D-Lib Magazine
February 1999

Volume 5 Number 2

ISSN 1082-9873


Using Collaboration to Advance High Technology Initiatives

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Barbara McFadden Allen
Assistant Director of the CIC
Director, CIC Center for Library Initiatives
Committee on Institutional Cooperation
Champaign, Illinois
[email protected]



What would happen if a dozen independent, successful, competing corporations aligned themselves to leverage the strengths of each in order to enhance and strengthen each individual corporation? What would happen if they organized teams of experts from each of their corporations to address common concerns, build on areas of expertise, and identify short and long term goals for enhancing the ability of the individual corporations to better serve their primary customer base? Doubtless such pre-competitive cooperation would result in advances for each entity, as the group built upon the strengths and successes of the individuals. Such is the vision, and the reality, of the workings of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation - a consortium of 12 major teaching and research universities including the members of the Big Ten Athletic Conference and the University of Chicago. By sharing expertise, building on individual strengths, and focusing on achieving real excellence in teaching and learning, the CIC member universities are realizing dramatic improvements in every area of academic endeavor.

Since 1958, the CIC, under the guidance of the chief academic officers of the member institutions, has operated on three principles: 1) that no single institution can or should attempt to be all things to all people; 2) that inter-institutional cooperation permits educational experimentation and progress on a scale beyond the capability of any single institution acting alone; and 3) that voluntary cooperation fosters effective, concerted action while preserving institutional autonomy and diversity.

Leading The Way in Technology Initiatives for Higher Education and Information Services

The universities of the CIC are:

These universities stand, individually, as leaders and pioneers in computing, information, and networking technology. Working through the CIC, the member institutions have leveraged their deep pool of human, technical, and information resources and expertise to maintain a position on the leading edge of technology and the delivery of higher education. For example, the CIC member universities pioneered the development of the first all T-1 multi-state data network in the country -- CICNet -- and continue innovation in the area of data communications through their participation in the Metropolitan Research and Education Network (MREN). MREN partners support a wide range of advanced research applications requiring high-performance and high bandwidth. Among other areas of fruitful collaboration, CIC and MREN are deploying applications for leading edge digital video technology.

Information technology activities in the CIC, which complement and support many other CIC projects and programs, fall into many areas, but a few of these many projects and investigations include:

Highlighting just a few of the major initiatives in these areas is instructive in understanding the size, scope, and potential for such collaborative activity.

Within the area of library services, the CIC university libraries have successfully deployed the Virtual Electronic Library, a large-scale distributed union catalog effort linking together the disparate online library catalogs of these institutions using the Z39.50 protocol, providing a web-based patron interface, and allowing patrons to search across the many catalogs and place their own requests for information resources. Together, the CIC university libraries house some 64 million volumes. By providing both search and delivery of materials from these collections, library patrons across the CIC have access to a collection far exceeding the size and scope of any individual institution�s collection. Additional work in collaboratively creating digital content -- and providing access to the pool of materials -- will form the basis of much of the future work of the CIC libraries.

The CIC High Performance Computational Science Program provides an interface between the CIC members and the technological resources of the National Computational Science Alliance. Among the many activities supported through this program, the HPC coordinates CIC member university access to service units (SUs) on high-performance systems maintained as part of the National Computational Science Alliance. Each CIC university has been allocated 21,000 units on the NCSA system. The allocations liaisons on each campus receive 1,000 SUs, and the other 20,000 are distributed to computational researchers in CIC universities.

The CIC Common Market of Courses and Institutes (CMCI) supports a model for distance learning course delivery. The CMCI enables students at CIC universities to take advantage of selected offerings at other CIC universities through electronic media while registering at their home campuses. It also facilitates enrollment in selected summer language institutes at CIC universities. Twelve courses will be delivered during Spring, 1999, with courses scheduled into the year 2001.

