[Editor's Note: As part of an effort to determine the breadth and scope of electronic communications training on campus, the IT Times talked to many individuals at UC Davis. This interview with Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, chair of the Information Technology Administrative Advisory Committee and professor of Political Science, was conducted entirely online using electronic mail.]
ITT: I gather that some members of ITAAC have suggested a mentoring program be established to foster paired collaboration between faculty who are already well-versed in computing and electronic communications and colleagues (and graduate students) who are new to it. What are the aspects and prospects of such a program?
Yes, there has been some discussion of this, and I'm hoping there will be more before the end of the year. In fact, I intend to put it on the agenda of a future ITAAC meeting. If we were to make a recommendation that the Academic Senate and the administration help organize and support such a program, I can't predict exactly what the response would be, although I'm inclined to think it would be sympathetic.
I can tell you some things, however. First of all, there is a lot of "mentoring" happening already on an ad hoc and informal basis. Faculty colleagues are helping each other. Graduate students are helping faculty. Undergraduates supplement what they learn in the classroom by helping each other out. Staff members are learning how to ask for and find help, too. Sometimes, the exchanges are brief and the topics limited: "How do I print an e-mail message?" Sometimes, the issues are more complex: "How will students react if I start putting class materials on a newsgroup, and require them to use this resource?" Or, "How much value do your students get from the CQ Washington Alert databases accessible through MELVYL?"
But while the campus is rife with this sort of informal mentoring - we would never have come as far as we have building information technology into the everyday life of the campus without it - the second thing to say is that we have no formal program. We have no formal recognition, yet, that such a device would be helpful, or that it is something busy people should be encouraged to spend their time doing. So there is, to put it differently, no clear and accepted incentive for people who do have skills and experience that can be taught and disseminated to spend time doing that, rather than, say, writing a paper or teaching a course.
I should mention the work Dr. Kevin Roddy does as a liaison between the Division of Information Technology and members of the teaching staff who have problems they need to solve, installing a piece of software, for example, or getting help with a particular network application. This work is important and appreciated, but we need a way to build on it and broaden the base.
I'm hopeful we'll be able to identify some ways to do that before the end of this academic year. It would speed up even further, I think, the rate at which faculty, students, and staff are getting the help and information they need to make computers and the network work for them. The analysis of IT's training efforts, which you'll be reporting on later, is going to show just how hungry people at UC Davis are for this information, across all segments of the campus community. It's an issue we need to address, for individual faculty and students, as well as for departments and other academic units that are struggling to cope with both new challenges and diminished resources.
You published a piece in IT TIMES not long ago about the progress being made with technology and networks in Vegetable Crops. More of our people and units need and want to be helped to make that sort of progress, and I think mentoring is part of meeting that demand.
ITT: Some departments already have high-speed capabilities because they have both required and been able to afford them. Can a case be made that high-speed (fiber-optic) connections such as proposed by the Network 21 Project plan will be needed by all disciplines in the future, not only areas of engineering and the "hard" sciences?
Yes, that case can be made. It can be made in the Art Department - ask Harvey Himmelfarb, who is involved in building and managing large collections of visual images online. It can be made in my department, Political Science - ask hundreds of students who now write their term papers using databases in Michigan, New Jersey, and Washington DC. It can be made across a whole range of environmental studies programs at Davis, a nationally recognized strength of the campus, and one that runs the gamut from biology to policy analysis to environmental toxicology - ask Jim Quinn in Environmental Studies, or Debbie Elliott- Fisk in Geography, or Hap Dunning in Law, all of whom are working on problems of ecosystem assessment and management that require very large and very efficient data manipulation capabilities.
Faculty and students also see that it can be made in Shields Library and, increasingly I think, in a variety of what we might broadly call academic services directly related to the central missions of the campus, such as the internship programs we have here and in Washington DC for our students, and the public service research program that reaches our friends in business and the public sector. It can be made in Music, too, and one of the most delightful aspects of my service this year on ITAAC has been learning from Wayne Slawson that that's true.
But does it have to be a state-of-the-art, even slightly ahead of the cutting edge, network? Again, the answer is yes. The network we have now is far superior to the one they have in Ecuador, or Guinea-Bissau, where I have former students serving in the Peace Corps who would give their eye-teeth for a good phone connection, let alone network connectivity! But on a realistic relative and comparative scale of one to nine we are all familiar with, in a nine-campus system, our existing network ranks ninth. It's expensive to maintain and gets more so with every passing day. It is neither economically nor functionally rational to keep it, or to improve it bit by bit. We keep it going, but only by performing occasional miracles. And it limits what we can imagine, as well as what we can do.
That isn't good enough, and we had better say that, and then act, before our friends in Sacramento, who are also getting themselves onto the superhighway at a very fast clip these days, start to wonder what's taking so long and why we aren't out in front of the pack. That is exactly where the University is supposed to be, all of it, the entire institution, not just the engineers and the geologists. Berkeley and San Diego and Irvine have already made the commitment to connect themselves to research and teaching in the next century, and we have to follow. In the last analysis, there isn't anyone at Davis who wants it any other way.
The most important consideration, then, is to look ahead to the future of UC Davis as a first- ranked national research and teaching institution and to realize that the faculty and the students, the people who are the institution, will not be able to survive or prosper without a high-speed network that is everywhere accessible on campus and that connects us to the rest of the world. We need it to teach and to do research at least as much if not more than we need it to run the University more efficiently. Indeed, the latter, I think, is and should remain very much a secondary concern and be a by-product of our research and teaching innovations.
And it's a great mistake to look at the network we have now, and what it can deliver, and to imagine that what we are getting with Network 21 is just more of the same only quicker. That is not the investment we are making. What the Regents have approved, very much to their credit, is the provision of a research and teaching tool many of the uses for which, in the classroom and the laboratory, five or ten years from now we cannot clearly see today. And that's true not just because we will have a different and better network but also because the people and devices at the ends of the network will also be different and better.
Until last week I thought I would probably retire before I saw the day when my students and I would be able to travel the world together in the classroom, and without ever leaving the classroom. Now I think it may be less than five years before we make that trip together, picking up as we go along, and analyzing in real time as we make an intellectual journey through some province of political science, whatever text, data, images, and sounds we think we need to make sense of what we encounter. Network 21 is about fulfilling that vision, for ourselves as teachers and for our students as learners. It is not about bringing the Gopher and the newsgroups and the ftp transfers some of us can already use to people who will never need them.