Christine Borgman: Massaging the Message

"You can't just put computers in everybody's hands, give all the students a laptop and access to the Internet and expect them to learn better," insists Christine Borgman, professor of information studies. "It's not a matter of giving people more information, but how to package that information, how to organize and disseminate it."

The holder of the Presidential Chair in Information Studies at UCLA, Borgman is UCLA's lead investigator for the national Alexandria Digital Earth ProtoType project, or ADEPT. The project began in 1994 as the Alexandria Digital Library Project, a four-year, $4-million initiative to gather a massive amount of informaiton about the Earth using digital collections of everything from maps and images to text and multimedia diagrams, all referenced by geographical area. The resulting information was used to create a digital model of the planet -- a "Digital Earth," as Vice President Al Gore dubbed it.

"Think of the Digital Earth as a metaphor, as a way to organize information," explains Borgman. "You can click on any spot on the globe and access any information that can be referenced geographically, whether it's census data, flood data, crop data, population movements, toxic-waste flows, even historical texts."

The project was seemingly tailor-made for Borgman, the daughter of a librarian who literally grew up in the back stacks of Detroit's Wayne State University Library. Later, as an undergraduate, she studied mathematics before studying for a master's in library and information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. "It was the early 1970s, the dawn of the computer age," recalls Borgman. "I recognized that library were going to neeed people with much more technical backgrounds to build information systems."

Over the next decade, Borgman helped create and design some of the nation's first on-line digital-library system. She participated in buliding the first campus-based information system at Pitt, as well as the first newspaper database to go online, a full-text database of The New York Times. She then moved to Dallas, where she became the system analyst for the Dallas Public Library and created the first on-line catalog of a major public library. In the early 1980s, she went to Stanford University to pursue her doctoral work and wrote her thesis on mental models of informaiton-retrieval systems. "A mental model is a cognitive construction," she explains. "How do people think about what's heppening in side the machine? The appropriateness of the model has a lot to do with whether you figure out how to use the machine."

She came to UCLA in 1983 and since then has been working on information-retrieval systems and user interfaces and user behavior. "Basically we're trying to understand how people search for information; how people use information and how you can design systems to support their natural behavior. "Basically we're trying to understand how people search for information; how people use information and how you can design systems to support their natural behaviror," she explains. "We start with the behavior and then design systems, rather than starting with the technology and trying to fit it to people or make the people fit the technology, which is unfortunately more often the case."

Funded by a collaboration of eight federal agencies and disciplines -- from the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Advanced Research Project Agency -- ADEPT was launched in 1999 to provide learning tools and techniques that then overlay, organize and expand upon the information contained within the Digital Earth database. "ADEPT will provide a series of tools for manipulating and visualizing geo-referenced data -- specifically, tools that can be used for instruction at an undergraduate level," explains Borgman. "At UCLA, we're starting with undergraduate geography courses."

ADEPT is still at the conceptual level, but the plan is to give geography instructors tools to help students move away from memorizing facts and, instead, concentrate on understanding dynamic processes. "It's more important that the student understand how rivers change over time or how populations move than to memorize facts about how and when they moved," says Borgman. "The more you can understand about the process, the richer the learning experience and the more you can apply in new ways."

The ADEPT tools will be known as Information Landscape, or "Iscapes," and will be bulit around scenarios. How do you manage this flood in Topanga Canyon, for instance. Or how do you look at this migration throught Northern California? "You might build a lesson around the flood, then put a series of data sets behind it, using data collected from NASA and local and state authorities. You layer that data and then give students tools so they can say what happens if there is more rain or less rain, good hill-side plantings, dams built, an earthquake. They can manipulate all these different conditions and see what happens."

By the time funding ends in 2004, Borgman and her colleges hope to understsand how to maximize the use of Iscape-type tools and how to teach with them. "We hope to get baseline data by the end of the year, to start having tools we can use for lectures by the second year and tools students can use by the third year. In the end, we'll have learned how to take these same tools and apply them to other fields across education -- everything from urban planning to sociology, history, art."

As Borgman notes, "Ultimately, it's not about the technology, it's about the behavior."

[previous page] [main] [next page]

"Ultimately, it's not about the technology, it's about behavior"




"A mental model is a cognitive construction. How do people think about what's happening inside the machine? The appropriateness of the model has a lot to do with whether you figure out how to use the machine"