together as a team to integrate technology in ways that enhance the human experience.

Q: Beyond your professional life, what are some of your hobbies or interests?

A: I find a deep sense of peace and feeling of centeredness when connecting with the elements of nature. I enjoy hiking in the lush Mānoa jungle and tending to our community garden plot, where we grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Just beyond our garden lies Kaimana Beach, where I love snorkeling to the windsock to glide among sea turtles and exotic fish. I also regularly practice dancing with fire poi, an activity that enhances my focus, energy, and balance by flowing with the wind. Engaging with the elements of earth, water, air, and fire not only ties me to the natural world, but also enriches my understanding of my role within it.

Q: What’s next for educational technology at Mid-Pacific?

Looking ahead, as Gen AI continues to rapidly advance, offering greater accessibility and multimodal functionality, I’m excited to collaborate with students and faculty to explore innovative approaches for things like skill development, creative expression, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Going forward, engaging in AI literacy will be key. One area we’ve been focusing on is prompt engineering, controlling the AI’s output through a structured prompt. To develop this literacy in a fun and compelling way, we will be hosting a series of  “prompt-a-thons” where teams composed of students and teachers will compete to develop the most effective AI prompts to solve school or community issues. This is one way we can recognize students and faculty for their skillful use of AI.

I’m also excited by our partnership with the College of Education Research Institute (CERI) at the University of Hawai‘i, where we are conducting a series of empirical studies examining the impact of Generative AI on language learning outcomes within our English Language Development (ELD) program at Mid-Pacific. Working with such talented teachers and professors to contribute to the emerging literature of applying AI in education is inspiring and fulfilling.

Dr. Pennington’s journey and work at Mid-Pacific illustrate a deep commitment to leveraging technology to enhance educational outcomes. As technology continues to evolve, his role will undoubtedly be pivotal in shaping the future of learning for students.