Digitizing the Treasures

UT-Austin’s Dan Updegrove leads a Texas-sized effort to share a wealth of information resources on the Web.

The University of Texas holds vast and diverse library and museum collections, research and scholarly materials, and many other knowledge assets. What if they could be leveraged among all the citizens of the State of Texas and beyond? This is the vision underlying UTOPIA, an expanding knowledge gateway to university resources conceived in 2002 and launched in 2004 (utopia.utexas.edu). Dan Updegrove, UT Austin’s VP of IT is a leader of this ambitious initiative, together with Fred Heath, vice provost for Libraries, Judy Ashcroft, associate VP for Instructional Innovation and Assessment, and Andrew Dillon, dean of the School of Information.

I’d like to get an update on UTOPIA, which you and your colleagues initiated at UT-Austin about four years ago. To begin, what started you thinking about sharing UT’s resources more broadly via the Web? Two things, really. First: The university was involved in a multi-year strategic planning exercise. Rather than having the internal university leaders go off on a mountain top to write a plan, we invited more than two hundred leading citizens of the state to engage with us. It was called the “Commission of 125”—in anticipation of the 125th anniversary of the university’s founding back in 1883. As part of the prep work for the Commission of 125, we had an independent research firm survey a thousand citizens of Texas about higher education in general, and about UT specifically. Among other things, we asked citizens if they believed that UT has a positive impact on the state, and in general the respondents said “yes.” But when we asked if UT had a positive impact on their personal lives, a startlingly high percentage of Texas citizens surveyed said that UT had no impact whats'ever that they could measure in their own lives. We learned that we have a lofty reputation among the citizens of the state, but found out there wasn’t a perception that we were directly relevant to most citizens. “What can we do about that?” became the question on our minds.

The second impetus for our thinking was the biennial meeting of the Texas Legislature, where there is always a lively discussion about funding for public universities. Some citizens and legislators bring to that conversation a rather narrow view of a major research university as fundamentally being a four-year bachelor’s degree-granting institution, and they don’t have a frame of reference for understanding all that a public research university d'es. So that opened a broader question: How do you measure and communicate the value of a flagship public research university?

How did you begin planning for UTOPIA? We immediately thought about the Web. A major distance learning initiative might have been a response—and the UT System d'es have a reasonably successful, although modest-scale, distance learning program. But that didn’t seem like the best approach, in part because distance learning ends up focusing new demands on the faculty who are already dealing with 50,000 students on the campus, plus their research. So we conceived of a different plan: We have within the University of Texas at Austin a vast collection of library materials, museum artifacts, the output of research projects, and the publishable output from our teaching programs. What if we put that up on the Web in a really compelling form, in the public domain, and see whether it is used and if it adds value? So we announced our intention of “digitizing the treasures” in 2002. And we were fortunate to get a $2 million starter grant from the Houston Endowment [www.houstonendowment.org], the largest private foundation in Texas.

Is UTOPIA aimed at K-12? Who is it designed to serve? As we thought about doing this, it seemed clear that the “citizens of Texas” is a vast and heterogeneous population to be aiming a new service toward. It seemed important that we segment the offering and think about targeting specific groups. Early on, it occurred to us that K-12 students and their parents would be an important constituency. And that was dramatically reinforced by the Houston Endowment, since, these days, it has a high program priority to improve public education. While we haven’t limited UTOPIA to K-12, we have emphasized it in the initial rollout.

Then what are the goals for K-12? We initially conceived of UTOPIA in the K-12 segment as fundamentally an enrichment program; that the most creative students and teachers would find in UTOPIA rich content that would enable them to go further and deeper than in the traditional curriculum. There is still some of that going on, but the feedback that we got from the Houston Endowment, the Texas Education Agency, and some of the teachers that we talked to, was that a higher priority in public education is to bring more of the students up to the standard, rather than to enable the best and the brightest to exceed the standard. That led us to focus more of the effort on categorizing and classifying the information that we were putting on the UTOPIA site, so that it was specifically linked to Texas curriculum standards.

What are some of the other constituencies or targets for the content of UTOPIA? Independent scholars, for one—those who don’t have a great university near at hand. But while some of our work is driven by a desire to reach constituencies, in other cases it’s more a question of “Where do we have great stuff?” For example, we have one of the few complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, which we’ve completely digitized; we have a major astronomy facility in West Texas, the McDonald Observatory, with rich content in that domain; we have a distinguished collection of Latin American art in our Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centers; we have the papers of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer and many others, including the recent addition of the Watergate Papers. The goal is to get more of these types of resources into UTOPIA.

There are obviously numerous other institutions putting their information up on the Web, each with a particular strategy. For example, MIT is working on putting all its course materials up on OpenCourseWare (OCW). What is UTOPIA’s hallmark, so to speak? It’s our view that every distinguished university is putting lots of stuff on the Web, as fast as it can. But often the work is being done by scholars, for scholars. That’s enormously helpful for someone like, for example, a doctoral student working on a dissertation. But it’s pretty opaque, maybe even intimidating, for the general citizen. So, a key goal of UTOPIA is to demystify the information, curate it, edit it, and provide graphics, illustrations, and formatting to make the resources more accessible to a non-scholarly audience.

UTOPIA is an enormous effort, as you said earlier, with $1.5 million per year in steady state costs. How will you sustain that, and what type of assessment will you do? We understood that this is an ambitious, multi-year, multi-million dollar effort, and that there is no clear exemplar for it—it is critically important that we have some kind of a measurement and assessment model, and that we figure out how to sustain UTOPIA. One response to both of those challenges was to create a national advisory board to critique what we’ve been doing, and to advise us on the assessment methodology. Also in that regard, some of the earliest conversations that we had with the Houston Endowment focused on the generalizability of UTOPIA—if other universities might find this an appropriate thing to do. While UT has a fine collection of Latin American art, other universities have collections in other areas—maybe African art or Oceanic art, for example. Wouldn’t it be terrific if the UTOPIA experience were cloned, so to speak, or if we had a set of interoperating knowledge gateway Web sites, with other universities?

We know that UTOPIA is a big project. How would you characterize its scope in terms of how far you still have to go? We don’t want to suggest that UTOPIA is finished, or that we have all the answers about how a public university might strategically use the Web as a citizen outreach vehicle. We understood that this was new and just a beginning. And the breadth and depth of UT’s resources, both analog and digital, mean that there’s so much more we could offer. The University of Texas has broad academic and research programs, and we have the sixth or seventh largest library collection in the country. And the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center has something like 25 million documents, photographs, and other objects; the opportunities are just fantastic. But, finding the resources and determining how best to digitize all of that information, organize it, curate it; deliver it in multiple languages and multiple technical formats; assess how it’s being used; and host and facilitate citizen-to-citizen and citizen-to-scholar collaboration… I think you can quickly see, this looks like a 10-to-20 year challenge.

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