New Media and 'U': decoding the University's investment in the cutting edge

Allison Kruske/Daily
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By David Tao, Senior Arts Editor
and Aditi Mishra, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 14, 2012

Today, laptops, smartphones and other means of connectivity are a ubiquitous presence on campus. Walk into a University lecture hall and you’ll see students typing away on MacBooks, some taking careful notes, others idly surfing the Internet via MWireless. But in the early ’80s, as personal computing was just beginning to establish itself as an industry, then-Dean of Engineering James Duderstadt found himself with a problem he desperately needed to solve.

Allison Kruske/Daily
Allison Kruske/Daily

"It turned out very few members of our faculty had ever used computers,” he remembered.

His solution? Give every faculty member easy access to a computer, but with one important caveat.

“I’d only let them have (a computer) if they’d take two of them, and one of them they’d have to take home,” Duderstadt said. “They might not use it themselves, (but) their wife or their children would use it.”

Sure enough, the home computers of many engineering professors were taken over by their children. The activities of two of these children, Thomas and John Knoll, would eventually lead to some of the University’s first and most meaningful contributions to new media and technology.

“From time to time, (their father) would tell me what they were doing, and one day, he told me, ‘They’ve got this little program that they can use to manipulate images, that this company I’ve never heard of from California called Adobe would like to license,’ ” Duderstadt recalled. “ ‘The boys call it Photoshop.’ ”

Building the digital world from the ground up

In addition to Photoshop, the University has produced more of today’s technical mainstays, such as the iPod and the predecessor to the modern Internet, and counts among its alumni Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Google co-founder Larry Page and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.

“We’re very good at blazing trails,” Duderstadt said. “That’s what people expect us to do.”

But blazing trails isn’t the work of any one individual. In and outside the classroom, innovation at the University is, and always has been, a collaborative process.

Engineering Prof. Elliot Soloway at the College of Engineering teaches a class that helps students develop iPhone applications. Soloway follows a hands-off, anti-book-learning mantra that emphasizes student creativity over textbooks and code samples.

“I help the kids figure out how they can be the next Larry Page,” he said. “I’m not there to teach them how to program; they can do that by themselves … what you’re really trying to find is that absolute crystalline gem of an idea.”

So far, this approach seems to be working. Past student applications include the Michigan app, a must-have all-in-one app featuring University news, a built-in directory, dining hall menus, and, of course, bus routes with real-time schedules. On a broader scale, his course is also responsible for the DoGood application, which suggests individual acts of kindness to its users. Digital media company Tonic, Inc. purchased the application in the spring of 2010. According to its App Store description, DoGood is now responsible for “over 1,000,000 good deeds.”

In order to maintain this level of accomplishment and foster an environment conducive to ingenuity, the University provides substantial investment in the latest available technology. “We worked hard to acquire the latest and greatest technology,” said Daniel Atkins, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“We provide (students) with a tool set … the freedom to be entrepreneurial, to do new things and develop a self-confidence,” he said.

In addition to course offerings, the University’s investment is reflected in state-of-the-art facilities such as the Digital Media Commons in the Duderstadt Center on North Campus. It’s designed specifically to assist students in implementing new ideas that merge creative arts with more technical fields. The center houses multimedia facilities including virtual reality simulators, 3-D labs and recording studios, which are all free and open for students to use.

“Over the last couple of years … we’ve actually integrated all these spaces together. So you can go in the video studio and record something and then you can walk over to the multimedia room and actually have all your assets (and) be able to access it,” said Daniel Fessahazion, IT/media integration specialist at the Duderstadt Center.

Nor is this equipment the pinnacle the University seeks to reach in terms of fostering innovation. Staff at the DMC work constantly to add new devices and improve the center’s overall functionality. Recently, for example, the team worked together to solve a long-standing student complaint.

“We’ve (heard from) people who are writing code, and they want to show the teacher, or they have rich media that they want to share with the group. (Originally), you’d have to hook up your device, all that stuff,” Fessahazion said. “(But) we built systems with Apple TV in them, so as long as you’re in the network, you can actually project whatever you have in your hand to the big screen. It allows collaboration to happen more easily. We’ve been working on this and working with people who manage the networks so we can allow certain protocols to occur.”

The student perspective is also one that DMC staff find particularly important. Instead of pushing decisions through a crowded bureaucracy, they actively seek out student input as they build new initiatives to further improve the experience.

“We are really close to the ground in the sense that we want to know what students are interested in and what they want to do,” Fessahazion said. “(The building process) is not driven from some administrator somewhere saying this is the kind of stuff we should do. We talk to people who say, ‘it would be awesome if I could do this,’ and if we can do it, we make it happen.”

Nor is the facility’s development process driven purely by engineering students. Through an atypical arrangement, all University students can and do use the facilities on a regular basis.

“Because (the DMC is) part of the library, arts students have access to these facilities,” said Ted Hall, advanced visualization specialist at the Duderstadt Center. “Other universities would have similar facilities, but rarely would arts students have access to them.”

Academia online

In today’s rapidly changing technological environment, futuristic new facilities and classes that move with the technical zeitgeist aren’t enough. As technology progresses and new media development filters into classrooms and onto students’ iPads, keeping up with trends requires an attitude that promotes cooperation.

