Meeting the Minds – Dr. Vive S. Kumar

Dr. Vive S. Kumar has been tutoring Computing Science courses at AU since July of 2008. Tutoring Comp 268, 272, 347, and 494 at the undergraduate level, he’s responsible for the education of approximately 270 students.

Dr. Kumar kindly consented to be interviewed by The Voice Magazine, and here is the gist of that interview.

What brought you to start in your field and tutoring for AU?
My research has always been in online learning. In-class instruction is insufficient in that it does not cater to the individualized needs of students. Student grades tend to fall into a statistical bell-curve regardless of the subject domain, the instructional model, or study resources, and we take the curve for granted. There are always some students who succeed, some who fail, and most end up somewhere in the middle.

What we want to do, and believe we can do with online instruction, is to shift that bell curve further to the right, toward better grades, toward higher competency.

I want to find out why the curve stays the way it does even in online instruction. Students have specific needs in their instruction, and in-class instruction simply is not designed for personalized instruction. Online instruction, on the other hand, can offer instruction that adapts to the continually changing needs of students throughout their study. In fact, online-instruction could treat in-class activities as supplementary.

In the 90’s, we saw a new movement, tutoring systems where online instruction enabled individualized tutoring. Students with varying study requirements could actually receive different types of study plans, study resources, and study partners. It is unreasonable to expect human tutors to be able to cater to such study requirements, particularly from a distance. Tutors need support information from the learning system itself. We now have the technology to allow students to track their own learning habits, track their own skill development, and most importantly track their own learning capabilities. With students? consent, tutors could access these valuable information and offer appropriate tutorial guidance. As part of an umbrella Learning Analytics project, AU is currently piloting this technology in Comp 268. It allows students to track their own study data, and share this data with their tutors or friends or in the social media or with their loved ones. With students? permission, tutors can monitor where students falter, succeed, and need support. Tutors can follow students? study habits, if they have the time, even on a minute by minute basis and offer highly-informed instructional guidance.

So instead of waiting for students to contact me, I can proactively look at the data, if students opt to share it with me, and see right from that when a student is having a problem with a problem solving process, perhaps having to return to a specific chapter repeatedly, or taking a long time to complete an assignment, or receiving incorrect information from the discussion forum.

Our goal is to move all students on the bell-curve two standard deviations to the right. This learning analytics study is being repeated in India, Chile, and Taiwan and the results so far have been highly positive in favour of proactive support. Students receiving proactive support tend to score significantly better in assessments.

It is ground-breaking because we are not looking at individual technologies or learning capacities, as some older studies did, but now we are putting them all together in a big basket. It lets us see that each student is different because they need support at different degrees in different capacities, and lets us ask “how do we support students in a highly personalized manner?” This holistic approach is showing remarkable results and we hope to publish the results shortly.

Another key feature of the learning analytics system is its ability to explain students? grades., For example, when a student graduates from Comp 268, we will be able to associate the marks scored by a student in each assessment activity with specific skills and course learning outcomes. With this, we can see specific skills that may need improvement, the global context in which students need to place their skills, and predict successful curricular pathways and plans for students.

What are the common pitfalls you see students running into?
Students who do not need my tutoring are welcome to handle studies on their own. Students who need my support are welcome to approach me openly and I will be glad to pester them through their study. But, what about students who are neither here nor there? They are not sure about the level of support they need from tutors and they are not sure about their own study capacity. This is where I, as a tutor, need support from the learning analytics system. I need something to help me engage this bulk of middle-ground students. I want to know where exactly the student thinks I should or could provide help.

The students’ union may want to take it up onto itself to encourage students to openly approach tutors. If students are not using tutors, then the reason to have tutors decreases and the tutors? motivation plummets.

So it is not about the common pitfalls, but about specific ones. If a student is struggling, tutors want know about the specific problem. Then they can send an email, or speak over the phone, or have a video conference to give hints or further readings to students. Tutors could also extend over-the-shoulder type of support in online instructional environments. Tutors would love to be in touch with students because students then are no longer black boxes. With our learning analytics approach, we can engage any individual in the class who’s willing to share their learning habits data.

Online learning is like a big dragnet right now. Universities have traditional lecture based classes and lab based sessions. And, they use online instruction as a supplement?to motivate students by offering alternative and additional resources. This just adds more load, as it does not replace any of the other study activities students already have to do.

