Friday, September 26, 2008

Who is my advisor: personal life and background

My advisor John Carroll likes people to call him Jack. He was born in Bethlehem, PA, but in terms of decent, he is Irish, Welsh, and Schwaebish. Upon graduation from Columbia University with a Ph.D. degree in Experimental Psychology, he worked for IBM for around 18 years, where he met and got married with Mary Beth Rosson, a pretty elegant lady who has a very good taste and concern about her dresses and accessories J.

Jack and Mary Beth are now both professors in IST at Penn State. They live in the beautiful university town State College, with their adorable daughter Erin and friendly Lab Kerby. Before they came to State College, they lived in Blacksburg, another university town and were both professors for the department of computer science at Virginia Tech. One of the luckiest things to Jack and Mary Beth is that they can always find satisfying jobs in the same place, from IBM, to Virginia Tech, to Penn State. They are not only a couple, but also best work partners. This is very rare for renowned couples. Erin is a Penn State junior in sociology. She once said to her dad, “I don’t wanna be like you.” So when she later decided to apply for the graduate school to stay in academia, Jack was really surprised. This might be the biggest impact Jack has on his daughter.

In his spare time, Jack brews beer and hikes with Kerby. He also likes music, especially Bob Dylan’s. He played folk guitar since he was 13 years old till his first five years at IBM and had his own band. This old photo portrays an aspect of his band life. I actually froze when seeing it for the first time; it is not an easy thing to link this punk-style youngster to a debonair but prestigious scholar.

Jack is not the kind of person who needs a bunch of friends. He is enjoying the easy life, multicultural climate, plus a little excitement in State College.

*Both images are from Jack's personal web page.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What is IST?

IST, opened in 1999, is an I-School housed in the Penn State. When I started looking for an appropriate Ph.D. program to apply for in early 2006, it was still a school; but when I actually applied for the Ph.D. program at IST in the end of 2006, it had been upgraded into a college. To outsiders, the most impressive thing about IST is probably its state-of-the-art building, rather than its academic aspect. The building was inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and has become a Penn State landmark.

Different from many other I-Schools which are transformed from other traditional programs such as computer science, business, or library science, IST is a totally brand-new institution. And because of this, it seems IST does not have a dominant research area much outweighing other areas. Instead, it gets more balanced in developing various areas. This is one of the reasons why I chose IST for a Ph.D. study – I prefer to locate myself in the pretty much middle point of the line with the social research as one end and the technical research as the other end, and I would have more flexibility to move toward either end of the line.

One of the characteristics of IST is that it has no departments! It is structured into five research centers and ten research labs. This structure helps people get connected with colleagues more easily, which is important to sustain interdisciplinary research. In fact, people in different research centers or research labs have a lot of collaborations, from applying for project grants to coauthoring papers. This can be seen from these two diagrams. Here is the overall collaboration network diagram with regard to funding, each node representing a specific faculty member in IST. And this is the collaboration network diagram with regard to coauthoring, each node also representing a faculty member. These two diagrams were made in the 2007 fall semester.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What is an I-School?

When we talk about the history of I-Schools, it is hard to ignore the I-School movement. I-Schools are basically a result of this movement. They are those academic institutions with a mission and commitment to understand, create and use information and information technology in human endeavors.

The I-School movement seems to be a revolution in the traditional LIS field. In 1996, the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan first changed the name into the School of Information (Cronin, 2005). But the real outset as a movement seems to be the small meeting among the deans of seven leading LIS institutions held in November 2003 (Cronin, 2005). The science crisis in the LIS field to a large degree is due to the incapability of the traditional LIS theories in confronting the new characteristics of this age – information is generated overwhelming, information technology develops rapidly, and human’s information behavior changes intensively. Scientists need new paradigm to guide their work.

If the movement had just been an innovation of the traditional LIS field, things would have looked simpler. But indeed the situation is more complicated. The institutions without a LIS background also participate in this movement. For example, the I-School of University of California, Irvine comes from computing science tradition. And the I-School of the Penn State (IST) is even a brand-new program that did not evolve from a pre-existing program; the faculty members are drawn from various programs. The members of the I-School caucus can be found on, including 19 colleges/schools in American Universities, 1 in Singapore and 1 in Canada. Even just from the names of these colleges/schools, we can easily guess their different flavors, such as education, management, computing, etc. Such a complicated situation makes the current period more like a pre-paradigm phase than a revolutionary phase, from the perspective of Kuhn (Godfrey-Smith, 2003).

Though this looks like a pre-paradigm phase, there is something that has seemed to be common among most of the I-Schools. The first is the interdisciplinary climate and the encouragement of plurality and diversity. This is also the central spirit of the I-School movement. When we try to seek the laws that make an IT initiative successful in the real world, we have to consider inter-related aspects that might have been addressed in different research fields before. For example, CSE (Computer Science and Engineering) addressed technical design and development; MIS (Management information System) addressed information system management in organizations; and sociologists or social psychologists studied ordinary people’s intention to system use. All these aspects could contribute to the answer about the factors leading to success or failure of an IT initiative, but none of them alone can totally account for it. The I-Schools draw researchers from different perspectives to work together on complex socio-technical issues. This would help scientists jump from the constriction of the assumptions they hold on for a long time, if they are willing to listen to different voices. If they can do so, an I-School could become a free realm of creativity and imaginary.

