American Univesity of Beirut

​​Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,  ​

After months of a seemingly relentless tidal wave of obstacles, it is remarkably refreshing to look forward to reopening the AUB campus in the fall term 2021, contingent upon a successful vaccination program for all faculty and staff and their families, and all students. We have been through an incredibly challenging period since AY 2019-20 and the external pressures we faced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic have not abated. But at least there is light ahead and the AUB family can look forward to being physically reunited at the start of AY 2021-22.


So much has changed so quickly that L.P. Hartley's maxim, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," can seemingly be applied these days to a remarkably recent past. For one thing, although eLearning was already a familiar concept in higher education before 2019, the idea of AUB teaching online was alien to nearly all of us (apart from exceptions such as the joint Pro-Green Diploma).

 

All relevant courses are now available via Moodle; our professors have become increasingly comfortable and adept at engaging students online"


Our announcements during the thawra campus closures reflected this conservative mindset, referring obliquely to “capturing course content and delivering it by other means" (November 4, 2019) or “making materials available online" (November 13, 2019). Little did we suspect that those early, tentative provisions would become what they amounted to, the first steps of an unprecedented, protracted, and cathartic sector-wide journey towards technology-enhanced learning.

As we near the end of this pandemic-stricken academic year, all relevant AUB courses are now available online via the learning management system Moodle; our professors have become increasingly comfortable and adept at engaging students online; and our Office of IT has provided the software and hardware required and a full support operation of one-to-one training, guides, and video tutorials covering both technology tools and online teaching methodologies (available on the Teaching and Learning with Technology portal). The result is that AUB's fall 2021 term will see blended learning putting down firm roots in our curriculum for the first time, deriving benefits from both the online and offline worlds.


It has been far from an easy ride with many bumps along the road. Some professors and—particularly—many students have found the experience taxing, objectionable even, and not what they signed up for. At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have seen teachers and learners joining forces to create exciting new solutions and outcomes that make the best of the new socially distanced landscape.

 

What once seemed like a daunting mountain to climb, we now calmly take in ​our stride"


This year's Teaching Excellence Awards (TEA), organized by the Center for Teaching and Learning, marked a departure from the original annual format by adding a celebration of the ingenuity that faculty have shown while overcoming the obstacles of the remote experience. In addition to the established TEA honors for Dr. Rouwaida Kanj (Electrical and Computer Engineering, MSFEA) and Dr. Sally Temraz (Hematology and Oncology, FM), awards in the new category for Innovation in Teaching with Technology went to Dr. Alissar Yehya (Civil and Environmental Engineering, MSFEA) and Dr. Blake Atwood (Media Studies, FAS), who impressed the judges with their creative uses of digital platforms and teaching strategies to ease the transition to online and utilize the best available technology.


What once seemed like a daunting mountain to climb, the delivery of course content “by other means" than students sitting in a room with a professor, we now increasingly take in our stride. Knowing that asynchronous delivery and reusable modules can cover the more basic material in a curriculum, thoughts are turning to how to make better use of offline encounters when we return to the classroom and laboratory.

Now that we have made this leap into technology enhanced learning, we must think how it can be used to the best effect to update an existing teaching model that owes more to the 19th century than the 21st. To do so, we must ask some difficult questions.

  • How can we leverage digital connectivity to increase accessibility to an AUB education and its benefits?
  • How can we combine online and offline learning to refashion and upgrade the university experience?
  • How can human-centered design reengineer our products to prioritize the needs and experiences of the students? 

    By depriving us of face-to-face teaching for more than a year, the pandemic has reminded us just how valuable a setting the classroom is, what a privilege it can be, and how engaging to share learning experiences with others. With this perspective, professors and students have a new motivation to turn every classroom into a space for deeper thinking and interaction that makes every contact hour more rewarding and memorable.


To distinguish the COVID-19 experience from the true concept of online education, champions of the field are calling what has been achieved “emergency remote teaching" (ERT). But to fulfil their true potential, online courses need to be purposefully designed and developed, with professors and support staff working together to create interactive formats and production techniques that enhance the learner's experience and keep the learning process on track.

While ERT has been an essential and salutary exercise to uphold AUB's educational mission, the university was already in the process of creating authentic online programs from scratch before the crises of 2019-20 emptied our campus. The multidisciplinary AUB Online team launched our first fully-online degree program, the Olayan School of Business MBA O​nline, in the fall 2020 term, and the team is currently working across all faculties to create new degree, and non-degree, courses for students, from all walks of life and regardless of geographic location, to complete online.

 

We are entering a brave new world in which artificial intelligence and adaptive learning technologies can guide individual learning journeys"


Separately, another project with pre-pandemic origins is coming to fruition at this most opportune moment, MSFEA's strategic 2019 decision to digitally enhance its on-campus offering and launch a suite of impactful online programs. The faculty is in the final stages of negotiating a major partnership with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) and has already transformed more than 25 courses for fully online asynchronous delivery. The partnership with AGFE will empower this process over the next three years and position AUB as a regional leader and knowledge hub for training and supporting other regional universities that want to build their online and blended learning capacities.

As these exciting new programs come on stream, we are entering a brave new world in which artificial intelligence and adaptive learning technologies can guide individual learning journeys and reduce stress by giving more control to students to manage their workflow. Different learning styles and speeds are accommodated far better than in traditional classroom settings. Even course assessment, a significant bump in the road in 2020, can be reconstituted within the new learning systems, to replace the blunt and often counterproductive tool of an all-or-nothing final exam.


Resistance to change is a hallmark of institutional academic life but post-pandemic, it really will become a case of evolve or expire. If we do not embrace this reality, the choices will be made for us. The fourth industrial revolution renders the established one-size-fits-all system of preparing students for predictable and stable career paths obsolete. Furthermore, knowledge once studiously accumulated in class or the library can now be accessed from a connected device you carry in your pocket. Instant messaging, e-commerce platforms, and personalization algorithms have all transformed people's experiences and expectations.

 

COVID-19 pandemic has been the unlikely harbinger which established eLearning in every academic department at AUB"


It will be a brave new world indeed, but not one where automation and AI will replace the role of the passionate, inspiring, and engaged educator. If one of the advantages of online learning is scalability and the possibility of exponentially expanding class sizes, the quality of the experience still relies on the human touch, and the spontaneous, informal learning opportunities that a student-teacher relationship fosters.

One of the great challenges that humans face today is how to manage the awesome power that our species has gained through the technology we have created. The development of smart digital technology for teaching and learning will inevitably change universities forever and the COVID-19 pandemic has been the unlikely harbinger which established eLearning in every academic department at AUB. As Machiavelli said, “Time drives everything before it, and is able to bring with it good as well as evil, and evil as well as good." With the perilous state of Lebanon and the MENA region, our determination has never been stronger to use this power for good in the digital space and there has never been a better or more opportune time to do so.


Best regards,

Fadlo R. Khuri, MD

President


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