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On Past Presidents and Football Stratagems: Fifty Years of Memories at AUB
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Spring 2007 Vol. V, No. 3

Technology @ AUB: New Horizons in Education

The Education Morph

Imagine waiting—and waiting—in a laboratory for a particular drug to take effect before you could begin your experiment? Or wondering whether the projector that your professor was using was going to burst into flames? Or having to spend hours and hours preparing a print job for publication? Some of you may remember those days all too well…

Changes in technology are having an impact on every aspect of an AUB education, but can there be too much of a good thing? Some professors in the United States have gone so far as to ban laptops and cut off internet access in their classrooms. They are concerned that computers can hamper the flow of discussion in the classroom, that students are too easily distracted, and that computers disrupt the learning experience. At AUB, even though new technologies have affected seemingly every aspect of education, there are many ways in which the experience of being a student is much as it always has been. Many AUB professors—themselves alumni—will tell you that this is a good thing.


No substitute for a good patient history
Ramzi Sabra, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, sums it up this way: “The structure and the courses are the same, but the method of delivery is different.” Sabra, who was a medical student at AUB himself (“not all that long ago”), is describing the four-year medical program at AUB. He explains that technology has changed how some courses are taught. “Take the pharmacology course for example. We used to spend three or four hours doing laboratory exercises—actual experiments on cats or dogs,” he remembers, “but a lot of that time was spent waiting for a particular drug to take effect or for the animal’s condition to stabilize before running the experiment. Now, we don’t actually do the experiments at all. We instead spend our time analyzing the results of digitized experiments.” Sabra explains that students now download packaged experiments and work their way through them one click at a time. Although he appreciates the increased efficiency and the fact that laboratory exercises now take less time, he says that the time that was spent waiting for a particular drug to take effect was valuable. “There was a certain interaction between the professor and the students and among the students themselves during this period that was useful. As a student, I used to like this feeling of doing the experiment myself.”

Joseph Simaan, chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, has been affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine since 1954—first as a student and then as a faculty member. He is quick to point out that keeping up with the latest technological advances—“with what is being done in the US”—is something that the Faculty of Medicine has always done. Like Sabra, he comments on the effect technology has had on how lab experiments are conducted: “they are much more sophisticated and take less time.” Technology also makes it possible for all the students—and not just the ones that are “closest to the action”—to actually observe the experiment. Sabra recalls that when he was a medical student, he and his colleagues would cluster around the person demonstrating an experiment, craning their necks in an effort to see what was happening. Later, thanks to the introduction of video cameras linked to a projector, students could sit comfortably in their chairs and observe the experiment in real time on a screen. Everyone was guaranteed an unobstructed view.In an interesting twist, some new technologies have made it possible to preserve old and yet still—to quote Simaan—“very instructive teaching experiments. At one time, experiments in pharmacology were performed on larger animals. These types of experiments are no longer done in medical schools, but they still have enormous teaching value that we are able to use because we have captured them electronically and made them available to our students as computer-based interactive experiments.”

Simaan remembers when he and his colleagues first began to use projectors in the classroom. “We had to use very strong illumination to reflect the image onto the board. If the image was left under the projector for too long, it would start to burn. You could smell it,” he remembers. “In those early days, it could be dangerous to use technology in the classroom!”

On a practical level, technology (for example, using PowerPoint presentations in

class) makes it much easier for professors to update their classroom materials, right up until the last minute. Simaan notes that the classroom experience is much more interactive now and credits technology for this change. “We don’t have to cover all the material during the class period because we are able to post materials on the web. This leaves more time in class for students to ask questions and allows us to focus on particular topics and to go into more depth.”

Although technology has clearly changed medical education, Simaan and Sabra agree that technology can never and will never take the place of a detailed patient history, a thorough physical exam, and a good doctor-patient relationship. Medical students still spend half of their time in the clinics. In fact, they now get clinical experience earlier than they did in the past. As Simaan explains, “Patient compliance is critical. It is true that with technology, we are able to get more accurate information and to get it more quickly but you still need to listen to the patient’s concerns, to be able to explain to him or her the mode of treatment, and to follow up later.” He notes that patients won’t stick with treatments that they don’t understand.

