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October 13, 1994

ECAC'S computer working groups developing plans to bring Pitt to new level

In the beginning there was the stand-alone mainframe computer. It was large enough to fill a room, or two, and operated on cardboard punch cards only a trained programmer could understand. Eventually, the punch cards were replaced by time sharing, which allotted computer users a certain amount of time to do their work electronically on a mainframe. Time sharing, in turn, was followed more than a decade ago by personal computers loaded with individual software. And personal computers are now giving way to network distributed computing, in which users greatly increase their access to software by sharing over a network.

But while the leading edge of computer technology may have moved into the fourth generation, called network distributed computing, the majority of faculty and staff at Pitt are more or less separated from one another and stuck in the third generation of computing, the personal computer with individual software phase.

Even where networks do exist within individual departments or units, according to Norman Hummon, chairperson of the Executive Committee on Academic Computing (ECAC) and a professor in the sociology department, they still are not doing the job that could be done if they were connected into a campus-wide network.

"The networks we do have are all isolated little cells," he notes.

In hopes of remedying the situation, the ECAC, a group of 15 faculty members appointed by the provost to deal with academic computing issues, was reorganized in April to develop plans for leading Pitt into the future of academic computing. Hummon was appointed chair on May 1 and, in early June, met with Paul Stieman, associate vice chancellor of the Office of Computing and Information Services (CIS), to set up a planning task force. As part of that effort, five working groups were established or enlarged within ECAC: Instructional and Student Computing, Instructional Technology, Networking and Information Services, Department and Faculty Computing, and Library and Information Needs. Dan Temple, director of Academic Computing/CIS, and Jinx Walton, director of Information and Office Services/CIS, also were enlisted to help since, according to Hummon, "Those are the people who are responsible for execution and that is critical here." The purpose of the working groups is to study computing needs in their areas of concern and develop plans for improvement. The Instructional and Student Computing Group, for instance, oversees capital expenditures for the public computing labs and the advanced technology lab, the development of the application of computing to general instruction and the creation of specialized computing labs, which is one area within instructional and student computing where some advancement already has been made.

The idea for specialized labs grew out of a calculus program developed by Juan Manfredi of the mathematics department, who last year won a Chancellor's Award for his efforts to teach calculus using computers (see story in the April 28, 1994, edition of the University Times).

"We decided that it was such a good idea and that there are so many units on campus that could use such facilities that we wanted to make it a regular program," says Hummon. "We have proposed to build one of these a year. They will be explicitly oriented toward the instructional needs of the programs, which is something we really haven't done before." Because of Manfredi's work, and similar work in the School of Engineering, the first specialized lab planned by the group will be a calculus/engineering lab. "In the future, we are looking at other possible specialized labs, which might include foreign languages, journalism, economics, sociology and so forth," says Bruce Stiehm, chairperson of the Instructional and Student Computing Working Group and a professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures.

Another of the ECAC's working groups, Instructional Technology, is designed to look at possible changes in computer technology and computing needs five years into the future and to plan pilot projects that will keep Pitt abreast of the latest developments in academic computing.

"I don't know what will come in," Hummon says. "This is a totally new group. We have never done anything like this before." Lewis Jacobson, chair of the Instructional Technology Working Group and a professor in the biology department, says what his group is looking for is innovation, "whether it's machinery or software or innovative ways of teaching with technology. And we're going to be in the position to provide capital funding" (see accompanying story).

The Instructional Technology Group also is trying to set up channels of communication about the application of technology to teaching. Jacobson points to the bulletin board on this subject recently established on the PittInfo computer network as an example of the channels his group hopes to open.

"There is now a kind of bulletin board on PittInfo where people can read what other people are doing here, post what they are doing for people to read, learn what is going on at other institutions, read material from corporate sources and so forth," Jacobson says.

"The problem we're really facing," he continues, "is that this campus is not very advanced in terms of electronic communication. We're trying to figure out how to construct channels of communication to those people who need to know about this stuff, but don't necessarily read electronic news sources." To reach people who don't use their computers to obtain news, the Instructional Technology Group plans to publish some of its material in Teaching Times, a publication of the Office of Faculty Development, and is looking at ways to make information on technological components available at the first annual Pitt teaching excellence conference, "What Works in University Teaching," scheduled for March 31 – April 1, 1995.

"And I think what we are going to start doing is trying to construct communities of people who are interested in applying technology to their teaching," Jacobson says. "And when I say technology, I don't mean just computers. That's one aspect of technology, but it sure is not the whole thing." For example, in his department, biology, Jacobson says that a fairly elaborate system of interfaced computers and video disks has been established. He then points out that as of the start of the fall term most dormitory rooms at the University have been wired for cable television.

