Farzeen Foda

Senior News Editor

 

“What haven’t we done that we could do if we were just a bit more creative?” said Susan Denburg, associate vice-president academic for the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Denburg was recently appointed Strategic Advisor for the Forward With Integrity initiative.

In response to the letter written by University President, Patrick Deane, addressed to the McMaster community, a Steering Committee has been installed to lead the transformation of the University with respect to four key areas, outlined in the letter as the student experience, community engagement, excellence in research and internationalization.

To tackle each of the four areas in the most comprehensive and creative way, four task forces have been developed, comprised of faculty members, staff, undergraduate and graduate students.

The Time Limited Task Forces, designated to each of the four areas of concentration, will be meeting regularly until April, after which their ideas, termed “deliverables,” will be examined carefully in an effort to fuel some of the change that has been in scattered discussion across campus.

The Advisory Committee, also comprised of faculty, students and staff across all disciplines, aims to oversee the work of the task forces and consolidate the ideas that sprout from the discussion that will surface over the next three to six months.

Membership in the Task Forces and the Advisory Committee are limited to include individuals who can act as a critical liaison for their respective disciplines, actively engaging their faculties in the Forward With Integrity initiative.

In the coming months, the Task Forces, charged with the goals outlined by President Deane, will adopt a problem-based approach to tackling the issues central to teaching, research and community engagement at McMaster, noted Denburg.

Although in the preliminary phase at this time, the Forward With Integrity initiative is a work in progress. The Task Force members are encouraged to think creatively, without ignoring the limitations and implementation of their ideas.

Concerns have been raised about the inherent obstacle in implementing a personalized educational experience for every student as McMaster’s enrollment continues to climb.

Central to a well-rounded education is “human contact,” Denburg acknowledged, though developing repetitive small-scale systems or having a lot of very small programs is simply not feasible. Considerations on this front have explored the possibility of bridging the gap between undergraduate and graduate students to facilitate mentorship and teaching, with appropriate training.

Ideas pertaining to the student experience may further examine policies in need of revision, scheduling of terms, prerequisites for courses, the granting of academic credit for co-curricular activities or even re-examine what constitutes a degree.

“This is not the first time we’re thinking about what we’re doing,” said Denburg, noting previous strategies aimed at transforming education. Refining Directions was initiated in 2002, under the direction of former McMaster president Peter George.

Under a similar premise, the initiative aimed to bring down the barriers across the University and stimulate cross-disciplinary teaching and research. Among others, Refining Directions sparked the development of the Controversies in Health course, which ran for two years and garnered significant acclaim for its multi-disciplinary approach. It brought students together from every faculty to develop skills in critical thinking through the lens of healthcare. The course was discontinued due to resource limitations, but the concept remains fresh in the minds of those behind Forward With Integrity.

The work of the Task Forces will “tell us what we need to think about,” said Denburg. Following consolidation of the ideas between April and June, forums will be held to discuss the progress, and pilot projects may be established to experiment with the ideas on a small scale prior to university-wide implementation.

“Big classes are not going to disappear overnight,” said Denburg, and much of the current teaching practices adopted at McMaster are based on historical principles about teaching and learning, which may be preserved as necessary, but also call for revision.

The positive feedback around the letter and the project has been tremendous, noted Denburg, leaving hope that this approach to the transformation may be more fruitful than previous attempts.

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