The Big Ideas of Information Science?

As part of our ongoing review of curriculum here (are you listening COA?), we’ve decided to create a ‘big ideas’ course that we believe should be required of all information students. This raises the very interesting problem of identifying just what are those big ideas? If you do what normal folks do when first asked this question, you reach for google. A quick glance (or even a longer scan) of the results might disappoint you, though there are examples for science in general  and for computer science but nothing for information science.

A few years back now I gave a keynote at CoLIS (still one of my favorite conferences) that addressed this topic. In it I mentioned three big questions for the field that came up from an earlier discussion with our faculty:

  1. What is the essential nature of information that might relate diverse endeavors (communicating, maintaining biological life, learning and finding) where the term is employed meaningfully?
  2. How do we move from an information provision model (storage, retrieval, management etc.) to one where we identify and shape the manner in which information nourishes a culture, an organization or an individual?
  3. How might we positively influence the cyberinfrastructure as the majority of the world joins us online?

Now questions are not the same as ideas but it would seem to me that if we had big ideas then we’d be answering big questions of this kind. Are we asking big questions now? And what are those big ideas of information that give us a distinctive field?  Am interested in your thoughts. Feel free to share.




We can’t leave computers to the computer scientists

“In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘Rs.’” — President Obama, Jan. 30, 2016.

President Obama’s comments should not be a surprise to most of us as the abilities needed to work intelligently with computers are considered pretty essential by most employers. What is needed however is not so much an emphasis on computer science as a discipline but on a broader educational immersion in coding and application of computational skills to problems. While I think it is certainly productive to think in terms of curricular offerings at high school and even lower, I wonder if the framing of this as ‘computer science’ is really what we need if the goal is develop a skill as basic as reading and writing?

Computer Science departments face huge enrollment demands, and as a formal education it is an important degree program in many universities. However, pushing preparation down into the schools should not be confused with developing a new kind of literacy in our public educational system. If writing and reading were taught as distinct courses then I suspect we would not get very far (and yes, some would say we’ve not got far enough in our public schools in delivering these skills) and let’s not really consider how well mathematics is taught nationally (most recent data has us distinctly average in comparison to the rest of the world, to put it kindly) even though there is a real mathematics curriculum in all schools.

The challenge with basic skills is they need to be taught across a curriculum, immersed in multiple activities, not isolated as a separate course. Just as language permeates all subjects, students will deal with computers in geography, history, media studies, science and so forth. My son engages computers deeply in his video and music technology coursework, and rightly so. He has built his own computer and managed his own online video channel for years, but never took a ‘computer science’ course. No matter what career he follows, I know he’ll be immersed in computers as much as I am immersed in reading and writing, but I don’t think I ever took a ‘reading class’ after my first couple of years in school. The goal has to be immersion, dispersion and application of computers into all aspects of education across the years.

Moreover, there is a bigger challenge facing us in university education. Computer Science programs have struggled continually to recruit and retain women and minority students and faculty. This is not for lack of effort but the research I read on this by folks such as Lecia Barker suggest that subtle forces are at work in typical computer science programs that make it a greater challenge for some students to succeed and be recognized as such. Sure, a better prepared entering cohort might result from greater high school coursework in CS, but this might actually miss the main need. Computers are, as President Obama’s message suggests, such a basic part of productive living now that we need to rethink what it means to be computer literate. Not everyone needs to be a computer scientist or to quality from such a program. We need to put more effort into giving everyone basic coding skills as we do writing skills (we surely don’t imagine everyone needs to graduate with a degree in ‘writing’ now do we?). And we need to recognize that these wonderful tools are going to be immersed in our physical world as much as our social and cultural world permanently, and then to give everyone the skills and license to shape computation as they need it. Imagine a nation where coding was just like a form of arithmetic that every public school student was exposed to continually? It would be nice to see the US rank highly in that survey.

There’s so much to consider on this and the President’s initiative is a major step forward. However, the dialog on basic skills should not be overshadowed by a push to include more AP credits for computer science. Computers are far too important to be left to computer scientists.


First book in the new UT Press Series on Information Sciences

I am delighted to announce the publication of the first book in our new UT Press series on Information Science, a superb edited collection from Diane Sonnenwald that gathers together a select group of authors from across the information realm to explore how theories are derived and applied in the information sciences. The goal was to reveal the experiences of established scholars struggling to develop theoretical insights so as to provide guidance to others on the challenges and steps followed in building theoretical insights in our field. Full details on contents and ordering can be found here at the UT Press site.  More books to come — if you are interested in contributing a book, contact me by email and we can discuss – imagination welcome.


ASIST issues statement on accreditation

The mood for reform of accreditation continues. In response to ALA’s creation of special task forces to examine aspects of the current process, ASIST has issued it’s own statement on their website:

ASIS&T Position Statement on the ALA Accreditation Process and the Future Collaboration between ALA and ASIS&T in the Area of Graduate Professional Education

February 10, 2016

As a professional association that bridges the gap between information science practice and research, ASIS&T counts researchers and practitioners from a large number of diverse fields in its ranks, including information science, library science, computer science, management, and education. The ASIS&T membership is also enriched by the contribution of members who deal with information in other fields, such as law, medicine, linguistics, chemistry, humanities, history, and engineering, to name just a few. ASIS&T’s inclusive and evolving character reflects the current state of the information field, and its international and diverse membership plays an ever more important role in shaping the future of the field. As such, ASIS&T is concerned with the education of information professionals and with the accreditation process of Library & Information Science (LIS) programs by the American Library Association (ALA). ASIS&T’s ongoing interest in and commitment to professional education is supported by the Education & Professional Advancement Committee, which is charged with reviewing accreditation guidelines for LIS programs and monitoring accreditation changes.

