The notion of “information technology” (IT) as a separate field of study is undergoing a radical shift at some of the nation’s foremost colleges and universities–and it is this shift that drew more than 250 deans, faculty members, and graduate students to Pennsylvania State University’s University Park campus for a first-of-its-kind conference last week.

Conference participants came from schools where computer and information science departments have evolved into something known as “i-Schools.” At what organizers called the first-ever i-Schools conference at Penn State, participants sought to clarify their definition of what an “i-School” is and address the challenges that such institutions face.

The i-School concept grew from the recognition that the traditional disciplines of information science, computer science, and IT are increasingly overlapping in today’s digital, information-age society, said Raymond von Dran, the dean of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (SIS).

Rather than treat these fields as separate areas of inquiry, a growing number of colleges and universities are combining them into a single discipline. The term “i-School” refers to the program of studies for this newly emerging field, which examines not only how information is created, processed, stored, and retrieved–but also what impact it has on people and society.

“An i-School has to be focused on more than some aspect of technology or computer science,” von Dran said. “It has to look at the intersection between technology and people, because it’s all about the focus on information for people.”

The University of Michigan was the first to embrace the term “i-School,” but it’s a concept that has been evolving over the last 30 years, he said.

“People might not know what an i-School is, but they know what a law school is and what a business school is,” von Dran said. “One of our challenges is establishing that recognition. We won’t be satisfied until i-Schools are recognized the same way as law schools or education schools, where no explanation is required to understand what that particular school teaches.”

Information schools have emerged in various ways. Some have grown out of library or information science departments that began to embrace more areas of study, such as IT. Others started as computer science schools that began to incorporate the study of usability, policy, and people. Still other i-Schools just sprang up on their own, von Dran said.

Not yet firmly established in the higher-education landscape, i-Schools continue to evolve. Information schools like Syracuse’s SIS are constantly adding faculty from a variety of fields to address the ever-changing and increasingly complex nature of information and IT research.

At Syracuse University, the SIS has three psychologists on its teaching staff, each with different backgrounds. One has a background in computer science, another in organizational psychology, and the third in cognitive psychology.

“In psychology schools you have psychologists with these same backgrounds, but you also have people with backgrounds in areas like criminal behavior,” von Dran said. “The real difference is that we have the psychologists who want to study the psychological impacts caused by information and technology.”

“The ‘i’ in i-School certainly stands for information, but it also stands for ‘interdisciplinary,'” said James Thomas, dean of Penn State’s School of Information Sciences Technology. “In i-Schools, we’re putting together the complex issues of technology in society and trying to understand how technology can make a difference.”

More than 250 deans, faculty members, and graduate students came to Pennsylvania State University for the first “i-Schools” conference last week. (photo courtesy of Penn State)
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Technology education in i-Schools has changed because it’s not just about the technology, Thomas said. “It’s not only about being a proficient programmer, but also understanding how those results will impact people and society, and trying to figure out how to make the technology successful.”

The main issue i-Schools struggle with now is identity. “The biggest short-term challenge we have is explaining to people what the information field is,” von Dran said.

Aside from talks about establishing an identity for i-Schools, conference attendees touched on the search for solutions to big-picture problems–such as the balance between the often-conflicting needs for security and access to information. “It’s kind of a two-sided sword,” von Dran said. “The more you try to screen out things you don’t want in eMail, the higher the likelihood that you are screening out something that you do want.”

Another area of interest was the relationship between information on the one hand and innovation and creativity, on the other–in other words, how the flow of information inspires or helps to stimulate innovation and creativity.

“We’re also dealing with the challenge of properly evaluating the productivity of everyone in an i-School, because we are interdisciplinary and people have different ways of evaluating themselves and their work,” von Dran said. “We have to understand one another.”

“Any time you’re dealing with interdisciplinary research and technology theories, it’s going to be very interesting, because it means folks have to understand multiple fields,” said Penn State’s Thomas. “The programs have to be very familiar with those multiple fields, such as computing and business fields. A challenge i-Schools face is maintaining the ability to move in and out of those different fields seamlessly.”

Some would say that, because an i-School deals with information, an entire university could be termed an i-School.

“A discussion arose at the conference that touched on how universities will emulate their information schools,” said von Dran. But an information school is a bit more unique and specialized than a university.

“You could … argue that, for instance, a school of education is an information school because it deals with teaching information to others. An entire university is all about the transmission of information,” he said. “The difference is that information schools are focused on how we go about creating, transmitting, collecting, organizing, preserving, and retrieving information. While other schools do deal with information, they may not necessarily be as concerned with how that information affects people and communities like i-Schools are.”

The i-Schools i-Conference welcomed representatives from 18 i-Schools within universities across the country. The participants were chosen because their information schools have a central focus on information, have a doctorate program in place, and have sufficiently funded research programs.

“While we believe that it’s important to produce bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, it’s in the research at the doctoral level where you really establish the future of all this information study,” von Dran said.

“Just the fact that we all got together and are having this conversation across the community was an enormous leap forward,” Thomas said. “It’s so important that lots of people are talking, thinking, and sharing experiences.”

The conference was the first of what organizers said will be an annual celebration of the information field. The meeting was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation. MIT Press plans to publish a book containing the findings of the two-day conference.

Links:

Penn State University’s i-Schools i-Conference
http://iconference.ist.psu.edu

Penn State University School of Information Sciences and Technology
http://ist.psu.edu

Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies
http://istweb.syr.edu