Shashi Kant Shankar: my supervisors were the source of inspiration!

PHD holder of the School of Digital Technologies Shashi Kant Shankar defended his doctoral thesis: "CIMLA: a Data Infrastructure to Support the Development of Context-Aware and Reusable Multimodal Learning Analytics Solutions" in March 2023. In our interview Shashi talks about his inspiring PHD journey full of challenges and victories!


Shashi, how did you find your research topic?

Finding my research topic in the field of Multimodal Learning Analytics (MMLA) was a deliberate and thoughtful process. It stemmed from a combination of personal interest, educational background, and a recognition of the growing significance of technology-enhanced learning and educational technology.

I have always been passionate about education and the transformative potential of technology in the learning process. This passion served as a strong foundation for my research interests. At the same time my academic background in Computer Science and Engineering, including prior coursework and research experiences, provided me with insights into the challenges and opportunities in the field of education and technology. This background equipped me with the necessary knowledge to embark on a Ph.D. journey.

Through observation and interaction with educators, students, and educational institutions, I recognized the pressing challenges in the modern educational landscape especially Estonian system. These challenges included the need for evidence-based learning and teaching practices, which formed the basis of my research interest. I conducted an extensive review of the existing literature in the fields of technology-enhanced learning and educational technology. This review helped me identify gaps and areas where MMLA could make a meaningful contribution.

Also I was motivated by the prospect of making a tangible impact on education by developing tools and systems that could enhance the learning and teaching experience through data-driven insights. MMLA stood out as a promising avenue to achieve this. I sought guidance from mentors especially my supervisors and experts in the field whom I met in different conferences, summer schools, and research stays who encouraged and supported my research direction. Their insights and expertise played a pivotal role in shaping my research focus.

In summary, my research topic emerged as a result of a convergence of personal passion, educational background, awareness of educational challenges, a thorough literature review, and the desire to make a meaningful contribution to the field. It was a thoughtful and deliberate choice aimed at addressing real-world issues in education through the lens of technology and data analytics.

How will your research change the world (even a little bit)?

My research in the field of Multimodal Learning Analytics (MMLA) has the potential to make a meaningful impact on the world of education, even if it's just a small step in the right direction. Here are some ways in which my research can contribute to positive change:

Enhancing Learning Outcomes: By providing educators and students with data-driven insights into the learning process, my research can empower them to make more informed and empirical decisions. This, in turn, can lead to improved learning outcomes and a better educational experience.

Supporting Evidence-Based Practices: My work contributes to the promotion of evidence-based learning and teaching practices. Educators can use the tools and solutions that can be developed using my Ph.D. contribution to tailor their teaching methods to individual student needs, ultimately fostering a more effective and personalized learning environment.

Empowering Educators: My research can empower educators with the MMLA tools they need to understand the effectiveness of their teaching methods and make data-driven adjustments. This can lead to increased job satisfaction and a stronger commitment to the teaching profession.

Modularity and Reusability: The data infrastructure I've contributed, supports the development of context-aware and reusable MMLA solutions. This means that my research can serve as a building block for future innovations in the field, allowing for ongoing improvements and adaptations.

Advancing Educational Technology: As educational technology continues to evolve, my research can contribute to the ongoing development of innovative tools and solutions. This can help bridge the gap between traditional and technology-enhanced learning, making education more accessible and effective.

Informing Education Policy: The insights generated by my research can be valuable for educational policymakers. They can use this information to make data-informed decisions about curriculum development, resource allocation, and educational standards.

Fostering Collaboration: Through the development of modular and modifiable MMLA solutions, my research promotes collaboration among researchers, educators, and developers in authentic learning settings. This collaborative approach can lead to a more comprehensive and effective approach to improving education.

In conclusion, while the impact of any single research project may seem incremental, the collective effect of many such endeavors can lead to significant positive changes in the world of education. My research aims to be a part of this collective effort, making a small but valuable contribution towards evidence-based learning and teaching practices that can benefit students, educators, and the field of education as a whole.

What were your tactics for consistently working on your doctoral thesis in order to successfully reach the end?

