Bridging Disciplines to Confront Grand Challenges, Penn State University: Trip Report
by Kari Holland and Nathan Freier, Doctoral students
The first i-Conference was held at the School of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania, 28-30 September, 2005. The conference was initiated by the i-Deans and the coordinating committee consisted of schools from Penn State University, Syracuse University, University of California, Irvine, University of Michigan and University of Washington.
The purpose of the conference as stated in the welcome note in our conference binders was:
"...we will seek to define our identity as i-schools - who we are and what makes us unique. We will begin to identify the grand challenges that motivate our community. And, we will celebrate the transformational power we have in facing those challenges as a community."
Details on the program, access to papers, session notes and more can be found here: http://iconference.ist.psu.edu/content/view/12/40/
There were about 250 attendees and 104 of these were Ph.D.-students. The following gives some of our impressions of what was discussed at the conference.
Four themes were identified for the conference: Essentials, Grand Challenges, i-School Identity and Academic Life. The program was organized accordingly. Papers had to be labeled by the authors according to one of the themes and were organized into breakout sessions, followed by collective discussions in "The Cybertorium".
We participated in a panel for the topic "Essentials." We had submitted a paper entitled: An Evolution in Information Science's Essential Building Block: Has the Time Come to Move Beyond the User Model?. This session discussed for whom and what is Information Science working and on whom do we need to focus. We talked about concepts such as user and non-user, on facilitating access to information, on community information and more.
During the joint discussion afterwards, concepts that emerged from other breakout sessions centered on the relationship between humans and information, on the concept of information and the design of systems. One interesting opinion that was expressed was that i-schools are about humans and information, even before the technology enters the picture.
In terms of design Marcia Bates from UCLA offered the opinion that the essentials Information Science brings to the design of systems specifically concern information seeking, which, for instance, HCI as a field alone does not do.
Barbara Kwasnik from Syracuse asked "what are the aspects of digital life/space that [information scientists] bring to the research that other disciplines don't?"
And, as is expected in our field, the question of fundamental concepts came up. One participant suggested that rather than fretting over the need to have fundamental concepts and core theories and trying to agree upon what these are, we should perhaps focus on setting forth fundamental questions on which we as a field need to focus our work. On the opposite end of the discussion scale another participant suggested that we do have an important essential concept: Moore's Law.
Another point raised was that for i-schools to drive information-oriented studies it is essential that we produce research, develop theories, and propose solutions.
The second theme that was then delved into was "grand challenges." And, as is suitable for a field that sometimes seems obsessed with definitions, one of the tasks for this theme was also to define "grand challenges", not just to find them. One definition that was offered was this:
"A grand challenge is a fundamental problem whose solution will have broad economic and scientific impact and which is 1) solvable given sufficient resources and 2) has considerable support."
Some of the actual challenges discussed were related to:
- Access to information
- Information and community
- Information assurance, information privacy and cyber-identity
- Cross-campus collaboration and community service
(More details are available from Session notes on the conference website, see link above.)
Two people from outside of the field were asked to comment on the grand challenges that had been discussed. The challenges were criticized for not being grand enough and one commenter cautioned against becoming a field that "marinates in minutiae".
The last two themes of the conference were i-School Identity and Academic Life. Something that was prevalent throughout this discussion from our perspective was "We are pioneers, providing new educations". Yes, we are, and we have a great potential for preparing people for exciting new professions, but Information Science also has traditions that are foundations for several aspects of our field. LIS, for example, has centuries-old traditions that are a substantial part of Information Science, and which did not get mentioned, or included in the discussions as much as they could have been. Computer science as a discipline is also not a completely new invention, and students, researchers and teachers from these two disciplines are both very much part of Information Science and have been so for some years. Syracuse for instance has been an i-school since 1974 1.
Other issues in these two last sessions were whether there is a need for a core of courses in the curriculums; for what professions are we educating people and whether we have certain essential skill sets that should be taught to all. Nicholas Belkin from Rutgers University said that he thought we needed to bring in to the discussion the fundamental (and for some, the traditional) skill sets that some schools teach today.
At the end of the conference no consensus was reached on any of the issues (at least not in the plenums we took part in) except that we need to continue these discussions and this forum.
Finally, the social aspects of the conference were pleasant and as with any conference it was very useful in terms of meeting people and learning about research in other institutions. As a conference attendee, you get to talk with a lot of interesting people and as a Ph.D.-student you are also a potential employee, so there will be some people who are flattering and persistent with great questions about your dissertation topic. The social discussions ranged from those intense discussions on research topics and dissertations to the more relaxed, less research-oriented questions such as: "Why are the students from Seattle so tall?"
Overall, the conference was a good experience for us and got a lot of thoughts churning. We are both very grateful to the iSchool that we were given the opportunity to participate. The next conference, which now looks like it will be hosted at the University of Michigan, is scheduled for next fall, and there will also be a Doctoral Consortium next year.