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Academic program reviews can either be onerous, eye-glazing exercises in futility or dynamic, inclusive mechanisms for finding new and modern ways of sharing knowledge. Luc Vinet is passionate about the latter. The Provost and his colleagues recently finalized McGill's new Academic Program Review Process, a faculty-focused approach designed to evaluate McGill's academic programs and teaching. He recently described the new review process and its importance to McGill's mission and future direction.
Is there a strong impetus for McGill to review its academic programs?
Yes! All of us at McGill must continuously ask ourselves if our teaching programs are as good as they can be. The ability to challenge our knowledge and our methods is a key part of the academic environment and allows us to advance our knowledge and our method of imparting knowledge to students. This is especially important because students entrust us with critical years of their lives. Our academic program review gives us the information we need to generate a plan to "modernize", in the broadest sense of the word, all our courses.
What makes this initiative different from the way McGill used to review its programs?
Previously reviews focused on a unit or faculty as a whole. In fact, many apprehensions about reviews are tied to past processes that were labour intensive, long and sometimes carried a "carrot-and-stick" connotation; positive reviews were associated with budget increases, while bad reviews were linked to budget cuts. Now McGill is taking a different approach: innovative, less bureaucratic, more rapid, flexible and results-oriented. The intent of this new review process is twofold. On the one hand, it should examine our curricula. Key questions here are the integration of research, the potential for interdisciplinary teaching initiatives and the relevance of programs vis-à-vis McGill's international stature. At the same time, reviews should question the delivery of programs. Issues to be addressed include, for example, the size of classes, the management of our professional resources and so on.
What's the timeline and work plan for this new review process?
The proposal for the Academic Program Review Process was developed by McGill's Academic Planning and Priorities Committee (APPC) and was approved by Senate last month. Now we're ready to move ahead.
Given that we want to look at programs in an integrated fashion, we're charging the faculties with the job of telling us how they will be reviewing programs — what will their emphasis be? They will assign groups — comprising faculty and students — to do individual program assessments. These groups will look at program content, admissions and retention, teaching methods and personnel, specific issues and outcomes of graduates. Typically, there will also be external reviewers involved. The net result will be a document including recommendations — not a long tome but rather a concise assessment, perhaps six to ten pages long. Once the faculty approves the program review, it goes to the APPC and Senate, and then we'll get into implementation of recommendations. We expect to review everything that is going on with respect to teaching at McGill over the next two years or so.
Is there a direct relationship between the review process and the way courses are taught?
Absolutely. This dynamic process will generate tangible outputs. When I started my studies in physics, quantum mechanics was a relatively new concept. Until the mid-'50s, it was taught exclusively at the graduate level. However, it rapidly became evident that this was a critical subject and universities incorporated it in the curriculum taught at the undergraduate level. Today, quantum mechanics is taught in the second year. The challenge is to look at all our programs through that prism.
How does the review process fit in with academic renewal and the influx of new faculty?
I'm counting on the energy and diverse experience of our new faculty members to enrich this process. It's the best and worst time for this initiative: the worst because we're so busy recruiting people, but the best because we need to tap into those fresh ideas sooner rather than later. It's critical to do that. In fact, it's an incentive for people coming to McGill.
Are there financial implications related to program review?
There is no direct financial lever attached to program reviews, but they do affect future planning decisions. What we definitely want to do is get away from the "carrot-and-stick" approach to program reviews. The fact is that better programs don't automatically entail higher costs. It is possible to improve programs without adding costs, particularly given the significant resources of McGill and the potential for synergy among faculties and departments. The more pertinent question from a planning perspective is, are we optimizing the use of our resources? We definitely want to grow and do more, but efficiency and effectiveness are also key objectives.