Before the days of hashtags, smartphones and streaming services, John Sonnenberg ’11 was an educator with a vision for how tech can transform the classroom.
“I got into this technology stuff in the early 80s before schools even had technology directors,” he said.
Sonnenberg’s talents didn’t end at modems and floppy drives. This techie’s passion for innovation matches his experience in the classroom. “I’ve done almost everything in education,” he explained.
He isn’t kidding. Sonnenberg was a kindergarten teacher, a 5th-grade teacher, a middle school physical science and a high school advanced placement teacher. Then there are his years as a district administrator.
As the assistant superintendent for School District 67 in Lake Forest, Ill., in the late 80s and early 90s, Sonnenberg updated the district’s infrastructure one year at a time. He moved the district to a digital student-information system, a digital financial system and pushed to have all the buildings networked — now standard features in our education spaces.
His experience in Lake Forest allowed Sonnenberg to consult for other districts. “Because of the skill set I had, districts started using me to come in and transform them with technology. Then I would move on to another district,” he related.
Nudges in the right direction
Over the course of his career in the teaching world, Sonnenberg got to know Norm Weston, Ph.D., educational leadership faculty member in the National College of Education (NCE) at National Louis University (NLU). Working together on some educational initiatives over the years, these two educators built a strong professional relationship.
“Our paths kept crossing,” Sonnenberg said. “Then when I started looking for a doctoral program — I was looking for a good cadre — he was going to be involved in this group out of the North Shore.”
So Sonnenberg enrolled in the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership program at NLU and switched from Weston’s colleague to his student.
Unfortunately for Sonnenberg, his first plan for a dissertation didn’t pan out. So he decided to cut his doctoral program short and qualify for an Ed.S. instead.
Sonnenberg did receive his Ed.S. in Administration and Supervision in 2011, but Weston convinced him to stay in the program and keep working towards a dissertation.
“I could not have done the research if I didn’t have someone like Dr. Weston there throughout the process,” Sonnenberg recalled. “I think that I probably would have discontinued the program many, many times if it hadn’t been for Dr. Weston’s support.”
Weston was always challenging Sonnenberg, whether it was to achieve his educational goals or to consider new ideas. “We would have these discussions, and he challenged me to change the way I think. When I first started on this project, I was very much into the quantitative data. So he really pushed me on learning the value of qualitative data,” recalled Sonnenberg.
Finishing his dissertation
During Sonnenberg’s time at NLU, he transitioned to a new role in his professional life: Great Lakes regional manager of online and blended learning at Pearson Education, an education publishing and assessment company.
“’We need someone to destroy the company,’” he was told when recruited for Pearson. According to Sonnenberg, he was a dramatic choice for the company. “Because they’re the largest textbook company in the world and I’m a very digital kind of person,” he explained. “Now we’re changing the whole country.”
While Sonnenberg was changing the country, Pearson was changing the direction of his dissertation. Sonnenberg noticed the success that Pearson’s learning software had in the hyper-accelerated, personalized learning the Illinois Juvenile Department of Justice was using to help young offenders catch up in school. He found his perfect research fit.
“A good example is often when you have an extreme educational situation that proves the solution,” Sonnenberg related.
Landing this new topic for his dissertation, Sonnenberg knew it was going to be a challenge to complete the work. But he didn’t imagine the rigors his research would face from NLU faculty.
“It’s just one of these things where I really got the cream of the crop from National Louis looking at this thing,” Sonnenberg said. “Which made it even harder — that helped extend it another six months at least. They challenged me on everything.”
Not worried by the extension, Sonnenberg defended his dissertation and received his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership in 2017.
Whether he’s in the role of teacher, tech guru or a student himself, Sonnenberg continues to connect with the value of education in his own life. Even though he’s no longer in a classroom, learning is at the core of his professional work.
“I got the doctorate because Dr. Weston influenced me to understand the value of ‘just keep on learning.’ I work for a company now, and their motto is ‘always learning,’” Sonnenberg mused.