Using a tool for the future

by Joe Carlson

Digital technology: The University has asked $195 million for it and it’s a big part of Gov. Arne Carlson’s blueprint for bringing Minnesota into the 21st century.
But administrators and politicians have begun to use the term so frequently that it threatens to become just another ambiguous catch-all phrase.
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Marvin Marshak said that digital technology has begun to permeate every aspect of life for students, Minnesotans and the rest of the world. At one time in the not-too-distant past, technology was reserved largely for engineering students and professionals. But that has changed.
“(Technology) was really remote from the experience of most people,” he said. Marshak said that even his own pager has forced him into the digital future in a small way.
“My pager (was) going off with an e-mail message from my daughter who is spending junior year abroad in Berlin, telling me that she had just e-mailed me her latest paper,” he said. “(She was) asking me to please read it and send her comments because it was due the next morning in Europe.”
These new technologies are not just shaping the way people work, but also the way that humans think about the world and each other.
“Every facet of modern life is impacted by digital technology,” said Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology.
“It’s clear that the world is going digital,” said Donald Riley, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs. “It’s not always clear what that means or whether or not it’s a good thing, but it’s happening.”
What is Digital Technology?
Digital technology is an often misunderstood concept, Davis said. Technology is any engineered invention or solution to a problem, such as new machines or equipment that are used in the production of chemicals. Digital technology is a certain type of technology using digitalized information, which is stored in the form of ones and zeros, usually on magnetic devices such as hard drives and floppy disks.
President-elect Mark Yudof said that he classifies digital technology by two major categories: scientific modeling and simulation, and multimedia and telecommunications.
Supercomputer simulation allows engineers and scientists to design highly theoretical products and test them under conceivable circumstances. For example, aerospace engineers can begin production on the new Boeing 777 jumbo jet without ever physically constructing a prototype.
“I think of it as almost a new methodology in science,” Yudof said. “In the past you had experimentation and observation basically, and now you have modeling and simulation.”
But while it is mainly the scientific community which benefits from this digital technology, nearly everyone at the University stands to benefit from multimedia and telecommunications. This side of the coin includes everything from the Internet to teleconferencing.
And it is largely this aspect which the University is looking to expand upon for the good of students and the state.
“What’s really new and different here is that we are talking about moving digital computing and communications out of the scientific and technical realm, into the position where it effects large numbers of educated people,” Marshak said.
The importanceof technology
As part of its 1998-99 budget request, which the state uses to decide how much funding it will give the University, the Board of Regents has asked for $195 million over the next four years to be invested in technology and technology-related initiatives.
Brian Dietz, Gov. Carlson’s communications coordinator, said that although digital technology has become much more prominent in the lives of the citizens of Minnesota, it will continue to become even more important in the future.
“Technology has always been part of our economic backbone and as we move into the next century,” Dietz said, “the economy will be technologically driven.
“It will lead our nation and our state into the next century, and unless we get on board and become technologically advanced, we will fall behind.”
The governor has written that digital technology has come to the forefront of debates about how Minnesota should maintain or increase the livelihood of its citizens. There is a number of reasons why technology has become such a large priority, and one of the most compelling has to do with the state’s natural resources, or lack thereof.
“If we are going to enjoy the quality of life that we have and improve that quality of life,” Marshak said. “It is going to be dependent on our ability to bring back profits from the rest of the world, and to do that we are going to have to use our intelligence and brain power, because frankly we don’t have a lot of other stuff to sell.
“The resource that we do have is the educated brains of our people,” he added.
Yudof, who has been involved in the boost of focus on digital technology at the University of Texas at Austin, echoed these sentiments.
“The wealth is in your brain power, not your bituminous coal,” Yudof said.
“It used to be that Texas was advantaged because it had a lot of oil, and California was a big agricultural state, but your primary resource in the new era is the human resource,” he said.
“If Minnesotans play it smart and strategically invest and make sure some of the applied research connects up with the industry,” Yudof added, “Minnesotans can connect up with industry in Taiwan or Burma or just across the border into Wisconsin.”
