A natural friend of tech

One day in the early 1970s, Professor Caroline Bledsoe remembers, her husband brought home a metal box with blinking lights, small screen and keyboard. It was a primitive home computer. She was a soil microbiologist, not a technologist. She was not impressed.

Carol  Bledsoe Caroline Bledsoe

"He could program it, but there was no way to get anything out of it," Bledsoe says. "And I wasn't interested in it at all. It was sitting in the middle of the living room, and I thought, 'Why do we have this?' "

Then her husband added a printer, and she saw potential. A printer meant information in the machine could come out. She recalled the anxiety of typing her doctoral thesis in 1970, when an omission or change on a page meant having to retype every page that followed. Writing on a computer would make any document much easier to produce.

That was only the start of what information technology would help her achieve as she continued her career in soil and plant sciences.

That career brought Bledsoe to UC Davis 17 years ago. Four years ago, when the campus formed the Campus Council for Information Technology from two predecessor groups, she became its chair. The council (its nickname is pronounced "C.C. Fit") advises on educational and information technology and its use at UC Davis to support instruction, research, administration, and public service. Specifically, the council advises Information and Educational Technology Vice Provost Pete Siegel and Interim Provost Barbara Horwitz. CCFIT helps them make decisions, assign priorities, and set goals.

Its recommendations matter. The council is the main pl ace on a large and decentralized campus where people representing the many parts of UC Davis can evaluate an IT initiative from their diverse perspectives, according to their interests. When students ask for more wireless coverage at the Silo or MU, here's where they make their point and discuss why the campus should make it a priority.

With information technology spreading further into campus life, and the need for tech coordination increasingly clear, the person who chairs CCFIT can become a leading voice in shaping the direction of UC Davis.

Bledsoe will retire in June, and signed off as CCFIT chair at the end of 2007. She will stay on the council until June to support and provide continuity to the council and its new chair, Francois Gygi. Bledsoe talked with IET senior writer and editor Bill Buchanan late last November, in her office and lab on the third floor of Plant and Environmental Sciences, where she discussed her career and what comes next.

Steering the spread of wireless

How does CCFIT work?

Council members suggest topics they're interested in investigating, or a sponsor or a group on campus will say, 'We're thinking about developing this project, we'd like to come to talk to you about it and get your feedback.' Sponsors come, give a presentation to the council, and get a lot of questions from a very diverse membership--we have undergraduates, graduate students, staff, ADMAN [administrative managers or management services officers], federation faculty and Academic Senate faculty, and other administrative units.

The council is large, but information technology touches all of us on campus, and there are all kinds of interconnections. It is important to have everybody all there together.

Why would someone bring a project to CCFIT? Why wouldn't they say, 'We'll just do this work withi n our own area?'

They might say, 'Oh, I better run it by CCFIT because I bet Pete Siegel will ask me, "Have you considered so and so, or have you asked the advice of this broad council? Because that will let me know you've done your homework and others have had a chance to weigh in." ' The provost might say something similar.

Another reason is that they want it to be a good project and to serve the users, and this is a way to find out what the users think.

Increasing wireless coverage on campus is an example. Dave Klem [director of Communication Resources] in IET wanted to work out priorities for where to expand wireless next. So he came to CCFIT. CCFIT thought that this is really important, set up a work group, and selected the chair--Matt Bishop, a faculty member in the Computer Science Department whose research deals with wireless technology.

The wireless work group met regularly for several quarters, and gave a report to CCFIT in October. The work group gave homework to the council, some questions about wireless. The council members will consult their constituents and return with comments in January.

So you develop a good, broad review of the wireless plan.

The real key is that people consult their groups. It's part of closing the loop. If they don't consult with their constituents, and then report back to CCFIT, the process doesn't work. We ask each representative to provide a report from their constituency. You'll find all their reports from previous years on the Web site.

Can we talk?

The council produced about two dozen recommendations, and discussed about three dozen items, in 2006-07. Where has the group had its greatest impact?

One of my personal favorites is helping IET and other administrative units to recognize the critical importance of systems being able to 'talk' to other systems on campus and share data. We call that 'interoperability.'

The campus now has a group that's developing a road map that shows these major systems on campus, and who they have to share data with. At the time we first talked about how important this was, I guess we thought there'd be about six large or tier one systems--such as DaFIS [the campus financial information system] and Banner [student information system]. But there are more than 70 systems that interact.

By tier one, you mean--

Big systems that affect virtually everybody on campus. There aren't more than 70 as big as Banner and DaFIS, but they connect in some way to several other different systems, so you can't develop them in isolation.

