Faces of UMSI: Heeryung Choi

As a high school student, PhD candidate Heeryung Choi thought teaching would be the last job she would want. Her experiences in the public school system in South Korea left her disillusioned with a system that advantages wealthier students. Now she researches education at UMSI. 

Heeryung earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Education and a Master of Science in Cognitive Science from Seoul National University. “English education gives the theoretical background on how people learn.” Heeryung said. “Cognitive science helped me understand how people think.”

Heeryung researches how educators can support students learning about data science on an online education platform. Specifically, Heeryung studies Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses that anyone can enroll in. In an online environment, students have to motivate and regulate themselves because there is no in-person interaction. The measurement of self-regulated learning is a vital element of Heeryung’s research and the topic of her field preliminary. 

Heeryung has found that education in the United States is different from education in South Korea and can be inaccessible to many learners. The problem is an international one, one that demands a similarly international solution. 

Heeryung is attracted to the potential accessibility of online learning, but recognizes there are still hurdles for students in online courses, particularly if they are not traditional students. “I’m an international student. I’m female. My personal experience gave me the motivation, gave me the opportunity, to build a more inclusive learning community,” Heeryung said. 

Often studies on online learning environments focus on students who are from North America and are native English speakers. This demographic makes up the majority of students in MOOCs. What is lacking is research on students with different educational experiences. “What do students who are not in this majority experience?” Heeryung’s research asks. “Do they have language or communication problems? Would they feel weird when they find out the majority of students are white, male, native English speakers?” 

MOOC instructors struggle to provide customized learning experiences because they are educating thousands of students. Heeryung has identified peer learning as a potential solution to this problem, though she is skeptical of the efficacy of the discussion board format that prevails in many online courses. 

Peer learning can also be compromised by socioeconomics. For example, Heeryung studied how students with a high socioeconomic status treated students with low socioeconomic status after becoming aware of that status. She found that often these students with high socioeconomic status will become more emotional and empathetic, and less critical, when they learn of a student’s less privileged status “This means low socioeconomic students are losing the opportunity to learn something from their peers,” Heeryung said. “These components are very important to me.” 

Recently the Learning Analytics and Knowledge 2019 Conference accepted Heeryung’s paper on social comparison and the socioeconomic status of MOOC learners, “Social Comparison in MOOCs: Perceived SES, Opinion, and Message Formality.” She worked on this paper with Nia Dowell, Christopher Brooks and Stephanie Teasley

Heeryung came to the University of Michigan to take advantage of MOOC data UMSI makes available to researchers. Heeryung’s advisor, Christopher Brooks, teaches MOOCs. He teaches a few classes on Coursera, including "Introduction to Data Science in Python and "Applied Plotting, Charting & Data Representation in Python." The potential of immediate feedback on her research interventions via an actual MOOC excites Heeryung.

In addition to studying online learning, Heeryung also studies traditional classrooms. She collaborated with the U-M School of Social Work to analyze student thinking about social justice topics such as privilege, oppression and diversity. “[The University of Michigan] is amazing at providing resources like data,” Heeryung said. Because of the availability of data about students in in-person courses, Heeryung has expanded her research interests to include these classrooms. 

Heeryung also collaborated with the School of Social Work to research how to detect the learning gain students accomplish in class. This study analyzed the essays of students in a freshman introductory social work course to discover whether students gained a variety of types of knowledge. 

Heeryung wishes to continue to conduct research on education after graduation. In her free time she enjoys reading Roxane Gay essays, which she deems “totally unrelated to research.” 

- by Meg Millure, Editorial Assistant