entete Université Laval


Dear colleague, Robert Mantha,
Dear Mr Aldridge, from IBM,
Distingués invités, distinguished guests,
Chers amis, dear friends,

Bienvenue à Québec et à l'Université Laval, la plus ancienne université canadienne, et la toute première université francophone d'Amérique. Welcome to Québec City and to Université Laval, the oldest Canadian university, the very first French-speaking university in America. When I say the "oldest", it is because our origin goes back to 1663, when the first bishop of New France, Monseigneur de Laval, created the Quebec Seminary.

The Seminary gave birth to our University in 1852 when it received its Royal Charter from Queen Victoria. And until 1970, the superior of the Seminary and the rector of the university were the same person. For your information, north of Rio Grande, Laval is second only to Harvard that was founded in 1636. Thus we share the History of North American higher education with Harvard… and I would dearly love to share the endowment as well!

This short history lesson allows me to underline the fact that at Laval University, we celebrate this year the sesquicentennial anniversary of our Royal Charter, and next year, we will recall the 340th (three hundred and fortieth) anniversary of the creation of the Quebec Seminary. So, you understand why I am particularly happy to bid you welcome here, today, in this institution that enrols every fall semester about 36 000 students. I also wish to thank the organizers of this 5th International IBM 2002 Thinktank meeting for asking me to be with you here this afternoon.

I am pleased that IBM has decided to hold its 2002 International Thinktank at Laval University because our university has been actively involved in efforts to better integrate information and communication technologies in its teaching activities in the last five years. We are, therefore, a logical venue for a meeting centred on a theme of "It's all about learning". Of course, we know that all universities are places of learning through study, teaching and research. But we do believe that what we have managed to do up to now here at Laval is worth a closer look from colleagues coming from abroad.

Whether we talk in terms of multimedia, of the integration of new Information technology in teaching, of the use of a portable computer by our students in our Business School as well as in other faculties, or of the transition to the virtual library, this university is among the leaders in Canada in this respect.

The question of integration of the information technology in university teaching is of utmost importance. Why is it so? I am first tempted to say that any scientific mind is more than eager to access more and more relevant and useful information and data at the click of a mouse. But I do not think that it is the main reason for our efforts to increase the use of IT and computers both in the classroom and outside it.

One may also think that we have to integrate the use of portable computer in our teaching in order to prepare students for their role and their work in society, to help them improve their literacy and communication skills, their problem solving abilities and human relations capacity. Again, I do not think that this is the central reason for our action in this field of endeavour.

One may wish again to integrate information technology in our teaching because one believes that IT and computers are now important tools in the educational process, and that technology and information fluency are now a fundamental part of university education. We may also believe firmly that an increasingly computer literate student body will have growing expectations of what should be reflected in their university experience.

Indeed, all these reasons are right and honourable. But I submit that we may be missing the most obvious one. In fact, the students coming in our colleges and universities today do not see the world and the learning experience as we did ten, twenty or thirty years ago. For them, the use of the computer, today, is as normal as the use of a typewriter was for us in our time past. Information technology is part of their daily life like it will never be for my generation, even if we try very hard at it. Put very simply, we were born before the Information age, and it shows. Our students were born with it, and it shows too.

I submit that we, academics as well as university and colleges administrators, do not have the choice in the matter. The new generations of students in our institutions will simply desert the learning places where information technology is not as integrated as possible and as mobile as it can be in the teaching experience. In fact, the whole paradigm may be not totally changed now, but the process is well under way, and it has been for close to a decade.

So, we must answer an irresistible demand, and when I say "we", it means lots and lots of people in our educational communities, first and foremost the professors. Your meeting will take a close look at these matters. Your will discuss ways and means to give faculty the opportunity to learn about the range of possibilities offered by information technology; you will be encouraging discussion and opportunities for presenting differing viewpoints about and around information and technology, and its use to foster quality learning and enhance teaching; you will seek to identify what students want and expect from faculty, a difficult and important question. You will also consider what faculty need in order to accomplish this task, what sort of expertise and resources must be made available to them, and what strategies are best suited to support the transition.

Before closing my remarks this afternoon, allow me to make four points, which, I think, should be relevant to your forthcoming discussions.

