McGill's matrix

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McGill Reporter
May 22, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 16
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McGill Matrix

Students navigate the Internet and send email via wafer-thin digital notebooks while sunning on Redpath Beach. A researcher eyes the library's rarest of antiquities with near-forensic scrutiny from a remote desktop monitor. A lecturer transforms his packed auditorium with the aid of wireless technology popularized on a TV game show.

Illustration of McGill symbols dropping down a screen Illustration: Tzigane

If McGill is beginning to look like the realization of some absurdist science fiction, then Tony Masi is doing his job. Recently named Deputy Provost and Chief Information Officer, Masi has managed, for the past two years, an abbreviated empire comprised of CUTL (Centre for University Teaching and Learning), ISR (Information Systems Resources, ICC (Instructional Communications Centre), ICS (Information Systems Technology Customer Services), NCS (Network and Communications Services), UPO (University Planning Office) and the McGill Libraries. He credits this eclectic confederation of units for McGill's technological innovations and, ultimately, the university's capacity to create and disseminate knowledge by modern means. "Once we recognized that information technology was potentially changing the production function of higher education," Masi says, "we could not continue to develop multiple systems that are not articulated or coordinated."

The first step toward integration was the completion of McGill's robust fibre-optic network that delivers 100 megabits-per-second connectivity -- 10 times faster than its predecessor -- to more than 15,000 computers from the McLennan Library to the McIntyre Medical Building to Macdonald Campus. The second was an investment in the Banner resource planning system (a.k.a. Minerva) that manages the university's human resources, financial systems and student information. Now there is ample room -- and a technological imperative -- to grow, wherever the innovations prove effective and appropriate. "We've made a major investment in software. We've made a major investment in hardware," Masi says. "And if we can leverage off of that package, we can do things we wouldn't have even dreamed of before."

Like, for example, transporting to the classroom the instant personal polling technology used to winnow contestants and measure audience opinion on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." As seen on television, the device allows students in an auditorium to answer multiple-choice questions with what looks like a TV remote. The remote transmits to a receiver that instantly synthesizes the responses and delivers statistical results to the lecturer's laptop on the dais. In initial trials this spring, five engineering professors found the devices useful to transparently select engineering projects, to wage instant quizzes that encouraged attendance and attention at guest lectures, and to gauge the comprehension of large classes with a few strategically placed questions. "This is an excellent technology," says mechanical engineering professor Peter Radziszewski. "It's especially effective at fostering interaction in a large lecture course, and allowing the professor to quickly adapt to his students' understanding."

According to Masi, many such new technologies take root in individual faculties. His role is to support their initial testing, do the due diligence, then expand and integrate the most effective to enhance teaching and research across campus.

As WebCT became the online course management program of choice, professors were issued laptop computers to help develop and post multimedia presentations. This year, nearly 20 percent of McGill courses included active content on WebCT sites, a massive jump from previous years. Now, 18 professors are testing the efficacy of tablet PCs -- simplified, portable, wireless computers capable of capturing handwritten notes for classroom projection, WebCT postings or a scholar's personal files.

The plug-and-teach ideal, however, requires up-to-the-minute facilities. The Classroom Modernization Project began retrofitting lecture halls to incorporate digital resources like PowerPoint projection and video-conferencing. It's an expensive proposition, and better to start from scratch when possible, as in the case of the Genome and Trottier IT buildings. The two pillars-in-construction of McGill's TechSquare will be state-of-the-art centres for research and undergraduate teaching, creating a veritable "techri-la" that evinces the power of integrated information technology. "Across this square will be the two ends of the university's mission: creation of knowledge through research and the dissemination of that knowledge to new generations," Masi adds. "It's a nice image."

But technology increasingly wants to be free, not bound by wires or even walls. And so over the past 18 months McGill has constructed a wireless network that is nearly ubiquitous in public areas both indoors and, beginning this summer, en plein air. Anyone with a modern laptop computer can rove into a "wireless zone," marked by curiously Cold War-era radio-transmitter signs, and log on to the McGill network or the Internet.

The hubs of McGill's wireless world are most often found in libraries. The library system has transformed itself around new technology in recent years -- harnessing the Banner system to streamline its cataloguing process, increasing access to more than 8,000 new electronic books and journals in the last year, and positioning itself as the definitive portal to the vast wealth of information available at McGill and in the reaches of cyberspace.

Its Digital Collections Program (DCP) also has created a unique online window to the university's rarest treasures. Rather than publish perfunctory indices of scanned archival book pages, maps and posters, DCP has teamed with curators to generate websites that deliver an enhanced discovery of Habitat '67, early maps of Canada, Napoleon prints, fur trader journals and Chinese poetry, to name but a few. "We're using information technology to provide far greater access to our rare and special collections, with the derived benefit of providing a certain level of preservation of the objects, too," says DCP director David McKnight. "The result is an enhanced access that you would not expect in a digital project, much less on a visit to the physical collection."

The public has taken notice. The DCP website suite (digital.library.mcgill.ca) now draws 1.1 million visits per month.

For all of these new technologies, the goal is to magnify the creation and transfer of knowledge. But do they improve learning? "We don't know that it enhances outcomes," Masi admits. "But we know that people want it, and we know they are satisfied when they get it."

Through these units' collaboration, Masi says, McGill has also streamlined network authentication and ID card function, consolidated the procurement and financing of administrative computers and created web forms to help researchers manage grants, benefiting virtually everyone. "The vision is that our information technology and systems should be appropriate, integrated and easy to use. As we enhance the technical capacity of professors, the ease of use for students, provide better service, it will become easier for the entire community to accept this new technology as the normal way of doing business," Masi adds. "Ideally, people won't even think about it anymore. It will become as simple as picking up the phone or turning on the computer."

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