x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

System puts classroom in a laptop

Abu Dhabi Men's College is filming lectures and questions for students to download on their computers, phones and MP3 players.

David Barclay, Educational Technology & e-Learning Co-ordinator at Abu Dhabi Men's College, displays the capabilities of the new modern classroom.
David Barclay, Educational Technology & e-Learning Co-ordinator at Abu Dhabi Men's College, displays the capabilities of the new modern classroom.

ABU DHABI // New technology at Abu Dhabi Men's College will let students not just revisit lectures at their leisure, but take the entire classroom home with them. The "electronic classroom", thought to be one of the first of its kind in the region, uses automatic cameras and microphones to record classes from multiple angles. Within six hours, lectures can be edited and put online for students to watch.

"Right now, you have 24/7 access to your friends through Skype and e-mail, to your money through online banking, to entertainment, but not 24/7 access to your teachers," said David Barclay, ADMC's educational technology and e-learning co-ordinator. The US$200,000 (Dh734,000) classroom is designed to be easy for the teachers to use as well. "Ten years ago, if you wanted to give a lecture using the computer or the internet, you had to fit in with the technology," Mr Barclay said. "Now the teacher does not have to fit with the technology. They can do what they want."

When the teacher stands on one of two black mats at the front of the classroom, a camera starts recording them. When they are not standing on either mat, whatever is projected on to the classroom's screen is recorded. That image on the screen can come from a computer, a DVD or a camera. If a student asks a question, a camera focuses on that person, and the closest of the six microphones in the room picks up his or her voice.

As well as producing videos that show a complete lecture, the college also creates heavily edited versions for download to computers or iPhones. Additional lessons are available for download as well, officials say. More than 70 podcasts four to 10 minutes long on subjects ranging from using a flight simulator to English grammar have been created. Because podcasts are relatively short, students' attention does not flag, Mr Barclay said.

"Their culture is very oral and this generation of students is media savvy," he said. "This is how they consume much of their information." The technology puts the Higher Colleges of Technology closer to the standards of American universities, he said. "We're putting it in a form that's able to be read from any mobile device or you can watch them on computer," Mr Barclay said. "We're going to have a huge bank of these that will be searchable by keywords."

Other colleges are also embracing different aspects of technology. Dr Howard Reed, director of Dubai Women's College, says such technology "motivates students more" than traditional learning methods. The time students spent on assignments increased 80 per cent when the college started requiring every student to have a laptop. "It gets the students engaged," he said. "When I used to think back about how I used to clip out articles from The Wall Street Journal and photocopy them, that wasted so much time and energy."

He said the school used textbooks, but that their value was limited because students were not studying in their mother tongue. "Their reading speed in English is not what it ought to be. If you can give them more practical exercises, it's a better and cheaper way of learning." Not everyone believes technology improves learning, however. Research at Al Ain University published last year found that students taking traditional classroom lessons improved their English grammar test scores about six times as much as those using software.

Dr Clifton Chadwick, a senior lecturer in international education management and policy development at the British University in Dubai, said in the 40 years he has been following the subject, technology has achieved "very little" in the classroom. "Everybody thinks they're going to do something great with technology because it has been so important in other areas," he said. "Something like the podcast is rather trivial. Real learning requires a lot of reading. At the current time, technology is not offering anything particularly meaningful."

dbardsley@thenational.ae