Consistently working on a doctoral thesis is a challenging and demanding endeavor. Successfully reaching the end requires a combination of effective tactics and strategies. I set clear and achievable goals for my research, breaking down the larger thesis project into smaller, manageable tasks. This helped me maintain focus and track progress. For this, we always used a Thesis Diagram suggested by supervisors. Effective time management was also crucial factor. I established a routine and allocated dedicated time for research, writing, and other aspects of my work. I used time management techniques like the Pomodoro method to maintain productivity.

It's important to strike a balance between work and personal life. I ensured I had time for relaxation, hobbies, and social activities to prevent burnout and maintain motivation. Thanks to the little international friend circle and a small Estonian family within HTK. Consistent communication with my advisors was essential. I scheduled regular meetings (every two weeks, we met religiously) to discuss my progress, seek guidance, and receive feedback, which helped me stay on the right track. Also I actively engaged with peers and colleagues in my field. Collaborative discussions and sharing ideas with others enriched my research and provided motivation. It also helped me stay updated on the latest developments in the field. Thanks to the supervisors who connected me to the research network in (MM)LA and TEL fields.

Staying informed about the latest research, technologies, and methodologies was important. I regularly attended conferences, workshops, summer and winter schools, writing bootcamps, and webinars to broaden my knowledge and skills. I maintained detailed records of my research, including notes, datasets, code, and drafts. This documentation proved invaluable during the writing and editing phases. I also recorded our most of the meetings with the supervisors, of course, with their permissions. I recognized that setbacks and challenges are a natural part of the research process. When faced with obstacles, I sought solutions and adapted my research plan as needed. Thanks to the supervisors-cum-friends-cum-family members and colleagues who were always available for me.

Its important to remember that physical and mental well-being are also very important. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and mindfulness practices helped me stay physically and mentally fit. Thanks to Tallinn University for the gym and sporting facilities. Acknowledging and celebrating small victories along the way provided positive reinforcement. It was a way to stay motivated and remind myself of the progress made. I shared my goals and progress with a trusted friend or colleague who could hold me accountable. This external motivation helped me stay on track.

The journey to completing a Ph.D. is often long and challenging. Maintaining perseverance, even in the face of setbacks, was crucial to my success. In summary, consistently working on a doctoral thesis requires a combination of effective time management, goal setting, self-care, and adaptability. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and employing these tactics helped me successfully reach the end of my Ph.D. journey.

What was a memorable or funny instance that happened while writing the thesis?

One of the most memorable and cherished experiences during my thesis writing journey occurred when I temporarily relocated to Bhimtal, a serene and picturesque small town in the lower regions of the Himalayas in India. I had chosen to work on my thesis in a small cottage in Bhimtal, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of nature. Every day, I would wake up to the tranquil sounds of birds chirping and the fresh mountain air. It was a welcome change of environment from the usual academic life.

What made this experience particularly unforgettable was the way it allowed me to seamlessly blend my work with the serenity of nature. Whenever I needed a break from the rigorous thesis writing, I would step out of my cottage and take long walks amidst the lush greenery, surrounded by the majestic Himalayan landscape. These walks offered moments of respite and reflection, allowing me to recharge my mind and spirit. As I strolled along the winding trails, I found myself lost in thought, contemplating the intricate details of my thesis. The logical connections, the coherence of arguments, and the overall flow of the document became my companions during these solitary walks. It was as if the natural beauty and tranquility of Bhimtal were in perfect harmony with my academic pursuits.

The memory of those days, where I could immerse myself in the intellectual intricacies of my thesis while simultaneously enjoying the beauty of the natural world with my spuose, remains etched in my mind. It was a time when I felt deeply connected to both my research and the environment, where I found inspiration in the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves in the gentle breeze.

This experience in Bhimtal serves as a testament to the idea that the research journey is not just about academic rigor but also about the enriching moments and settings that can enhance one's connection to the work. It was a reminder that nature and intellectual exploration can coexist harmoniously, creating an unforgettable and truly unique thesis-writing experience.

Based on your field of research, what does "intelligent lifestyle" mean for you?

In the context of my field of research, which focuses on Multimodal Learning Analytics, "intelligent lifestyle" extends beyond the traditional understanding of lifestyle. It refers to a way of living and learning that leverages advanced technology and data-driven insights to optimize and enhance one's educational and personal experiences. 

