Tech's the engine, not the driver

Soon after he arrived on campus, Pete Siegel sat down for this interview on subjects ranging from his goals as IET's new vice provost and his views on millennial students, to where UC Davis excels in technology and what he hopes to do for fun once he settles in.


Let's start with a broad question. What's the proper role of technology in university education in 2006?

Technology is enormously important, but should not be a driver for its own sake. It is a tool that enables people to do the other things they would like to do, and do them better.

Everyone believes technology is important. It is easy for people to focus on the idea that "this is just so cool, we've just got to have it." We have to look at it the other way, and say, "This is an exciting capability, how can it help our faculty and our students do their work better?" Can they collaborate better? Or does it distract them from collaborating?

How do you keep the right perspective? How do you keep technology from taking over the task you're trying to accomplish?

Part of it, for us technologists, is to be mindful of our job in terms of really working with the community. People in technology get asked, "What's your vision?" A big part of our vision is understanding what people are trying to do and converting it into technological terms.

We also have a job to go the other way, to take the technology developments we know are coming and translate them into the terms that are really relevant. "Here is something that will help you in teaching," not "here is a great new learning management system."

You have to get feedback from your community. You have to see whether they achieve the results. And you must have measures for whether you are successful.

Which university excels at using tech to serve its educational mission? What makes it succeed? Name a place, or at least the properties.
Some of the properties relate innovation in technology to the strategic goals of the campus. Some campuses get out perhaps a little too far on the notion that really cool technology is a wonderful recruitment strategy. It's an important strategy--if you don't have a good technological base, it hinders the recruitment of good students. But you have to look at what can be delivered.

So, the campuses I like have a tenacious, pervasive strategy for grooming the technologies to have impact on a large number of students.

The most successful campuses don't just do innovative things in demo mode, but put them into production. They're places where you have an organization like IET that can work with the colleges to bring things out into the classrooms, into the research environments. And that kind of tenacity has to be a long-term goal of the campus to be successful.

The greatest opportunity for impact comes from campuses that have a long tradition of having faculty think about how they use technology.

I think what Davis will want to do is not look at those campuses that are seen in some aggregate or abridged form as the leaders, but to look at its own strengths, places where Davis could excel very, very quickly.

One area is the strong ties between the medical community and the campus scientific community in terms of biological sciences with connections to engineering, to agriculture, to Vet Med. With the relationships that have been built, we ought to be seen as one of the global stars in the use of technology to create cross connections, across the disciplines, in interdisciplinary research.

Davis is in a wonderful position to excel, because it's got these traditional strengths.

So you start where the university has been strong, and then apply the technology needed to support that mission?

The campus has a long history in the use of technology, and one element is figuring out the right investment. You can't just spend enormous amounts of money and get a good result.

I won't name names, but there are campuses that put an enormous investment in IT, substantially higher than ours, who are not ranked as highly as we are. You don't see close correlation between that overall investment. You do see a good correlation between focused investments.


Ancient texts, modern devices

You've talked previously about using educational technology back into the 1960s. I think of educational technology, in the sense we talk about it today, of being fairly new.

Many aspects of what we do, in terms of teaching and research, is the same it's always been. The difference is that we can get it to more people. We can have colleagues all over the world, and we have much richer media.

Some folks on campus would just as soon have nothing to do with new technology. They like the way they've worked.

There are areas where some faculty may decide they don't need to make significant use of technology. But they will have colleagues down the hall, and new faculty coming to their department, who will make critical use of this technology.

I once talked to a faculty member who was doing work on ancient languages, specifically cuneiform script. He had a journal article which was very traditional and very interesting. I asked, "How do you do your work, how do you understand these texts you're looking at, how do you figure out all the letters and the meaning of the text?"

He said, "I use all of these different laser lighting techniques to shine on the cut clay tablets, and then I put it all on the Internet. I can show you a CD which has my work on it, and I have a particular piece of software that I use ..."

I'm tremendously impressed with how people in a variety of disciplines, whom one might think have nothing to do with these technologies, can take a dvantage of them.


Late to the technoworld?

An Educause survey said UC Davis, and the UCs in general, were late adopters of technology. Do you agree? Does it matter to be late?

Part of the answer is to look at the evidence, and to determine where it really does matter to the campus.

Innovative use of medical technologies is one area. I went to a meeting this afternoon about the use of high-performance clusters for research computing. The projects this campus is doing are world class. Some of the best people in the world are here. Maybe we need to look at the range of areas where we really want to be excellent, and if we are, then I'd say we're early adopters, in the sense that we're focusing on areas where we can really be excellent.

I don't want this comment to seem trivial, but sometimes some of this relates to public relations. It's always good to do good public relations, and to let people know what you're doing.

But Davis has some real strengths, and we ought to do two things. One is to make sure we're telling the story of where we are excellent. The other is to look at areas where we might invest that can have a multiplying effect, on both reputation and the reality.

One area might be looking at investments in lowering the barriers for faculty to use computing clusters. Another is to get wireless access far more pervasive on campus. My favorite example of use of wireless is students collecting in stairwells to work collaboratively on a project. And anything we can do to create that kind of effective use of technology, even in these sort of very low, very simple ways ... some of these investments may be necessary.

But it's very important to go back to measures, because the public-relations version, as important as it is to campus reputation, has to have substance behind it.


