Andrew Dillon

Photo courtesy of the School of Information.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of Q-and-A’s with UT’s deans. Andrew Dillon has served as dean of the School of Information, formerly the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, since 2002. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Daily Texan: The majority of people probably are not familiar with what this School of Information actually does. In your own words, can you explain what the school does and what it is centered around?

Andrew Dillon: We are centered around understanding the role of information in all human endeavors, but we are particularly concerned with examining that from a human and social aspect…We are very concerned with what’s being created in terms of a world infrastructure built around practices, orientation, behaviors, habits, people in effect and what they’re doing to the world in creating this new infrastructure. 

DT: What are the most exciting things going on at the iSchool right now?

Dillon: I would say generally it’s the faculty. We’ve assembled a very diverse intellectual group. There’s 22 faculty. You’ve got 13 different Ph.D.s. We’ve got people from anthropology, psychology, computer science, engineering, library information sciences, the humanities, philosophy. So you put all these people together and it’s a very unusual mix of talent…

DT: You were formerly dean of what was then called the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Since then, obviously, the school has undergone a number of transformations in terms of its focus. How have you managed that transition?

Dillon: Gently, I’d like to think. It’s part of a broader, now international sweep that you saw happen in the late ‘90s and early part of the century. Professional schools, particularly in the librarianship and information science area, traditionally understood and recognized that the world was changing rapidly… Schools started to recognize that there was a potential for thinking about information differently, so Michigan, ourselves and Washington all changed our names to School of Information and we have traditionally [been called] graduate schools of library information sciences… It’s grown now to more than 50 of us around the world under the Information School banner.

DT: What sort of careers do graduates go into?

Dillon: Historically, it would have been librarianship, archives, museum education. That percentage has dropped considerably. Looking at our current employment information, less than 50 percent is in the more traditional, what we call the collection agencies. That employment sector is still there but it’s a smaller space for our students now. Industry, the commercial sector, the research organizations, the other 50 percent… we have this incredibly long tail. Lots of people have these odd job titles that are unique to them… these sorts of titles were created by the organization that’s hired them in. In essence, what most of those people are doing is serving as some sort of information broker and organizer within a company.

DT: What benefits come from being the smallest school on campus? And then also, what challenges arise?

Dillon: There are some advantages to small, which are very tangible. We have faculty meetings once a month… I have tea with the students every semester. I know all of the students… In that sense, the camaraderie and the sense of community is great. There is an informality that comes with the size that is tremendously advantageous…When you ask for the other side of it… by being small, we feel that we are not as well known… student recognition of us as an entity on campus is a lot lower because there are fewer of us going around. Budgetarily, especially as a specialized graduate program, we don’t have a role to play in the predominantly undergraduate-driven agenda.

DT: How do you keep students from feeling isolated from the rest of the University?

Dillon: If you come to the iSchool, you are physically present with people regularly in a confined space. If we were distributed around campus, I’m not sure we would have the same sense of identity in that way…We bring a lot of professionals in, we have a lot of open forums. There’s a commitment generally to creating that sense of partnership and community.

DT: Can you explain the importance of the capstone project here?

Dillon: Aye! That’s part of our master’s program requirements. The goal of the capstone is to say to employers and to allow students to say to employers, “Look, I’ve got a workable, real-world example of what I can do.” The idea of the capstone is to culminate the coursework you’ve done to date in a project… It becomes a very tangible, demonstrable quality to their education.

DT: Is there anything else you would like students to know about the iSchool?

Dillon: Know that if you have a skill set in the humanities or liberal arts and you feel overwhelmed by technology but are interested in it at the same time, this is absolutely the program for you. We take people with almost zero computational skill and turn them into information professionals. If you are willing to work, we can do it.

Students study in the lobby of the School of Information on Wednesday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Madison Richards | Daily Texan Staff

Located off campus on Guadalupe sits the School of Information. With its vague name and small enrollment, many students, particularly undergraduates, are left wondering what the program is, if they’re aware of the school at all.

“I have never heard of it,” computer science senior Daniel Cheng said.

Jeremy Selvidge, a graduate student in the school, said he often has to explain to his friends and people he meets what a “school of information” is.

“A lot of the time we refer to it as ‘iSchool,’ and they think I’m saying ‘high school,’” said Selvidge, who is also a co-director of the Student Association of the School of Information. “So we have to explain to them, ‘No, it’s a master’s program. We’re not kidding.’”

The school is an interdisciplinary graduate school that studies the role of information in society and makes information accessible.

“We try to understand the role and uses of information in modern society and how to help people manage, create and organize information,” said Matthew Lease, an assistant professor at the school.

Information school dean Andrew Dillon said in an email that the lack of knowledge about the iSchool, particularly by undergraduate students, is a result of the program’s small size and graduate focus.

Lease said there is also an undergraduate minor, but, unless students are in that program or request to take graduate courses, the access to undergraduates is limited. Currently, the school has 300 graduate students, 22 faculty members from various disciplines and 14 staff members, according to Dillon.  

“We don’t have a large undergraduate presence,” Dillon said. “We are also the smallest school on campus, but our work touches every discipline.”

But more computer science undergraduate students may be aware of the school beginning in fall 2015, with the start of the information school’s new five-year bachelor and master degrees program in conjunction with the Department of Computer Science.

