Meeting the Minds – Dr. Maiga Chang, Part III

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. His research interests include 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. He recently took some time to be interviewed for The Voice Magazine, and this is the final part of that three-part interview.

What is the most valuable experience of interaction with AU students, especially at the undergraduate level?
AU students have their own goals, jobs, and families. So, I think the most valuable experience will be students thinking ahead. They will participate in course activities more. I ask, in my Mobile Game Development course, for students to do their final presentation as a Skype or Adobe connect meeting. They have very in-depth presentations. We ask students to do a 15 to 20 minutes? presentation, but, at the end, they cannot stop. They want to talk more. Suddenly, they’ve found someone is interested in what they did. They try to get so many things into the presentation. I have a lot of final, online presentations that run more than an hour ? even though they are only asked to present for 15 minutes. So, that is very good.

Another experience I’ve had interacting with students, at least one, which was valuable, but not positive, is that, in my course, the final online course presentation helps me see what they really understand. I say, “Okay, you need to have a webcam. It is required so I can see you, and know you are the one who is talking.”

And I found in one instance that every time I asked a question, I heard another person answer first. And then the student would answer; someone was coaching him. Also, we use webcams. Using them, I found there were other people other than the student, sitting beside them. I wasn’t sure what they were doing in the computer lab, but then I found every time the student answered a question and the answer is not quite correct, I would see an arm reach over and push the student, it seems to me trying to tell him that “You are wrong! You are wrong!”

I didn’t directly know if it was cheating, though it looked like it, but, because of this, I can’t know if they really understand. So, I asked more. Not a positive experience, but that is technology. Interaction with the students helped me to catch that.

Some people think, “Oh, you are doing an online degree, It’s easy. You can get any course passed easily.” But that is not the case because we ask them to do the online presentations one-on-one, not like in the classroom where in a group presentation you might hide behind the other students and get their score. No, this one you need to come online and talk to me directly. Everything you have done, and we can hear everything behind the scenes. That is another point. But I will say that learning at AU is not a very easy thing.

What are the expected and unexpected difficulties along the path for research?
The first one is reading and understanding existing research. Most of the time you want to do research, and when you read the paper, you don’t understand most of content described in the paper. So, when you start, you will find that this is very frustrating because you do not understand what they are talking about, or the methodology they use. And you need to learn a lot of things. Usually, I tell people and students that when you start doing research, you will be very frustrated, and find it very difficult. You might not even want to do any more because you have the feeling that even though you do the research, you don’t understand, and you need to learn a lot more. You will probably need a lot of time before you can really have a little bit of understand about what You’re going to do. Almost everyone will face this when trying to start their research because most of the students are doing research for the first time in their life and don’t have any experience with it.

The second one is that most students, especially undergraduate students and even most graduate students in computing and information systems, think the design and the implementation of systems, tools, features are the only thing they need to do. But implementation is a technical part of the research, not the academic-oriented one. The designed functions and features are not really research. For research, you need to be very innovative. When you start doing research, you act like you are in a company. In a company, you want to invent a new phone. You already have an iPhone in the market, a simple duplicated one won’t make your company a success.

You need to make sure your phone is different from the iPhone ? another existing research result. Your phone has to be better. Perhaps the technology it uses is different, or you can provide a longer-lasting battery, or other things. Hence, simply developing something is not research. Research is trying to make some tasks you have done a little bit different and better than what existing research others have done.

You need to find something that is different! Something that people have never thought of or perhaps have done but did not consider it completely, so you can consider that as your research contributions. That is another difficulty that people will face when doing their research.

Of course, a proper evaluation plan and results are needed to prove you reach the research goal and objectives. So, another aspect is explaining the collected data. When students finish their research, they shall do a pilot or experiment. They collect a lot of data, but do not know how to explain the results. For example, if they found that most of the male students do not like the system, what does that mean? That is a result. You can write it on the paper. You can say, “68% of the male students do not like using my system.” But everyone can tell that from your data.

For research, you need to explain it further. You need to discover the reason why 68% of students do not like your system. That is another difficulty when students write their thesis for the first several rounds or drafts. For example, one of my students eventually works out his final thesis that is the 48th version, which means he has done 24 revisions and I have done 24 revisions. We write round-by-round.

What is your style of research?
Unlike many other researchers, I have very broad research interests. That is not very good for a researcher. Ten years ago, a very senior researcher told me, “Oh no, you shouldn’t do so many different research topics. You should focus on one.”

I know, I know people will kind of benefit more if you specialize because you will dig more and deeper in your research. Your research will be more solid and grow like building construction ? this year you build the first floor, next year you build the second floor, and when your retire you leave behind a twenty or thirty storey building for people to look out from?but, from my point of view, doing research is doing something you really like and you will have fun from the process of doing research. For example, maybe you like skiing. But perhaps five years later, you aren’t so keen on skiing. Your interest has changed. My research, as you can see, has many different directions. I have a main goal to integrate them, but that is the same thing. I ask students to choose the research that they really want to do. If you have a clear research idea, and you can explain your idea, I will try to see if we can make sure the idea can become a research topic.

