The Hub Q&A with Dr. Sabine Graf

Q&A with Dr. Sabine Graf

Dr. Sabine Graf is one of the many researchers doing world-class work at Athabasca University. We sat down with her to hear about some of the many projects she has on the go right now.

She has been awarded many research grants, including one from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for the project entitled, “Multimedia Object Research Platform Host for Adaptive and Mobile Learning (MORPH)” and another from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) through the Community Investment Program for the project entitled “Improving meta-cognitive skills of Canadians through a community-based educational online game.”

Dr. Graf also holds a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant for the research program, “Combining User Profiling and Context Modelling to Provide Advanced Adaptivity and Personalization.”

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When were you awarded these major funds for your research? 

Since 2012, I’ve held the NSERC Discovery Grant and it just got extended to 2020. It was in 2013 that I was awarded funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the project funded by CIRA is a newer project that was accepted in 2017. 

However, while those three are major funds, they were not the only funds I received. Over the past 10 years, I received funding for over 30 other projects. My website provides more information on my current and past projects. 

Dr. Sabine Graf

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Can you describe the projects highlighted above in layman’s terms?

The NSERC Discovery Grant funds my research program, which consists of many smaller projects. My research program is about extending existing online learning systems like Moodle with features to automatically generate personalized courses and intelligent recommendations based on learning preferences and situational context of university students. Such learning preferences and situational context are identified automatically by algorithms and mechanisms from behaviour data gathered while students use the learning system.  

MORPH is a large research infrastructure project with funds of almost $1M. In this project, we created an infrastructure that makes it possible to add innovative, educational technology to learning systems like Moodle. While such systems are great to provide students with online courses that consist of a diverse set of learning objects and activities, there is so much more exciting research happening in educational technology. For example, such technology could learn the needs of students and provide them with highly personalized courses and could analyse the learning data from a whole educational institution. This would provide educators with information on how to improve their courses or let them know which students need their help most. MORPH allows AU professors to easily integrate exciting and new technology into their courses.

The project funded by CIRA is about creating an online educational game, called OMEGA, which allows players to improve important meta-cognitive skills, like problem-solving and planning skills, while playing. In the game, people play against each other in a set of three randomly selected subgames, each focusing on improving a particular meta-cognitive skill. Overall, there are 10 subgames in OMEGA, in which players must solve different quests such as programming a truck to deliver packages, converting infected cells to healthy ones using lasers, bypassing clogged pipes to restore a certain water level in buildings, running a coffee shop over the weekend, packing a backpack for an eventful cycling tour, and many more. The game targets any adult who is interested in playing and improving his or her meta-cognitive skills but we expect this to be especially popular among university students. 

 

Dr. Sabine Graf

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Do the projects overlap at all in purpose, subjects or people studied, community base, or in any other way?

They are rather separate since each project focuses on different objectives. Also, my research projects don’t require much equipment or other items that can be easily reused across projects. However, they do build on each other and the outcomes and findings of my projects are used in other projects. For example, the infrastructure my team and I developed in the MORPH project will be used for research within my NSERC Discovery Grant.

Dr. Sabine Graf

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Where are you at with your research projects? How many more months or years to go?

My NSERC Discovery Grant was just extended for another two years until 2020. The MORPH project was completed in mid2018 and we are now planning to integrate innovative research modules into our courses that will benefit students at AU. The OMEGA project was also completed in mid-2018, however, we plan to keep working on and doing research within OMEGA for many years to come. We already received further funding to add more advanced features to the game, and we plan to launch the game by end of this November.

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What did the funding go towards?

Most of my funds go towards hiring research assistants. Sometimes for large projects like the OMEGA project, additional postdoctoral researchers are hired to work on more complex tasks and help supervise research assistants. A very small percentage of my funding also goes towards equipment and supporting research assistants, postdoctoral researchers, and me to travel to academic conferences and present our research.  

The MORPH project was a bit different, as it was an infrastructure project. In this project, funds were mostly used for hiring a research programmer, a part of the development work was outsourced to a company, and there were a lot of in-kind contributions from AU.

Dr. Sabine Graf

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What got you interested in online/multimedia supports to education?