“What the five-year program is going to do is create a new breed of very employable graduates, who will not only have very strong back-end skills but also people who have the skills and experience to do very effective front in design in terms of user experience and usability,” said Lease, who has been helping to develop the program.

Dillon said the program is funded completely by the information school and the computer science department.

Lease said the duality of the program will make students more appealing to potential employers.

“They don’t want people who can just measure user experience,” Lease said. “They want people who can also build and improve the systems to be more usable.”  

The program’s focus on digital information processing and presentation relates to the changing model information studies.

The University’s iSchool in its current form was created as an adaptation of the traditional school of library science model, Lease said. He said that in the digital age, it became necessary to look at information in a way other than the standard physical sense.

“What’s happened with the digital age is we have a lot more information that is located online or in other kinds of digital repositories,” Lease said. “So now, we need to not only help people find physical information in physical places, but also help people find digital information in digital places.”

The school also offers non-digital-based courses. Lease said it has facilities for all areas of information studies from digital work to document preservation. According to Lease, the school received its current building in 2005. 

“In our space, we have everything from new computer labs to organic chemistry labs for restoring and treating old books and manuscripts to restore them,” Lease said.

Selvidge said it can be difficult being so far away from other university facilities but that the isolated building also has its benefits.

“Being kind of removed from campus and self-contained in this building helps to foster a sense of community and helps people get to know each other more intimately and understand each other’s area of concentration,” Selvidge said.

Andrew Dillion, the Dean of the School of Information, gave a lecture on how to make sense in an information world when
interpreting data at the AT&T Center.

Photo Credit: Emily Ng | Daily Texan Staff

Andrew Dillon, Dean of the School of Information, emphasized the importance of extracting meaning from large amounts of data Wednesday afternoon at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. 

For 90 minutes, Dillon lectured UT faculty and individuals in the business field on methods used to comprehend information.

“We are always pressurized to think that if you don’t keep up, you will be lost,” Dillon said. “The point is to feel less overwhelmed and in control. It’s not the data that matters, it’s how you use it.”

Every month, the McCombs School of Business invites UT students, faculty and the public to attend the Texas Enterprise Speaker Series, in which experts across the UT campus display their research.

Gayle Hight, public affairs representative for the McCombs School of Business, said she believed the audience would benefit from hearing Dillon speak.

“Dillon has studied human knowledge for the past 20 years. He has research that has significant business applications,” Hight said.

Dillon’s presentation delved into a psychological approach on the effect of an influx of data and technology by showcasing several experiments to understand the human perceptual system. According to Dillon, today’s issue is the emphasis of search over comprehension, location over learning and automatic processing over controlled processing.

“We have to worry about how humans explore and interpret data,” Dillon said. “We construct our own worlds and things aren’t always what they seem.”

While Dillon presented the issue, he also provided the audience with several solutions to distinguish between rapid data and knowledge.

Dillon offered four steps, including limiting distractions, understanding limits on attention and memory, identifying patterns and choosing information that benefits needs and not wants.

At the end of the lecture, Dillon invited the audience to discuss, comment and ask questions. Ruth Fagan-Wilen, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, provided her own perspective on the relationship between humans and technology.

“I like the idea of avoiding distractions,” Fagan-Wilen said. “His idea of staying focused is important but sometimes you can be too focused on a task and miss out on something else.”

Printed on Thursday, February 7, 2013 as: Lecture indicates merits of data

 

While sites such as Bing and Google are marketing ways to make Internet browsing more specific, a popular website is capitalizing on the fun of surfing the Web.

StumbleUpon.com caters to users’ interests by providing pages related to preselected topics. In an effort to further expand their popularity among college students, the site has launched its Stumble to Spring Break challenge, in which students get people signed up on the site to compete for up to $5,000 for a Spring Break trip.

Mathematics junior Justin Larkins said he “fell in love” with the site shortly after his first visit more than three years ago. He said he found the contest one day while using the site and formed UT’s team, “The Others.”

“For all of us, StumbleUpon has been something we’ve been using for a long time, and which has always been there ready to somehow send us somewhere which brightens our day,” Larkins said. “If I’m ever feeling down or bored or just want to spin the wheel of chance, I ‘stumble’ and everything becomes right.”

Andrew Dillon, dean of the School of Information, said sites such as Google yield results to user searches with no explanation as to why Internet users often have to wade though links of no interest to them.

“Given the explosion of information available to anyone with a browser, new and improved tools for supporting navigation and personalization of interest are demanded by users,”
Dillon said.

Dillon said he can not say exactly how much more useful StumbleUpon may be than similar tools but he anticipates many other sites with similar strategies to offer users content based on their preferences.

“The promise is that it will learn your interests and preferences quickly by simple up/down ratings you provide and similarly find people who share your tastes,” he said.

StumbleUpon spokeswoman Katie Gray said the contest is the foundation of what she hopes will be a long-term effort to market the company.

“We are in the process of creating an ambassadors program, so we are hoping the contest will grow into a more permanent position,” she said.

Students participating in the ambassadors program will be paid promoters for the company and market the site by distributing merchandise with the site’s logo to help spread the word.

Gray credits the recent rise in popularity to the company’s 2009 branch-off from former owners.

“We struck out on our own and started up again,” she said. “We now only have about 60 employees, so it’s an exciting time to be here.”

The site, which was launched in 2001, now has more than 12 million users and anticipates more followers after the contest, which ends on March 1. More than 63 teams are currently participating in the contest, including two teams of UT students.