Bulletin, April/May 2006

The I-Conference and the Transformation Ahead

by James Thomas, Ray von Dran and Steve Sawyer

James Thomas is dean and professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State University . Email: Jthomas<at>ist.psu.edu

Ray von Dran is dean and professor in the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University . Email: vondran<at>syr.edu

Steve Sawyer is an associate professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State University . Email: sawyer<at>ist.psu.edu

Scholarship in the broadly based fields that address information and information and communications technology (ICT) is undergoing an interesting convergence, with a number of attendant challenges. Many reasons exist as to why, but we offer these four as discussion starters:

  • The pressure of an increasingly global economy, one that recognizes the importance of information but frequently underestimates the roles that ICT plays (see for example, observations by Carr, N. G. (2004). Does IT matter? Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press and UN World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) http://www.cils.org/WSIS/WSIS.htm).
  • The perception by many that current, insular approaches to information and ICT education (hereafter referred to as simply information education) across multiple fields and disciplines are too narrow, too dated or not fundamentally sound enough to be valued by society. One example of these deficiencies is the 59% reduction in computer science undergraduate enrollments over the last two years (see the 2003-2004 Taulbee survey, (2005) Computer research association, 17 (3), 7-18; see also Kling, R., Rosenbaum, H. & Sawyer, S. (2005). Understanding and communicating social informatics: A framework for studying and teaching the human contexts of information and communication technologies. Medford , NJ : Information Today)
  • The fragmented identity that is apparent throughout various information educational and research programs or institutions, and the resulting confused messages sent to those in and outside the academy regarding both form and content of such educational and research programs.
  • The tendency for continuing curricular and identity drift across the information landscape, with more and more apparent “intellectual xenophobia” across the collective research agenda. This balkanization continues even as interdisciplinary (indeed inter-institutional) work becomes more critically necessary to attack the grand challenges of an information-based society.

Few would argue that there is not confusion both across and within disciplines that define the portfolio of information programs and degrees – even those more loosely affiliated with such programs. Controversy extends to such issues as to how information technology, computer science, information systems, management information systems, library science, telecommunications, new media, information science and computer engineering each add value within the broad, information education landscape. Each area provides distinct but limited value in the educational enterprise. The words information, science(s), technology, computer, informatics, library and systems, among other terms, have been incorporated into virtually every combination to name programs. These programs are typically characterized by their engagement in the design, development and/or use of information and communications technologies, or they can be found connected to many of the traditional fields that define the modern academy.

How the programs or fields differ (or perhaps more importantly how they are similar) becomes a matter of individual interpretation, local lens and occasionally great passions or even quasi-religious stances. Such local differences often reflect institutional boundaries and often all too easily mask the common themes and core similarities that might drive synergies.

More recently, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the morass, many programs seem to define themselves by drawing attention to what they are not (e.g., “We are not computer science” or “We provide a user’s view of computer interface” or “We are more than a ‘library’ school.”), and proponents of such programs might even mock their information-related allies or competitors.

Those information-oriented programs that tend to define what they are – that is to actually articulate their identity – also do so in a number of different ways. Such identity definitions allow them to compare themselves to each other (since naming conventions fail) and communicate their identities to an external public. These program proponents can likewise identify their individual programmatic positions and specify their uniqueness in the information portfolio. The basis of those comparisons includes the educational areas of a given program’s portfolio (for example, such factors as the percentage of attention paid in their educational goals to organizational systems, application technologies, hardware or software and whether they are more theoretical or applied). Comparisons are also behavior-based (for example, IT skill vs. theory development education and research) as in a recent joint report of the ACM, AIS and IEEE-CS entitled “Computing Curricula 2005,” which maps the different fields (see http://www.acm.org/education/Draft_5-23-051.pdf).

More recently, a subset of programs have developed and refined curricula and research agendas from a construct relationship perspective. These efforts focus on the confluence of technology, information and context (for example, people, policy and organizations). Of course, there are variations on this construct-based theme across individual programs (even research projects), but it does mark a general information community level subset shift from programs that were more thematically, theoretically and methodologically customized or limited to a more restrictive multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective of information-related research and education.

One subset of these information-oriented programs, currently numbering 18 units across 17 institutions, refers to itself as the “I-School Community” (a current list can be found at http://iconference.ist.psu.edu/content/view/23/37/).

The I-School community is growing in number, perhaps in part because its members have begun to enrich the discussion on identity and on building an understanding of the information field based perhaps on a grand challenge or thematic perspective of their research and impact (e.g., the challenge of providing security and privacy for the users of contemporary technologies). What is key to these discussions of identity is recognition of the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary issues and opportunities associated with building and living with such an identity. Indeed, recent publications bring these interdisciplinary programs to life (for example, see the National Academy of Science’s (2004) Facilitating interdisciplinary research. Washington , DC : The National Academy Press; see www7.nationalacademies.org/interdisciplinary/). Accordingly, I-School community members might be relatively well positioned to further broadly based, empirical investigations, theory development, to attract substantial research funds and to develop strong doctoral programs.

Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington , provided an interesting glimpse of the emerging I-School movement in his recent address to the faculty (see minutes 17 to 20 at www.uwnews.org/Uwnews/sites/OOP/index.asp?sm=38). He cited the transformation of Washington ’s “L” school to an “I” school as one of the most significant developments in the university in over a decade. He cited the development of the I-School at UW and its outgoing leader, Mike Eisenberg, as having helped to create a new field and new profession. He extolled the new school as promoting the most important academic values: inter-disciplinarity; collegiality; innovation; creativity; risk taking; inclusive leadership; and high standards of performance. The only doubt that President Emmert had about the UW I-School was whether it or his alma-mater Syracuse University has the number one I-School. Likewise, at the I-Conference, Penn State President Graham Spanier spoke at a dinner for attendees and rendered exuberant praise about the exemplary progress of his College of Information Sciences and Technology. He praised the college for serving as a model of inter-disciplinarity and innovation for the entire campus.

What Drove the I-Conference?

The members of the I-School community have the opportunity to shape, indeed define, what information educational programs for the emerging digital, global economy could look like. For example, among the common characteristics that define these schools’ educational missions are that they are interdisciplinary, have a problem-based focus and their curricula are relevant to the ongoing and central problems that society faces. The curricula in these schools tend to be flexible and often bring a professional orientation to their programs. Having the I-School community known for such an education will put it in the forefront, leverage the investments that already have been made internally at individual institutions and open more external opportunities on a number of fronts. The I-Conference was conceived to begin that discussion and to share our perceptions of issues and opportunities.

In addition to providing leadership for a 21st century educational experience, the I-School community can be a field shaper by providing visibility and identity across the fragmented, misunderstood and confusing domains of study and education related to information and its associated technologies. As discussed earlier, the academy is still perplexed by the differences (and similarities) among computer science, information science, information systems, library science, informatics, computer engineering, information technology, management information systems and the countless variations on these academic themes. But one thing that some of these individual programs currently share nationally is declining enrollments. To some degree mounting indifference in these individual areas exists, as their respective uncertainties become perpetuated. The I-School community can (indeed has begun to) bring sense to this confusion along with an integrative framework, and the I-Conference was a formal kick-off to that effort.

Issues associated with the development, application and impacts of information and related technologies have become a magnet for research funding. Though the I-Schools currently see healthy prospects for information-related funding, the formation of their collective leadership in both information education and interdisciplinary research could allow for a geometric increase in funding opportunities. The I-School community, in its short history, is proof of the art-of-the-possible; its first I-Conference is an articulation of that goal.

Ultimately, domain coordination at the community level across the many education and research programs throughout the I-School community might promote the field’s reputation and serve to attract students, faculty, dollars and partners for defining and understanding the information world in which we live. That reputation will not be limited to its membership but will be of benefit to the portfolio of information-related institutions and programs.

The 2005 I-Conference was the first of an annual celebration of the information field – its accomplishments, its potential and its challenges. The conference brought together administrators, faculty and graduate students to share best practices of research, education and I-School life. It is an ongoing effort to build a sense of community, purpose, partnership and identity. The conference fostered an understanding of the grand challenges the community faces, the contributions it can make and how it might capitalize on its inter- and multidisciplinary perspectives and other innovations.

The Transformation Ahead

The most vibrant examples of research and curricular scholarship in the information community serve as showcases of multi- and interdisciplinary grasp and synthesis. Such broad perspectives are essential to progress in the broad area of information and technology development and deployment throughout various contexts. Indeed, as a field, the I-School community has centered its educational and research efforts around the creation, implementation and impact of information and its technologies by drawing from multiple theories, methods, disciplines and perspectives. By embracing this philosophy and being able to leverage the power of this synergistic approach, the I-School community will be able to both articulate and engage the grand challenges that encompass an increasingly digital, global society. These challenges include such themes as community systems, the quality of decision-making, system design, medical care, information access and assurance, and education, among others. These are among the most fundamental challenges to be faced by our society this century. The broad information field – encompassing such areas as IT, informatics, information science(s) and information studies – is positioned to make a real difference in how the academy addresses these challenges. Indeed, the information community’s disciplinary mosaic can be leveraged to make significant and even transformational differences in our digital world.

The I-Conference facilitated the dialogue and exchange of ideas necessary for the information field to move forward. It was, and will continue to be, a forum designed for members of the community to hear and be heard on subjects such as the community’s identity, how to advance interdisciplinary research agendas, the form and format of information, and focused, interdisciplinary scholarship.

Overall, the conference was built around who the community is and what it is capable of accomplishing. Such collective efforts will continue to drive not just the I-Schools, but also the portfolio of information-related programs across the academy.