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Sidra Itikhar, PhD student: "I'm sure my daughter will be proud of me someday"

ngels Codina Relat

A few months ago, Sidra came to Barcelona from Pakistan to pursue a doctoral degree in e-learning at the UOC. “I had read about the University’s research and it really inspired me”, she says. With a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Computer Science already under her belt, she combines her work and studies with taking care of her three-year-old girl.

What's the topic of your doctoral thesis?

I’ll be focusing on user and learner experiences with an e-learning platform in an online environment.

Let’s consider, for example, that I’m studying for a master’s degree at UOC. Would you then analyse my behaviour? Would you analyse how I do my exercises?

Exactly. I might also interview you and carry out a series of experiments to analyse how you feel about the system, how comfortable you are with it and how it helps you achieve your goals. I would wonder, for example: Are you learning enough on the course? Is the course sufficiently motivating you? Are you sufficiently engaged with it? Are you happy with the kind of feedback you’re getting and the teachers’ evaluation and system-based assessments? In a nutshell, I basically want to know if you are satisfied with how the results are presented to you and the impression you have of our system, as well as how comfortable you are and how in control you feel working within the system.

What can make me, as a student, feel more comfortable with a system?

The kind of control you have over it, and probably the kind of feedback you’re given and the quality of the content that's there. What I mean is, if you’re a master’s degree student and think: “I’ve already done this; I’m not learning much more than I knew before and I don’t feel motivated”. These are some things we should tackle as a way of improving your overall experience as student.

What methodology have you adopted?

Right now, I'm defining my thesis. We’re going to study a series of e-learning systems currently in place to assess how comfortable and motivated the students are with them and pinpoint any loopholes that might exist. Analysing which parts make students uncomfortable will reveal which parts of the system the developers or designers need to enhance so that more students enrol on our courses and so forth.

What is the UOC like compared to other online universities?

If you look at the data and the samples, you’ll realize that the UOC leads the pack. It’s completely online, offering bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, etc, and therefore here we have more students than other universities in the same environment. I also think that students who are inclined to study online opt for UOC because the system is just great.

Why did you choose to focus your research on e-learning? Is it something that really interests you?

Because it’s amazing to see people who would not normally be able to attend university because of some type of limitation, such as a disability, given the same chance as anyone else to pursue their passion and get a degree or whatever they like. In my opinion, e-learning could be a major step towards education for all, as it gives everyone an equal opportunity to participate in learning and be motivated.

Do you think that e-learning is the future?

I can’t swear that face-to-face universities are going to completely adopt it, but it’s definitely going to become more and more widespread, because every day there are more people for whom travelling is sometimes hard. There are also stay-at-home moms, or people with disabilities, and so on. Now, we even have these great systems that allow plagiarism to be detected or use facial recognition to make sure you’re who you say you are online. There’s impressive work being done in this field and I think that online learning is going to go a long way.

What's e-learning’s main challenge in your opinion?

My personal feeling is that some people are ill-suited to an e-learning environment simply because of their personality. Some are very talkative, and they want to be able to raise their hand in the classroom to say we need to do this, we need to do that... So maybe matching the e-learning experience with their expectations would be somewhat challenging.

What's your plan once you've finished your thesis? Will you go back to Pakistan?

It depends what opportunities I find. If a good opportunity pops up in my field in my country, I might want to go there. As you know, however, I have a daughter, and it also depends on whether she is happy here, and if as a family we decide we don't want to move... If that happens, I’ll have to find an opportunity here. With a family you have to connect all the dots.

Last 11 February was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As a woman doing IT research, what do you think of the idea that it’s a field traditionally better suited to men. Do you agree with this statement?

I don't, because we have examples of women in IT who have done great things. Are you familiar with Margaret Hamilton? She was a woman who sent I don’t know how many men to the moon! So if she could do it, anyone can! However, as there are so few of us, we do usually have to invest extra energy into proving we’re good enough.

How can family and your environment help you believe in yourself and follow your dreams?

It helps immeasurably. My mother is a teacher, and when I was little I could see that she was doing something meaningful for society. She was contributing to society. Teaching is probably the best thing you can do for our society, because you’re making future doctors, engineers, lawyers.... I think that anyone, men included, should have the opportunity to be productive in society and do whatever they want to do. I’m sure my daughter will be proud of me someday for not having sat around all day at home! However, I also think that it’s equally important to be with your family and your kids, and that it’s not fair to get a job that takes you away from them all the time. My mom was there for us whenever we needed here. Now that I have a daughter, I sometimes wonder: How did she manage to do all that? When you have a child of your own and you become a parent, you realize everything your parents have done for you. Because it's hard! And I think that, overall, even if you don't have daughters, even if you don't have kids, there should be sessions in schools where we can all go and tell kids, especially girls: whatever you want to be – whether it’s a doctor, or if you want to go to space – follow your dreams, nothing should stop you!