Lecturer in the Spotlight: Evangelos Kanoulas
‘When students surprise you by going into a direction you hadn’t even thought about, that is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching.’
Evangelos Kanoulas teaches courses on Data Mining and Information Retrieval in the Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes Information Studies and in the Artificial Intelligence Master’s programme. He also coordinates the Data Science Master’s track. His research focuses on information retrieval with a current emphasis on complex information needs in professional domains.
Needle in a haystack
‘How do you find a needle in a haystack? That is, in a way, what my field is about,’ explains Evangelos Kanoulas. While we are all familiar with the straightforward web search, Kanoulas is more concerned with information retrieval in professional domains such as law, medicine or communication science. ‘Usually, when you look up something on Google for example, you are happy with the first results that come up. But in professional contexts, the searches are more complex. It can still take a lot of time for people to find the information they need and the algorithms need to be more ingenious.’
100 data sets
In the Master’s track Data Science, for which Kanoulas is the coordinator, students learn to handle all aspects of addressing such problems. Recently, he visited the DataLab of the City of Amsterdam with a group of students. They were given 100 data sets with the question to help identify and address problems with garbage in the city. ‘So we didn’t get a nice clean data set. And this is often the case in practice. The amount of data is so huge and heterogeneous, it’s in all kinds of formats and comes from many sources. As a data scientist you need to talk to people to understand what is in the data and then you have to figure out which part of the data is useful, before you even start thinking about the algorithms.’
Students come to the track with different backgrounds, including psychology, aviation studies, physics, mathematics and computer science. ‘For computer scientists, it is sometimes difficult to identify the important societal questions. But these students bring in their curiosity and their questions from all kinds of fields, and we train them to tackle those questions using tools of computer science.’
Interaction with these students also broadens Kanoulas’ own mind. ‘What I really enjoy about teaching is when you see students comprehend and expand on the knowledge you are trying to impart. And then, when it really becomes their knowledge, when they own it and they surprise you by taking it into a direction you hadn’t even thought about, that is the most rewarding part.’
Leave no one behind
However, heterogeneity also poses one of the biggest challenges. ‘Differences in skills are very difficult to deal with as a lecturer. On the one hand you don’t want to leave anyone behind, because everyone has potential – even if they need different ways of teaching or more time – but on the other hand you still want to inspire those at the top of the class,’ says Kanoulas.
He tries to get around this during so-called laptop sessions. ‘There, you can help people that need a little more help, but at the same time give some extra or optional material to students who need to be challenged a bit more.’
A 10 for everyone
Although Kanoulas describes himself as a classical lecturer (‘I don’t really use any of the new techniques or teaching styles’), there is one traditional element he could do without: ‘I’m kind of against grading. I think students tend to focus a bit too much on it and get anxious when they feel they cannot get the perfect grade. So if I could, I would give everyone a 10 from the start. Then they are free from this anxiety about grades and can just learn what they want to learn.’