April 24,1998

Finance professor experiments with technology in classroom

Arshad Ahmad isn't resting on his laurels

by Debbie Hum

Finance Professor Arshad Ahmad, well known for his lively lectures and his commitment to teaching, has won Distinguished Teaching Awards from Concordia's Faculty of Commerce and Administration and from McGill University, and best of all, in 1992, the national 3M Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching.

Constantly looking for ways to improve the classroom experience, he has been experimenting with computers in the classroom. He has found that they can lead to more animated discussions -- even, he noted wryly in an interview, on such topics as capital structure theory and dividend policy.

His early experiments encouraged interaction and included activities modelled around games that Ahmad had developed for his lectures. Using the object-oriented software ToolBook, he and colleague Gregory Lypny developed a portfolio-choice game in which students were given play money and chose between different investments based on risk and return.

"This simulation enhanced learning opportunities, and provided the students with valuable information about their inclination to assume risk," Ahmad said. He also designed a lecture that was like Jeopardy, adapting the game show's question-and-answer format to his teaching methods.

"Topics come alive in the classroom once students are engaged in doing things. Simple techniques such as "think-pair-share" (in which student pairs solve problems together), the two-minute exam and the one-minute presentation can dramatically add value to what the student learns," Ahmad said.

With the encouragement of Dean Mohsen Anvari, who is making integration of technology in course design one of the Faculty's top objectives, Ahmad is redesigning his Introduction to Finance course.

He chose FirstClass, a computer-mediated conferencing system that integrates electronic mail with group conferencing, real-time discussions and online communication. This software was first tested at Concordia in the Education Department by Dennis Dicks, who is now Director of the Centre for Instructional Technology.

Ahmad has used FirstClass to improve teacher-student contact through e-mail and computer conferencing. "Virtual" areas, electronic bulletin boards where students can post examples of their work-in-progress, were used to facilitate peer collaboration. Finally, using the Internet gives students access to information and expertise around the world.

Having used FirstClass successfully for three semesters, including with classes as large as 100 students, Ahmad is "ecstatic." He reported that "students are speaking the language of finance at all hours of the day, and in some cases, long after the course is over."

In one case, he noticed that a visiting francophone student from Université Laval who had been shy about speaking in class was participating freely for the first time, thanks to FirstClass.

This weekend, Ahmad will address delegates from Ontario and Quebec at the Canadian Teachers' Federation conference on the topic of Education and Technology.

Although a proponent of using technology in the classroom, Ahmad is careful to stress that "integrating technology into your pedagogical approach is ultimately an artistic rather than a scientific endeavour. The learning effects are easily confounded and almost impossible to measure." He maintains that "technology should march to the drum called curriculum."

Ahmad, who joined Concordia in 1982, has served on numerous University committees and task forces. During his sabbatical last year, he began his PhD in Education at McGill, concentrating on instructional design and the role of computers in education. He has narrowed his focus to cognitive task analysis in financial expertise literature.

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