With this recognition, units that are starting to develop new software, like Graduate Studies, come to CCFIT to talk about GradSMAART [an online graduate student application, admission and tracking project] because they recognize that it's got to obtain data from some other systems, and give up data to other systems and to campus units too. Coordination is key.

Would most people on campus involved in technological decisions agree with you about the need for coordination?

Yes, although there are frustrations. If you do things in a coordinated way, it takes ti me and effort, so you can't do them fast, and you can't tailor them to your own specific needs as easily.

Kerosene-lit breaks from technology

One of your trademarks is your deep interest in technology--specifically, how people use it in their work.

I have a little sign in my office that shows a filing cabinet with a red circle and a slash through it. I want to get rid of filing cabinets and paper copies in my office. It's so easy to find and use information digitally, as opposed to finding data somewhere in a stack of paper.

Digital information is so important in the science and the teaching that I do. I've done a lot of collaborative research, and being able to share documents and make changes, instead of having to mail them back and forth, has been a tremendous advantage.

In teaching, students have easy access to digital information on the campus Web sites. I used to do slide shows. But if a student is sick and can't see them in class, and later wants to come look at the slides, what can you do? Now it's so easy to post images in PowerPoint on the class Web site, and it is available to students 24/7.

Why step down as CCFIT chair at the end of 2007?

The simple reason is that I'm retiring in June. The more complex reason is this council is a very valuable unit on campus, and shouldn't depend on one person. So it's much better, having been chair for several years, to step down while I'm still here on campus, and then I can provide institutional memory for the new chair.

You're an interesting person to head CCFIT. You spend a month every summer in a remote cabin in Ontario, Canada. It's accessible only by boat, and you use kerosene lamps for light. You're a nature enthusiast. Yet you have an avid interest in technology. Does this help you bridge the gap between technologists and the rest of the campus?

When I was first chair of this co uncil, I was nervous because I thought I'm not enough of a technologist to really lead a group like this. But sometimes technologists forget and use jargon, while many users just don't know what's going on. So I thought, maybe I'll be good because I won't be afraid to ask questions from the user's perspectives. 'What does that term mean?' I'm so interested in how you use it.

Technology has spread past the point where only its fans need to discuss it.

Right. There are lots of details, and almost all the details matter. For example, you have to know how to protect your computers with anti-virus software, and about firewalls, or you're at risk.

You have to update your computer because otherwise it could get infected.

Yes. Maybe I don't do it myself, but I have to know I need to do it. Like with a car, maybe you don't know how to make major repairs or even change the oil, but you know you've got to get somebody to work on your car.

Flash drives as earrings

You use humor and a light touch to discuss campus tech. Why?

It can illustrate how technology can be used in innovative ways. Technology is not just used to crunch big numbers, or to store giant files. I look for people to talk to the council about interesting uses of technology.

At the end of every meeting, we have a 'show and tell' called 'technology innovation.'

Those are segments where you bring someone in to talk about technology in their work.

Yes. The topics have ranged from a demonstration in virtual reality of schizophrenia--that presentation was from Dr. Peter Yellowlees o f UCDMC--to the different ways flash drives can be configured. I did that one. I showed images of flash drives attached to jewelry, earrings, watches, lipsticks, ballpoint pens. Just as a joke, I took a picture of my cat Rumsey wearing a flash drive. Just to amuse people and expand their horizon.

The point there was to show--well, you wouldn't actually use a flash drive in an earring . . .

Well, I have a flash drive I wear around my neck. So maybe you want something a little more decorative. So you could make it into earrings. You leave home in the morning and want to make sure you take your flash drive, so you wear it. It's humorous, but there's a functional part too.

It's complex; be patient

What's the most misunderstood aspect of campus technology at UC Davis?

Wow. (pause) Sometimes people don't realize, when they ask for technology to deliver something, that it's much more complicated than they thought. And they hear 'no' not because they asked for something without value, but because there's not the resources to pull it off, right then.

It gets to be a double-edged sword. Maybe they ask IET to do something for them, and IET wants to be a service, so they say, 'Well yes, we can look into this,' but as they get into it they realize, 'Wow, what the user is really asking for, maybe they didn't understand it, is really quite involved.' Then IET may say, 'You asked for this and we said we'd look into it, and we can do it but not as soon as we originally thought.' That can be frustrating to users.

The other thing is, I wish the users of technology would be more forgiving of the learning curve.

All of us are really busy, and so I think, 'Oh, I don't want to sit down and read any manual.' I wait until the last mi nute and then they say, 'you've got to switch to this new software,' so I start doing it and it's just really frustrating, and I'm tempted to fire off an email to somebody and say, 'Why is this so difficult? I don't have time to do this!'