“We’re trying to make the IT environment support the act of collaboration,” Atkins said. “It’s the collaboration, both on campus and across the world, that moves us to action.”

Added Soloway: “When I was at Yale, talking to colleagues was forbidden … but here at Michigan, it’s all about people working with each other.”

While Atkins and Soloway aren’t the only members of the University who think Michigan’s large community inspires innovation through communication and teamwork, there’s no denying that widespread new-media availability will permanently alter the learning environment inside and outside the classroom.

“More and more of our learning experiences are not just classroom based, they involve producing tangible objects,” Atkins said.

With learning becoming more about doing and experimenting, the University’s cyber-infrastructure has to support the technical demands of students and classes. This infrastructure supports computing, wireless networking and the University’s mobile services.

“Technology today is social, collaborative and … increasingly mobile, with a whole host of Internet appliances that people carry with them. Cloud services mean that we have bigger collections of data and new, powerful ways of extracting knowledge from the database,” Atkins said. “Our goal is to figure out how to harness all that … to help the Michigan community carry out our mission of learning, discovery and social engagement more effectively.”

But improving infrastructure and supporting new innovation is not simply about replacing old machines. With an increasing demand for storage capability, higher-bandwidth networks and IT support for staff, the University has had to devise an IT-servicing program called NextGen Michigan.

The program is essentially a strategy the University uses to find and eliminate redundant, sub-par machines campus-wide and develop ways of sharing information over mobile services. Atkins hopes that these infrastructural changes will help the University continue to foster research and innovation.

“As culture and technology platform evolves in Michigan, it will reinforce the conditions for innovation and leadership,” he said.

Others see larger, more long-term implications for the University and higher education as a whole. Duderstadt sees today’s new-media mainstays as components that continue to virtualize higher education, citing Wikipedia, Google and artificial intelligence as the triumvirate behind it all.

“Wikipedia has the capacity to build communities of people trying to learn things,” Duderstadt said. “Google is just a term now for ‘all knowledge is digitized and available.’ (Artificial intelligence) is the increasing use of analytics that can scroll through this huge amount of knowledge … and extract information.”

Together, Duderstadt believes that this combination can eventually fulfill the same role as modern universities. “(Wikipedia) is the learning community; (Google is) knowledge, like the library of Alexandria times billions; and (artificial intelligence) is the capacity to authenticate knowledge and certify learning,” Duderstadt explained. “This is a university … I think that’s your future.”

The facilities and the students must conjoin

But not everybody looks at the University’s future with the same amount of optimism. University professor John Holland, known as the father of genetic algorithms, believes that recent growth in class sizes and the depersonalization of education has compromised the University’s affinity for research and innovation.

“The University has become more and more a factory,” he said. “It’s about how efficient we are at cranking out students, and that goes partly against the notion of research.”

And despite attempts at adding to available facilities and reinvesting in new technology, Holland also sees some limits in the overall vision of the University.

“You’re not going to be doing any long-range stuff unless it has something that you can deliver in less than three years. Funding for anything longer keeps getting cut,” Holland said.

But large incoming classes and decreased state funding hasn’t stopped the University from investing in technology and improving facilities available to students. For the ‘U,’ providing and building a cutting-edge technological platform is a work-in-progress.

For the DMC, for example, funding has been plentiful. In order to improve access to technology, the University spends upward of $20,000 dollars for software packages, including programs needed to run the recording studios and 3-D labs. On top of that, the technology is constantly being updated to correlate with the current media environment.

“We just remodeled two of our audio studios, which cost about $800,000 … they’re some of the best recording facilities in North America,” said John Williams, director of the Duderstadt Center.

Ample money is also available to indulge student curiosity and facilitate their experimentation with new, powerful and obscure software.

“You have an idea … we will work with you and help your vision come to life” Fessahazion said. “Within what resources we have, we’ll buy the package, and you can play with it, use it and develop your project.”

This leads to a technical ecosystem in constant flux, as updated additions are integrated.

“Every year, the infrastructure gets better … they have new, unbelievable resources. We keep investing in the future,” Soloway said. “Is Michigan up to the challenge of change? I think it is.”

Added Atkins: “Building infrastructure is not something you do once, it’s an organic process. We have put together a new organizational structure and new policy that will keep that organic process going.”

With all these available resources, it’s up to students to take the initiative and use the services the University has put at their disposal. Facilities like the DMC offer millions of dollars worth of equipment free of charge to anyone who wants to use it. And since the DMC first opened, it has attracted people from all fields who come to the facility to bring their bold new ideas to life.

“A cardiologist … used the (recording) studio to determine whether or not you could hear the blood flow in the veins to determine if there was a lower-cost way to do early detection of arterial chlorosis,” Williams said.

Art & Design senior Danielle Battaglia envisioned the universe for her senior design project; she didn’t want to model the universe using plastic, she didn’t want to draw it out — she wanted to walk through the idea in her head.

“I wanted to model the universe. I did a lot of research on it because I was curious about black holes,” Battaglia said. “I kind of said that the Big Bang could be at the center of the black hole. I told my professor I was interested in this, and she pointed me to the DMC (Virtual Reality Lab).”

Added Atkins: “For students, there’s an unlimited amount of opportunity, but you have to take the initiative to find out and pursue it.”