The University Record, February 7, 1994

Atkins: U should be at technological forefront

By Rebecca A. Doyle

“The performance of the technology is way, way, way out in front of our understanding of how to use it,” Daniel E. Atkins III told his audience at the second lecture in the Rackham Conversations on Academic Priorities series.

His talk, “Creating the Future: Information Technology and the Mission of the University,” drew more than 600 people, forcing a change of venue from the 240-seat Rackham Amphitheater to the more spacious first-floor auditorium.

Atkins, who is dean of the School of Information and Library Studies and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, defined the mission of the University as “excellence in the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge.

“This University is a leading national university, and it has a responsibility for leadership in defining the great university of the future,” Atkins continued. “This is a great place, and I am determined to do what I can to keep it that way in the future.”

Keeping the U-M at the forefront means increasing the participation of the whole University community and stretching the way we use technology resources to new levels, a vision Atkins described as having a certain amount of risk and requiring much more participation from everyone at the U-M.

“We need a shared vision that will allow us to figure out how to contribute our core competencies to exploit the radical potentials of emerging technology and to support the process of the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge.”

We can either use this technology to do what we do now better, faster and cheaper, he continued, or we can look at a “radical transformation that might make our current way of doing things obsolete.”

Atkins urged the audience to look at the displays of new technology that were set up on the fourth floor of the Rackham Building to see what was available and to begin to visualize how it might be used. He noted that the focus should not be on the technology alone, but on what the technology can help researchers and educators do. Ubiquitous computing—computing that is everywhere but nowhere, a user-transparent tool—should be the goal, creating an “enabling agent for higher-order activities.”

Those activities include the collaboratory, a collaborative effort by researchers in different locations who interact using computers and have simultaneous access to data and instrumentation at a remote location.

“What we’re really talking about,” Atkins concluded, “is the future of scholarly communication and how we go about doing that at the University of Michigan.”

Approximately 250 people stayed to hear a panel of six faculty and administrators tell how they are going about the business of scholarly communication and research, and to give their views on how information technology might—or might not—be useful in the general areas of instruction and research, and the more specific areas of publishing, academic libraries and the arts. The panel was moderated by Douglas E. Van Houweling, vice provost for information technology.

Michael D. Cohen, professor of political science and public policy, compared current changes in information and communications technology with changes that resulted from the invention of the Gutenberg press.

“These are very large and very dramatic changes,” Cohen said. “Whether they will be the ones we anticipate, I don’t know.”

Cohen said the University is in a unique position to observe things as they happen, and while it is not easy to go from “possibility to reality, the University is a particularly appropriate place to be thinking about this.”

Julie K. Ellison, professor of English language and literature, told the audience that Atkins’ visionary diagram made her nervous, although she appreciates the broadened communication in her field and now is able to be in closer touch with both colleagues and students.

“What I create is dependent on communications, but is not collaboration,” she said. “And I do not think that on-line text will surpass books.

“What if it turned out like the microwave oven,” she continued, “which is an exercise in sensory deprivation. The need to hold a book and read is visceral to me. It is a physical pleasure.”

Colin L. Day, director of the U-M Press, told the audience of his concern that the direction of technological innovation is not being shaped by scholars from all disciplines.

“We need a broader participation in creating the future,” Day said, echoing Atkins’ earlier wish for more participation from the University community.

Wendy P. Lougee, director of the University Library’s Program on Digital Libraries, defined the digital library as the “entire campus information environment.” Technology, coupled with significant cost increases for printed materials, has made much more attractive the idea of an on-line scientific journal.

Lougee said the challenge for libraries will be in three main areas—collections, access and information services. Libraries of the future will resemble those of the past in function and principle, she said, but radical changes will transpire in the “underlying standards that support these functions, the necessary partners to fulfill the goals of information management and access, and the potential expanded sphere of influence for libraries.”

“I have no doubt that the new tools that technology presents to us will be embraced by the artistic community,” said Paul C. Boylan, vice provost for the arts and dean of the School of Music, “and that this embrace will enormously enrich and expand upon the potential inherent therein.”

He expressed concern that these changes would take place outside universities, noting that the academic world is often too conservative to provide a hospitable environment for such development.

“One of my most significant challenges as a dean is to persuade the faculty that technology provides a marvelous new and transforming medium for artistic expression,” he continued. Experimental work utilizing the new technologies should be taking place in universities, but Boylan said he sees much more innovative work in commercial enterprises and from artists centered in the popular culture.

“Video art, video imagery and multi-media art forms linked through technology already seem to be capturing the imagination of a younger generation of visual and performing artists. We must be prepared to guide and shape their artistic maturing,” Boylan said. “I hope that this university will be at the very center of this new era.”

The Rackham Conversations on Academic Priorities series is sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.