Advantages and disadvantages
Saouma BouJaoude, chair of the Department of Education, is convinced after years of experience training teachers that there are “advantages and disadvantages of using technology” in the classroom. He explains. “Look at the internet.  There is no question that it provides students and teachers with access to information that is otherwise difficult to acquire.  This is invaluable.  What concerns me, however is that while the internet provides easy and open access to both appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) sources of information, all too often teachers and schools are not helping students evaluate the sources, to separate the good from the bad.  Moreover, many teachers don’t have a meaningful and useful framework for integrating the internet in teaching.” He goes on to describe some approaches that he and his colleagues are teaching secondary school teachers to use in the classroom such as “topic hotlists” (collections of useful and interesting web sites on a specific topic) and “multimedia scrap books” (a multimedia hotlist that provides access to different types of media sources such as maps, videos, and sound clips).  (If you are curious, go to http://www.kn.pacbell.com/ and type “AUB hunt” or “AUB hotlist” in the “Search filamentality” field. You will find some hotlists and hunts that AUB students have created.)

BouJaoude notes that in order to teach these tools and approaches, classrooms must first be transformed into “smart rooms.”  There are an increasing number of classrooms on campus that are being equipped with computers and access to the internet that make it possible for students to conduct hands-on and laboratory activities.  (See sidebars for descriptions of some of these facilities.)

Computers do the donkey work well, but are hugely limiting
Although the Graphic Design Program is relatively new (it was established in 1992), a quick look at old University Catalogues provides some interesting insight on debates within the department and within the discipline more generally about the appropriate role of technology. Leila Musfy, chair of the Department of Architecture and Design, confirms this. “The thinking has evolved. At one point, the primary focus was to ensure that our students graduated with the computer skills that they needed to work in desktop publishing and interactive/motion graphics.” Later, however, the number of computer courses was cut back. “We were concerned about what got lost when there was too much emphasis on computers and technology. There is strong support in the department, and at other academic institutions as well, for ensuring that graphic design students get enough hands-on experience as part of their training.”

Why is this hands-on experience important? The output you get from the computer “looks slick, it looks better,” Musfy explains, “but there is no depth and no content.” Musfy says that there are also certain techniques or visuals that you just can’t teach on a computer—“texture” for example. “You need to be able to get physical, to touch what you are working on. You can’t do that on a computer.” Musfy points to some of the elective courses, in silkscreen, engraving, and etching (courses where students are outfitted in dirty aprons, their hands splattered with ink) and laughs: “You can’t get more manual than that.”

Some of those who are most skeptical about what computers can—and should be allowed to do—are those with a background in technology. Daniel Drennan, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture and Design who has extensive experience in illustration, graphic design, and interactive telecommunications, notes that the computer has remained “pretty much in the same basic configuration that it has had for half a century: screen, keyboard, mouse. We are obliged to adapt to it, not the other way around, and it is hugely limiting.” Because computers force users to “work in someone else’s ‘metaphor’ using someone else’s software…our gesture is lost if not totally removed.” Drennan says that regardless of the medium one chooses, the “prime importance in any artistic endeavor is the feedback loop that is created by observing, processing, putting down on paper, and then observing what was put down, etc. Anything that gets in the way of this loop goes against the creative process and should be considered suspect.”

So, what do computers do well? “Donkey work,” says Musfy. She is referring to, for example, those routine and tedious jobs involved in preparing something for publication. She remembers spending hours, even days, on such tasks and is grateful that this is not something she will have to do again.

The tools have changed but farm practices are still important
AUB has been teaching courses in agriculture since 1914. When Nuhad Daghir, who recently retired after serving ten years as dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, came to AUB as a young professor in the early 1960s, there was one computer on campus and it was in the basement of College Hall. “It was as big as this office,” he remembers.

