Robert Raeside

Acadia Advantage - the wired campus? It's a topic that many graduates inquire about when they meet someone who is still at Acadia. What has happened? How do you teach with computers? Is it so much better?

Probably the only fair answer we can give at this point is that we are still finding out. First, what has happened? Last September all new students at Acadia were issued with leased IBM laptop computers that can be taken with them anywhere, to be used in classes, in their rooms, or wherever they go. All residence rooms have been wired for internet access, many classrooms have connections at all chairs, and even in the halls and corridors where students gather there are plugs and jacks for computer hook-ups. In Geology classes, we are still at the beginning of the program as most of the first-year classes have a preponderance of upper-year students (who do not have laptops). We have not yet, therefore, been able to introduce genuine laptop instruction. However, geologists have never been slow to apply computer technology to teaching, and students have long been using the existing computer labs to complete assignments, perform calculations, and (more recently) cruise the web seeking employment (among other things).

Access to the wired world has certainly brought its share of both benefits and problems. For example, last winter when Ruapehu was erupting in New Zealand, we were able to watch live on the web camera as lava bombs were spewed across the ski slopes, when the under-ice volcano melted a huge water chamber in the Iceland's ice-cap we saw the results of the massive outburst (as soon as the clouds cleared and plane could fly over it), and when the Mars Pathfinder crept down on to the Martian surface many of us were watching "live on the Internet". These benefits, of course, would all have been available the next day in the newspapers, but the immediacy of acquiring the images virtually as they are happening certainly does intrigue many people. Problems there are aplenty too! Besides viruses and network crashes, plagiarism of papers already on the web was initially a problem. Fort-un-ately that seems to be a relatively minor practice at Acadia - if a paper seems "too good" to have been produced by a student, typing a key phrase into a search engine soon reveals who has used it before! More difficult is determining the reliability of sources. We have to be much more careful in researching who wrote what and with what authority.

Secondly, how do we teach with computers? Although we are still in the early stages of the Acadia Advantage (especially in Geology), already we are beginning to see some of the new ways unfold. In Physics, for example, computer-assisted teaching is now in its second year. To summarise from their web page, new classrooms (now called studios) have been set up. At each table, two students plug in their computers and work together. They may be solving problems, conducting lab experiments or modelling. One day, they might study the motion of an object in the lab and the next day study the motion of a satellite orbiting the Earth. The professor moves through the classroom, giving guidance and helping students. There are no old-style lectures. Geology majors may say this sounds like a lab in petrology or structural geology - problems are done as the professor circulates and gives helpful hints or inspires students to think about what they are doing. Maybe we were just 40 years ahead of the Acadia Advantage and didn't know it! In the languages, computer-assisted vocabulary quizzes have replaced the old flash cards, and in Business students mock-invest their portfolio at the start of term and watch it develop as the stock markets soar and plunge. In Geology, it appears that the biggest advantage to the laptop initiative will be to do away with the long lines to use the computer labs, and consequently it will be possible to use much more of the software that is employed by industry to perform stratigraphic analyses, plot structural data, calculate geochemical parameters, and draw maps. Students will be able to look up images of type specimens of Paradoxides and Rafinesquina or better specimens of stilpnomelane or clinopyroxene.

As for the third question - is it so much better? Certainly the options available for learning are already much greater. Research possibilities are almost endless - I type in the word jokulhlaup (that outburst of water from under the ice sheet in Iceland) and find 72 documents describing the phenomenon. There is no doubt that the hard-working student has even more opportunity (and more work to do). The average student will graduate with a level of computer literacy that was unheard of five years ago. Everyone can be totally sated with facts. Whether or not students will be any better geologists because of the Acadia Advantage is yet to be seen, but we are certainly doing our best to find out.

(If you have internet access, check our home page where you will find links to sites that display or discuss many of the areas of Geology, and connections to many geological organisations. You can also let us know what you are doing by e-mailing us from there.)