The Voice Magazine previously interviewed Dr. Kumar in April of 2014. That interview looked more at his background, while this time, Marie Well interviews him about some of this theories and accomplishments.
Marie: You have won a variety of awards and taken on some prestigious roles. What are some of your most monumental awards, positions, and acclamations?
Dr. Kumar: My very first award was a United Nations fellowship. I was working in India at the time as a Scientist. I was asked to select any university of my choice, anywhere in the world, study the technologies explored in that particular university, within a particular project, and then bring those ideas back. I chose the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. The center was very popular in those days, the early 90s. They were exploring some dazzling techniques to engage students, help students at the most opportune moments, to measure trainees? skills, to predict trainee success, etcetera. During the tenure of this fellowship, I worked closely with some of the leading researchers in learning technologies, and it was a fulfilling experience for me. That experience bootstrapped where I am today. That experience switched me from being a pure technologist to someone you can call an education-inclined technologist.
My second award was from the Asian Development Bank. While at the Simon Fraser University as an Assistant Professor, a team of us won a considerably large funding to go to Sri Lanka and assist the Open University of Sri Lanka advance its internet infrastructure as well as their educational technology infrastructure. Our team spent about three years in Sri Lanka, in Colombo and also in other ethnically affected places in the country, to deploy an infrastructure for online learning. That was a very rewarding experience to personally see the Canadian advantage in educational technology and what Canada could offer the rest of the world.
Marie: You have published a book. Please describe the scope and nature of your book publication.
Dr. Kumar: That book I now have under my belt is an edited book, with Dr. Fuhua Lin as the co-editor. It was based on contributions to the International Journal of Distance Education and Technologies. I reviewed and selected about twenty articles, sequenced them for a meaningful read, and wrote a 12 page preface for the book. It was time-consuming work. It gave me the opportunity to see the mindset of people looking into educational technology from different perspectives?culturally, technologically, and pedagogically.
Presently, I am writing a book, co-authored by Dr. Kinshuk, Dr. Maiga Chang, and Dr. Sabine Graf titled Learning Analytics for You. This is a Springer book, and it is expected to be out in the market by the end of this year. This is not just a book. This is something that would build a learning analytics community. It aims primarily at teachers to enable them integrate learning analytics solutions in their classrooms and connect with others who are also investigating analytics techniques.
Marie: You teach courses ranging from business to computer science. Please fill us in on the range of courses you have taught or designed at Athabasca.
Dr. Kumar: In computing, I have designed, developed, and taught courses at pretty much every level, 200, 300, 400, 500, and 600, including some of the high-enrolment introductory courses such as the “Introduction to Programming in Java” to technical courses such as “Computer Networks and Artificial Intelligence”, to advanced courses such as “Learning Analytics, Business Intelligence, and Research Methods”.
Marie: As an instructor in online education, what are some of the challenges as well as some of the highlights of teaching online?
Dr. Kumar: Let me first look at challenges. The foremost challenge as a teacher is connecting meaningfully with students. I have taught in traditional universities where, outside of the classroom, students could freely approach me, or come to my office, or set up an appointment, or have a cup of coffee and talk about things. There were so many informal opportunities for students to engage in intellectually challenging conversations, and I felt so happy doing that since it complemented the in-class experience. It also established some sort of a connection with my students: intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. Those are the things I miss here. Online learning should catch up to these sort of connections. We are not there yet.
You know, Athabasca offers so many ways to connect with students. Students can initiate a chat from within the online course itself and that chat message would come to the professor in the form of an email or the students can directly send emails. AU now has the student success centre as an option. Students can also connect using phones. Some students prefer to connect with me over Skype. Some prefer connecting via social media such as Facebook® or AU’s own Landing. My calendar is open to my students and they are welcome to set up non-overlapping appointments for Skype meetings.
Grad students prefer real time conversation, and we typically use video conferencing tools. Seemingly we have a diverse range of tools to enrich student-teacher communications. The diversity itself is a challenge for the teacher, I should say. For example, I am very comfortable and I feel that I could do my best when I am in a synchronous communication with my students. That makes me feel confident about finding the right teachable moment. With asynchronous channels, such as email, I always have this question hanging over my head as to whether I really covered the full scope of my students? questions. I have to wait until the student responds to confirm. Those are the gaps and challenges.
Some of these channels are not really good, at least for me personally. Faculty members do have their own favourite channels of communication. That is a challenge for students taking multiple courses where they have to switch among multiple channels of communications, even those that they do not favour.
As for the highlights, one of the reasons I am here as an online teacher is that I absolutely believe this is the next generation of learning, the next leaf in the evolutionary tree of education. This is why I am putting all of my effort in learning analytics research. Until now, whatever we had done in instruction and learning has had a significantly big hole in our understanding of where students currently are at any given time of study, and where the student needs to be for every step of the way down the road. With analytics, we have the ability to allow students to track their own study habits, their own gaps in knowledge, and their own opportunities for learnable moments, which allows us teachers to fill in the gaps and address them right away. We don’t have to wait for the assessments to come in to let us know where students need support. We can do that on a minute-by-minute basis with current technologies that can estimate their competence in each subject domain at various levels of granularity. In that sense, we are leaping into the next generation of education, and we are looking into the next generation of skill sets students need to succeed.
Regulation is something I strongly believe in. We know that students who regulate perform better. How do we bring that skill, the skill to regulate one’s own study, as an integral part of a coursework? That is something we can do in an online world, quite comfortably. Online university does offer self-paced and highly contextual instruction, and offers better opportunity for pedagogical intervention. That is okay, but the most important piece is our ability to assist students to regulate their own study affairs on top of other perspectives offered by the online learning courses.
Opportunities are plenty in the online world to regulate someone’s study habits, and with the upcoming learning analytics mechanisms, I think Athabasca is set up to be a leader, to show the world, how well we can cater to the intellectual needs of our students, not just at the subject matter competence but also at the metacognition-oriented soft skills. This is something I really want to push toward.
Marie: Can you please tell us a bit more about your spiritual connections with students?
Dr. Kumar: Understanding native cultures from around the world is one of my favourite quests. I use the word culture quite loosely, because to understand culture you also have to understand various interests and belief systems, including religion, community and spirituality. These are the contexts many students bring with them as they engage in conversations with me. Identifying culturally with students has reaped enormous rewards for me. My exposure to many cultures from around the world makes students feel better about talking about those issues with me, I guess. It has opened doors to understand the needs of my students that otherwise would not have been possible. It always amazes me to see how well people connect with their spiritualism and how well it motivates them to become better contributors to knowledge creation.