Increasing interdisciplinarity and the imperative of creativity and innovation propel us in the direction of collaboration and partnership. With the field of information both composite and diverse, the development of accreditation standards should be a shared responsibility and a collaborative undertaking of several professional associations. ASIS&T is strategically positioned to contribute to the improvement of the accreditation process and, more specifically, to the development of more accurate and inclusive accreditation standards. ASIS&T’s extensive international reach and disciplinary diversity translates into a valuable contribution to the development of accreditation standards, which in turn reflects the dynamic nature and evolving educational expectations in the field. In this regard, ASIS&T makes the following statement.

It is imperative that accreditation standards be comprehensive and flexible enough to accurately represent educational requirements in multiple information fields, both in and outside of libraries, archives, and other longstanding information organizations. Accreditation must reflect the eclectic, diverse and pluralistic nature of the information field and must be fully applicable to an array of information professions. As a result, we call for the ongoing dialog between ALA and ASIS&T on accreditation issues.

The bedrock of professional education and professional accreditation is a fusion of values, ethics, and specific competencies. The latter includes field-specific knowledge and skills (e.g., computer science, library science, digital humanities) and transferable skills and attitudes (e.g., critical thinking, leadership abilities, creativity, problem solving, and so on). While the field-specific knowledge base varies from information field to information field, we call on ALA to recognize the commonality of professional values, ethics, and transferable skills in discussion and revisions of accreditation standards.

ALA has always conducted the accreditation process with the goal of “assuring quality, innovation, and value in library and information studies education” ( It is in the spirit of supporting this goal and the desire to take active part in this process that the ASIS&T statement is made.

AAUP issue statement against campus carry

And about time—

November 12, 2015


AAUP Joint Statement Opposing “Campus Carry” Laws
The horrific shootings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and subsequent incidents of gun violence elsewhere have prompted renewed efforts to keep our colleges and universities both safe and open. One measure increasingly proposed is legislation—already approved in eight states—that would allow any licensed gun owner to carry concealed weapons on campus. Advocates of such so-called “campus carry” legislation contend that the presence of weapons in classrooms and other campus facilities will deter those seeking to wreak violence. Oregon is one state where “campus carry” is legal, but that did not prevent the tragedy.
Colleges and universities closely control firearms and prohibit concealed guns on their campuses because they regard the presence of weapons as incompatible with their educational missions. College campuses are marketplaces of ideas, and a rigorous academic exchange of ideas may be chilled by the presence of weapons. Students and faculty members will not be comfortable discussing controversial subjects if they think there might be a gun in the room.
William McRaven, chancellor for the University of Texas system and a former member of the Navy SEALs who rose to the rank of admiral, opposed passage of “campus carry” legislation in his state. “I feel the presence of concealed weapons will make a campus a less-safe environment,” he said. “If you have guns on campus, I question whether or not that will somehow inhibit our freedom of speech. If you’re in a heated debate with somebody in the middle of a classroom and you don’t know whether or not that individual is carrying, how does that inhibit the interaction between students and faculty?”
The undersigned organizations strongly support efforts to make college campuses as safe and weapon-free as possible for students, faculty, staff, parents, and community members. We therefore oppose efforts to enact “campus carry” laws and call for their repeal where they already exist. We encourage colleges and universities to embrace critical incident planning that includes faculty and staff and to advise all faculty and staff of these plans. We further call on these institutions to rely on trained and equipped professional law-enforcement personnel to respond to emergency incidents. State legislative bodies must refrain from interfering with decisions that are properly the responsibility of the academic community.
American Association of University Professors
American Federation of Teachers
Association of American Colleges and Universities
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges

Apple Giving Design a Bad Name?

Oh yes, it’s time for those old HCI stalwarts Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini to talk tough about Apple. Try this:

“Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty.”

And it gets tougher from there. Sort of hard to disagree if you have any education in human factors or user-centered design (that is, you actually studied it rather than just deciding to label yourself a UX expert because you were handy with a few tools). Read more HERE

Who defines reasonable in the gun debate?

In case it’s news to anyone, the University of Texas at Austin will allow concealed carry of guns by licensed owners next year. I won’t go into the pros and cons, the intractability of opposing views on the matter or the sense of wonder at how a political party espousing limited government could force this legislation through against the apparent will of the majority, but I am somewhat bewildered by terms of the law. Apparently the university cannot prohibit concealed weapons in classrooms but can enact reasonable restrictions. The question then becomes, who gets to define ‘reasonable’?

You might think that as experts in the campus learning environment, the dynamics of meaningful instruction, and the importance of free exploration and exchange of ideas, faculty on campus have special awareness of how guns in classrooms might impact the student and teacher experience. Gathering their input and attending to it would seem more reasonable than not. You likely will not be surprised to learn that the majority of faculty do not want guns in their classrooms, and their qualms about this might be based on experience of what it takes to provide a successful learning experience, as well as their personal safety concerns. Both positions seem to me to be reasonable. Interestingly, their position seems align with the positions of other experts on the role of guns on a campus, such as those of the university police, and our own very experienced-in-matters of combat, Chancellor. In this light, restricting the carrying of guns in classroom settings would seem reasonable. One might extend this further to restrict guns where conflict and disagreement are common (certain dealings with advisors, deans, faculty offices when students receive low grades) etc. but for now, let’s just stick with classrooms, after all, the advisor or faculty member would be free to pack their own gun for one-on-one defense there if necessary (yes, we’re still trying to stay ‘reasonable’ here).

Unfortunately, it seems even a common-sense approach to ‘reasonable’ restrictions is being denied to us all. Either through fear of legislative retribution, or fear of hot-headed types with guns coming to make their point, we are strolling down the road to armed students in a university that claims to be world-class. In what world is this conceivably ‘reasonable’?