Information technology doctoral student uncovers new ways to enrich learning

Graduate student in lobby of Mason Engineering building.

Stephanie Olson, a PhD student in information technology, is researching ways educators can improve their teaching and personalize instruction.

Just like mystery novels fascinate some people, database research intrigues Stephanie Olson, a PhD student in Mason Engineering’s Department of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

She loves to delve into data to uncover insights hidden in vast amounts of information.  “I’m a problem-solver at heart,” Olson says. “I see an issue that needs to be investigated, and I want to find a solution for it. As an information technology student, I’m problem-solving with technology.”

Her mission is to become an expert in the field of data analytics and to reach that goal she has earned three information technology degrees—two from Mason—and is working on her fourth.

This ambitious journey began simply enough. Early in her career, Olson worked in tech support for an internet provider and discovered she loved it and wanted to know more.

In 2012, she got an associate of science degree in information technology from Northern Virginia Community College. She went on to earn a BS in applied information technology from Mason in 2015 and an accelerated MS in applied information technology from Mason in 2016. She graduated with high honors in each one.

The workload was arduous at times, but she was determined. “I read my textbook chapters. I showed up for class. I didn’t just do my homework so it was good enough—I gave it my best effort.”

She kept asking herself: “What else can I do? What else can I learn?”

Her dedication impressed her professors. “I had her in several classes and could truly see her passion for the field whenever I spoke to her,” says Tom Winston, an assistant professor in the IST Department. “She is humble, she is friendly, and she is very driven to learn and to improve her understanding.”

Ioulia Rytikova, an associate professor and associate chair for graduate studies in the IST Department, agrees. “The amount of effort Stephanie put into my undergraduate database fundamental course, which is very challenging, was absolutely amazing. She worked harder than any student I knew.”

On top of her academic work, Olson serves as a teaching assistant and lab instructor for the school, and she is honing her research skills by working with other students and faculty members in the Personalized Learning in Applied Information Technology (PLAIT) lab. Their goal is to use data to uncover new ways educators can improve their teaching techniques and personalize instruction for students.

They are currently collecting classroom information from Blackboard, a virtual learning environment, and developing algorithms to process and analyze that data. 

“Everything is tracked in Blackboard: how long students are logged in, how much time they are spending on any particular page, whether they are downloading the reading content or are just skipping it, how long it is taking them to answer a quiz or test question,” says Olson, director of communications for PLAIT. She has presented the lab’s research at conferences.

By comparing students’ Blackboard participation to their scores on assignments and tests, researchers can pinpoint the teaching techniques that work best in the introductory engineering school courses, Olson says.  “Ultimately, we’d like to develop information that can be used by everyone, whether they are in the engineering school or the humanities school.”

She says it’s sometimes difficult to explain what working in IT means. Some people think IT simply refers to the people they call when they have problems with their computer, but it’s not limited to that. Professionals with information technology degrees often have engineering jobs as programmers, developers, or scientists, says Olson, who refers to herself as an IT engineer.

Mason’s Engineering’s faculty members, including her PhD advisors Mihai Boicu and Ioulia Rytikova, are a big part of the reason for her success, she says. “They have been incredibly encouraging and helpful, which makes it so easy for someone who is motivated to succeed at this school.”

One day, she’d like to work in a research lab for Oracle or another high-tech company.  With her skill sets and expertise, she knows she could get a good job now, but she’s laser-focused on getting her PhD.

 “I have an insatiable determination to see what more I can do,” Olson says. “If I didn’t at least attempt to do everything I’m capable of doing, I’ll regret it. I won’t be satisfied.”

Some people think IT simply refers to the people they call when they have problems with their computer, but it’s not limited to that. Professionals with information technology degrees often have engineering jobs as programmers, developers, or scientists.

Stephanie Olson, PhD student in information technology