The University Record, May 7, 2001

President’s Information Revolution Commission issues report

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

The information revolution, which has profoundly affected everything from the economy to interpersonal relationships, is transforming higher education as well. It is changing the ways information is conveyed, organized, stored and retrieved; blurring lines between teacher and learner; and breaking down some barriers while erecting others. Now, more than ever, universities need to examine their place in the ever-evolving information environment.

Responding to that need, the University’s Information Revolution Commission has issued a report that calls for creating a “living laboratory” in which all members of the University community can use, experiment with and study new technologies. The “living laboratory” concept is part of a comprehensive strategy to continually enhance information and communication technology in education and research, to develop and study the use of these technologies in the university setting and in everyday life, and to investigate the impact of the information revolution on human experience, society and the world.

“We are at a time unlike any other, when technology is fundamentally changing how the University operates,” says commission Co-chair Stephen Director, dean of the College of Engineering. “We’re seeing changes not only in teaching and research, but also in interactions with colleagues here and on other campuses, among departments, and between faculty and administration. Other kinds of communities are being developed, and that’s a new idea for us.

“What has been exciting about serving on the commission is that people have been willing to throw away preconceived notions and ask very fundamental questions about what it means to be an educated person and what it means to be an educator in the 21st century.”

Appointed in February 2000 by President Lee C. Bollinger and co-chaired by Director and School of Information Dean John L. King, the commission was asked to think broadly about how the University should respond to the information revolution. In addition to assessing the University’s information and communication technology needs, the 27-member commission and its four subcommissions surveyed strengths and weaknesses in the University community’s use of technology in research and education, and in understanding its social, political, economic, legal, cultural and psychological implications. The commission also explored how the basic missions of a university can be realized in an age of information explosion.

Because the information revolution is bringing about such rapid and unpredictable changes, the commission advises a flexible but coordinated and systematic approach in an environment in which students, faculty and staff are encouraged to experiment with new technologies and share their experiences.

“There are no ‘best practices’ available, because the technology and our approaches to using it are all new and constantly changing,” says King. “We will have to learn by doing, through experimentation.”

A major challenge to the University community is the creation of knowledge from the deluge of unfiltered information that inundates us all daily.

“Literacy in the 21st century is not just being able to read, but being able to discern what’s worth retaining,” says King. “The University’s role is to help students, faculty and everyone else in this environment become more sophisticated consumers of digital information, sorting through and interpreting massive amounts of information, deciding what is of value, and using it to create real knowledge through research and scholarship.”

In announcing the release of the report, Bollinger commented that the U-M’s breadth and depth “make an ideal setting not only for developing and using new technologies in research and scholarship, but also for studying how the information revolution affects every aspect of our lives—from politics to science, from technology to culture.”

The commission identified several areas where U-M can build on existing strengths in information and communication technology and achieve new levels of excellence:

  • Developing, deploying and exploring innovative uses of technology-mediated research environments, sometimes called “knowledge networks” or “collaboratories.”

  • Expanding the definition of an educated person in the information age by assuring that students not only know how to use information and communication technologies, but also know how to think critically about their impact on the world.

  • Integrating information and communication technologies throughout the University and across the curriculum.

  • Extending learning opportunities to communities beyond the traditional boundaries of the University, including alumni and prospective students.

    However, significant improvements in infrastructure—broadly defined to include highly skilled professional support staff, well thought-out policies and efficient management structures, as well as wiring—are essential. Bollinger said he is prepared to begin committing resources to dramatically upgrading infrastructure over the next five years. He also plans to initiate campuswide discussions of the commission’s recommendations and perhaps to establish advisory groups to help guide and organize the University’s efforts.

    The commission’s full report is available on the Web at www.umich.edu/pres/inforev. Paper copies of the report are available from the President’s Office, Room 2074, Fleming Administration Building, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 or by sending an e-mail request to pirc.report@umich.edu. For more information, call (734) 764-6270.