The Hub AU grad student’s research helps others learn to learn

AU grad student’s research helps others learn to learn

After a long break from your studies, you’ve decided to sign up for an online course and get back into the swing of things. After all, it’s just a few hours a week in your free time, right?

It sounds easy, but some students struggle to stay on track with their coursework. Fortunately for them, Athabasca University graduate student Tamra Ross is working on a solution. And fortunately for her, others see the value in her work and have given her a scholarship to support it.

The Master of Science in Information Studies (MScIS) student was awarded a $17,500 Canada Graduate Scholarship for her research titled, “Design, Development and Evaluation of a Lifestyle-integrated Learning Support Tool.”

The award is presented jointly by Canada’s top-tier granting agencies—Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)—to support students who demonstrate a high standard of achievement in undergraduate and early graduate studies.

Learning to learn

Photo of Tamra Ross
Athabasca University Master of Science student Tamra Ross has been awarded a prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Ross said, based on her own personal experience working first with the Athabasca University Students’ Union and more recently as a research assistant with AU, that online learning is itself a skill that students need to learn. Simply providing a schedule to students at the start of their class isn’t always effective.

“The problem is that once a student gets behind, it just becomes even more overwhelming to look at that schedule and realize how far you’re behind,” she said. “There’s nothing I’ve seen that’s adapting, and I haven’t seen any resources with the sole purpose of building distance learning as a unique skill set, or even recognizing that distance learning is a unique skill set.”

Essentially, her goal is to create an app that will incorporate human psychology and motivation with an element of artificial intelligence to help online learners manage their own time and manage their own progress in their courses.

“I want something, I call it a lifestyle-integrated motivational system, because it’s going to be something that people have on their phones that’s going to communicate with them all the time, in the same context as all their other apps for shopping and social media,” Ross said.

She added that an important part of any successful app will be its ability to adapt to individual students. AU, for example, has a very diverse student body, and so success in her mind means creating an app that can work for all of them.

“This app is going to look at their lifestyle and try to help them make the space in their lives and develop those strategies to become effective distance learners,” she said.

Strong support

Ross is no stranger herself to online learning, having earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from AU, and also having taken online IT and editing-related programs from other universities. But she said she chose AU for her master’s degree because she knew how qualified and supportive the people running the program are.

“Working with the people there, I realized we have some really good faculty in this computer science graduate program,” she said. “They’re well recognized, they’re heavily published, we’ve got Canada Research Chairs, and they have been really supportive of me as a student.”

AU’s flexibility has been key in helping her to not just earn this scholarship, which will allow her to work less and focus more on her coursework and research project, but in helping her to balance her education with life’s other commitments.

In March this year, Ross was in a car accident and got a concussion as a result. This has resulted in some learning challenges she had not foreseen. With AU, she was able to take a break from her coursework to take care of her health, and get back to work right where she left off.

“It has changed my life in ways I’m still figuring out,” she said. “I think maybe if I went to another school I would have just lost my scholarship and my program, because I had to be off for over two months.”

With the $17,500 scholarship in hand to cover her tuition, Ross said she’s looking forward to cutting back her work hours to part-time, and instead focusing more time on her research.

Find out more about Athabasca University’s graduate programs on the website.