His name may sound familiar in academia, especially among postgraduate students. Dr Othman Talib, or popularly known as “Dr OT” has been helping a score of students to graduate on time (GOT).
IT was like any other days to Dr Othman, back-to-back classes, postgraduate meetings, running lectures, and burying his nose in voluminous students’ papers.
It all changed when he bumped into Mendeley, a reference-management tool to help users organise their research. What he thought was an ordinary app turned out to be a game-changer.
“I spent the night exploring the app and became instantly immersed into it. I was amazed to discover what it could do and how it is able to help my students in so many ways,” he told HE Today when met recently.
That was in 2009, and on that particular night, Dr Othman developed a lifetime love affair with Mendeley. He introduced the app to his students. The story however did not stop there. As educating is something he is gravitated to, Dr Othman took the initiative to share and do what he loves most – that is to teach.
“I had been using another reference manager when I was completing my doctorate degree in Australia. Most of such apps need licensing and are not free, so it’s a hassle for students’ use.
“And there is Mendeley, a free app that is user-friendly and efficiently engineered for students to make their lives easier. So, I thought to myself, it’s time to put those students out of their misery. I’ll share what I know, and I’ll share with the world,” he said.
He later organised his first class on the use of Mendeley for theses writing in the same year. It swiftly took the local students and scholars by storm. Words spread and he immediately became the talk of the town. Needless to say, the next classes garnered rave reviews and full houses.
And to date, Dr Othman has conducted more than 500 classes on Mendeley in public universities nationwide. Those classes rocketed him to stardom too, as he gained over 40,000 followers on Facebook over the years.
A lot of people especially students looked up to him as the man who is at the fore front of producing solutions to blurriness in theses writing. He was known as the ‘trend-setter’, a hidden gem of postgraduate world.
“I am surprised at knowing the encouraging feedback and people appreciating my sharing endevours. I am very pleased at the same time as I get to help a lot of students who face problems in writing their theses or articles.
“Once in a while I have students came to me and thanked me for helping them to finish their theses within a shorter period of time, and with top quality. As an educator, this brings satisfaction and drives me to give more,” he said.
Dr Othman had also been getting invitations abroad. Among them were from Brunei, Singapore, Australia (Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney), United Kingdom (York, Manchester, Lancaster, London), Denmark (Copenhagen) and Japan (Khusyu, Tokyo, Osaka).
Mendeley, Dr Othman said, is akin to a variation on Evernote combined with Facebook, aimed at helping researchers organise their papers, annotate them, and share them with each other. The platform, which was founded by three German PhD students is centred in London and its first public beta version was only released in August 2008.
THE FIRST IN THE WORLD
When Mendeley had attracted a number of users after its launch in 2008, the app use was not widespread in Malaysia yet when Dr Othman first discovered it.
Being the first to conduct classes on Mendeley in Malaysia, he realised that having a Mendeley manual would privilege the students in a long run.
“I started writing a manual book on Mendeley (in 2010) as there had not been any books written for the app at that time. It was my personal attempt at helping the students, especially for those who could not attend my physical classes,” he said.
In order to publish the book, Dr Othman had to seek for approval (and license) from Mendeley team itself. He sent an email to Mendeley headquarters in London and presented his work.
It was a gamble. But all his life, Dr Othman hungers for challenges. To his surprise, he received a reply the next day and his 30-page manuscript on Mendeley received warm welcome.
“I was utterly shocked and touched to know that the Mendeley team in fact was very delighted. They even thanked me for my efforts and complimented the draft, albeit it was printed in Malay language,” he said, adding that he was also to first to get numerous souveniers from Mendeley because of that personal initiative.
Dr Othman’s book on Mendeley had been flying off the shelves later on. He also published several other books, specifically on useful techniques for postgraduates to surviving studies and especially writing their theses.
Three years later, Mendeley was taken over by Elsevier, an esteemed information analytics business, specialising in science and health. Dr Othman was appointed as ‘Mendeley Official Presenter’ in the same year. His first ‘assignment’ was to present and introduce Mendeley to delegations in Global Educational Dialogue 2014 in Seoul.
“It was an honour. I am just a ‘kampung’ boy who did not do so well in school. And there I was, representing a top company at a global platform,” said the 54-year-old senior lecturer, who is now teaching at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM).
Not only that, he was also appointed as an advisor to Mendeley, and had been awarded as ‘Advisor of the Month’ twice by Mendeley itself.
HELPING THE STUDENTS
Eventhough Dr Othman had been representating Mendeley abroad, his natural aptitude for teaching is still intact.
It is not all about Mendeley, he said, eventhough the app is a contributing factor to help the students.
“I was born a teacher, and I stick with my goal to help students to write their thesis with avidity.
“As I run more classess and seminars every year, I get to understand the trepidation and stress that the students have over thesis writing. First and foremost, they have already failed at organising their idea and journals.
“These students, as I discover, also do not grasp the skills in rephrasing, paraphrasing and rewording, which ultimately caused sentences produced to lack continuity and coherence,” he said.
As a result, Dr Othman said when the country is expecting more people to churn out interesting work, the higher education is still stuck with postgraduates who produce disorderly and low quality thesis and research.
CHANGING THE IMPRESSION
When Dr Othman obtained his Doctor of Education (EdD) degree from University of Adelaide, Australia, he had one thing in mind when he came back – which is to fix the skewed perception of postgraduate studies in Malaysia.
Possessing multidsciplinary expertise in Pedagogy, Development of Multimedia Content in Science Education and Research Methodology areas, he defined himself as a much more of a believer in quality, rather than quantity of work produced.
The old impression that a good thesis should be ‘thick’, he said, could be reversed by educators giving prominence and eye for the idea produced, rather than the number of pages.
“I would like to give my students a simple idea of what research is. We have been implying to students that those who write more would do well in their research, when in fact, the best work is the most concise and easily understood. So, a six-page research proposal could make more sense than an 80-page proposal,” he added.
INNOVATING UNIVERSITIES’ OLD TEACHING
A high-spirited thoroughbred, Dr Othman had committed to innovate in teaching eversince he was a chemistry teacher.
“Before I pursued my study at master degress, I always found it hard to teach abstract and dynamic nature of chemistry concepts. In order to make the subject more appealing to students, I started to use animation, and it worked wonder to enhance their understanding,” he said.
He believed that it is imperative for educators to innovate, more so with the dawning of the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0).
“I am worried that there are still cultures, for instance, when it comes to Master and PhD supervising in Malaysia, which still uses old-school ways.
“There are still a number of experienced supervisors who rely on manual ways of supervising and thesis writing. In fact, there are still those who have not been exposed to effective writing skills when they could esily access them on-line,” he said.
Drawing example of the use of Mendeley, Dr Othman said the app when merged with navigation pane application in Microsoft World could make thesis organisation and writing much simpler. However, most supervisors are still not very familiar with it.
“In fact, technology advances allow writing and reading, which used to take around two days previously, to be completed within two hours! How convenient is that?” he said.
Such, he said, is a form transformation which he integrated in his Zero draft of Thesis (ZDOT) program that he runs. Using Mendeley, the students are able to accelerate the thesis writing process.
Dr Othman was also known for his ‘Tulis Tesis Cepat’ (Quick Thesis Writing) initiative, which he coined for postgraduates to finish their Master and PhD studies within stipulated time. This is also in regard to Ministry of Higher Education’s Graduate-on-Time call for postgraduates to finish their studies on time.