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The Learning Conference 2003

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Information Technology Across the Curriculum --: The University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Commonwealth Information Technology Initiative (CITI)

Bill Israel.

1. Computer science and electrical engineering remain central to IT's base. But experts in IT as a field these days speak less about 'how-to-do-it' technically, and more about how to apply IT even more widely. For example, the salient feature in corporate IT budgets now is spending directed not by a chief information officer – but IT all the time, at every level, with budgets decentralized to each. The focus in IT is changing: from less 'how to' to more 'how-to-apply' – in every organization, at every level, in every domain. The transformation is to IT as a 'whole view'. And the change reverses how higher education traditionally has approached the issues, through single discipline focus.

2. Three levels of IT education needed

The American National Research Council defines Information Technology (IT) to include the more traditional components of general-purpose computational devices, associated peripherals, operating environments, applications software, information, embedded computing devices, communications, and the science underlying the technology. But that definition, in our assessment, must also (and at least) then include issues associated with optimizing interactions between technology and people, including media theory (how images are 'read'), research methods (matching people's needs to solutions in a rigorous way), cognitive psychology, social psychology, art and design theory, taxonomy principles (from library and information sciences), how the brain works, human factors, usability, and interface design. Finally, because IT's impacts are so broad, its study also must include its effects: social, psychological, political, economic, and cultural. In some quarters, similar study is called 'Informatics'. However, no curriculum appears to address all three levels of breadth outlined above. As a member of our advisory committee put it:

"These skills and knowledge cross all the disciplinary boundaries, making it unlikely a student would have deep preparation in more than one or two – (and) helping demonstrate why so much Internet design/development is disjointed, difficult, and problematic…. Furthermore, effective strategic planning… is produced only by good critical thinkers…who can link or synthesize diverse paradigms, who know the historical context of what they're seeing, and who are not constantly re-inventing the wheel just because they can…There just doesn't seem to be – yet – a higher education curriculum that takes into account the disciplinary overlaps…. "

In short, IT as a field is exceedingly broad, interdisciplinary, dynamic, and integrative. Its breadth, the velocity of change in the field, and the outlook for continued growth require that an IT curriculum, similarly, be very broad, connected to technical roots, and accessible through the aspirations of the user.

3. To effectively address all three levels would require a college education focused on IT – and a necessary narrowing of focus on IT itself, as opposed to IT as adjunct and helper to other academic fields. As a consequence, the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst concluded that what is needed, as a starting point, is an undergraduate Minor, paired with a student's major field. The twin goals of the Minor: "to enable any interested student to confidently employ IT, and to secure an intellectual base from which to develop capacity to innovate, using IT in his or her field". Faculty at other Massachusetts public campuses are considering approaches that resemble, and vary from this one, but which share the central value of running IT across the curriculum.

In sum, the UMass Amherst IT Minor seeks to connect clearly to IT's technical roots and to the array of issues involved, while reserving elective combinations to each individual student. The philosophy and goals of the Minor are, therefore, intended to be closer to the full range of needs outlined above, and broader and more comprehensive than other approaches we have reviewed, in four years of studying other institutions' curricula, and developing our own. For more detail, see: and

4. As at most great land grant institutions, we depend on our colleagues in computer science, electrical engineering, and MIS – who remain central to developing our program – to keep us attuned to the latest developments in their fields. As an IT faculty, however, we concluded that the greatest contribution a Research One institution may make, at this stage in IT's development, is to produce not only depth in the traditional IT disciplines (although we are committed to doing so), but breadth, across the disciplines, in the curricula of every college and school. Thus, where programs, for example, at the University of Maryland, Penn State, Indiana, and Rensselaer for the most part seem to seek to increase the number of information technology specialists, the UMass IT program seeks instead, across the curriculum, to increase the number of IT generalists That, we believe, may be the greatest contribution we can make in IT now. It is, perhaps, indicative of the uniqueness of the approach, at least here, that the UMass Amherst IT Minor is the only University-wide Minor on the campus, and is intended, ultimately, to be available to every interested student.

The Minor is intended, through a 15-credit-hour minimum program, to introduce students to fundamental issues in computing, the Internet and networking; data analysis; research methods; media theory; critical thinking; and IT's effects. Because these issues will change with time and technical developments, our objective is to flexibly acquaint students with the range of issues germane to their fields – and equip them to learn more. We anticipate recommending improvements in the program with time and experience.

The program enables students to choose from some 55 courses – 20 of them new or revised especially for the Minor, thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. The range and depth of IT-interested personnel across the campus is substantial: some 120 faculty and staff are engaged in discussions of the program, from a faculty of about 1000.

The first students were awarded the IT Minor this December. We anticipate having more data to share (and more graduates), by July, as a result – both as to the performance of the UMass Amherst program, and as to the progress of other institutions in the CITI program.


Bill Israel  (United States)
Chair, UMass Amherst Information Technology Task Force
Information Technology Program
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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BILL ISRAEL, professor. Bill specializes in the study of media and power, reporting, and online journalism. He chairs the University's Information Technology Task Force, which is developing a university-wide IT program He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Iowa, and studied at the University of Strasbourg, France, and Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. He received his master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Texas-Austin (1994, 1999). Israel teaches reporting for print and broadcast; computer-assisted reporting, online journalism, and introductory public relations. He has taught "Politics and the Press" with aides to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. His research on "Objectivity and Power," which includes a particular focus on race and social movements, is included in a course of the same name. Israel worked as press secretary to an Iowa gubernatorial candidate, as assistant to the California Senate majority leader, and as press secretary and legislative assistant to a U.S. Senator in Washington. He worked in public relations in the medical, academic, and information technology sectors. In radio, television, and print media he has worked as reporter, producer, editor, and anchor. He has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, Dallas Morning News, USA Today, CBS Radio, ABC-TV News, and other regional print and broadcast news outlets.

  • Information Technology
  • IT across the curriculum
  • IT and undergraduate education

(30 min Conference Paper, English)