Young Scientist of the Month: Serdar Abaci

1) Would you please tell us about yourself and your journey that led you to become a scholar.

In Turkey I attended a vocational high school, majoring in computer hardware. At the time the graduates of vocational high schools were allowed to attend only Schools of Education afterwards. Hence, when I was not able to get in to Computer Engineering with almost a perfect score at the university entrance exam, I decided to attend the best university possible to study Computer Education, and I chose the Middle East Technical University (METU). I had a wonderful learning and university experience at METU and was exposed to possibilities to become more than a computer education teacher. I realized that the field of education was an excellent fit for me because I was passionate about teaching and helping others to learn. I also wanted to have a larger impact by training teachers; thus, I decided to become a university professor. After finishing college, I received a Fulbright scholarship to earn my Master's degree in the United States. I was admitted to Indiana University, which has one of the leading graduate programs in the USA in Instructional Technology. The support and the encouragement of my professors and mentors at Indiana University led me to earn another Master’s degree, this time in Educational Inquiry, which was followed by a doctoral degree in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University as well. Now as a postdoctoral researcher at the Learning Technologies division of the University Information Technology Services (UITS) at Indiana University, I have the opportunity to conduct research on learning technologies in higher education.

2) Tell us about your research and how it is related to everyday life or other fields.

The field of educational technology seeks to deepen our understanding of learning and instruction, and improve these through methods and technology. "Technology" in the name does not always mean software or hardware technologies. As an example, one of my primary research interests is improving the effects of feedback on learning. Feedback is critical for learning and one of the essential elements of effective instruction. While learning a skill, a student needs feedback on how close his/her performance to expected performance and what is missing between the two. Nevertheless, feedback is often lacking or incorrectly used. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a recent phenomenon which offers (mostly free) courses in various subjects areas, are deemed ineffective for learning because learners do not get feedback. While feedback is a message between a sender (instructor) and a receiver (student) delivered through an environment (email message), it is acted upon by the receiver; therefore, impact of feedback on learning or performance is mostly dependent on how the receiver processes the message. My research focuses on how personality variables interferes with effects of feedback on learning.

As a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University, I also study the efficacy of electronic textbooks (e-textbooks) for learning. As Internet and mobile technologies become more and more prevalent in our lives, college education is taking place more in digital learning platforms. Besides being more affordable than paper textbooks, e-textbooks include features that allow the instructor and the students to interact through highlights and annotations. In addition, availability of the reading behavior of the students early in the semester can help instructors to intervene with students, who are in need of help. This research informs us about how learning technologies are being used and how they can be used more effectively for teaching and learning. It rests on the understanding that technology integration in education requires careful planning, and it should be supported with pedagogy to improve teaching and learning.

3) What do you consider important to your success?   Tell us about any skills or habits that you think helped you to become a successful scholar at  such a young age.

Graduate programs, where you train yourself to become a scholar, give you the opportunity to understand yourself as an individual, learn your limits, develop your interests, and eventually define yourself as a scholar. Therefore, it is important to constantly reflect on your experience and how it shapes you throughout this journey. I also believe that curiosity, perseverance, and hard work are corner stones of becoming a successful scholar. One needs to have a curious mind to unearth the unknown in your field, be it education, biology, or astronomy. Becoming a scholar also requires patience and perseverance because exploration and innovation take many trials. Furthermore, dedicated hard work is essential to become a successful scholar as in any other career.

4) What are your immediate and long-term goals for the future?

As I briefly noted above, one of my current research projects explores the relationship between student reading behavior and student academic success. Digital learning platforms such as learning management systems, in which majority of the learning takes place today, captures high volume, rich data about student behavior. Therefore, I intend to examine student learning data from these platforms to accelerate our understanding of student learning and help improve learning.

My long term goal is to become faculty at a research university, where I can teach and conduct research in my areas of interests.

In addition, no matter where I reside, I would like to contribute to Turkey and its people. This would involve finding teaching opportunities (face-to-face and online) and creating collaborative research opportunities with Turkish colleagues and students.

5) What do you recommend to aspiring scholars, or to young Turkish scientists/scholars who are at the beginning of their careers?

•         Expose yourself to different areas or even different fields. Universities are great places not only to learn about your own field in depth but also to learn other topics from the best for free. And it is these different areas and your background and experiences that enable you to make significant and unique advances in your field of study.
•         "Don’t let your coursework get in the way of your learning," as one of my mentors used to tell me. Coursework in graduate programs teaches you the theories and tools you need as a scientist/scholar but real learning takes places while working on projects.
•         Work hard to find the topic that interests and excites you, and then work hard at it.

6) Could you please tell us about your life outside of your work? Do you have hobbies?

What are your favorite activities? If you recommend a book, what would that be and why?
My newest hobby is to spend time with my newborn daughter. Family life is very important to me, so I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I also stay engaged with my family in Turkey. As for other hobbies, I enjoy being in nature (hiking) and travelling. I try to exercise regularly as I believe that a healthy mind comes from a healthy body. I love all music, and I play the ‘saz’ to rest my mind after a long day.

I recommend the book “Mindset: The new psychology of success” by Carol S. Dweck. In this book, Dr. Dweck—a world renowned psychologist, tries to translate her decades of research on achievement into plain English, which is we need a growth mindset in addition to our abilities and talents in order to fulfill our potential in our lives, careers, and relationships.

Serdar Abaci is the Educational Research and Evaluation Specialist at the Learning Technologies Division of the University Information Technology Services, Indiana University.