If you do not have any idea, or you have a rough concept, maybe that you want to do educational stuff, or something else, then I will provide you with a maximum of 42 research topics, from the ones which I have in my head. I don’t really do all of them, but I have 42 at this moment. Every time I have an idea, I try to list them in my to-do list. If you have an area of interest, for instance if you want to do some artificial intelligence applications, then I provide a list from which you can choose. Then when you choose, you will have a kind of feeling that you are doing something that you want to do. So, you will push yourself, and you will do better. That is from my point of view.

When I was a student, I often heard from friends that professors asked them to do this and then told them to change to do that because the professor got another research project with government or another industry partner. That’s not my style. My style is “do what you want to do”, and if I have an industry project I will not tell you to do it. I will ask all of my students. Who wants to do this just for fun, or for getting experience and improving your resume, or sometimes to make some money? But if no one wants to do this, I can hire a research assistant.

Actually, when I do research, I am doing research actively, which means you will push your progress harder than others if you are interested in doing the research. I don’t really care about publications because I have a lot of publications. (Laughs). Basically, I tell students, if you want to write a paper that is really good, but if you do not want it you do not need to do it. I will tell students why having a publication is a good thing. First, it will tell people what you have done. Second, you can go to a conference and know a lot of new people and extend your social network, and of course, a side benefit is that most of the conferences are held in really beautiful places.

After knowing these, you might want to do something. And if you want to go further, some of our students want to go for a PhD, then publication is very important. You can show people you have the skill required for a PhD student when you have some papers. You can also apply for a scholarship, which enhances your CV.

But if you just want to do the research and want to go on a vacation after finishing the research, That’s fine.

So, That’s my style. I do not push students. As I said, I have more than 40 different research topics, so I don’t have to ask students to do a particular type of research. This means if you look at my research you will find my research is kind of all over. This year I have done this research, but then its follow-up research will come out two or three years later. Because two or three years later there might be students they will tell me that they are interested in that particular research, and we will do it again.

But I do not want to change. I’ve told many people that, because I think doing research is a fun thing. I think I heard a Nobel Prize winner, when the reporter asked him about another chance to do the research would him do it again, he said, “Of course, how can you find a job in which people will give you money to do what you want to do?” I always think of the same thing.

My research style is more like free will and versatile. I do not really push students. That is not always a good thing. But I think that will make you always do what you really want to do.

One of the implications of a professional career in research is the additional responsibilities such as chairing various associations, collectives, and organizations. What are some of the differing skill sets required outside of research for these co-professional activities?
That is a really good question because actually they are a different set of skills you will need to have. For example, currently, my major position in the research community is the new initiative chair for the IEEE TCLT. So, my responsibility is not just to look for one research topic or one research direction, but a kind of longer-term, like twenty or ten years later in a particular research field or area, and we are trying to propose these kinds of things for the whole research community. For example, one new initiative proposed by other chairs is they want to connect different skills, such as troubleshooting skills, thinking skills?every kind of skill, to learning objectives of courses and learning topics and units. They also want to make sure that the required skills you have learned can be evaluated through correspondent activities that are designed and included in the courses, learning topics and units.

They want to make it so that when you are doing homework, when you reading a book, when you are trying to do programming, or writing a paper, your skills will be evaluated automatically. However, how can we do that? We need to make sure that all of the kinds of skills can be taken into consideration, and then we need to analyze every detail for the different skills, and what kind of skills and activities will factor in more than others. So, for the new initiative chair, the skill needed is to look broadly and have a future vision for the field.

And in other role in organizations, such as the Asia-Pacific Region Game and Toy Enhanced Learning and Society ? for this one and others, your required skill will be helping the organization to build the community. Now, we know there are so many people doing research on educational games, toys, or other things, like educational robots. How can you help the organization to build the community to get researchers together to share their research results and try to make them collaborate with one another? With such a community’s help another researcher can begin to build the second floor on your first floor of research. So the research can be developed faster. Also, I need to help the organization to hold academic events like conferences, workshops, tutorials, and make sure we keep everything high quality. The skill set used in these professionally relevant positions is very different than doing research, or a bit of management, or administrative level of the field.

What tends to attract students to AU?
They can learn in a personalized way. They can learn on their own pace, and they can learn based on what they really like. Many of our SCIS courses at the undergraduate 200-level courses provide activities that students can choose based on interest or preference.

Also, many of our professors right now are trying to use artificial intelligence, learning analytics, data mining, and other technologies, to help students learn better, and provide personalized feedback. Another thing is self-regulated learning, experience, and skill. You can nurture your self-regulated learning skill via learning with AU.

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Another important thing is the difference from ten years or twenty years ago. We have learned from textbooks, lectures, and teachers, but then we gained PowerPoint, multimedia, and so on in the classroom. Now, we have social media networks or things like that. People may question online universities, not only AU, but learning anything online, because they do not see it as traditional. From my point of view, though, technology enhanced personalized learning and the teaching that AU aims to provide is the trend and the future of teaching and learning.

Thank you for your time, Professor Chang.

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Machine Intelligence Research Labs. (2013). Maiga Chang.
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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AUSU Councillor. He works with various organizations, and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.