Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      September 1999 Volume XXII Number 2

Great Disciplinary Divides

by Susan Moke

EVEN IN THIS AGE OF INCREASINGLY INTERDISCIPLINARY SCHOLARSHIP, RESEARCHERS IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES FREQUENTLY FEEL DIVIDED BY A PHENOMENON CALLED "THE TWO CULTURES PARADIGM." The new field of informatics promises to transform such oppositions in a truly twenty first century way, and Indiana University is positioning itself on the forefront of these radical transformations.

Michael Dunn, Oscar R. Ewing Professor of Philosophy and professor of computer science, Indiana University Bloomington --credit

Informatics is an emerging discipline that explores both the technical and human dimensions of information technology. Informatics differs from related disciplines such as computer science, library and information science, telecommunications, and cognitive science in that it includes core aspects of all of these fields but is more general, and at the same time more basic and applied, than many of these related disciplines. It is more general in that its emphasis is on breadth across issues in all of the related disciplines, and includes also social and ethical issues regarding the "information revolution." It is more basic in that it examines foundational questions about the very nature of information and computation. And it is also more applied because the aim is to produce qualified information technology professionals to meet the rapidly rising need in this area.

In the fall of 1997, the task force on informatics, chaired by Richard Shiffrin, Lather Dana Waterman Professor of Psychology and director of the cognitive science program at Indiana University Bloomington, began meeting to decide how IU could capitalize upon its strengths in information technology and productively explore this new, rapidly evolving field. In the summer of 1998, at the request of IU President Myles Brand, a second committee was formed to develop a detailed implementation plan for this school. This committee was chaired by Dennis Gannon, a professor of computer science and chair of the Department of Computer Science at IUB. It included Darrell Bailey, an associate professor of music at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and director of the New Media Program; Michael McRobbie, vice president for information technology, IU's chief information officer, and a professor of computer technology, computer science, and philosophy; as well as IUB and IUPUI faculty representatives from the Kelley School of Business, the School of Library and Information Sciences, and from the Departments of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Theatre and Drama, Chemistry, Computer Technology, and Computer and Information Science. After significant discussion, the committee recommended the formation of IU's first new school in a quarter of a century--the School of Informatics. The Indiana University Board of Trustees approved the new school in June. The next step is approval by the Indiana Commission on Higher Education.

Conceived as a meta-school that at its very foundations will promote cross-disciplinary collaboration among scholars in the arts, sciences, and humanities, the proposed School of Informatics will provide a central, formalized venue that ties together the dozen or more IU academic units currently involved in the study of information science, technology, and the growing role of digital media and communication. The school will be virtual in the sense that many of its activities will be distributed among cooperating departments and programs. J. Michael Dunn, a professor of computer science and the Oscar R. Ewing Professor of Philosophy at IUB will serve as interim dean and Bailey will be associate dean. The highly successful New Media Program, which began enrolling students at IUPUI in the fall of 1998, will serve as a model for the development of the school and will become one of its five programs. Other programs include distributed information and knowledge systems; human/computer interaction; social and organizational informatics; and foundations, which examines the mathematical and philosophical foundations of information and computation

The roots of informatics extend to computer science, library and information science, information systems, decision technology, cognitive science, logic and mathematics, new media, telecommunications, instructional systems, journalism, and computer engineering. --credit

Why is a new school needed to accomplish these goals? The proposed School of Informatics will more fully accommodate converging applications of information technology to fields in the arts, humanities, sciences, and the professions than the current university structure and organization of academic degree offerings allow. Without such a school, separate departments remain limited in their abilities to develop a complete curriculum, and that puts an extra burden on students who must develop their own synthesis of separate academic disciplines and cultures. The idea is not to duplicate, or in any way infringe on the integrity of other schools and departments, but rather to build upon existing resources and provide added value to them. Thus informatics courses will be taught by many faculty members who are shared with existing IU departments. Eventually, faculty members from other IU campuses also may be appointed within the new school.

The start-up of the school, which is expected to begin enrolling students in the fall of 2000, is funded by a $1 million Strategic Directions Charter grant. Dunn and Bailey plan to solicit dedicated funds from the state legislature for the 2001–02 biennium to support subsequent operations. Dunn, who thinks maintaining the subjunctive mood in talking about the school is important as plans continue to develop, comments on what he sees as the major obstacle to moving the school from concept to reality. "In a time of tight funding," notes Dunn, "people get very conservative about new programs. My own view is that even in times of fiscal constraint, universities have to change. If they never change, they may fall behind. But I can well understand people looking at this and thinking, 'Here's another slice of the pie that diminishes the size of my slice.' So I think we need to assure people that the intention here is to make the pie bigger. This is something that benefits the whole university." Not least among those who will benefit by the school's founding are the students whom it will prepare for twenty-first century jobs.

