Meeting the Minds – Dr. Kinshuk

The Associate Dean of AU’s Faculty of Science, Dr. Kinshuk, currently holds an NSERC/iCORE/Xerox/Markin Industrial Research Chair for Adaptivity and Personalization in Informatics, and has more than 300 research publications in referreed journals. With all this going on, The Voice Magazine is very happy that he was able to take the time to be interviewed by our own Marie Well.

Marie: You have won a variety of honours such as chairs and fellowships. Please describe some of your most cherished honours.
Kinshuk: It’s difficult to say because I’m not certain if I’m actually clear about what you mean by honours. Maybe I should start with this: I like to think very applied. Where I find things more interesting is when I can see real useful applications. Anything that relates to that, I find that interesting. So, for example, the work we are doing in our NSERC chair with industries, we are creating technologies and methodologies to support how we can improve learning, and that interests me a lot. So, from that point of view, this NSERC chair supported by Xerox, CNRL and McGraw Hill, and the research that happens there is quite interesting for me.

Our work is in individualized learning. So, thinking about where the students are and how we can help them learn where they are, that has been the focus of that chair. Similarly, we started a technical committee on learning technologies through the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and there, the focus is on identifying what new technologies are coming that can help education or help learning. I was the founding chair of the technical committee, and the focus again has been very applied.

Similarly, we have the Educational Technology and Society Journal that I founded, and that is another initiative very heavily focusing on providing interaction between people who develop educational systems and people who use it–for example, developers and teachers and students and so on. So, providing that interaction between them is a very applied focus and That’s another one. What I see in today’s context with that journal is that it is the first open access journal on educational technology. We started in 1998. It has been really useful for educators and for students because they don’t have to pay anything to read as well as to publish. It is completely money free, you can say. Everything happens on a volunteer basis so that everybody benefits.

I think those are the kinds of things that have been of interest to me.

Marie: Kinshuk, what class do you tutor or coordinate? Which class is your “baby”?
Kinshuk: If we are talking about Athabasca experience, then, here, because I have a number of different roles, I teach one course. When I joined Athabasca University, I started as a professor and director of the School of Computing and Information Systems. I had a lot of admin duties because of the directorship. Then the NSERC chair started, so the research focus also increased. Now I have associate dean responsibilities instead of the director position. So, because of all these additional duties, I teach one course, and that course is COMP 695 Research Methods in Information Systems. I co-teach it with Professor Kumar. We don’t have any tutors in that course, so basically all the teaching activities are done by myself and Dr. Kumar.

Marie: As an instructor in online education, what are some of the challenges as well as some of the highlights of teaching online?
Kinshuk: I am not sure if there are any challenges because an important thing for me is how can I understand my students? My attitude is that we should be able to help our students in real-time, when they are learning. We should not wait for them to find a problem and contact us, or until we actually see their formal assessment?That’s too late. My role occurs when the learning is actually happening.

If you think about it, even in physical classrooms, you generally have about fifty or sixty students, so, typically for a teacher, it is not very easy to understand a student, but at least, you can see the gestures and nonverbal cues just by being in that environment. How can I then find about my students in online learning environments? So that is something that for me is very important. There are lots of different ways that can happen, and that is where my research and teaching are very much meshed with each other, simply because this is what I also research: How I can find out about my students. In teaching, I try to be very much in sync with my students. I do a lot of synchronous interaction. In COMP 695, the first thing I do is to invite students to connect with me online by Skype and other means as they see fit. I like to ask them to tell me about themselves so that I can have some understanding about individual students so that I can then individualize the instruction to them.

Marie: How do you aim to stimulate student motivation in online learning environments?
Kinshuk: For me, learning happens when people can see the relevance and usefulness of the learning. I can give a very quick example of that. A lot of us, when we learned many things in our childhood, in our schooling, in our university education, we learned those because we needed to pass the exam. One example can be differential calculus. Most of the students don’t really know why they are learning it when they are learning it. You probably took calculus at one time, and you may not have known why you were learning it and how you will use that knowledge. For me, learning is something that I would like to make relevant to students. I like to provide learning of relevant cases, and That’s how we have structured our COMP 695. I always try to think how learning can be made useful to our students.

Now, as I mentioned before, if you compare it with a physical classroom teaching experience, in a physical classroom, students are sitting in a class, and in some way they are trapped because they can either listen to the lecturer or perhaps they can sleep or maybe check their emails. In online, because they are in their own environment, it has its own distractions. If I’m trying to teach in that environment, I ask myself, “How can I make learning interesting and relevant for them?” My responsibility becomes, even more in the online environment, to make learning relevant. If my students are not learning, That’s not their problem: That’s my problem. So, how can I make learning relevant for them so that they can see the value, see how they will use it, and see the long-term benefits they can have. And learning will certainly be more effective if they can see the importance. That’s how I try to stimulate and motivate my students by showing them the benefits and usefulness in their context.

Marie: Kinshuk, what is your approach to providing feedback to students to help them with their learning objectives?
Kinshuk: I try to provide real-time feedback as much as possible. Now, I should mention the type of research we are doing. Namely, when we teach, we find it sometimes that we don’t have the type of mechanism that can provide that real time feedback. How can we train our students to come to the solutions themselves, rather than spoon-feeding them, how can we ensure that they have the skills to find the solutions. How I can motivate them to be good problem solvers, to consider different options, and to understand where their strengths are and where they need some more help. We are working very heavily in learning analytics to create such mechanisms. Not all of it is in the production, so not all of it is currently used in teaching, but as we do that research, we bring that in our teaching. So, I identify as much as I can about my students and then try to provide individualized feedback based on their circumstances.