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WSSU hosts its first faculty Fulbright Scholar Rita Ismailova

When Rita Ismailova was selected to be a Fulbright Scholar, she had the choice to pick most any college or university in the world to attend for almost a year of research.

From the tiny, landlocked Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, Ismailova passed on educational behemoths like Stanford and Duke and Harvard. Her selection? Winston-Salem State University. She is the first Fulbright Scholar to pick WSSU for their 10 months of research.

“The Fulbright program allows scholars to choose a university and since my research interests are in educational computing and e-learning, I started looking for researchers in that area,” said Ismailova, who is an associate professor at Kyrgyz Turkish Manas University in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city Bishkek.

Rita Headshot

WSSU' first faculty Fulbright Scholar Rita Ismailova

“There’s a website, Google Scholar, that hosts information about most peer-reviewed online academic journals, books, conference papers, theses and dissertations, and other scholarly literature. My search started with this website, looking for professors with research in e-learning. I found some of the publications of Dr. Darina Dicheva and Christo Dichev of WSSU in line with my research interests. I emailed them asking if I could join their research and Dr. Dicheva agreed to host my Fulbright visit.”

The Fulbright Program is a flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. It offers grants to study, teach and conduct research for U.S. citizens to go abroad and for non-U.S. citizens to come to the United States. Each year, roughly 850 faculty and professionals from around the world receive Fulbright Scholar awards for advanced research and university lecturing in the United States. The program was founded by United States Senator J. William Fulbright in 1946 and is considered one of the most widely recognized and prestigious scholarships in the world.

“She chose to come to WSSU, and we were very pleased with that,” said Dicheva, who is a Paul Fulton/Delta Sigma Theta Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at WSSU. “She didn’t choose a big university and typically Fulbright Scholars go to a larger, research university, and we are not that.”

Dicheva downplays her role in Ismailova’s selection of WSSU, but she was critical to her decision. Dicheva is the team leader for the university’s Research Group on Intelligent Information Systems and has anchored several NSF-funded research projects in intelligent learning environments and e-learning, which is Ismailova’s key area of research. While operating out of a smaller university, the Dicheva-led group is widely acclaimed and respected.

“Our research is highly cited and that’s how she found us on Google Scholar,” said Dicheva, who has led the research group since its founding in 2004. “She was researching for new ways of motivating and engaging students in e-learning, and actually, in this specific area, we have international recognition, so there is no wonder she found us.”

Ismailova arrived in the United States last September. It was her first trip abroad from Kyrgyzstan, a very small, mountainous country bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the south, and China to the east. The Fulbright Scholar Program is diligent in preparing its scholars for the 10 months in another country, and Ismailova said for the most part, it has been a smooth transition for her.

“We had some orientation programs before we came and after we came, the Fulbright Program organized some more orientation programs, so there was nothing I wasn’t prepared for,” said Ismailova, whose command of the English language has helped immensely. “There is a difference in cultures and for the first few weeks the time difference was a problem. But it was very easy. The members of the IIS research group are very helpful to me.”

Dicheva has a great understanding of Ismailova’s situation. She emigrated from Bulgaria 23 years ago and was familiar with some of the problems Ismailova may face and was quick to provide help.

“Over the past two-and-a-half years we’ve had someone from the National Higher School for Computer Science, Algeria visiting us and earlier someone from the University of Southern Denmark spent his sabbatical with us,” said Dicheva. “We are used to international visitors. They do need help navigating. But that is all fine. I don’t mind helping. I, myself came from abroad and know how difficult it is when you come to a new place.”

WSSU’s Research Group on Intelligent Information Systems studies a myriad of fields, but the one Ismailova traveled around the world to work with is e-learning, defined as a structured course or learning experience delivered electronically.

The group’s current research is aimed at improving students’ learning and performance in academic courses by engaging them in gameful learning experiences.  According to Dicheva, gamification, the use of game elements in non-game contexts, is already widely used to enhance learner engagement and motivation. To help instructors gamify their courses, the research group has developed the OneUp course gamification platform.

“I’m not aware of another software like this anywhere. If you look at the list of instructors using it on our website, you will see that our work is gaining recognition.”

“Rita was searching for new ways for improving the efficiency of e-learning and was excited to learn about our experience in educational gamification and about our online gamified learning platform,” Dicheva said.

And that is what attracted Ismailova to WSSU. With e-learning background and diligence to learn more, Ismailova has been a perfect fit with the research group.

“She has meshed very good. She has good English, and she has this background and experience in doing empirical studies in e-learning. She was very quick to find her place after joining the research group. We started working together very early. We worked on a research paper that we have already submitted and now are working on a second one,” said Dicheva. “She is a very hard worker. I like that.”

Ismailova’s drive to find innovations in e-learning is simple, she says. She wants everyone, especially those in remote countries like hers’ to have equal educational opportunities.

“It (e-learning) won’t replace the traditional way of education, but I think e-learning has a very big potential,” said the 42-year-old Ismailova. “Education is the most powerful tool to help people be more successful. Sometimes education is very hard to deliver. In this sense, e-learning, online education is one of the most important paradigms for the future of education. It will help improve global education. We can make knowledge universal.”

Ismailova’s Fulbright Scholar grant is for one academic year. She will be returning home to Kyrgyzstan in late June. In the few months she has been here, she has developed a great appreciation of the United States. “When I was back in Kyrgyzstan, like everyone else on the planet, we knew that this was the greatest country of opportunity and after I got here, I saw that.”

The opportunities of this country have opened the opportunity for Ismailova to spread the knowledge of the e-learning research in her home country.

“I’m leaving at the end of June but will continue this collaboration with Dr. Dicheva,” said Ismailova. “We will try to apply their course gamification platform at my home university when I’m back in Kyrgyzstan and improve e-learning there.”

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