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McGill’s online movement, circa 2000

Sitting down with COOL cofounder and teaching enthusiast, Professor David Harpp

Professor David Harpp, the newly appointed Tomlinson Chair of Science Education and Macdonald Professor of Chemistry at McGill University, has published over 230 research articles, twenty of which are on teaching. He also sits on the McGill Senate and advises the University on academic integrity.
Harpp has received over a dozen teaching and research awards including the prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship and McGill’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning. In 2000, he led an initiative through the Office for Science & Society (OSS) to promote online courses dubbed COOL (COurses OnLine) McGill. Anyone, regardless of whether they are McGill students, has access to the McGill lectures on this program from their home.
The Daily sat down with Professor Harpp to talk about McGill’s participation in the massive open online courses (MOOCs) movement, more recently known as edX, and about the foundation and workings of COOL McGill.

The McGill Daily: How did COOL McGill start?
David Harpp: It started, not with the University’s money, but through the Office of Science and Society. It was a project that I had wanted to do. We had two programmers…that were really keen and capable. So we sat down and digitized about 16,000 35 mm slides; we used a great many visuals.
During the first couple lectures in 2000, we tested COOL without informing the class. On the third day a woman approached me, wide-eyed and slightly panicking. She said that she missed the first two classes and asked “what do I do?” I thought that this would be the perfect time to tell her about COOL.
Expecting her to be amazed, I was a bit disappointed when all I got was a “thanks” and she quickly walked back up the aisle. It’s all very much like in a Harry Potter movie; we are just expecting people to walk through walls. This was only a lecture.
In the first couple of years there were only maybe ten courses being recorded. We had some money, so we funded the programmers until 2006, and in a more modest fashion since then. Before that, we [Harpp, Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster] – the inventors – owned it. But that seemed wrong, and plus I didn’t want to have anything to do with the finances. So we later navigated with the Provost [Anthony Masi] to give these two programmers the whole thing. They started a company [IDEALS, with Nic Siggel as chief programmer] and gave McGill a license to use the software.

MD: Where did the idea come from?
DH: [It started] in Organic Chemistry during the mid seventies. I was able to supply all 500 students with 12 feet of 36mm film each – that’s a mile of film! We sat down, cut it up and sold it for a cost ($2.50 including the viewer) to the students. This set my head in a direction for the rest of my life.

MD: What’s with the name?
DH: COOL, it’s a neat acronym – it stands for COurses OnLine. I don’t say the word cool very often, but this was just too good to not use. McGill also offers the Lecture Recording System, LRS – such a boring name – and it uses the same software!

MD: Does a professor need to be in a lecture hall to create a COOL stream?
DH: COOL lets you do it from anywhere, your home or at the office. Professors can remotely review midterms and upload extra learning modules. 350 courses per year use the software, but via a student ID. It runs on a laptop – in fact, we could do it right now – and it’s available to anyone. Unfortunately it isn’t used nearly as much as it should be.

MD: Any student or anybody can use it?
DH: Anybody in the world – we get emails from people in strange places. Frankly, it’s been a MOOC for 13 years, except that we don’t have any organized course arrangement.

MD: If COOL works so well, why hasn’t it been marketed better?
DH: The new owners of COOL have talked with University of Montreal, Concordia, Sherbrooke, and others, but they don’t seem to be interested. I don’t know why. We would be saving everybody a lot of money and it works well. At least from my point of view – [but] some people just don’t get it.
Egos are a part of it. Some professors don’t want their lectures recorded for a number of reasons: they don’t like the sound of their voice, the way it will look, and they didn’t want publicly talk about their research – they don’t feel comfortable. They are concerned about class attendance – which does decrease depending on the time the lecture is given. In today’s modern student life, illness, religious holidays, athletic events, and sometimes work schedules [are some of the reasons students regularly skip]. We’re the victims of our own success – all instructors prefer a filled room, so we will have to try a bit harder if the class is reduced. If Jerry Seinfeld went to Leacock 132, and there were 14 people scattered throughout the room, he’d probably die out there.
However, if the grades were going down, I’d say this isn’t good – but the grades aren’t going down. Actually all of our classes show that the grades are gently sliding upwards. The students are doing the work.

MD: Have you been involved in the recent edX talks?
DH: Well, kind of. I went with our Provost to a symposium in Boston last week. There were high profile people from Berkeley, Cornell, McGill, Harvard, MIT, et cetera – these were the biggest guns that you could find in the armament.
I’ll bet you it was the first time in history that all these high-powered academic leaders were in one room talking about teaching. I don’t think that has ever happened before. That’s my take on it. You just don’t get those kinds of people in one place at one time talking about the direction of pedagogy.
MD: What were some big topics discussed at the conference?
DH: There were questions about lowering tuition – why don’t you guys lower your tuition just a wee bit – it’s 50,000 bucks to go to some of these schools!
And Provost Masi said that if we have to lower our tuition in Quebec any more, we’ll have to pay the students to come!
Quebec is sort of a special situation. It costs so little to go here that you would think that people wouldn’t want to miss that opportunity to be on campus or to live at home and come to campus. Somewhere around 30 to 40 per cent of McGill students live at home – part of why COOL works.
This is in sharp contrast to the Harvards, MITs, and Berkeleys. They are saying that edX is their way of paying back – offering information free of charge.

MD: How is the quality of MOOC courses evaluated?
DH: Well, they would be the same courses that have already passed muster here. They are not going to be some watered down half-credit lectures on some topic. They are going to be bona fide courses.
Upon completion, students are only offered a certificate. There are, though, some courses on Coursera [an online education company that works with universities to hold courses online], where a couple universities are actually offering course credit!
… [But] I don’t think that most schools are going to offer credit at all, they are only offering information if people want it – they could have done it for years on COOL, and they can still do that.

MD: Where is the money for the program coming from?
DH: True, this is coming at the worst imaginable time in terms of our budget, but it’s not coming out of our budget. McGill is depending on donors who want McGill to be in this high-level league.

MD: Do you think that free online courses will level the playing field among universities?
DH: What if the best organic chemistry course, anywhere, was put on by somebody from, say, the University of Illinois, why shouldn’t we [assign it at our university]? And someone can make that case, but I think [a professor’s] ego is going to get in the way.
On the other hand, they could also take the attitude that this super professor [from another university] gives a very good class, and I [the McGill professor] could fill in the blanks. Students could be better off and I might be able to guide them in a way that I would have never had the time to otherwise.
In fact, at the Harvard Business School, they don’t teach accounting anymore – at all! Everyone finds that odd. They don’t teach accounting at all at the Harvard Business School! That’s a shocker. They have their students take it online!

MD: Is this the evolution of education?
DH: Yes, and a lot of people think so. Many people also feel that the residential university experience is important for all the “other” contacts and learning experiences, outside of the classroom.
But frankly, I remember a lot more of the fraternity and dorm stuff than I do about my classes back in my time. I think there is room for both – traditional campus lectures and online MOOC classes. I just wish they had a better acronym.