Studies predict that 3.2 million jobs in information technology will open up in the next five years. And students currently fill every available class on the subject, showing that they understand how critical information technology is to their future success. The proposed School of Informatics will provide students firm grounding in the uses and implications of information and its technology and will broadly educate them in a way that goes beyond training to provide the concepts they need to grow in their careers as information changes. The school will focus on undergraduates, offering a bachelors of science degree, as well as some specialized master's programs. Undergraduates enrolled in informatics degree programs will elect many of their courses from informatics offerings provided by existing academic units at IUB and IUPUI. The bachelor of science program will require students to take thirty-eight hours of informatics courses and fifteen hours of courses in another discipline, in addition to satisfying general education requirements as they are defined on the IUB and IUPUI campuses. There will be no generic master's degree in informatics, but specialized master's degrees. Members of the informatics advisory board are developing proposals for master's programs in health informatics and in chemical informatics, bioinformatics, and human computer interaction. An existing master's program in new media will become part of the School of Informatics.

At this point, Dunn and his colleagues think an informatics undergraduate degree will appeal to students with highly technical interests and also to those with less technical interests, and hence promises to dramatically enhance job opportunities for all students, especially for those interested in the humanities. Dunn says that both at the faculty and the student level, "the school will directly address and try to dissolve the two-cultures paradigm as much as possible." He goes on to explain one way the school's commitment to collaboration will operate: "We want these students to know that they can work with each other to achieve a given goal and can do so effectively because each of them will bring to the table skills the others don't have." Thus, senior and master's projects will use a team-oriented model that reflects trends in the corporate world. For example, a senior project might involve a group of students working together to design an interactive voice communication authoring system for databases. A team working on such a problem would include students with expertise in writing computer code, some with talents in screen design, some with knowledge about speech and speech recognition, and yet others with well-refined writing and communication skills.

Dunn hopes the new school will draw to Indiana University students who might not have come here without the informatics offerings. "I think it can become a tremendous recruiting tool. I see it as benefitting the College of Arts and Sciences, for example, because of the nervousness many students feel about their job opportunities after graduation. A minor or a certificate in informatics would expand their job opportunities considerably and would bring to the workplace a wider variety of individuals with well developed critical thinking abilities."

The university's profitable relations with the private sector will also benefit. Concurrent with the school's formation will be the development of an Informatics Research Institute, directed by Dunn and Bailey, to be located at both IUB and IUPUI. It will facilitate greater collaboration among researchers on both campuses and with the corporate sector. For example, the Regenstrief Institute has developed one of the best medical informatics programs in the world. The institute could do a great deal to facilitate collaboration between Regenstrief and the biology departments on both campuses, as well as the computer science departments and the School of Library and Information Science.

This graphic overview of genes known in the common fruit fly, a tool of genetics, provides bioscientists with an easy way to locate genes from their positions on the fruit fly chromosomes. These maps are continually updated by Java software that searches the FlyBase gene information database. This work is from IU's FlyBase bioinformatics project, a part of the U.S. Human Genome Research Initiative. --credit

Dunn and his colleagues believe that the revolutionary transformations wrought by information technology enable us to solve problems in new ways and to think about human communities in a new light. They also believe that the information technology revolution has given birth to a new discipline. "In the same way that we came to discover after Newton that electromagnetism wasn't just a cult phenomenon," Dunn observes, "but that we needed to develop a new field of study to theorize that phenomenon, so do we need to develop a new field of study to explore the ways in which information technology affects the way we educate our students and how we approach pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge in the information age."

While IU is not the only university on the national or international scene developing a division or school of informatics, its approach is uniquely designed to take advantage of Indiana University's strengths and most valued traditions. The University of Edinburgh has created a new Division of Informatics that is science oriented and absorbed many existing departments. The School of Information at the University of Michigan and the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, which grew out of their schools of library science, offer neither the comprehensive degree program nor the extensive interdisciplinary focus of IU's proposed school. Syracuse University is moving full speed ahead with its school of informatics, which focuses on library science, information resource management, and telecommunications. Pennsylvania State University also has a large-scale, well-funded effort under way. None of these is developing a meta-school that offers a range of degrees with a genuinely interdisciplinary emphasis. "It is definitely time for IU to be doing this," Dunn points out. "It is a benefit to be able to see how other places have approached this so that we can adapt their models to the IU way of doing things."

As the old saying goes, change is inevitable, but growth is optional. Since its founding, IU has done more than submit to change. It has responded to change as an opportunity for growth. The proposed School of Informatics offers an opportunity not only for the university to grow to meet the demands of the time, but for individual students and scholars to explore the frontiers of knowledge that lie at the constantly expanding boundaries defined by our technological capabilities.

For more information on the Web:

Return to the Table of Contents