Becoming a globalcompetitor
In fact, global connection is another, more macroscopic motivation behind the increased emphasis on digital technology at the University.
Advances during the information age have begun to shrink the world one copper wire at a time, connecting people on every continent at the speed of light and enabling telecommunication like never before. This technology has affected humankind not just socially, but economically.
Technological advances have caused a dramatic shift in the way commerce is conducted across the globe, connecting buyers and sellers of every nation more directly than ever before. This has caused a trend that Riley calls “deintermediariazation,” which is the removal of intermediaries from the selling process.
“In the past, our primary vehicle (for commerce) has been face-to-face, and so we have all these intermediaries,” Riley said. But the Internet and other digital technologies allow businesses “to do business directly with the primary source.”
This is one of a host of factors which has spurred a major shift in economics, from local and national economies to global and international systems. To prosper in this new global economy as state legislators and University administrators argue, the state must recognize this trend and take advantage of it.
“Being a strong global competitor means having top quality jobs and top quality health care, a strong economy, low unemployment,” Dietz said. “Without quality jobs, everything just seems to break down.”
Enhancing the state
One of the things that Minnesota has done in order to avoid falling behind is create a technology office last fall. “That is a new office that the governor has created,” Dietz said, “to coordinate all technological efforts under one roof and make sure the state has a mission for technology as we look ahead.”
Paul Wasko, who works in the state’s technology office heading education and training, said that many people perceive digital technology as simply a mess of computer chips and capacitors inside a computer, but it actually is much more.
“I can buy computers, but if I don’t have people trained on them or if they’re not hooked up or if I don’t have (software) to use, it becomes kind of hard,” Wasko said. “You find yourself sitting with boxes that may or may not get used.”
The University plays a large role in preparing the state for digital technology.
“The University is an extremely important part of making sure Minnesota is prepared for the next century technologically,” Dietz said. “The resources at the University have the capability to produce new products and have those produced and made in Minnesota.”
Though technological innovations are an important part of the contributions the University makes to the state, some administrators have said that well-educated students are an even more effective means of transfer.
“Our best technology transfer mechanism is our students who go out and basically are the business in Minnesota,” Marshak said. He pointed out that the University has over 400,000 alumni, many of whom still reside in the state and work for large, multinational companies such as 3M, Cargill Incorporated and Medtronic Incorporated.
Enhancing student life
But the benefits of increased digital technology at the University won’t just go to Minnesota and global business. Students will also see increased services, such as the advances on the registration homepage.
“The registration process at the University of Minnesota used to consist of standing in line until you got to the counter,” Davis said.
But now, students now can register totally online, via the registration homepage. “You can register from anywhere in the world from this page, you can talk directly to any professor you want,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who is also the chairman of the House Higher Education Budget Division. In addition, the page will give a graphic display of building and class locations as well as parking options.
“I think it gives you a huge advantage as a student, and frankly, begins to solve a lot of the University’s problems,” Pelowski said.
One proposal currently being considered would require all University students to have personal computers in some form. “Now we’re not talking about a $2,000 laptop computer,” Pelowski said. “If you can get those little boxes that attach to your television for a couple hundred bucks, that may be all the access most students need. That would allow them to register, and that would allow them access to information.”
The University does not take lightly its mission to prepare its students to work in the 21st century. To keep apace with the changing nature of business in the world, the University needs to reevaluate its goals and redefine its means of reaching those goals, Riley said.
“We really have to look around and say ‘What’s happening in the world?'” Riley said.
“We need to educate our students in a new set of capabilities,” Marshak said, including search strategies for culling information from the vast databases on the World Wide Web.
“We have an obligation to our students to make sure that they have those tools. I would not want to see a student leave the University today without some rudimentary idea how to send and receive e-mail message,” Marshak said.
“I think that we’re not there yet, but its somewhere in the not too distant future,” Marshak said.