Blog: Jeffrey MacKie-Mason

Social media, "tweeting" and "friending". These days, it's hard to tell screen time from face time. Meet Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Michigan School of Information. This week, he'll be talking about the knowledge economy opportunities emerging from a unique graduate program that blends information systems with the social sciences.

Jeffrey MacKie-Mason - Post 3: Back to the Future: Preparing for the Knowledge Economy

Turn back the dial a few years. Spring 1993: the first version Mosaic browser (later to become Netscape) is released, and the World Wide Web is effectively born. (The protocols and a handful of documents were created earlier, but only a few physicists knew about it before Mosaic.) That's right: only 16 years ago there was no Web, practically speaking.

Now dial forward just three years to 1996: The University of Michigan boldly created the new School of Information (SI). This school was developed and proposed by a partnership between a number of social scientists and technologists from multiple departments, and the former School of Information and Library Sciences. The mission: "To connect people, information and technology in more valuable ways." The University of California at Berkeley followed suit a year later. Today, there are 23 schools in the iCaucus.

One of the crucial questions upon the creation of SI: What to call it? The committee tasked with this solemn task started with a list of 75 possibilities. Previously, old-style schools dealing with information always called themselves something like "information studies" or "library and information sciences", or "information management and systems". When we came up with "School of Information", well, people laughed at us. "What is the rest of the university going to do? Isn't it all information?" At our first Christmas party, one faculty wag predicted that in 10 years we would change our name again, to "The School". We haven't gotten there quite yet ….

Dial forward to today. The University has made a strategic and growing commitment to offer the best modern information school in the world. This rests on a firm belief that the future of the economy — in southeast Michigan, as well as nationally and globally — depends on making information technology work better for and with people: "connecting people, information and technology in more valuable ways". Computer engineers alone cannot solve the problems that will stimulate new businesses and new jobs. What is crucial is understanding the human and social aspects of information and information systems, and applying this human-centered knowledge to design and management. And so, we have SI.

"We need an integrated understanding of human needs and their relationships to information systems and social structures. We need unifying principles that illuminate the role of information in both computation and cognition, in both communication and community. We need information professionals who can apply these principles to synthesize human-centered and technological perspectives." (Excerpted from SI Mission Statement)

As we move from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, we need to transform educational offerings to prepare leaders and entrepreneurs to be ready to work across all industries (not just in software or computer companies!), and to create new industries. (See a recent report on "Michigan's Transition to a Knowledge Economy".)

Since 1996, SI has offered a professional Master's degree program, and a Ph.D. program to train advanced researchers and new faculty. This year (2008-09) we started an undergraduate program (in collaboration with the College of Engineering, and the College of Literature, Science and Arts).

Our two-year Master's program currently has about 350 students; 45% of them are from Michigan, but 20% are international. This is an amazingly diverse pool of future innovators and managers, with talent for any setting: they collectively represent more than 70 different undergraduate majors! Each completes one or more "specializations", of which we offer nine (plus the opportunity to create a "Tailored" specialization). These include human-computer interaction, information analysis and retrieval, social computing, incentive-centered design, preservation of information, and library services. Our graduates are talented: in our most recent survey, 99% of 2007 grads were successfully placed within six months.

Our new undergraduate Informatics program is just getting underway, but is already generating excitement. Experts in informatics design information technology tools for scientific, business, and cultural needs, and study how such tools are used. They might, for example, help develop the systems that let your doctor quickly share your medical records with a specialist while still ensuring your privacy. One track in the program is "Social Computing": we jokingly call it "a degree in Facebook", but see my earlier article on social computing in the enterprise.

As Michigan moves, inevitably and with haste, from the Industrial Age into the Information Age, we are fortunate that the University of Michigan was looking forward in 1996 and today boasts one of the top information schools in the country.

(This entry was written with the assistance of Judy Lawson, director of academic and career services at the University of Michigan School of Information.)