Early goals: Partnerships and transparency

What are your goals for informational and educational technology at Davis? What would you like to accomplish first?

The most important one is interpersonal. The way for us collectively to be most successful is to take a very strong partnership view--of really working with the major stakeholders on campus--and making sure we know where we want to go together, and that we're really clear on the role technology can play in moving the campus forward.

The second goal is maybe more programmatic or financial: making sure that IET as an organization, but technology in general on this campus, is an open book. That we're as transparent as we can possibly be on our investments, on the value to the community. That way we can say to the community, "You know what we're doing in this area, and with this additional investment we can do the following things that will make your lives easier or improve your programs."

There are also some areas involving fundamental technology investments, in terms of co-location facilities for a data center that will support a wide variety of faculty systems, high-performance computing, other types of systems. Many people have talked about these things. They might spur the kind of innovation where faculty can focus more on what they'll do on the systems, rather than in finding space, power, and cooling to run those types of systems.

Some areas in there are likely to be important early foci and early investments. But we must look broadly so that we don't focus on just one or two areas, but ask what the growth areas are going to be in the next three, five, 10 years. So those investments stand the test of time.

Another area is to have a transparent strategy for telecommunications and have everyone on the campus in a position to understand what investments we can make, which things they need to do.

Those are a couple of areas. I see some others naturally developing. One ties together classroom technologies and online learning, looking at how faculty teach. I love to understand the aspects of technology that outstanding teachers want to use, in the classroom and online.


Teaching the millennials

Students typically use technology differently than faculty do. And this leads to something you wrote in your July blog about the millennials, today's university students who grew up using high technology and expect to keep using it when they get to college. You wrote, "the academic community needs to find ways to move past the newness factor, to bring technology into the basic life of the campus in substantive ways ... not because it is cool or even because it's millennial-friendly, but because it provides us with tools that increase our reach and flexibility." How will this play out at UC Davis? Are conditions different here?

Davis has a history of work in this area. Plus you have these young students coming in with different expectations and comfort levels with use of technology; same with new faculty. So this world will continue to develop.

Students will come in not only with a consumerist view of technology, but also experience from high school, or maybe earlier grades, where they expect technology to be a key element in how they learn.

I'm reminded of a study done by a professor at Harvard, Chris Dede, who does innovative work with video and animation both in the Ivy League learning context but also for disadvantaged students in high schools. He worked on a project, on the MIT campus, that related to a problem about pollution. Students would have to evaluate where the problem was, they'd have to work in teams, you'd need specialists in environmental areas, engineering, hydraulics and other things, basically to identify the pollution.

At the end, the students would have a r eport to the presidents of the university saying what to do about the problem.

If I recall correctly, the high school students did the best, not the graduate students at MIT. They already knew that when you have a team of students, whether they're going to get pizza or they're working on a project in high school, they already knew how to divide up the work, how to make sure that each person was depended on for their strengths, so that the engineer wasn't asked to do the public relations. And they were used to doing it at a distance, using a variety of technologies.

Comfort and competence in using technology made them better learners.

I once heard a presenter say that much of what we test for assumes the old way we all used to learn. And I've become convinced--I don't say this as a technologist, but as someone who has learned the more traditional ways--that there are some advantages in a collaborative, problem-solving environment, the world we live in today. If you have complicated global warming, complicated problems, a need for more effective automobiles, you can't solve the problem by simply putting engineers in one room and the designers in a different room. You have to have this group working together.

We should not consider the millennials to be a monolithic group where "they all learn this way." But we're going to use this technology to allow for a wider variety of learning types, of collaboration types, so that people can collaborate more effectively. It's extremely important.

The millennials are very interesting, but what's most interesting is that all of us will come to view these things as normal. Not as a great new technology, but just as the things we use.


Two kids in physics--and no more tornadoes

How do you like Central Valley life so far? Discovered any favorite places yet?

It's been great. I've spent a lot of time focused on getting settled, h ouse-wise. The weather has been great. I really look forward to getting up onto some of the trails around here. I've talked to a number of folks about the wide variety of places to go.

My wife and I are thrilled that we're in a central location for getting to several interesting places. We both enjoy having trains around; the very good train service, and also some old railroads, and some history of that, is also fun. We've done a little bit of wandering around in Sacramento.

A lot of it must wait for us to have a little bit more spare time. Once we do, we know the weather's going to be great.

We can get a mean fog in February.

Driving in fog can be a challenge. I'm guessing it's not going to be as bad as waiting under your house for a tornado to go by.

Your daughter's in Boston, your son's in Berkeley?

She's an undergraduate in physics, and my son is a graduate student in physics. They're not in exactly the same field. She's more on the chemistry side, physical chemistry. I can't explain it, but they're very technologically oriented.

Both are examples of people who, no matter what their work is, spend a lot of their time collaborating with friends, including maintaining relationships with friends from high school. That's typical of students of this age; they maintain relationships far longer than any of us did.

What Web sites do you visit for fun? News sites, hobby sites?

News sites, I go to a variety of them, CNN, New York Times, and others. I go to a number of community sites in relation to the news. In terms of fun? Hiking, looking at winery sites, looking at reviews. Using the information in a practical way--finding out where the hiking sites are, and figuring out how to get there.

Leaving the Internet behind and getting out into nature is the goal. It's great to see a picture, but that only spurs me to go and see it in person.
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