But I stick with it, and pretty soon I figure it out, and I can do MyTravel without any problems, and I'll get reimbursed, and it's a better system.

So, some patience is good.

Some patience, and a little bit of forgiveness for mistakes and things, and for slowdowns.

Allocate more money to campus tech

What needs to happen next in campus technology here?

I might be going out a little far on a limb, but the amount of resources that the campus invests in technology needs to increase, to be a bigger percentage of the pie. I don't know how much bigger.

Perhaps part of the funds distributed to the colleges, deans and departments could be allocated to information technology enhancements that benefit the whole campus, and that help to reduce workloads for students, staff and faculty. Hopefully the benefits are obvious to all the users. Since there is rarely any new money, re-allocation is essential.

Technology is so central to everything that we do, including security and connectivity, that we're just going to have to pay for it.

Do you have parting advice for CCFIT?

Never forget about the unheard voices on campus, the undergraduates, graduate students, federation faculty, academic faculty. They're not organized in the ways that a lot of administrative units are organized, so it's very hard to hear from them. I'd just say to CCFIT, I think one of your major missions is to keep listening to those voices.

The other thing is, technology is fun and it's here to stay.

The 12-year-old Google search expert

Are students really as savvy about technology as the popular image suggests?

Today's students are very savvy about technology. They may not be as savvy as someone who has a Ph.D. in computer science, but compared to the general population, they are very savvy.

I have a 12-year-old friend down the street and he showed me the other day how to do something on a Google search that I hadn't known how to do. It's quite useful.

When I need help figuring something out, I go and ask my graduate students. Because they just figure it out. It's very handy. Like using search engines through the library, my graduate students, they're a whiz.

Students do some very innovative things with technology. I teach a class on culinary and medicinal herbs, and the students are asked to give little presentations in PowerPoint. They are very good at finding information. They tend to want to only use the Internet, so you have to push them to get into things beyond that. But they put together very clever presentations that really enhance the ability of other students to learn.

And I love that it's so portable. If I were an undergraduate today, I could probably put together everything that I learn, notes and PowerPoint and all that kind of stuff, on a single large flash drive and take it with me. Whereas for my undergraduate work, it's in papers and boxes and when I retire next year, I'm going to recycle them. I'll never get back to that.

But students of today can have their own e-portfolio. And they can use it.

Time for the piano

What's next for you?

I want to do something with music. I've never really done that. I've been sitting in on Music 10.

Kern Holoman's class.

I sat in on the class in fall 2006 and again in fall 2007, ostensibly to learn how Dr. Holoman used technology to teach that class. But I found the subject matter so fascinating that I just kept going to the classes. Then last fall, I said, 'Can I sit in again? Because I learned about 15 percent of what you taught. I'd like to see if I can't get up to 25 or 30 percent this year.'

And I started taking piano lessons; I'd like more time to practice and play. Another activity is gardening. I live out in the country and I have a big garden, and it's fun to keep my plants growing and changing.

Like all retiring faculty, I have some papers I want to write. Review papers, synthesis papers.

The piano sounds like something totally new in your life.

It is surprising to me that with even a few months of lessons, I can sit down and play something that actually sounds like a song.

How did you decide to learn the piano?

I like to sing, but I don't have much training, and I thought, well if I played a musical instrument, I could know what the notes were and make my voice match those notes. I tried learning to play a dulcimer because I'm from Tennessee and it's a mountain instrument. But it's a little harder to learn because you have to tune it, and you have to find the fingering on the frets.

But on a piano, you get someone else to tune it, and you know that a certain key is middle C, and you hit it, and it's going to make that sound. So, in a way, it's a little bit simpler for a beginner.

It's also very easy. There's a little stool and it's sitting right there in the living room, and so I get up in the morning and while I'm boiling water for tea, I can sit down and play for a little while.

But then I have to stop and get ready for campus. After I retire, I won't.


Caroline S. Bledsoe

Tit le: Professor of soil microbiology, and soil microbiologist
Department: Land, Air and Water Resources
Recent courses taught: Trees and Forests, Culinary and Medicinal Herbs

At UC Davis, she has previously chaired the Joint Campus Council for Information Technology and, several years later, the Academic Campus Coordinating Council. (She and others eventually recommended the dissolution of the first council as ineffective. That led to the formation of the second council, as well as the similarly named Administrative Campus Coordinating Council. Eventually those two merged, creating the Campus Council for Information Technology.)

Learn more about her work here.