December 6, 1996

Generosity at work

Helping Professors' Good Ideas Grow

In a few months, aspiring composers in McGill's Faculty of Music will be able to press a few keys on a computer and hear, within seconds, how their compositions would sound when played by a full orchestra.

The virtual orchestra, developed by Professor Denis Bouliane, is one of the dozens of new tools and strategies McGill professors are creating, thanks to funding from the Royal Bank Teaching Innovation Fund.

A Royal Bank gift is providing $100,000 per year over 10 years to the fund and three other vehicles that promote teaching at McGill. The Fund provides small grants--seed money, in fact--to about 15 professors per year. The awards, administered by McGill's Centre for University Teaching and Learning (CUTL), must be matched by a contribution from the recipient's faculty or school. An independent committee, composed of both students and professors, selects creative projects that are likely to have a wide impact.

The word is getting around

"The professors are just thrilled," says Cynthia Weston, CUTL's director. "It's got everyone talking more about teaching." CUTL is working to ensure that the best ideas make their way around the University, by organizing a workshop for that purpose and posting information about projects on its Web site.

The Innovation Fund has had a positive impact in another way, she says. In an era of budget cuts, professors--and deans and directors--need the extra money the fund provides. This is particularly true for strategies that involve computers, since they tend to be costly. "The timing is fortuitous," notes Weston, because "technology in teaching is really taking off."

The projects chosen in the first three years of the fund's operation cover fields ranging from plant science to occupational health and include proposals to help geography students examine climate changes and medical students learn diagnostic skills, such as the right way to listen to a patient.

It's not all done with computers

About half the projects involve the use of computers, but others are not quite so high-tech. One good example is Psychology lecturer Rhonda Amsel's undertaking.

Amsel teaches an introductory statistics class to 400 students from various years, faculties and schools. Many have not taken a class involving math for years and feel intimidated.

The approach she conceived takes the focus off grades and puts it on learning. Students' assignments are not marked; rather Amsel or a teaching assistant will simply indicate where the errors are. Students then resubmit the assignment and when the work is done correctly, full marks are given.

Students who cannot successfully complete the assignment in two or three tries make an appointment with Amsel. That appointment often leads to the identification of, and help for, the student's difficulty. In order that this system not skew the students' marks, assignments only count for 15 per cent of the course grade.

"The students really like it," says Amsel, because they feel they are grasping the material. The proof of that understanding, she says, is in the final exams, where she and her teaching assistants have seen improved performances in this course and another one in which she uses the same method. The funding covers a teaching assistant's salary. "I couldn't have done it without [the grant]," she says.

Funding brings music to his ears

Professor Bouliane, a composer and conductor, says the Innovation Fund was "crucial" to the startup of his virtual orchestra.

His program, which uses electronic samples to recreate instrument sounds, is a demonstration version that is still being refined. He is already at the stage, he says, where he can produce "a good rendition of any orchestral piece."

Now, a student studying instrumentation and orchestration won't have to wait until the year-end Faculty of Music concert to hear how his or her composition sounds.

The CUTL's Weston says while it's not always easy to evaluate the success of these projects, the level of discussion and information-sharing they have spurred among professors is a very good sign. That discussion, she thinks, will lead to better teaching. "Professors will be able to acquire skills and techniques without having to start from scratch," she says.