Another aspect in common is that most I-Schools agree on the ITP (Information, Technology, and People) triangle as a research interest focus and framework. But the triangle seems too vague and too empty at least up to now, which makes it kind of hard to really guide the field. For example, is ITP able to tell us what puzzles are important and what are not and the answers can generally be agreed on by the scientists in this movement? It seems we cannot say yes unhesitatedly. In a class of IST590 last year, which is required to be taken by all graduates in IST at PSU, students are asked to label themselves as I, T, or P. The result is interesting: most of the students gave themselves two labels, say I-T, T-P, or I-P, and several students gave themselves only one label, but very few students label themselves as I-T-P. This is by large in line with the current status of the research in IST, and it also drives us to think about the feasibility of the ITP as the guiding paradigm.

An interesting thing is that compared with other traditional academic institutions, the IST is more like practical problem-solving oriented. That people with different backgrounds come together to solve practical problem is a typical characteristic in an industrial organization, but not in an academic institution. This characteristic makes the IST, and other I-Schools, seem hard to establish an identity that is important in current academia. This does bring inconvenience. However, the advantage is also prominent: faculty members have more chance to exchange opinions with people outside their areas, and students probably would be more open-minded.

I chose to do my graduate education at an I-School basically because my academic interests are falling in the human-centered computing, that is, concerned both with human aspect and computing aspect. These interests do not gain a space within, or at best just stand on the periphery of, traditional colleges or departments. Whereas, an I-School is a suitable niche for them and provides more resources and freedom for relevant research.

Cronin, B. (2005). An Identity crisis? The information schools movement. International Journal of Information Management 25: 363–365.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What drives me

During my years of work for one of China’s leading companies pioneering e-learning and later a supplier of technical solutions for multimedia communications, I increasingly realized the professional software engineer is not the most suitable position to me. I do like design and develop computer/communication software, but as a professional software engineer to develop consumer-oriented products, most of my time had to be devoted into the process of making a prototype into a true product, rather than the process to design and work out a prototype. I would say both of these two processes are challenging, but the latter has much more fun to me since it involves more creative activities. Based on this, I think to work in an advanced research center, whether in industry (such as the legendary PARC) or in academia, would be a better choice to meet my interests. I believe that study of creative theories and methods and further academic training are necessary for me to acquire more insightful perspectives and develop a qualified competence to conduct in-depth research work. This is why I chose return to a university to pursue my Ph.D. degree.

My current research concentrates on community-oriented wireless applications that are expected to help enhance civic engagement, support civic interactions and facilitate resource coordination. There are two major motivations for this research. First, many American communities have been investing or will consider investing in municipal wireless networking infrastructures, but what are the civic rationales and effective application paradigms for developing these public wireless infrastructures has not been made clear. My coworkers and I try to seek the answers and some useful suggestions to these questions through this research. Second, the current computing industry aims largely at entertainment, personal information management, and business/government computing. We hope our outcomes in developing community informatics application models will provide a beneficial reference for the computing industry to pay more attention and endeavor in community applications.

Who am I academically

I am a second year Ph.D. student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at the Pennsylvania State University. My intellectual interests focus on incorporating contextual, social and cultural factors into system design to create innovative social interaction and learning experience. More specifically, I am interested in the following areas: 

-    Social computing and community computing
-    Design and usability of communication technologies 
-    Unified Communications
-    Computer-supported collaboration
-    Learning environments and tools

I am currently working with a team of researchers led by Dr. John Carroll at the Computer Supported Collaboration and Learning Lab to design and develop community-oriented wireless applications. We have developed location-based event and blog service for the Central County Art Festival held in this July. You can get more information from here. Our next step is to introduce team/logistic tracing services for this year’s United Way Day of Caring in October. Lately I also have put some efforts on exploring the design space for enhancing engagement in community-oriented activities. 

I received my M.A. degree in communication and B.A. degree in Chinese language and literature from Tsinghua University in China. Before I became a Ph.D. student, I had been a professional software engineer for a couple of years basically focusing on designing and developing components or devices for unified communications, such as SIP-based IP-PBXs, PSTN/ISDN/ITSP gateways, Wi-Fi mobile phones, and so on. It seems my academic/professional trajectory has changed a lot, but I would say this does help prepare me for IST, a truly interdisciplinary field concerning the intersection of information, technology, and people.

Who am I personally

I am Xiaoyan Xie from China. The two Chinese characters of ‘Xiaoyan’ mean a colorful sky. I do like this name, but since it is really hard for foreigners to pronounce correctly, I would like you to just call me ‘Wendy’ which I have been used since 1994. 

My hometown is Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian province in the southeast of China. The city is warm and humid, kind of like the weather of San Diego, CA. It is a leisurely and comfortable place, famous for jasmine, banyan, lacquer ware, horn combs, and stone carving. The history of this city can probably date back to before 306 B.C. 

At the age of 18, I left my hometown and went to Beijing for college. I still remember that fall how I sat on a hard wooden seat in a train for 43 hours to get to Beijing for the first time on my own. Since the time I stepped off the train, Beijing has become my second hometown, where I finished my college and worked for a couple of years. 

I came to State College, PA last year for my Ph.D study. This is my first experience to live in a small town. Though big cities have much more fun and good restaurants, I do like the current simple and peaceful life here.

I have a bunch of personal interests. I like traveling around the world to experience different cultures and natural beauties. I have been to Japan, India, Singapore, Malaysia, and a couple of cities in the United States. I am preparing my second-time trip to San Diego as a CSCW’08 volunteer. I really hope to have a look in Europe and Australia someday. Besides traveling, I also like music, especially the New Age genre with very peaceful, gentle, spiritual, or sometimes mystical music. I am also a volleyball lover. I play it every week in the IM building. This helps me make a lot of friends. I created the PSU Happy Volley group on Facebook and there are 33 members now.

One of my good friends has been leading me to Jesus, which my grandmother was always trying to do before she passed away. I have to say it is not easy to change the ingrained views about the world and values, but I am considering it seriously.