"It is at least being discussed, whether those cable connections can or should be used in some measure for the delivery of instructional material," Jacobson says. "It's being discussed, I don't think anything serious has come of it yet because it is all too new, but when those cables are transmitting 500 channels a year or two from now should there be an English channel, a biology channel, a science channel? "My personal attitude is that technology is changing so fast right now that no individual is smart enough to know what is coming very far into the future," he adds. "The trick is for the University to learn to screen through that stuff and adopt what is useful quickly, in a very flexible and adventurous way." In the past, ECAC and CIS assumed that their responsibility for computing ended with a plug that allowed users to connect to the University's mainframe. The new view is that CIS has the responsibility to supply plans, technology and support all the way to the desktop.

"In many respects that's one of the biggest changes in computing that has occurred around here for a long time," Hummon notes.

The ECAC and CIS also have begun developing plans for "ubiquitous servers," meaning computer application software, such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Mail, that will be available from a central source to all members of the Pitt community the way they are available in some departments or units today.

According to Hummon, there are currently 167 local area networks, composed of department members or a few departments, connected together on the Pittsburgh campus. Only about three of those, however, are CIS-operated. The others have been created by departments.

What ECAC and CIS want to do is connect everybody in the University, including the regional campuses, in the same manner throughout the Pitt system. "The plan is two parts," Hummon explains. "One is to provide application servers for the whole University, including regional campuses. Two is to put desktop devices on every faculty and staff desk in the University that are connected to the applications. It all will be run and managed as a single system.

"The idea is to have applications like a library," he continues. "If you are sharing applications of software across 10,000 users, the economies of scale are really significant. You can afford to have something that I, as an individual, might use only once or twice a year if you share them among a large number of people. It's like books in a library. If you share them, you can afford to have a much more extensive collection." According to the January/February issue of Educom Review, a journal on educational computing, it costs an estimated $1,120 per client per year to service a 25- client network , currently the average size network at Pitt, in a decentralized system, such as is in use at Pitt. In a centralized system in which everybody at the University would be linked together, the same level of service could be provided for only $178 per client per year.

"Most departments would claim they wouldn't spent that kind of money because they hide the costs or they don't provide the level of service that is implicit in that figure," Hummon notes.

ECAC and CIS, however, have estimated that going to a centralized system where software and other technology are shared could save the University $3 million annually at the same time it increases the level of applications available to users.

Another benefit of a centralized system is that the regional campuses will have available to their faculty, staff and students the same level of computing as is found on the Pittsburgh campus.

A prototype of a centralized system is being put into place in sociology, English, Legal Counsel and the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance. Hummon says ECAC and CIS also would like to add a department in the School of Engineering to the prototype program.

The prototype will operate until January. Its purpose is to work out the bugs and establish performance standards. Once a system is developed that works well for 100 users, according to Hummon, it can be easily replicated to serve much larger numbers of users.

"The issue is to come up with ways of using the system that we have," says Walter Schneider, chairperson of the Department and Faculty Computing Working Group and a professor in the psychology department. "We have a very well developed network backbone on the campus." Joining whatever network is eventually established by ECAC and CIS will be voluntary, but Hummon says the experience at other institutions is that departments join because the centralized system cuts costs while providing a better quality and a higher, more uniform level of service. Having a uniform level of service automatically brings with it added productivity since staff members will not have to be retrained when they move from one job to another within the University.

A centralized system also means that new versions of software can be plugged into the system faster. Instead of numerous copies of software being distributed to different departments and each one plugged into a personal computer or local network separately, the new version can be plugged in all at once from a central location.

The need to purchase one or maybe a few copies of a software package instead of dozens or even hundreds also means that more money will be available for a wider variety of new software that can be used by faculty, staff and students.

"Right now, if somebody wants an occasionally used piece of software they have to buy it for their machine," Schneider explains. "The average software package costs something like $200 and there are many software packages that a faculty member or a staff member or a student might use one hour a month. So, opposed to me buying one for my machine, it makes a lot more sense to buy one for a server. With networking, I can check it out within a couple of seconds, use it, and then turn it back in automatically at the end of that period. Hence, if we buy one copy for the campus, it will probably serve most of the campus needs." Schneider says that those who use a particular piece of software all of the time will be encouraged to purchase their own copy of the software so as not to monopolize the public copy.

"My goal is to turn the computer into something that is functionally equivalent to the telephone," concludes Hummon. "It is on everybody's desk and there is a basic level of competency and service that is provided and that it is sort of a combination of a telephone model and a library model and it becomes part of our daily environment."

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 4

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