When asked to reflect on how the teaching of agriculture has changed, he notes that students now do much more hands-on research. He continues, “Another change is in the equipment: there is more of it now and it is much more sophisticated.” Although the tools have changed, Daghir says that farm practices are just as important now as they were and that time the students spend on “the farm” (the 100-hectare Agricultural Research and Education Center, AREC, in the Beka’a) continues to be critical.

Daghir agrees that there are things that web-based technologies do well. “Computer-generated animation programs make it possible for us to see, for example, the internal combustion engine at work. With still pictures, we were only able to see structure. Now, with computer-generated images, we can see structure and function. This to me is a great example of how technology has enhanced the classroom experience.” Being able to see function is also important in the teaching of animal sciences courses such as anatomy and physiology. These technologies have enhanced the classroom experience, but—argues Daghir—the face-to-face interaction between students and professors is still important. Web-based technologies have not (and, Daghir will tell you, “they should not”) replace what he calls classical teaching: the professor in the classroom standing in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk in his hand.

From chalk and talk to technology integration
You will have to look long and hard to find a piece of chalk at the business school. “We have moved from a world of chalk and talk to one dominated by technology integration,” explains Dean George Najjar. More than half of the classes that are currently being taught at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business (OSB) use WebCT or Moodle, which are innovative web-based learning tools for course content delivery, discussions, assignments, and assessment. Najjar argues that technology has helped accelerate the transition in pedagogy “from teaching to learning, from being professor-focused to student-focused.”

Although he too can see that there could be a downside to all this technology, he is not concerned. “Technology has increased students’ connectedness with the world,” Najjar says. “They arrive on campus more aware of the outside world than we were at their age. They are more assertive, more career-driven. The classroom environment is much richer as a result of technology. Vistas which we could not have imagined in the past are now open to OSB students. This can only be good.”

A critical supporting role
There are a number of departments and facilities on campus that are dedicated to making it possible—and easier—for faculty and students to take advantage of technology including the Academic Computing Center (see MainGate, “Tech Times,” summer 2005), AUB’s libraries, and Computing and Networking Services (CNS). Nabil Bukhalid, director of CNS, reports that AUB has been a wireless campus since 2004. He continues, “currently we have 3,000 registered student laptops and with only a minor investment AUB’s wireless infrastructure could accommodate 7,000 laptops.” He says that he and his colleagues are constantly monitoring how the technology is evolving and—most importantly—how it is being used. In the process, they learn some interesting things. “We were surprised to discover that there were more students clustered around the fountain in front of Jafet Library than at the Green Oval or in front of West Hall.” Although the entire campus is wireless, there is extra capacity in certain areas where students are expected to cluster. Bukhalid notes that he and his colleagues are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with faculty and students to make sure they are providing what the “customers” want and need. “The technological infrastructure is in place. It is continuously evolving and designed to be user-centric,” he says.

The librarians at Jafet Library and the Saab Medical Library are also focused on the customer. On the third floor of Jafet Library, the Antoun Ghattas Karam Electronic Classroom is in high demand for courses (260 sessions in fall 2006) in information literacy. Samira Rafidi Meghdessian, information services librarian, says that she and her colleagues encourage every faculty member to schedule an information literacy session for their students. “This gives us an opportunity to show the students—and the faculty—the resources that are available that are directly relevant to what they are teaching and studying.” The library’s digital collection is constantly growing. (See story on page 33 on digitizing AUB’s libraries.)

Over at the Saab Medical Library, the librarians are also committed to customer service and education.  They offer one course (IDTH 301) specifically for graduate students in the basic sciences and training sessions to healthcare professionals and students when and where they are needed. They have even been known to conduct information literacy sessions for physicians at the hospital as early as 7 am. “We are part of the healthcare team,” says reference librarian Aida Farha. In fact, says Hilda Nassar, the medical librarian, “Some of the doctors like our services so much that they continue to contact us after they leave. We are happy to help.”

