Okan Bulut receives Martha Cook Piper Research Award

MEDS professor honoured for strong research record and outstanding promise as a researcher early in his career

Carmen Rojas - 16 May 2024

It was a decade ago, around the time he was earning his PhD in Quantitative Methods in Education from the University of Minnesota, that Professor Okan Bulut first began to notice the impact advancements in technology were having on his area of expertise.

After years spent studying educational measurement and assessment, with a focus on how to improve testing to make it more accurate and fair, he realized the steady rise of internet culture and the prevalence of personal devices were transforming the nature of his work.

“Even the definition of testing and assessment has changed substantially,” says Bulut, an associate professor in the Measurement, Evaluation and Data Science (MEDS) program and a researcher at the Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation. “We gradually shifted from paper-and-pencil assessments to a digital world that covers iPads, computers, online learning and all kinds of other new concepts.”

As early as 2015, Bulut began focusing his research on emerging areas like artificial intelligence (AI), educational data mining, and learning analytics in response to these rapid changes.

“Within the digital world, we know there are so many opportunities for us to make education more personalized and tailored to students’ unique needs,” he says. “The whole purpose of my research now is taking whatever data is available about learners and using advanced technology to turn that data into valuable insights for both learners and instructors.”

For example, Bulut received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant in 2016 to create ExamVis, a tool that automatically generates personalized feedback for post-secondary students after they complete assessments on eClass. Since then, many instructors from different faculties at the U of A have used ExamVis to give personalized feedback to their students based on their assessment performance.

On the right track

Earlier this spring, Bulut received a Martha Cook Piper Research Award from the U of A, an honour that recognizes researchers in the early stages of their careers who have a strong research record and demonstrate outstanding promise.

This recognition indicates to Bulut that his initial years at the U of A have been well spent — in particular, the time he has invested in developing his new research focus, which he notes has received enthusiastic support from the Faculty of Education.

“They know the impact of our research and they always try to help us turn our goals into realities,” he says. “I’m really grateful for that.”

Among Bulut’s many research grants — his current funding totals more than $1.5 million — is a SSHRC Insight Grant he received last year to create a digital tutor for pre-service and new teachers.

Entitled “Improving Canadian Teachers’ Assessment Literacy and Decision-Making through Self-Directed Professional Development,” the project involves Bulut and his colleagues creating an AI-based conversational agent (similar to OpenAI’s ChatGPT and IBM’s watsonx Assistant) that will allow teachers to practice dealing with real-life assessment challenges that arise in the classroom, such as a parent questioning their child’s grades.

The goal of the five-year project is to make the AI system they create available to all teachers in Alberta and across Canada. This would allow teachers to interact with the conversational agent as part of a professional development (PD) process and develop their assessment skills whenever and wherever they want.

As Bulut looks ahead to the next stage of his career, he’s both optimistic and cautious about what comes next for his field.

“I’m trying to give all learners a unique opportunity to improve their skills, but at the same time, we have to make sure we’re doing this in a fair and equitable way,” he says. “We must take all those principles of EDI into account rather than blindly following the technology.”

“It’s an exciting time for education,” he adds. “The field is evolving quite rapidly and that excites me — I see myself as a learner. There’s still a lot more to do and I’m really hoping to achieve more over the next 10 years.”

Feature image: Professor Okan Bulut (standing third from right) celebrates winning the Martha Cook Piper Research Award with his Measurement, Evaluation and Data Science students at the Celebrating Socially Transformative Research and Teaching Event on March 28, 2024. (Photo: Laura Sou)