The Digital Sage: Putting the ‘tech’ in teaching

by Alec Young 03OX 05C

Alan Cattier, director of Academic Technology Services at Emory, holds up a photograph of Emory’s Computing Center at Cox Hall. The picture, taken before he joined the Information Technology Division in 1996, captured beige walls, cubicles, and a handful of hulky desktop computers.

He drops the image, revealing the computer lab today, a hardwood pathway curving down its center like a yellow brick road. The path slices through lush purple carpet, dividing the students editing video on Apple Macintosh G5s and those working on Dell desktops equipped with dual monitors—a research paper on the left, a MySpace profile on the right.

If you looked around the campus when Cattier first arrived, “you would have only found three or four classrooms where you could take advantage of computers,” he says. “Today, nearly 50 percent of Emory’s classrooms are fully technologically equipped for digital delivery.”

The Emory Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT), located in the center of the Woodruff Library, offers an environment where faculty can test out the latest innovations. “ECIT exists to address the pedagogical consideration of bringing teaching and technology together,” Cattier says. “It’s like a kitchen. You can try different things out.”

The Computing Center at Cox Hall and ECIT both grew from the introduction of the BlackBoard software program in 2000, which made it easy and convenient for faculty to post content online for their students. The University invested $4.5 million over five years to create a state-of-the-art family of classrooms.
“We’ve been laying the foundation for the digital campus master plan,” he says. “Teaching and technology—that’s been my job for ten years.”

Inside one of Cox Hall’s two experimental classrooms, known as “incubators,” Cattier shows off the technology available from the master control system at the SMART Board. “From here, faculty can command the room’s data projectors, document cameras, Internet, cable TV, DVD, and”—he pauses, walks over the whiteboard, scribbles with a red marker, and taps a button—“send a PDF of the board to your cell phone.” He twists the marker, exposing the bar code technology imbedded underneath the felt tip. “I want faculty members to walk into this classroom, look around, and ask themselves, how would I take advantage of this?”

Emory Professor of Law Mel Gutterman has used the lab to weave film and video clips into his teaching ever since the technology became available to him five years ago. “Anytime you use visuals to illustrate a point in class,” he says, “students open up.” His reason for showing films to his students is simple: “You’ve got to play in the students’ ballpark.”

Second-year law student Elizabeth Knight plugs her laptop into the SMART Board and reviews her PowerPoint presentation, which is comprised of clips from such movies as Stanly Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita and American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999). She’s exploring the portrayal of statutory rape on film.

“I majored in film as an undergrad, so I couldn’t resist the class,” she says. “It is common for lawyers to film depositions with clients, edit, and present those clips in the courtroom.”

“Bring in technology that students are comfortable with, and you’ll open up another dimension of teaching,” Gutterman says as the rest of his students flood in. “I can’t stop them from talking.”

Emory Professor of Organic Chemistry Dennis Liotta has used computers to help his students visualize microscopic entities and advanced concepts since he began his teaching career. “You can take a piece of chalk and draw a molecule on a board,” says. “Or you can have a 3-D rendering on computer. The latter is going to be much more accurate and probably more instructive than the former.”

Liotta is concerned, though, that “slick presentations” only engage students in the moment and don’t allow them to think through the concepts. Many of his students are from a generation he classifies as “observers” who grew up in front of TV and computer screens.

“I strive to keep my students from just observing and nodding their heads,” he says. “My goal isn’t to create sophisticated voyeurs, but to make sure they understand the concepts at the level of depth we deem appropriate.”

Liotta points out that for now, his visual aids are limited—3-D models presented on a 2-D surface. But he imagines what questions his students will ask when he can project his 3-D models in 3-D.

“That will take us to a new level of sophistication,” he says. “I get excited from a science perspective, but think about what that might mean for an artist.”

Steven Everett, professor of music composition, directs the Music-Audio Research Center, a laboratory supporting undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research and study in music composition and audio-visual design and analysis. Everett uses technologies and programs central to the world of math and science to expand his abilities as a composer.

“You can’t do substantial science without a fair amount of recent technologies,” Everett says. “The same thing is happening to music.”

Many of Everett’s graduate school colleagues who also received degrees in composition from the University of Illinois are now working in scientific research—using the same tools and methodologies Everett uses to compose.

“We are both sonifying data, but I have aesthetic aims,” he says.
Sonification is the use of audio data to convey or perceptualize the information. “Just like visualization, the method shows you certain patterns in complex data,” Everett says. “Often you can find patterns that you wouldn’t necessarily discover through listening alone.”

Everett uses a program called MATLAB, a high-performance mathematical program that can transform sound into rows of numerical data, “and track changes from however many angles you want to look at it.” His technique involves complex science, physics, engineering, computer science, and other art forms, which he says “makes the study of composition a much broader humanistic and multidisciplinary study by default. Our world is still performance, score, and instruments, but those relationships are far more complicated and diverse.”

Next year, Everett plans to collaborate with Emory’s dance department to write a score that will be played through the movement of a dancer’s body. “Things like this are fairly experimental,” he says, “but they are opening up whole new possibilities for what we call music and dance.”

Melissa Alperin, associate professor in the Rollins School of Public Health, can’t escape her classroom. For six years, she has helped develop and teach the Career MPH program on the web.
“Our students are only on campus the beginning and end of each semester,” she says. Everything else during the seven-week semester program is done through online correspondence.

Alperin’s students, who typically are already well established in their public health careers, live and work all over the world. They can earn degrees without interrupting their normal lives. Alperin also can structure assignments tailored to each student’s community.

Alperin admits that distance learning is not the ideal environment for everyone, and that only dedicated and self-disciplined individuals should apply. “With work and family issues clamoring at your door,” she cautions, “school can become just a box sitting on your desk.”

Still, says Cattier, “We live in a time-starved world, and there is a great demand for people who want to go back and visit things they’ve missed. Emory can be a digital destination as well as a physical destination.”





 © 2007 Emory University