I was always interested in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, personalization, data analytics, data mining, machine learningbasically techniques that make computers and systems smart. When I started my PhD research in Austria and had to select a topic, online learning was quite new and universities just started to use learning systems like Moodle. We had very large classrooms at university, sometimes with over 500 students, and there was little room to accommodate personal needs and preferences of students. So, I got really interested in the idea that online systems could help in such situations by trying to understand the needs and preferences of learners and provide them with personalized and intelligent support. The idea was not to replace educators but to take some work off their plates, so they could focus on the students who needed their help most. 

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Have you been working on these subjects for a long time? Or is this a new venture for you?

The idea of having a system that can know a learner and provide him/her with personalized and intelligent support drove my PhD research, but it turned out that putting this idea into reality is much more complex and not something that can be done by one PhD student. So, it became my long-term research vision and I have been working in this area for over 15 years now. 

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How long have you been with AU?

I have been with AU for over nine years. In 2009, I started as a postdoctoral researcher, coming to AU with funding from Austria. After a few months, I applied for an Assistant Professor position at the School of Computing and Information Systems at AU, and was offered the position. After three years, I received an early promotion to Associate Professor due to my successful research record and recently got another promotion to Full Professor. 

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Have you ever received any AU funding in the past? Was it for similar research?

Yes. I have received funding for several projects through the AU Academic Research Fund program. Also, NSERC provides AU with Undergraduate Student Research Awards where NSERC and AU are sharing the costs. I received several such awards for students in my research team. And AU contributed significantly to the MORPH project. 

And yes, those projects were all tightly related to my long-term research vision.

Dr. Sabine Graf

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Do your projects involve AU students at all? How?

Yes. A lot of my funding goes towards hiring research assistants and those have been always AU students. I think it is really important to involve students in research projects and let them see first-hand how to do scientific research. And it also helps me since I don’t have to do all the work by myself. In such research assistantships, students learn about how to do research and work with me on tasks such as developing and evaluating educational technology, creating and using different algorithms from artificial intelligence and data mining, designing and implementing recommender systems, and others.

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Are the results you’ve gotten so far surprising, or proving what you thought before?

It is always exciting when we start evaluating and using one of our systems and technologies. The results we are getting are typically very encouraging and show that those systems and technologies help students and/or educators. However, the completion of a project usually leads to new ideas on how to improve our systems and technologies or how to expand on the research we did.

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Will the projects’ results create more of a local AU impact? Provincial? National? International?

I would say that my results mainly create an impact internationally as well as locally at AU. They create an impact locally at AU because we are trying to use our systems and technologies so that AU students can benefit from them. And they create an impact internationally because I engage in collaborations with other universities to use our systems and technologies there. In addition, my research group and I are publishing academic papers about our findings and present them at international conferences, so that other researchers can base their research on our results

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Are you working with others on your projects? Please name them.

Yes, in all my research projects I work together with my research team, which consists of postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, master students, as well as research assistants. I am also collaborating with other professors at AU. For example, in the project funded by CIRA, Prof. Maiga Chang has been the co-lead of the project. In the MORPH project, I have been working with Prof. Vive Kumar. And, I also have a lot of international collaborations, for example, with researchers/professors from Romania, China, Germany, Italy, Spain, and other countries.

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What does an average week look like for you with your projects, teaching, and life?

There is not really an average week, as each week I do different things. Sometimes, my focus is on teaching, like marking exams and assignments, creating, or revising a course. Sometimes, my focus is on research, which can include guiding my research students if they are in an important stage of a project, writing academic papers or funding proposals, travelling to a conference to present our research, or discussing new collaborations with other professors and industry partners.

One thing I really like about my job is that there are always new opportunities and things to do and learn. However, being very active in research means that balancing my research projects, teaching, and life (especially with a nine-month-old baby girl at home) isn’t always easy. But doing research means I can work on what I am excited about, namely solving cutting-edge research problems and making a difference in how people can benefit from technology. So, it’s totally worth it. 

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What’s next for you, and/or, these projects?

I am currently working on two new research funding proposals and plan to start another small project within my NSERC Discovery Grant soon. Then, there is also the launch of our OMEGA game coming up at the end of this November. There are also a few journal papers that my research students wrote that are waiting for my feedback. I also just got invited to be Associate Editor of the new journal Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence for the section “Artificial Intelligence for Human Learning and Behaviour Change.” And, I look forward to welcoming a new postdoctoral researcher who will join my research group in February 2019. In short, I don’t think I will get bored any time soon.

Dr. Sabine Graf

Published:
  • February 25, 2019