The University Record, September 23, 1998

Ameritech Initiative helps students, teachers, workers make sense of information technology tools

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

E-mail, videoconferencing, chat services--it's hard enough just keeping track of all the new tools for communication and collaboration, let alone mastering their use. A new project unveiled at the University Sept. 2 is designed to give students, teachers and workers a road map for navigating through the information technology tangle. The Ameritech Learning Initiative will be funded over the next five years with a $1.5 million grant from Ameritech.

Jose-Marie Griffiths, chief information officer for the U-M and a professor in the School of Information, is enthusiastic about the project. "This grant will extend the University's resources to others around the state, the nation and the world," Griffiths said.

"Information technology has broken down the barriers of time and space that used to separate people from each other and from all kinds of information resources. People are now able to work together in ways only imagined a few years ago. But we need to provide people with tools and methods to make good use of these new connections. That's what this work is all about--developing tools that will help people and organizations tap into the amazing resources of the information revolution, especially in the area of collaboration."

The focus of the Ameritech Learning Initiative is on "real people who have real work they want to achieve," said Katherine Willis, director of program development for the School of Information. The idea is not only to give people access to information technology tools and services, but also to help them learn how to combine those tools in the most useful and effective ways.

"This effort will provide expert guidance in information technology to teachers and business people, and we're proud to sponsor such a valuable resource," said Robert Cooper, president of Ameritech Michigan. "Partnering with the University of Michigan to extend the resources of the Ameritech Learning Initiative to people at home, at work and at school is truly exciting." The project is in keeping with Ameritech's tradition of community service, said Cooper. Last year, the company contributed more than $26 million to more than 3,800 nonprofit organizations, and Ameritech Pioneers--some 46,000 employees and retirees throughout the Midwest--volunteered 419,000 hours of community service.

Through a number of "collaboratory" projects over the past eight years, School of Information faculty and staff have demonstrated expertise in offering such guidance. They have worked closely with space weather researchers, for example, to develop and evaluate suites of computer-based tools that allow the scientists to collaborate across space and time, sharing access to data, computer models, and even scientific instruments scattered throughout the world.

Three pilot projects will help determine if needs are met

Under the Ameritech Learning Initiative, the U-M will develop a Learning Collaboratory for testing, evaluating and integrating a wide range of collaborative technologies to be used in business and education. To ensure that the efforts meet the actual needs of teachers, students and workers, U-M researchers will work closely with users in three pilot projects:

• Virtual Learning Network, which will link the U-M-Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science faculty and students to engineering practitioners and high school students.

• Small Business Information and Product Design Services, through which students and faculty in the School of Art and Design will collaborate with businesses on design problems.

• Business Education for Entrepreneurship, which will foster interactions between the U-M-Flint School of Management and local school systems.

As they have in previous collaboratory projects, School of Information researchers will keep close tabs on users to understand how they use the tools and what improvements might be helpful.

"At every stage of the process--before, during, and after--we talk with people using the tools, trying to figure out the kinds of things that are most valuable," said Joseph Hardin, the School of Information's director of systems development and operations. "We use questionnaires, look at logs and sometimes videotape the users--everything we can think of to get a clear idea of what they're actually doing with the tools, when they're doing it, which things are helpful and which get in the way."

Working with the Information Technology Division, the researchers will use this material not only to develop better collaborative tools but also to provide "roadmaps" to guide future users to tried-and-true paths. By capturing and packaging clusters of tools and user approaches, they will make it possible for new users to watch over the shoulders of experienced users. They also plan to identify general principles and practices that others can use to create suites of collaborative tools to suit their own needs.

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