Ahead of the curve

Ahead of the curve McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 26, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 10
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Ahead of the curve

COOL tool for teaching science

In the fall of 2000, Professor David Harpp first embraced COOL (COursesOnLine). That's when he and some of his tech-savvy students posted his classroom lectures online using thousands of digitized PowerPoint slides coordinated with an audio voiceover. With people making a fuss over the new technology of podcasting, think about how COOL is already a well-established minor phenomenon at McGill and potentially a revolutionary supplement to modern teaching. Consider the stats:

Caption follows
David Harpp
Claudio Calligaris

In the 2002-2003 academic year, 12 instructors were putting their lectures online via COOL with that online content being consumed by 3,300 students. Today, those numbers sit at 26 and 89,00. And though COOL is currently employed only by courses in the Faculty of Science, the online lecture-retrieval technology lends itself well to any course that relies on visual aids to supplement traditional lectures. So while COOL is not currently a staple of arts courses, there is nothing to suggest that it won't soon be utilized as an important method for arts professors to further educate their students via online resources.

Harpp, the Macdonald Professor of Chemistry, has been at the forefront of the COOL initiative since the beginning. As he believes most of us are visual learners, he has been championing COOL as a peripheral teaching aid since he developed it in 2000 with then-undergrads Nic Siggel, Nathaniel Goodyer, Jason Parente and Will Hsaio. Siggel and Goodyer elicit particular praise from Harpp. In the past two years the two have refined COOL's technology, bringing it up to its current letter-perfect status. Two or three years ago, according to Harpp, the audio track and the digitized slides on the virtual lectures didn't synchronize perfectly, the sound was substandard and the navigation system was sub par.

"The old navigation system was like looking for something in a medicine cabinet in the dark. Now the lights are on and the contents are alphabetized," he remarks. In correcting this and other problems, Siggel and Goodyer - always referred to as "Nic and Nat" by Harpp, who beams an almost fatherly pride - advanced the technology "to a really sophisticated professional level."

When the conversation veers towards a recent Newsweek article maligning the practice of course-casting, Harpp doesn't mince words. "These people are about two miles out of alignment," he says. The article's notion is that course-casting is cheapening the modern educational experience by virtually eliminating the traditional lecture, thus removing the impetus to actually attend classes. COOL, he counters, differs from American course-casting models because it incorporates visuals for courses that are decidedly dependent on them, ensuring that even outside of the classroom students are "teaching themselves and learning themselves." And though the technology does allow for students to skip class and get the lecture contents online, Harpp asserts that most students come to class most of the time, and that more than anything, the technology "empowers than students to be independent learners rather [only] dependent ones."

Recently, representatives from McGill's Instructional Multimedia Services (IMS) attended a conference in Florida to examine parallel types of systems being used in the United States. Their conclusion, as told to Harpp, was that COOL was "as good as or better than what they had seen there," implying that McGill is far ahead of the curve when it comes to this kind of technology. If there is anything to be gleaned from this, and the Newsweek piece, it's that McGill's system is better conceived and delivered than those at such vaunted American institutions as Duke and Stanford whose technologies have only permitted them to put audio lectures online thus far.

"We've been [providing] visual lectures for five, six years now," Harpp points out, before adding "We were doing this before the New York Times Audiovisual section."

Next up: Podcasting

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