Meaningful integration
So, can there be too much technology in the classroom? There is no question that technology can be a distraction and may even discourage learning. Cliff Stoll, who has written a book on this topic (High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian), says that he increasingly feels that students are not well served by technology, that it too often destroys curiosity.* This may be true, but does it have to be this way? “The challenge,” says BouJaoude, “is to figure out how to meaningfully integrate electronic and information technologies into classroom instruction.”

Kamal A. Shair Central Research Science Laboratory

The Central Research Science Laboratory is a 300 square meter facility that is used by faculty members and graduate students throughout the University working in the basic sciences, medicine, health sciences, agricultural and food sciences, and engineering. It is furnished with the latest high-tech equipment including an NMR spectrometer, an X-ray diffractometer, a flow cytometer with sorter, fluorescence imaging microscopes, a pulsed laser deposition system, and a quantitative PCR. Established in 2000, the laboratory is at the heart of the University’s commitment to establish itself as the premier scientific research institution in the region. All university laboratories where students can participate in research, working alongside faculty members, and where students and faculty members from different disciplines can come together—are enormously valuable, but the Kamal A. Shair Central Research Laboratory is truly the jewel in the crown.

Etaf Farah Bathish Annex, West Hall

The Dr. Suhayl Bathish Auditorium in West Hall, which was formerly inaugurated in March 2003, is in heavy demand for theatrical performances and major university events. Thanks to a recent and generous donation from Mrs. Etaf F. Farah,
wife of the late Suhail R. Bathish (BE ’59), the auditorium
now includes a well-equipped audio-visual and multi-media room—the Etaf Farah Bathish Annex—that can accommodate up to 100 people. In addition to being a stand-alone facility, the annex can also provide much needed overflow space for the auditorium enabling those who are unable to get a seat in the main auditorium to still hear and see what is taking place next door.

Antoun Ghattas Karam E-Classroom, Jafet Memorial Library

Students taking a class in the Antoun Ghattas Karam Electronic Classroom in Jafet Library can group themselves around one of the 27 computer terminals or arrange themselves in rows depending on the structure of the course and the assignment they have been asked to complete. The new space also features a remote-controlled LCP projection system. No matter what the assignment, Students benefit enormously from the opportunity to learn about and to see for themselves the increasing number of electronic resources that are available at the library.

Smart Classrooms in Nicely Hall

Five classrooms in Nicely Hall have gotten a lot smarter recently as a result of a comprehensive effort to reconfigure classrooms to encourage interaction among students and to support diverse teaching styles. Although the five classrooms share some features such as motorized window shades to block out the sun, sound-absorbing panels to block out outside noise, enhanced lighting, and LCD screens and moveable projectors, they are each unique. In the “classic classroom,” there are desks facing a central focal point and couches along the wall nearest the windows. The “round table classroom” is dominated by a round table and includes a “break out” space in the back of the room. It is expected that the “raked classroom” for fine arts and theater classes will feature a stage-like area with rising rows of seats. There are several large tables that can be rearranged as needed and a small “break out” area with high stools in the “docked classroom.” The “long tables classroom” has three long tables that can be broken apart into mini-tables—ideal for group work. At the end of the year, a survey will be conducted to evaluate the experience of students and teachers who participated in classes in one of the Nicely Hall prototype “smart” classrooms.

Science and Math Resource Room,Fisk Hall

The resource room on the second floor of Fisk Hall is being remodeled to include a classroom/laboratory, an exhibit area, and a storage space. When completed, it will have nine computer stations equipped with Microcomputer Based Laboratory (MBL) tools and accessories. Students working with these tools will be able to explore, measure, and learn from the physical world and move back and forth between graphs and physical events. The goal is to provide students with the opportunity to develop more meaningful scientific concepts. In addition to being used to train future science and math teachers to use information technology in the classroom, the resource room will also be used for professional development workshops that the Department of Education conducts for current teachers throughout the year.