In Memoriam

Dr. James Greer

Jim Eugene Greer, longtime Professor of Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan, died suddenly on June 16, 2018. Throughout his life Jim had a profound commitment to teaching and learning, earning many degrees himself, teaching at the high school and university levels, taking leadership roles in improving the teaching and learning environment at the University, and exploring deep issues in advanced learning technology in his research career. For all his efforts, Jim was awarded the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal in 2006, which “recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to society and honours outstanding achievements”.

Jim grew up on a farm near Weyburn, Saskatchewan, completed high school at St. Peter's College in Munster, and came to the University of Saskatchewan in 1970 where he completed his B.Sc. in Mathematics in 1973 and a B.Ed. in Mathematics Education in 1976.  He taught at Holy Cross High School from 1974 – 76. He then moved to Lethbridge where he taught high school. In 1982, in a life-transforming move, he and his wife with their young family in tow, upped stakes and headed off for further education and new careers.  The first stop was back at U of S, where Jim completed an M.Ed. in Mathematics Education in 1984 and an Advanced Certificate in Computational Science.  After that it was the University of Texas at Austin, where Jim earned both an M.S. in Computer Science and a Ph.D. in Computer Science Education. In 1987, it was back to U of S again, where Jim joined the Computational Science Department as a postdoctoral fellow, working with Gord McCalla. Together, Jim and Gord established the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Intelligent Educational Systems (ARIES), a lab that has been carrying out world class research in advanced learning technology ever since.

Jim soon graduated from the postdoc into a faculty position in Computer Science, a position he held for the rest of his career. In his professorial role, he taught a wide variety of classes at all levels of the curriculum, and took on ever more graduate students. He performed both of these roles with distinction, winning the U of S Master Teacher Award in 1998 and the U of S Distinguished Graduate Supervisor Award in 2005. Jim was also a talented administrator, involved in a huge variety of committees at the Department, College, and University levels, and frequently carrying out lots of unsung, behind the scenes administrative duties. His style was collaborative, always open to diverse perspectives and generous in sharing credit.  Quite literally, he put the word “collegial” into “Collegial Committees”. Inevitably, in 2000, Jim took on the responsibility of Computer Science Department Head.

Jim was seemingly born to this role. As his opening act, he produced a plan to deal with burgeoning enrolments in Computer Science undergraduate and graduate programs. Called “Growth Plan 2000”, this plan was eventually funded directly by the provincial government and was implemented over the 5 years of Jim’s headship. It saw the Department’s faculty numbers grow by some 25% and the staff numbers triple. This was the most significant commitment of resources to the Department since the initial funding provided to create the Department in 1968. Many new faculty and staff were hired over the next few years, changing the Department from a small and excellent Department into a considerably bigger and still excellent Department. Jim also presided over the Department’s move from offices in the Engineering Building to new offices in the Thorvaldson Building, something anticipated since the Department’s administrative relocation to the College of Arts and Science in 1994. With the help of a vigorous committee (spearheaded by Tony Kusalik) the move required a major retrofit of Chemical Engineering laboratory space in the 1924 wing of the Thorvaldson Building into office space; and the design of two floors of the new Spinks addition wing of the Thorvaldson Building to accommodate undergraduate and graduate computing laboratories and research space. The result was an innovative redeployment of one of the oldest buildings on campus to serve one of the newest Departments. The undergraduate computer science laboratory space is perhaps the most pleasant in the country. Jim also knew that strong collegiality was a key to a productive and happy work environment. So, it was not really a coincidence that during his time as department head, a large number of innovative and elaborate pranks were carried out in the Department, including the disappearance of a faculty office a weekly diorama spoofing various faculty members every Monday morning, one January erected along a main corridor outside the Computer Science general office, and numerous smaller stunts, such as making the interface of a colleague’s computer “unusable at speed” through a software app called “mitten touch”. A final highlight of Jim’s time as department head was the Department’s 35th anniversary celebration, held in 2003, the second big reunion held in the Department’s history. Nearing the end of Jim’s time as department head, collegiality was so strong that the Department was able to advertise faculty positions promising candidates that they would be joining a Department with “the best climate in Canada”.

After his headship and a well-earned leave, in 2007 Jim moved full time into more senior levels of the University, with the goal especially of encouraging better teaching and learning, a lifelong passion. He became Director of the U of S Centre for Teaching and Learning as well as of the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness. Again, Jim was a leader who was able to find resources to radically grow these centres, and to develop a wide variety of activities aimed at improving teaching at U of S, but also with the goal of helping students learn how to be more successful learners in the university environment.  He held these posts until 2014, when a major reorganization of these units was implemented as part of yet another University downsizing exercise. At this point, Jim transformed again, into Senior Strategist Learning Analytics, essentially becoming a freelance evangelist for the power of “learning analytics” to shed light on teaching and learning issues, including recruitment and retention issues, through mining the large databases of information embedded in University information systems. Working with a very small team, he would carry out data mining projects for various units across campus, often finding very interesting patterns and phenomena which highlighted important changes that could be made to benefit students, faculty, staff, and the institution.

 So, Jim will be missed deeply at the University of Saskatchewan. But, he will also be missed worldwide by his international research community. During his career Jim forged a formidable reputation in the area of advanced learning technology, especially in artificial intelligence in education (AIED) and in the area of user modelling and personalization (UMAP). Working with graduate students and colleagues, Jim contributed many ideas including granularity-based educational diagnosis, where learner behaviour is modelled at various levels of granularity; a deep examination of evaluation methodologies for intelligent tutoring systems; agent-based peer help systems,where ready, willing, and able helpers are found to help learners overcome impasses; inspectable Bayesian learner models that encourage reflection by learners; privacy-enhanced learner modelling; automatic lecture video capture for later reuse; innovative architectures for e-learning; and the mining of educational data to find pedagogically interesting patterns. Overall, Jim was author or co-author of some 140 papers in fully refereed international journals and conference and workshop proceedings. Jim was always well funded for this research, holding an NSERC Discovery Grant for most of his career and being part of three different Networks of Centres of Excellence (IRIS, TeleLearning, and LORNET). Jim also took a leadership role in his research communities, serving as President of the AIED Society from 2005-2007; Chair of UM Inc., the coordinating organization for the user modelling community in the early 2000’s; Program Chair of the international AIED conference in 1995; General Chair of the AIED conference in 2007; Local Arrangements Chair of the User Modelling conference in 1999; and Co-Director of a NATO-sponsored Advanced Research Workshop on Student Modelling in 1991. He also was a member of over 100 conference program committees and joined the editorial boards of a number of international journals in both advanced learning technology and user modelling areas. However, Jim will be most missed for his mentoring role. Not only did he supervise or co-supervise over 30 graduate students at U of S, but numerous researchers in AIED and UMAP from all over the world tell stories of how inspirational and supportive Jim was, especially at the beginning of their research careers.

But it shouldn’t be forgotten that even with this very accomplished career, Jim remained first and foremost a family man. He was always there for his family with love and support, no matter how busy he was in his professional life. Rest in peace, Jim.

Written by Computer Science Professor Emeritus, Gord McCalla