Sharjah—As UAE educational institutions are preparing for the move to online instruction next week under government measures to tackle COVID-19, American University of Sharjah (AUS) has implemented a range of measures to facilitate remote learning and has been offering online classes since March 8. Despite the challenges involved with the unanticipated move from on-campus classes, faculty and students are using the opportunity to explore new modes of teaching and learning that take advantage of technology to enhance engagement and transform the educational experience.  

Despite constraints on travel and face-to-face interaction, AUS’ 5,000 students are continuing their study across the university’s 43 undergraduate and graduate programs. The entire range of AUS courses are being offered remotely, with subjects as diverse as project management, aerospace engineering, advanced physics, human biology, architecture, and even classes in pottery, drawing, music and theater all being taught via virtual classrooms. Online applications are allowing the university’s 358 full-time faculty to maintain the delivery of their programs, with faculty reporting that the new course delivery modes present opportunities.

Dr. Salwa Beheiry, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering from the College of Engineering (CEN), said the experience of online teaching has been largely positive.

“I have been teaching a paperless course in Project Planning, Estimation and Cost Control. It was exciting to go into an all-out online mode within three days, which is something some world-renowned universities are still struggling with,” she said.

“Since I teach a project-based class, I created different online groups in which students work in teams and then later come together to share their work. In this way, I have been able to mimic the work we do in the classroom and deliver it online,” said Dr. Beheiry.

Unprecedented efforts are being undertaken by AUS faculty to ensure students continue to benefit from two of AUS’ most distinguished features: a vibrant student experience and robust academic environment. For this, Dr. Beheiry said the classroom experience—albeit virtual—is key.

“Certainly, the challenge with online teaching remains the ‘personal touch’ that comes with face-to-face interaction. In class, you can always engage the students, see who needs more attention, who is paying attention and so on. With online learning, you need to constantly find ways to ensure the students remain engaged,” she said.

Dr. Malick Ndiaye, Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering, believes that the rapid exchange of information between faculty members and feedback received from student groups have been instrumental to the fast acceptance of online learning delivery.

“The most notable outcome from this experience is the high level of communication and instant experience-sharing between faculty members who have been very open about sharing their course delivery experiences and ideas, and in helping each other to overcome the challenges,” he said.

He credits the college’s AUS Apps Anywhere initiative, in operation since 2018, for the ease of transition. The initiative allows students to remotely access any course software and complete their work from any location across the globe.

Students have been actively sharing their experiences from other classes with their instructors, providing feedback and suggestions for new ways of learning. For Cindy Baker, who teaches project management, data visualization and enterprise resource planning at the university’s School of Business Administration (SBA), the students themselves have been an invaluable resource when it comes to teaching online.

“I’ve asked my students what they prefer—they can be a wealth of knowledge if we allow them to be. I’ve noticed that they seem to have much more of a desire to direct own their education than they did before. They’ve given ideas on how they can contribute to the online discussions— everything through introducing the topic, presenting examples or summarizing the day’s lecture. They have even suggested quizzes at the end of each lecture to be sure everyone is tuned in and responsive!” Baker said.

Across campus at the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD), the transition has presented unique challenges to navigate, with so much of the students’ coursework focusing on making and building in CAAD’s comprehensive design labs and studios. CAAD Professor Brian Dougan, who teaches drawing and pottery, has had to devise creative ways to deliver these hands-on, traditionally “low-tech” courses, using both old and new technologies.

“This shift to online teaching has been both labor-intensive and time-consuming, but I have found iLearn to be an incredibly versatile tool and have also found ways to be creative with video, drawing, file sharing and even my office printer,” said Dougan.

“As a teacher of abstract concepts and different ways of thinking, this has been an opportunity to rethink my pedagogy and the way I do things in a way I have never had to before,” he said.

For his pottery students, Dougan has adjusted assignments to include a small-scale project that students can create off campus. He has also shifted the focus to be more graphic by emphasizing drawing and template-making in preparation for returning to CAAD’s pottery lab when classes resume on campus.

“For this generation, the shift to online learning isn’t a great leap. All of a sudden, school becomes YouTube. The biggest challenge continues to be communication. Some students are comfortable with this technology and communicating remotely, whereas others aren’t. The challenge is meeting the needs of each of those groups so that everyone benefits,” he said.

Dr. Sherri Weiler from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Performing Arts Program said that individual and group music lessons in both piano and voice are continuing to be delivered remotely via video platforms. To make this work, AUS has issued piano students with roll-up digital piano keyboards that they can use in their virtual learning experience.

Dr. Weiler said, "I have known about these online resources for years, but never had the need to use them before. Now with online classes, these sites enable me to write music in real-time and students can see me doing that; it enables us to be much more interactive. In the classroom, we simply walk to the whiteboard or go to the piano. Now we have implemented a program to replicate that experience digitally. I just introduced them to it recently and they love it. I'm in the process of working through the online program to enable all students to have access to it. This way we'll be able to assign and then see submissions in digital music notation instead of pencil and score paper. The virtual keyboard allows students to compose and simultaneously hear their own compositions.”

“While this entire concept is still very much a learn-as-you-go process, I do feel that being forced to do this is ultimately helping me become a better teacher,” Dr. Weiler said.

AUS Chancellor Professor Kevin Mitchell indicated that the university was capable of responding quickly, and be successful, as a result of the extraordinary commitment of talented faculty, the ability of students to take responsibility for independently adapting to new modes of teaching and learning, and the exceptional staff who have supported the rapid transition to remote course delivery.

Chancellor Mitchell stated, “Employers seek out AUS graduates because they are able to navigate complexity, adapt their knowledge and skills to new situations, and to work both independently and collaboratively. These are characteristics fostered throughout the curriculum and through extracurricular experiences at AUS, and the rapid transition to online teaching and learning has been possible because of the university’s ability to adeptly respond to uncertainty and to view the current challenges as learning opportunities for the entire campus community.”

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About AUS

American University of Sharjah (AUS) was founded in 1997 by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Sharjah. Sheikh Sultan articulated his vision of a distinctive institution against the backdrop of Islamic history and in the context of the aspirations and needs of contemporary society in the UAE and the Gulf region.

Firmly grounded in principles of meritocracy and with a strong reputation for academic excellence, AUS has come to represent the very best in teaching and research, accredited internationally and recognized by employers the world over for creating graduates equipped with the knowledge, skills and drive to lead in the 21st century.

AUS values learners not driven only by academic success, but by those that embrace our dynamic campus life and embody our ideals of openness, tolerance and respect. This combination of academic excellence and community spirit ensures AUS is filled with world-class faculty and students, poised to become the innovators, thinkers, contributors and leaders of tomorrow.

© Press Release 2020

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