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March 5, 2001

Digital evolution in
science education

Donna Price is coordinator of ITD communications

While many classes are offered online at campuses around the country and the world, most are still taught in the traditional lecture/discussion style. At Emory, a number of faculty—particularly in the sciences—are experimenting with combining traditional teaching methods with technology, and to good reviews.

“It’s been a success for us,” said Kyle Petersen, professor of cell biology. “Because in teaching anatomy, we rely on images and models, so it’s really a natural fit.

“We used to have slide carousels that students would have to go through,” Petersen continued, reflecting on the development of “e-teaching” in the department. “There were some 600 slides for cell biology and histology alone, and another course had something like 400.”

The department began using computer-aided instruction (CAI) in the 1970s, when a grant funded the development of a computer-controlled slide viewer for use in human anatomy courses. Eventually the computer was abandoned, but the department continued to use the slides in its curriculum.

That’s where Petersen came in. The advantages of using multimedia applications in the classroom were becoming increasingly apparent and the technology more prevalent, but faculty had little time to learn the new media. In a farsighted move in the fall of 1993, the department established a position for CAI development, and Petersen joined the faculty.

He hit the ground running. Within a few months, slides were digitized and available, giving students the option of viewing images on a computer for the last third of that semester’s courses.

By the next year, the entire slide program was digitized. “[It became] very popular, suddenly,” Petersen said. “The students loved it. They’d much rather sit in front of the computer to study the material than use the slide projector. We made small interactive programs, and this is how the students learned histology.”

Still, even though the media was available 24 hours a day, students had to go to the laboratory to view it. However, times—and information technology tools—have changed, and today Petersen is one of a small but growing number of faculty experimenting with web-based course-management tools: in his case, Blackboard software.

“At this moment, more than 200 courses are being hosted on the Blackboard server,” said Marcy Alexander, educational analyst for ITD. “Some faculty are evaluating it within the college. [Also] the schools of nursing and medicine, Candler and Oxford are all engaged in reviewing this teaching tool.”

With Blackboard, faculty deliver course materials electronically; combine text, photography, graphics and schematics, animations, links, interactivity with bulletin boards and chat rooms; and manage administrative functions, all with one software package. Tests, pretests, student discussions and schedule changes can all be posted and viewed online. Wherever students are, if they have access to the World Wide Web, they have access to the course materials.

“It’s sometimes overwhelming for the student,” Petersen said. “They’ll sit in a classroom and get nothing but PowerPoint presentations, and they just wear out. One of the advantages of using the [Blackboard] software, and especially the web, is that the student can go home or the library or a computer center to study.”

Petersen’s initial training on Blackboard was through the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT). “Now I can do most of my development here,” he said, referring to his office in the Cell Biology Building. “If I run into a problem, [ECIT’s] immediately where I go. It’s a wonderful service, and more and more faculty are hearing about it and wanting to use it.”

A downside to distributing coursework online is that it takes more time. “But,” Petersen said, “it’s certainly one of the best things for students. Different learning styles are addressed and supported, which is very powerful.”

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