Ashi Sheth, director of IT, explains how American University of Sharjah is taking learning outside the classroom
The UAE is the most likely location for the centre, since it is currently unclear under UAE law what can be hosted offshore and what must remain onshore. Once a partner is chosen, it would then be a question of deciding which applications remain in the university’s data centre and which are hosted externally.
“There are some services that I would move off site – for example, our mail gateway, because we receive far more mail in than we send amongst ourselves,” says Sheth. “Maybe our ERP system would stay here because most of that traffic is localised. What I expect is that we’ll have dual live data centres and services will be split between the two.”
Application and desktop virtualisation are two elements of the university’s ‘AUS Anywhere’ strategy. Complementing those initiatives is a major video collaboration project. The university has equipped a number of lecture theatres and seminar rooms with video cameras and microphones. If individual faculty members choose, lectures and seminars can now be recorded and posted on the university’s video portal for review by students.
The initiative allows students to catch up on lectures they have missed and review what they have already seen. During the lecture itself, students can spend less time scribbling and more time focusing on the speaker, knowing they can review the lecture later.
The idea of lecture capture remains slightly controversial in academic circles, since it could potentially discourage attendance and make faculty redundant. Sheth understands the concerns, but believes they can be overcome and the benefits of the technology realised. “If a student’s not expecting to come, he’s not going to come,” says Sheth. “The value of the classroom is still in the interaction. When a student is taking notes, they’re looking down more than they’re looking up. With the knowledge that they can go back and look at the lecture later, there is a chance for more interaction in the classroom. That’s where I think it’s value is and I think it will encourage a better classroom experience.”
The number of faculty that have decided to capture lectures is so far fairly small, but Sheth believes the idea will catch on and there are other uses for the technology. The university’s debating team, for example, has used the technology to record its rehearsals and review its performance. The team has won prizes in a number of debating competitions.
The video capture system is also set up so that lectures can be streamed live to digital signs located around campus and even directly to the web. “We have some pretty impressive speakers who visit this campus; why shouldn’t we make that available to others?” says Sheth. “We have everything we need to broadcast live, do video on demand, rebroadcast on campus and watch anywhere.”
Sheth says the university’s network – 10GbE on the backbone and 1GbE to the desktop – is robust enough to support its initiatives. Around 10 Terabytes of storage are also being added to the data centre every year to support the growth in data. The IT team is keen, however, to expand the amount of bandwidth that connects the university to the public internet.
Virtualisation, open source software and video collaboration are helping AUS to boost reliability and realise its ‘AUS Anywhere’ strategy. Ultimately, Sheth says, the most important thing about the technology is that it helps the university achieve its educational goals. “I don’t think our users care about the technology at the end of the day,” he says. “What they care about is giving the students every possible tool to succeed.”