Meeting the Minds – Dr. Maiga Chang

Dr. Maiga Chang is an associate professor in AU’s School of Information and Computing Sciences and is the New Initiative Chair on executive board of the IEEE Technical Committee of Learning Technology. He recently took some time to be interviewed for The Voice Magazine, and this is the first part of that three-part interview.

Your research interests lie in “mobile learning and ubiquitous learning, museum e-learning, game-based learning, educational robots, learning behaviour analysis, data mining, intelligent agent technology, computational intelligence in e-learning, and mobile healthcare” (Athabasca University, 2016). What seems like the source of these research interests for you?
Basically, I will say that this is a dream. I had a dream that I can create a world, a virtual world, which we live inside. In this world, we can do everything we want, and we can learn everything by interacting with people in the environment. Even though we don’t know if the people we interact with are a real person or a person controlled by computers. In order to do that, first of all, you need to create an of environment ? virtual, augmented reality, and game world ? that people can live inside, access resources and interact with people via their computers, mobile devices, and helmets like Google Goggles, Microsoft Hololens, and Oculus Rift.

Most important is the computer controlled people that we are going to interact with in the virtual world. Computers need to know what we need. They need to know what our skill-set is. In that case, they can give us appropriate quests or activities so we can do something not too easy and not too difficult, but that we can manage it. Then, they can do more. So, basically, you can see these kinds of intelligent agents/computer players, or virtual characters need to know you. They need to have a kind of data mining engine or data analytic mechanism behind the scenes to find your preference, needs, and learning style, and then when they talk to you, and they interact with you, they need to use natural language. They need to speak to you. They also need understand when you are talking. That is part of natural language processing research taking place. Of course, artificial intelligence is very important.

All of my research topics. They all do some efforts and they contribute to my dream of creating a virtual world in which everybody can learn anything they want based on their learning preference, their experience, and what they have done already.

How will digital technology, electronic media, and artificial intelligence shift the landscape around education, and its subsequent impact on individual students and instructors?
I will first say what the traditional learning or the classroom learning looks like. Basically, the teacher is needed to prepare a kind of lecture and a lot of materials for teaching. Then, when they go to the classroom, they see a lot of students ? 40 or even hundreds in a university level class. They use the same thing to teach all 100 different students with the same technique, with the same content, with the same test. Under such circumstance, some of their students may not understand what they’re taught, some of their students may not like this kind of teaching way. That is where with the digital technology, or what you said?with “electronic media” and “artificial intelligence” can contribute.

In that case, we can provide teachers something like with “Okay, now you prepare your materials that look like this, and, according to our learning analytics result or data mining result, we can tell you that your teaching materials and methods are very good for 65% of your students. But there are another 35% of students that they need something more fancy. Probably, you should be looking for another YouTube video for specific content, and then your teaching materials will be more suitable for them.” But, as I say, we can only cover a portion of the people. At least, when we have these kinds of technologies, we can digitalize our materials; we can have multimedia; and we can have interactive activities for students to get their hands dirty. Electronic media, for example, some students, for instance, don’t like reading. They like watching video. So, these kinds of things, when put together, can make students learn better or more efficiently. That, I think, could help teachers.

Of course, I need to emphasize that I never consider to use technology enhanced research results to replace teachers because I think teachers are very important, which is why I think your question is very good because we are trying to help teachers and make them teach more efficiently. I mean, the lectures, more suitable, or better for the students.

You are the Associate Professor in the School of Computing Information and Systems at AU. What are the tasks and responsibilities involved in this station?
Basically, every professor in university or in any university in the world is probably having the same responsibilities. They are teaching, doing research, and also having some kinds of services. So, basically, teaching is easy to understand. You need to prepare and revise your courses, design and open new courses. When you teach students, you need to answer student questions and mark assignments. Of course, it is a little bit different in Athabasca University than in other universities because in AU, at least in the School of Computing and Information Systems. We professors have two different roles.

The first role is you can be a tutor for students in a course, which is coordinated by your colleague. For example, I was a tutor for COMP-308, in that course, I am a tutor. I need to interact with students. I will respond their questions, and when they submit their assignment I will mark it. However, whenever they have their final exam, I do not mark that. The final exam is marked by the course coordinator, which is my colleague ? another professor. I am the course creator in some other courses. If the tutors have a question, such as, “How should I mark this assignment or how should I respond this question?” I will make sure all students have consistent responses and marking schemes from their tutors. Also, if some students they say, “Oh, your course has a problem. I cannot access a specific webpage” or “I cannot see this reading material,” then they may ask their tutors for help and tutors will reflect that to me so I can fix the issues.

Doing research, for example, we will propose and apply for government and industry funding. We will also supervise our graduate students doing their research like essay, project, or thesis research. Of course, publishing and writing papers are also our job for doing research. The service could help university. For example, like me, try to help university design University Certificate in Game Development and Programming and the Bachelor of Science with a Minor in Game Development. That means when you enrol as a program student in a Bachelor of Science, then you can choose to take another minor in game development. Also, if you want to switch to a job in game industry, you may want to work on the university certificate in game development and programming so you can provide the potential employers a proof of what you are capable of.

So, that’s what I helped schools to do, and also we needed to participate in some committees to help the school to make a decision. For example, in a task, I was in a committee for seeking and discussing what kind of information technology we need to use. We need to decide which web-based conference applications we want to use. That’s something that we need to do for our university.

Could there be some applications there for some artificial intelligence algorithm that understands at least rudimentary grammar and natural language to some degree, or academic language, to make recommendations to students?
That’s good! That’s one of my research directions. First of all, we develop a system called Automarking. Automarking is actually online now and provides web service for anybody. So if you want to mark your students’ short answers of open-ended questions, then you can provide Automarking the correct answer you’ve thought of and also what your students write, and then we can mark it for you. Of course, you can consider to override the marks by yourself. So, that’s the first thing we have done.

Right now, we are trying to do two things. We want to mark an essay. When we mark an essay, which means there are more sentences and some of these sentences will be associated with others that have been written at very beginning. And that will be very difficult for computer to understand and mark but that is what we want to do.

The researchers a long time ago, about 1960s, they believe that some kind of structures can make computers they learn from sentences and answer questions according to their own knowledge structure. In that case, when the computer read more documents and information, the structure can become more complete and solid. So, when you say IBM Watson, when it assesses something, it will try to access the knowledge processed, learned and stored to get some responses. And so yes! It is doable.

One relevant research direction that I am doing is trying to mark students’ writing skill. Which means not how correct your answer is, but how you write words and tell the story. For examples, you use a lot of wrong words, or you have a lot of typos, or you use inappropriate verbs, and you don’t write things in a sequence or something like that. We want to mark students’ writing skills before marking the correctness and coverage that their answers are, but this research hasn’t been done yet.

What are the joys of teaching at AU for you?
I would say most students are really active. I mean compared to students in the traditional university. I taught in traditional university since 1998. Since 2007, I’ve worked for AU. Compared to traditional universities, students in AU are active because most of them have their own goal. They know what they want. They know, “Okay, I want to take this course because this course can help me.” It’s not like most traditional university students. They are forced to take courses to graduate. AU students are active. They are mature.

So, basically, because they have a goal to pursue. So, sometimes it is good to see when you ask students to do a little more they will say, “Yes.” Because they know if they do this, they can get more benefit. It makes sense. You can make them know why you are asking this; what kind of benefits they will have. And I think that is a good thing of teaching at AU regarding the student body.

Athabasca University. (2016). Maiga Chang.
Retrieved from

A native British Columbian, Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AU undergrad and AUSU Councillor-elect. He researches with various groups and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.

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