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.

1 comment:

krishna kashyap av said...

Thanks for a great information..
I-school sounds a great place to
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