McGill falling behind in teaching technologies

by Daniel McCabe

At a recent all-day technology fair, McGill scholars pretty much agreed that computers are profoundly altering the academic landscape. But some of the professors who participated in the event warned that McGill is lagging far behind other universities in understanding how to benefit from these new approaches to teaching.

"There are several universities in Canada that have a more integrated approach to these new technologies than we do," says Professor Ron Burnett, director of the graduate program in communications and a panelist at the fair. "There isn't a very strong discourse at McGill about how to best use these technologies."

Music professor Bruce Pennycook was downright apocalyptic as he surveyed the future for universities that are slow to incorporate the new technologies into their classroom activities. "(They) may be completely out of business in 10 years.

"The largest industry in the U.S. is the entertainment business and the big companies are moving into education," said Pennycook. If universities aren't creative in offering their students new ways of learning that involve innovative technologies, "Microsoft and Sony will colonize us."

Burnett, who will soon be leaving McGill to become the president of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, wouldn't go that far. "Those companies might well take over much of the content (in terms of putting out CD-ROMs, for instance), but they can't match our ability to critically evaluate educational approaches. We know much more than they do about the nature of learning. In fact, these companies are always asking people like me, 'Does this work?'"

Dean of Education Ted Wall thinks Pennycook's concerns have merit. "I don't think Bruce is far off at all." Wall is involved in the national Schoolnet program which involves schools and industry and which promotes technology as an important educational tool. "The boundaries between formal education and informal learning opportunities are becoming much more permeable. Public education has to have a response if we want to be players."

Wall was one of the chief organizers of the technology fair. The fair gave professors from across the University the chance to show colleagues how they're using the World Wide Web, multimedia techniques and other relatively new technological tools to bolster their teaching.

One point which was made several times over the course of the day was how professors who pursued new technological approaches to teaching often felt isolated within their own departments. "You're preaching to the converted," said computer science professor Gerald Ratzer to one group of panelists at the fair. "But most professors would much rather work on their research papers than think about these things. How do we change the mind-set?"

"Many professors, if they aren't quite Luddites, they're close," says classics professor Anthony Masi, a panelist at the fair. "They just keep doing what they've always done--what they're comfortable with. As educators, we can't afford to get stuck in our routines--there are no routines any more."

Masi thinks the administration needs to do more to encourage faculties and departments to work with one another to develop interesting new methods for using the new computer technologies. "There are no mechanisms for rewarding interfaculty cooperation in anything," asserts Masi. "The decentralized nature of this University can be a weakness sometimes." With budgets shrinking, it's vital that faculties don't needlessly duplicate one another's efforts, says Masi.

Wall, who sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Educational Use of Information Technology, agrees. "What I would like to see--and I think our subcommittee is heading in this direction--is some kind of resource centre involving the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, the Instructional Communications Centre (ICC) and the Computing Centre.

"This wouldn't be a place that would take everything over--most of the good ideas are going to come from individual professors who are doing work on these issues already. But it would be a place where people could get together to share their approaches."

Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) François Tavenas sat on the same panel as Burnett and Masi. He admitted that while the University has spent a great deal on hardware, comparatively little money has been spent on training faculty and staff to use these computers. Says Masi, "If you need computers, you can usually find the money to get them. If you need people to take care of the computers and to teach faculty and students how to use them--there's no money for that."

Tavenas contends the new technologies shouldn't be tackled recklessly. "One hour of good media-supported teaching can require 80 hours of investment," said Tavenas.

ICC director John Roston backed Tavenas up. "The use of technology is an additional tool, it isn't a replacement" for other teaching techniques. "Let's use the simplest technology we can if it will accomplish the job."

Tavenas does believe, though, that there is no turning back in the sense that information technologies will be a permanent part of teaching from now on. He feels that Quebec's universities should band together to develop a coordinated approach to integrating these technologies in their activities. He suggested the universities could jointly set up a special "summer school" to give professors training in how to best use these technologies for their courses.

Educational and counselling psychology professor Alain Breuleux advised his colleagues to make use of their students as they entered the terrain of computer-assisted teaching. "Don't forget to include the learners. Students can teach us a great deal--they know if something is working or not."

Wall says that, as a dean, he was sympathetic to many of the ideas that were brought up at the fair. One proposal concerned giving professors sabbatical leaves to work on technological approaches to their teaching. Another suggestion would see professors rewarded for innovative uses of technology when decisions were made regarding tenure and promotions. "Clearly we have to think about these ideas seriously.

"On June 4, my whole faculty is having an assembly that will focus on these sorts of issues. I want the promotion of innovative, technological approaches to teaching to become part of this faculty's mission statement. Those statements have meaning--it would force us to seriously look at the fiscal and academic implications of these teaching techniques. I suspect we'll have a healthy debate on June 4 and I think other faculties should be having the same sort of debate."