A new way of thinking about online instruction is on its way ? big data learning analytics. We need to support students in all possible aspects towards skills acquisition. In addition to supporting students to do well in academically, we should nurture students to improve other associated skills. We need to inform students, on a timely basis as they study, about their level of competence in various skills. The grades should truly reflect competency of the student. More importantly, there should be a solid explanation as to why a student received a particular grade, not just an estimate based on a few assessments. Online instruction is much more suited for such competency-based instruction than lecture-based instruction.

What is interesting to you currently in your academic field?
We are finding ways to use ?smart learning environments? to supplement gaps in tutor’s understanding of student needs. Such environments use techniques from Artificial Intelligence and big data analytics, among others. Taking this further towards causally explaining students? study habits, gaps in their skills, ways to address those gaps, and predict pathways for success is what keeps my research going.

Our research group has received provincial, federal, and international funding to create an adaptive content system, where the text material itself customizes to student needs, captures instructional issues, and can be ?taken home? by students as evidence of skills progression.

Such a tactical portfolio allows our students to compete internationally. They can not only compare their skills with that of their classmates, but also with students from around the world who have taken similar courses. We are trying to change the traditional perception about instruction in a number of subject areas including computing sciences, mathematics, language learning, and other STEM areas.

And outside the field?
I very much enjoy badminton. I am a Canadian National official for badminton, aiming to be certified for Pan-American status this year. I am also the President of the Edmonton Badminton association, and the Secretary for Badminton, Alberta. Currently, we are trying to bring the 2015 Canadian Open Masters tournament to Edmonton.

You might not think it, but badminton is yet another domain where the type of tracking we are speaking about for online learning can be used to improve how we play. We can track how players play, strategise, develop skills, and analyze games using gps 3D tracker technology on their shoes, racquet grips and in the shuttle. The ideas we have generated in big data learning analytics will be applicable in a large number of areas such as complex training, soft skills development, and business intelligence.

What is your opinion on AU’s move to e-texts so far?
It should have happened a long time ago, and I am glad that we are taking big strides toward e-texts now. E-texts are now used in many countries where students can print portions of their text even as a text book, use their mobile phones to annotate text, attach videos to their text, record their personal notes to text, associate notes from their classmates, share their study challenges with parents, upload learning experiences in their portfolios, and so on. Technology allows us to advance study choices for students. We need to take a leadership position in e-texts not only because AU has the expertise to clearly articulate e-text needs for geographically distant students but also because we have the technological means and the subject matter to develop custom e-texts. Custom e-texts are the way to go. For example, e-texts for Mathematics will have special requirements for problem solving that will be substantially different from e-texts for learning French or Nursing courses.

How about the shift to a call-centre model?
The call-centre model is shown to be a success within the Faculty of Business. It is currently being piloted in the Faculty of Science and Technology. The model allows AU to collate all sorts of information regarding student needs into a single channel that enables us to track students? communication expectations. It is great if we get it right and ensure that the service standards are adhered to. It allows us to have a feel for students? expectations for now. It also gives AU a handle to compare such expectations in the past and plan for the future. As a tutor, I am fine with the model as long as it enhances the student-tutor communication.

It’s not fully functional yet. It doesn’t integrate multiple data sets, and some of the functionalities tutors enjoyed in the previous model are not available in the call-centre model. Hopefully, in the next few months it will be upgraded to the full version.

Once we have experienced the model to a certain extent, we should survey students, faculty and staff about its utility to determine its university-wide adaptation.

So what do you think of social media use in education?
We should leave it to the students to pick media of their choice. We cannot impose media on students. Students with different backgrounds and personalities, dealing with different domains of studies, would require different types of social media and controls on them. AU offers its own media and students are welcome to use it.

What do you think AU needs to do to improve?
When I joined in 2008, internationally, AU had a good name as a leader in online instruction, technology and learning. This has deteriorated somewhat, and the rest of the world had caught up with us and even have overtaken us in many aspects. This is something we need to overcome, because we have the potential to show the world that we have better instructional models and technologies that offer better learning opportunities for students. We must strive to reach that leadership role again in the world of online learning. We should be bold enough to explore new learning-enhancing pathways, engage learners in innovative technologies, and support tutors towards goal-oriented guidance. Cost, strategy, quality, and timeliness are some of the major factors to consider in this venture, but that is for another discussion. I do not want to see AU to become just a decent online learning institution but an institution that brings global perspectives in learning revolution, and I absolutely believe we can.