An intelligent lifestyle involves using data analytics and technology to make informed decisions about one's learning and educational journey. It means harnessing the power of data in a context-aware, value-sensitive, and human-centered way to understand one's strengths, weaknesses, and preferences in order to tailor learning experiences accordingly. Intelligent lifestyle includes the use of technology to personalize the learning process. This reminds me of the proverb - ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL. This may involve adaptive learning platforms that adjust content and pace to the individual's needs, ensuring an efficient and effective learning experience.

In an intelligent lifestyle, the pursuit of knowledge is continuous and lifelong. Technology and data are harnessed to support ongoing learning, skill development, and personal growth, whether through formal education or informal self-directed learning.Technology and analytics are used to optimize time management and study habits. Intelligent lifestyle means using tools and strategies to enhance productivity, streamline workflows, and achieve academic and personal goals more efficiently.

An intelligent lifestyle includes leveraging technology for effective communication and collaboration with peers, educators, and mentors. This fosters a sense of community and support in the learning process. Beyond education, an intelligent lifestyle also extends to one's physical and mental well-being. Technology and data are used to monitor and improve health, fitness, and overall quality of life.

IL may also involve being environmentally conscious and using technology to reduce one's carbon footprint. This can include digital learning materials, remote collaboration, and sustainable practices. Also practicing ethical and responsible use of technology is a fundamental aspect of an intelligent lifestyle. This involves considerations such as data privacy, digital citizenship, and responsible use of AI and machine learning tools.

In summary, in the context of Multimodal Learning Analytics and Educational Technology, an "intelligent lifestyle" is one that combines the power of technology and data with a commitment to lifelong learning, personalization, well-being, and ethical considerations. It's about using these tools and insights to lead a purposeful, data-informed, and continuously improving educational and personal life.

What is something you appreciate about your dissertation supervisor(s)?

In the beginning , my supervisors (Supervisors are Associate Professor Luis Pablo Prieto Santos from Tallinn University, Senior Researcher Maria Jesus Rodriguez Triana fromTallinn University and Senior Researcher Adolfo Ruiz-Calleja from University of Valladolid.) were just supervisors when I started my Ph.D. journey. But, as the journey was heading towards the destination, they became my best friends. And today, I can emotionally state that they are my family members in EU and respectfully, I have given them the title of my academic father and mother. However, in the academic settings, I appreciate several aspects about my dissertation supervisors that significantly contributed to the successful completion of my Ph.D.

My supervisors brought a wealth of expertise to the table, offering invaluable insights into my research area. Their deep understanding of the field and the nuances of my topic was instrumental in shaping the direction of my research. One of the qualities I appreciated the most was their accessibility and availability. They were always willing to meet and discuss my research, offer guidance, and provide feedback promptly. I don’t even remember how many "Discussions over coffee" and " Thesis progress while walking along Pirita tee". This open line of communication was essential for addressing questions and challenges as they arose. My supervisors provided more than just academic guidance; they also offered mentorship and support on a personal level like best friends and family members. They encouraged me during challenging times, boosted my confidence, and helped me navigate the complexities of the doctoral journey.

They also actively promoted my research within academic circles, opening doors to collaboration, conferences, and publication opportunities. Their support extended beyond the academic realm and into the professional networking arena. They were genuinely committed to my success and their dedication to seeing me complete my Ph.D. was evident in their unwavering support and advocacy on my behalf.

While providing guidance and mentorship, my supervisors also encouraged me to develop independent critical thinking and research skills. This balanced approach allowed me to take ownership of my research and develop as a scholar. They demonstrated great patience and understanding, particularly during challenging and uncertain phases of my research. Their support and encouragement during these times were invaluable.

They also recognized the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. This emphasis on well-being contributed to a more sustainable and enjoyable doctoral journey. Beyond their academic roles, my supervisors were a source of inspiration. Their passion for research and their dedication to their own work served as a model for my own academic aspirations.

I am deeply appreciative of my dissertation supervisors for their expertise, mentorship, support, and unwavering commitment to my success. Their guidance was an integral part of my doctoral journey, and I will always be grateful for their contributions to my academic and personal growth.


Read about the doctoral thesis