Please describe what is your thesis topic about?
When we learn online and interact with teachers, peers or the learning environment, we leave interaction traces that can be useful to analyse learning processes, for different purposes. As we rarely study only online and interact also in physical spaces, both spaces – online and physical play a big role. My thesis addresses this intersection of physical and online learning spaces to solve the issue of holistic analysis of learning, by putting automated data (logs) together with human-labelled data (classroom observations). Aside from this, to analyse the data we also need to understand the context of these interactions in online but also physical spaces. This information can come from lesson plans (learning design) or classroom observations themselves. So, to this aim I developed conceptual and technological solutions to enable contextual data collection and analysis; a Framework for Contextualised Multimodal Observations and an app design called Observata (observata.leplanner.ee) that aids the collection of such data. It can be useful to understand classroom practices; evaluate educational innovation (technologies or practices); for teacher professional development, teacher inquiry, or purely for scientific research. Developed based on the abovementioned Framework, this app has been used in two countries: Estonia and the UK. In Estonia, it was used to collect data for a large-scale digital learning resources project (Digiõpevaramu) to observe the classroom dynamics and understand the innovation practices (while using the resources). Aside from this, Observata is included in CEITER project LA toolkit (and EDULABS method) for Estonian schools to analyse learning processes on a classroom level. The collected data is utilised for evidence-based decision making in the educational innovation process. Furthermore, Observata has been deployed as an in/pre-service teacher education tool at Tallinn University and Observata is planned to be integrated into classroom level digital innovation monitoring ecosystem. In the UK, a group of researchers (University College London, UK) have used Observata to assist the data collection and contextualisation. Currently, Observata (together with LePlanner) is available in three languages: Estonian, English and Georgian.
Why did you choose this topic?
I was interested in the topic of interaction, and how different interactions lead to learning, mainly the social dimension of it, be it formal or informal. Initially, this interest was caused by a sort of self-ethnography on the wake of Web 1.0 and later, Web 2.0. Then this became an academic interest, as I became involved in the technology-enhanced learning field. As interactions can happen in two spaces at the same time, I needed to understand how to align these two spaces and collect context-aware data.
How do you use the knowledge you got from the studies? Where do you work and what is your job title?
The knowledge acquired during my studies are very well in line with my current job, which, actually was the case during my studies too; I have worked in the field of technology-enhanced learning a researcher, specifically Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and learning analytics at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy. There I have worked in several EU projects (funded under CIF Programme, Erasmus+ Strategic partnerships, and H2020). Now I am a research fellow at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy, in the same field, specifically focusing on (multimodal) learning analytics, learning environments, learning design, evidence-based educational practices, both in higher education and schools, under EU projects or regional initiatives. At the same time, I closely collaborate with a newly established, first EdTech hub in Italy called Future Education Modena, that focuses on educational innovation, research and development activities.
What did you learn the most about yourself during the studies?
This is really an interesting question. To juggle! Being from one culture (Georgia), I have been living and working in another country (Italy), and studying in another (Estonia). I spent 2 years in Tallinn but mostly did my PhD on distance. It requires quite a lot of mental energy to be switching back and forth, in one day, between different cultures and languages, references, contexts and ways of “doing things” and most importantly, responsibilities – those of a parent, job, and studies, as I also have been raising my son during these studies who just turned 9. This gave more flavour to my PhD studies but also more reasons for resiliency. So, what I learned about myself is that I am very resilient; and that I am not very competitive, I am more of a collaborative type and this is what I enjoy the most in research. But the most important thing I learned is that I can only be resilient when I do what I love and interests me. I have been very lucky here. Even though I am multicultural and multilingual (I know 6 languages), the culture we are born into, actually defines our social fabric and the lining too. But then, also other cultures you live or come into contact with, influence you a lot. So, I also understood that I am quite a hybrid now.
What are the hobbies that take your mind off work?
More research! Joking… kind of… I mostly read literature and listen to music. I love the sea, and swimming, dancing, travelling, getting around without a map in a new city, spending time with family, cooking international cuisine... I love spending time with friends and I have amazing ones, scattered in different countries, from Georgia to UK, Netherlands, Serbia, Saudi Arabia etc. I am lucky to have wonderful friends who are also my colleagues so sometimes going to a scientific venue also means having fun! If it could be considered a hobby, then it is ancient cultures (specifically Greece), ancient ruins, museums with more ancient ruins, artefacts, art, and different languages.
What would you say to people who hesitate to start PhD?
I would say that should you hesitate, maybe revisit this idea some other time. Or reflect why do you want to do it? Is it because you want to learn? Do you have burning questions you want to answer? Doing a PhD takes lots of resilience and intrinsic motivation. Without intrinsic motivation, I think, extrinsic factors such as career advancement, showing off or doing it just because “someone else did it, so can I”, are not the factors to contribute to the satisfaction of PhD life which many times requires monasticism level of dedication. The idea is to enjoy the ride with all the challenges that come with it, this is a learning journey, after all. It’s not so much Ithaca (the destination) but the journey itself that matters– “And if you find her poor, Ithaca won't have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean” (K. Kavafis).
How would you describe Estonia from a PhD student’s perspective?
A very liberal academic environment, without unnecessary hierarchies. This makes a very big difference.
Please describe your usual day on campus.
I lived only two years in Estonia during my studies, so I don’t actually spend much time on that impressive campus. The environment was super calm, everything breathing with freedom. I used to have a free schedule, used to come to the office, read, write very peacefully and quiet by my desk, then have lunch in the university canteen, work again, chat with colleagues a bit but not too much and then go back to my toddler. You see, I am overusing the words "calm and peaceful". This is not the case in Italy, where I live, or Georgia, where I am from. We talk. A lot. And we are truly loud. The same applies to me. Do you remember that list “10 ways (not) to annoy Estonians”? That's the exact opposite both for Italians and Georgians. But I think I took in a bit of Estonia and Estonianness: I consider Estonia my academic home (I have other “homes” too). I believe a lot in academic freedom and not in hierarchies. I think the hierarchies destroy the beauty of collaboration and creativity in academia, and not only. Also, I miss the peace of Tallinn a lot. When I revisit my academic home, I always take time to contemplate how incredibly calming effect it has on me.
What are the aspects of why to choose Tallinn University?
Honestly, mostly because of personal (and historical) connections. I worked at “Deer Leap Foundation”, Ministry of Education of Georgia, which was an analogue of “Tiger Leap” of Estonia. There I met my then future supervisor Mart Laanpere, who was consulting for the foundation. He encouraged me to apply to this program but it was years, and some other collaboration projects later. So, there were some roots already there but the environment of Tallinn University took me by surprise. I think I made a good choice.