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High profile business figures from Google, Microsoft and Walt Disney Studios spoke at the University of Michigan School of Information’s Bicentennial Symposium about the future of the University’s increasing technological global potential at Rackham Auditorium Friday afternoon. About 75 students and faculty attended the event.

The school, which began as the University Department of Library Science, was created in 1926 and was re-chartered as the School of Information in 1996. Since then, the School of Information has provided students with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate programs in information studies with a wide realm of focus areas.

The School of Information teaches students how to apply digital technology to nearly every facet of society — social, cultural, commercial and political. Some main areas of study include data analytics, library and information science, human computer interaction and much more. The school offers bachelor’s, Master of Science, Master of Health Informatics and Ph.D. degrees.

Prior to the keynote conversation, seven School of Information professors and assistant professors gave a series of presentations on the current state of the School and showcased individual projects being spearheaded by students and faculty.

Projects included an application to report rat sightings in Ferndale and other cities around the country, research on the benefits of learning to program and engaging with computers and an effort to connect first-generation college students to higher education through social media.

Associate Information professor Cliff Lampe, whose students researched and developed the interactive app Rat Chat, presented the civic engagement involved with the study. The app worked with Ferndale residents and asked them to text and report rat sightings in their city. The app then recorded the data and helped the city government completely understand the gravity of their city’s rat infestations.

Lampe said he learned how combining information studies with cities and local governments can bring societies into a new form of citizenship from Rat Chat.

“Information tools and services can create new ways of collaborating with city governments and collaboration between citizens and cities or governments is really what citizenship is about,” Lampe said. “It’s about productive relationships and collaboration. We think information plays a huge role for that in the new digital future.”

On the academic side, assistant Information professor Steve Oney discussed why studying computer programming is a worthwhile endeavor past what the current occupational field looks like. He touched on how programming helps the modern world manage its online potential but a lack of accessibility is hurting the field’s future. He said tapping into the humanity of programming will make the field more accessible for those willing to learn.

“Programming tools need to not only scale up to handle more complex tasks that programming tools are mostly designed for, but they also need to scale down to make simple things easy to do,” Oney said. “In other words, we need to make programming more human.”

In a similar vein of social equality, Information professor Nicole Ellison presented her research on the cognitive impacts of social media on our concept of social capital. She related her research to how first-generation college students can use the massive web of social media to connect with college alumni. Ellison developed the app College Connect, with funding from the Gates Foundation, to show first-generation students the resources they might not be aware of on their Facebook profiles.

Ellison said social media’s ability to do good should outweigh our criticism of the new technology.

“We shouldn’t really spend a whole lot of time worrying about why people are posting pictures of avocado toast on Instagram and rather really think about how we can use social media to benefit us and to make things happen and one of those things might be getting more first-generation students to place in colleges,” Ellison said.

The keynote panelists consisted of all University of Michigan alumni —  Peter Lee, vice president of corporate research at Microsoft, Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product at Google, and Jamie Voris, chief technology officer at Walt Disney Studios.

To begin the panel discussion, moderator Thomas A. Finholt, dean of the University’s School of Information, asked the speakers for their predictions of technology in the next decade and century.

Horowitz’s future prediction discussed technology escape velocity — technology changing faster than society can absorb it.  He also spoke on the relevant topics discussed in science fiction and how these are real possibilities for the future of technology.

“We get to see the collective societal thinking about where technology is going through science fiction,” Horowitz said. “ ‘Black Mirror’ is looking at very near future scenarios — what happens when we can record every moment of our lives? How does that change things?”

Horowitz also related this notion to the student experience. The University’s future developments will greatly influence education, research and preparing future leaders. When hiring young employees in the technology industry, Horowitz considers a degree from the University of Michigan to speak to a candidate’s ability to get a job done.

Finholt asked panelists what they think are the essential skills students need today to achieve a tenured timeline.

Lee spoke about the issues surrounding losing touch with the purely curiosity-driven and open fundamentals of research that are in liberal forms of education. He further applied this idea to how bringing particular skills to the table can prepare students.

“It’s important to have an innate curiosity, open-mindedness and an ability to work on a team of people,” Lee said. “I think that foundation is of a higher value to the future.”

Voris spoke about the special elements that the University of Michigan possesses in providing students with a well-rounded technological education. According to Voris, even in a career where you are the main player, having the tangibility of the University experience as a foundation allows students to continuously learn.

“I think from a research perspective, I think that partnership between the university and industry is incredibly important,” Voris said. “I think fundamentally the university experience, more than any specific piece of knowledge, is about learning how to learn.”

LSA freshman Dustin Stabinski, a preferred admissions student to the School of Information, said he felt excited about how these technology professionals believe currently stereotypical ideas of the future, such as “Black Mirror”, can become real possibilities. After attending this event, he felt reaffirmed in pursuing information studies and building a future for himself in the technology industry.

“I think this definitely reassured me of the information I want to go into because definitely being in a place where we’re socially not in the best place advancing towards the future, this gives us hope that as technology advances, there is definitely some positive out there.” 

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