The Learning Technology Initiative (LTI) supports the cooperative development and use of advanced instructional technologies to realize both academic and economic benefits through consortial mechanisms for sharing resources and expertise. The CIC institutions seek, through the LTI program, to collaboratively acquire, develop, and implement instructional resources grounded in the innovative use of new technologies and to develop faculty expertise in the application of these resources to their courses. The LTI Seed Grant Program is designed to provide startup funding for learning technology projects supporting instruction at the CIC universities, with particular focus on credit instruction leading to a degree.

Infrastructure for Project Management

New and emerging technologies provide ever more opportunity for collaborative achievement across the CIC, and collaborative tools for decision making fuel the necessary behind-the-scenes planning and project development. In many ways, the success of the CIC can be attributed to the successful establishment of a far-reaching, encompassing network of human interactions among CIC university administrators, faculty, and staff. The foundations for this network were laid in the early years when necessarily face-to-face meetings established relationships among key administrative groups.

But emerging technologies have supported and fueled a dramatic increase in the scope and number of successful projects. Email lists and conference calls now support much of the day-to-day work, punctuated by face-to-face meetings and conferences which serve to sharpen the vision and identify strategies for implementation. Distributed computing technologies make possible all manner of collaborative decision making, research, and development that would not have been possible in a decision-making environment restricted by geography, time, and institutional boundaries. In what is perhaps the most exciting demonstration of the potential technologies for future collaboration, the CIC Digital Video Working Group successfully conducted a meeting of 38 people gathered at 13 video-enabled sites across the CIC. With each site using different bit rates, different networks, and diverse software, the group sustained a successful two hour conference.

It has become a cliché to state that the Internet makes possible the ability to work across geopolitical boundaries. In the CIC, faculty and staff demonstrate the effectiveness of such technology. Often beginning with the humble email list, which supports interaction among a group of peers (for instance, the individuals on each campus responsible for network security), some projects emerge as products of interest and discussion generated on the lists. Perhaps one or two individuals facing the same problem on their respective campuses will contact one another to share ideas and experiences. Not infrequently, a staff member working on a particular issue or challenge will simply post a message to the group containing the germ of a project.

A CIC staff member monitors and participates in each email list, and will often point out that other CIC groups have expressed interest or concern on the topic at hand. From there, a project idea or suggestion may be posted on numerous lists, with feedback provided by many parties. As each project gains momentum, key decision making groups such as the provosts, chief information officers, or library directors will provide input, feedback and guidance. Much of the initial work may be informal, with some ideas withering for lack of interest or support. But this natural pruning of ideas early in the process ensures that only those projects that support real improvements on the individual campuses will succeed.

To be sure, some projects are "top down" initiatives from the highest levels of university administration. Key administrative groups such as the provosts, the chief information officers, the research vice presidents, and the library directors meet on a regular basis to share ideas and identify productive areas for collaborative activity. The CIC headquarters staff of nine FTE guide and direct the projects, and work to ensure that projects receive cross-disciplinary input when appropriate. Projects are developed and deployed by CIC member university faculty and staff, and are funded through contributions from each university or through grants.

Balancing Act: Supporting Individual Excellence through Collaboration and Cooperation

The success of the CIC might be attributed to any number of factors, but among those the commitment to collaboration demonstrated by the university administrators, the availability of collaborative communication tools, the richness and depth of human, technical, and information resources, and the recognition that the success of the CIC truly depends upon every member seeing benefit from the enterprise must be foremost.

The CIC does not foster a belief that we will metamorphose into one monolithic academic enterprise. Rather, the focus is on strengthening the individual members. The focus is on delivering the highest quality education to our students, and providing the most outstanding research facilities for our faculty. By working together, the CIC is realizing the promise of using networked and distributed information technology to transform each institution into the best it can be.

Hyperlinks to evolving sites mentioned in this story

CIC and MREN digital video technology. See <>.

Virtual Electronic Library. See <>.

National Computational Science Alliance. See <>.

CIC Common Market of Courses and Institutes (CMCI). See <>.

Learning Technology Initiative (LTI) Seed Grant Program. See <>.

Copyright © 1999 Barbara McFadden Allen

List of consortium members added at the request of the author, The Editor, February 16, 1999 9:28 AM.

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DOI: 10.1045/february99-allen