Doctoral Candidate Has Heart and Humility

Collaboration Builds Extended Reality Lab

With a dissertation defense and graduation looming, doctoral candidate in the College of Education at Washington State University, Ali Asiri, has learned much throughout his program. “Every day, I learn something new,” he said, “and am enjoying it.” He even admitted that he once thought he knew “everything” about his dissertation topic, but, “in reality,” he added, “the more I work with teachers and visit their classes, the more I discover how little I know.”

Ali grew up in a small town in southern Saudi Arabia and developed his English acumen from an intriguing source. “My brothers and I used to sit in front of the TV,” he said, “playing Resident Evil, sometimes for six hours straight.” Resident Evil is a one-player video game where the subject exists in environments inhabited by zombies.

Ali’s older brother worked the controller, and Ali “transcribed anything we saw in English and translated it word-by-word.” The entire family watched, and their mother cooked an elaborate meal for all to enjoy. “By the end of high school,” Ali said, “my English was solid.” He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English Language from King Khalid University. His goals included becoming a teacher who would make a significant and lasting impact on his students and to learn all he could about teaching with technology.

Graduate student at an event smiling and pointing to themselves.
Doctoral candidate, Ali Asiri, at the the Graduate School/GPSA Annual Evening of Excellence.

Ali was accepted into Gonzaga University’s Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) program, in Spokane, Washington, fulfilling his childhood dream of earning a master’s degree abroad. At Gonzaga, Ali attended a symposium at the University of Idaho where he met his future advisor, WSU Regents Professor Dr. Joy Egbert, a leader in the field of education technology. Egbert conducts research on task engagement, particularly as it affects teacher education, multilingual learners, and technology use. Ali was familiar with Egbert’s work and asked her questions. He also spoke with doctoral students who presented on technology and its use in teaching and learning. They encouraged him to apply to a PhD program.

After earning his master’s, Ali returned to Saudi Arabia and worked as an English instructor, shadowing a colleague. He became acquainted with the curriculum, students, technology, and other procedures. In one session, he noticed the teacher using a smart board with cutting-edge features, but was only mirroring the same textbook page the students had in front of them. Ali decided that as a doctoral student, he would study how to show teachers the most effective ways of integrating technology into their practices.

When Ali learned he was accepted into the PhD program at WSU, and that he received a graduate assistantship, he was over the moon. And as soon as he arrived in Pullman, he walked right to Dr. Egbert’s office. “I still remember how she welcomed me,” he said. The two discussed the program, faculty, paperwork, and courses. “She was the most welcoming person I had ever known,” Ali remarked. “She made me feel at home.”

She also warned: “You won’t change the entire world at once. You have to take one step at a time.” But the enthusiastic graduate student wanted to make a difference “right now” and initiate change with his research. So, with Egbert’s nod of approval, Ali focused on two studies for his dissertation. The first aimed to review current literature and identify specific, practical, and evidence-based elements that had proven effective with teachers and their use of technology. After completing all of the reading, writing, revising, and commenting, Ali built a framework to be used immediately in the field to increase teachers’ efficacy with integrating technology. The second study evaluated that framework and put it to the test. “I worked with Dr. Egbert to use the framework in the College of Education,” he said. “The preliminary results were promising.”

Next, the two collaborated on workshops, presentations, and classroom demos. Egbert facilitated Ali’s professional development by enabling him to draft grant proposals, communicate with foundations, and submit research papers to top-tier academic journals. She invited him into classes to help students and pre-service teachers with technology and to think about what they should consider when using tech for teaching and learning.

During his research, Ali came across an ad from Unity Technologies, a big name in education technology. Unity was inviting proposals for support in developing materials for educational purposes. Ali and Egbert started drafting ideas about what they could do with the funding, and Unity approved their proposal. The company sent them 15 Oculus headsets, which boosted the beginning of the Extended Reality (XR) Development lab.

“I worked with Dr. Egbert to build our lab and laid the structure,” Ali said. “She trusted me to manage the work, and in fact, gave me full freedom to plan, draft instructions for our projects, and be involved in meetings to secure funds.” They also received approval to visit the Pullman School District to collaborate with teachers and provide them with innovative curriculum for using technology in their classes. “This is a win-win,” Ali said, “because the teachers are content experts, and our associates are technical experts. We can learn from each other.”

Today, the XR Lab is the connecting point for more than a dozen WSU graduate students and faculty and other universities. “We partnered with two other student clubs at WSU to host workshops and learning sessions,” Ali said. “The impact of the lab work is far reaching. We lead many workshops for pre-service and in-service teachers.” He and the associates meet in the lab and collaborate on projects that invigorate them. “We are not paid to do this (yet),” Ali said, “but our patience keeps us pushing the field forward.”

Ali deeply appreciates his collaborations with, and mentorship from, Dr. Joy Egbert. “I can confidently work on securing funds, leading teams and projects, workshops, and conference sessions. I can author and publish academic research,” he said. “She has helped prepare me for the future.”