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
think you can quickly see, this looks like a 10-to-20 year challenge.