While there is general agreement today that the use of information technology in teaching is a necessity, we need to consider carefully the question of optimization of this use. In other words, how can we be sure that information technology will help people learn in a more effective and efficient manner and how can we best deploy them to achieve this goal. I submit to you that history of teaching, in universities as well as in other levels of education, is full of novelties whose effect on the quality of learning deserved a sober second look and which did not survive that second look. For example, not so long ago, in the sixties and seventies, many amongst us remember the so-called "audio-visual revolution" that was to change radically the way we taught. We know what happened... I do not suggest that IT is doomed to follow the same path, but I submit that major efforts in research on pedagogy and learning are needed here in order to ensure that the integration of IT in our teaching will lead to more efficient learning by our students. Unfortunately, this is an area of research where, for some obscure reason, governments worldwide do not invest at the necessary level. Indeed, you never see the field of education listed in the statistics on R&D to GNP ratios… simple because the numbers are so small that they would force a change in scale in the graphs! If we are serious about developing a knowledge economy, our governments would better start investing at the appropriate level in understanding how knowledge is transmitted to and acquired by the younger generations. Here in Canada, a recent report by the Federal Government's Information Highway Advisory Council recommended more investment in these matters. We still wait and hope for results.

Second point, integrating the IT is bound to have a major impact on the role of the university professor. Up until recently, the professor was the primary source of knowledge, transmitting it through lectures and course material. With the on-line access to library resources, live databases, course material from other universities, and all kinds of other information, the professor must now become a guide in the search for relevant information, a teacher in the critical analysis of this information, a kind of intellectual leader of his learning group of students rather than the old magisterium teaching the lesson from his Ivory Tower. It is a giant step back to the future. Indeed, the integration of the IT in teaching is bringing us back to what was the role of the professor at the origin of the universities, a thousand years ago in Bologna. If this is interesting, at the same time it does create a challenge for each and every professor to be trained to be up to this task. What is required from them is nothing short of a cultural revolution. It will certainly take them and us all time, effort and persistence to succeed.

Third point, the integration of IT in teaching puts into question how universities operate. Some suggest that the IT revolution will make the traditional physical campus obsolete, replacing it by virtual learning communities. At the risk of contributing to the long list of "famous last words" and other ridiculous predictions, let me affirm that the campus is here to stay. Higher Education is a "contact sport" in which the student learns as much through discussions with fellow students and through the various components of campus life as he does in the classroom and the library. What is clear, on the other hand, is that Information Technology can provide enormous gains in the richness of the learning experience on campus, by making a wealth of information accessible in the classroom, by facilitating access to library material, by supporting substantive student student and student professor interaction. The effective and efficient use of IT calls for new methods of organization and of intervention, and this will be part of your discussions in the next few days.

Final point, Information technology is creating a new environment for the worldwide competition between universities. The number of new initiatives in this matter is impressive and all universities must consider the matter and the role they want to play in this worldwide competition. It is not easy for a given university today to address the matter. While all universities are involved in some form a presence on the Internet, few have developed a comprehensive strategy. It is clear that an attractive web site describing your programs and your campus is a must in recruiting students. It is clear as well that web based course and program offerings are an effective way to address the continuing education market. It is less clear however how the Internet can become the base of a global institutional strategy; indeed, the difficulties experienced by the Western governor's initiative or the California virtual university provide food for thoughts in this matter. A matter which does require careful examination given the high cost of the investment required to ensure an efficient presence on the web, and given the uncertain return on this investment arising from our limited understanding of how student learn and how they will react to on-line learning offerings. The uncertainty is further increased by new initiatives like MIT's decision to make its entire course material openly available on the net, thus changing drastically the economic equation of on-line learning.

You are all actively involved in these issues, and I am sure that you will have lively discussion in the next few days.

I wish all of you a very profitable meeting. I invite you to visit our campus. I also invite you to visit and enjoy the old city of Quebec. It is a member of the Heritage cities of the world recognised by UNESCO, and certainly one of the most beautiful cities in North America. You know what we say in Quebec City: if you come once, you will feel an urge to come back to discover more of it, and enjoy the joie de vivre that is quite French and unique on our continent.

Thank you for your attention and have a great conference and a great stay with us.

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