“What does ‘informatics’ mean to you?”

Chatting with colleagues about what #Informatics means, I was reminded of how deeply contextual our definitions can be; a value as much as a utility. I returned to some of my fieldnotes from a 2010 qualitative inquiry of a university’s* pilot informatics program.  One question I asked as a way to understand learners’ and faculty’s disciplinary lines was “What does ‘informatics’ mean to you?” I still ask this question. We use the term without shared definitions. And–as Christine Borgman points out in Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in a Networked World (MIT, 2015),–definition differences pose interesting questions about knowledge  (c.f., Ryg & Kramer on John Dewey‘s ideas of continuity and community). While the below was sketched out in 2010 as one tiny piece of qualitative data in a much larger mixed-methods project, the adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” seems appropriate to invoke. 

Initial Summary: “Informatics” as Constructed Discipline

A Picture of Institutional Transformation

“Informatics” at the University has in its initial semesters established curricular roots throughout the Colleges and Departments.  Informatics has grown in stature and position within the University. This positioning represents a radical shift in institutional organization, with the benefit of a diversity of undergraduate majors growing aware of “informatics” as an area of study.

  • Informatics classes and students represent a diverse field of majors beyond the traditional computer science (CS) student. Yet, in many of those initially funded classes, students were exposed and gained mastery of key critical information technology skills and process that were identified by the students themselves as important to their roles as students today and employees tomorrow.
  • In one faculty interview I conducted, it was stated that the intention of that particular faculty member was “bringing computation to non-CS students to represent the reform; that is what we want to see in ‘informatics’.”
  • Within the CS, library and information science (LIS), Geography (GIS), and Design (D) courses, there were active, participatory strategies to empower students with technologies beyond “skills” and engagement with engineering and social problems posed within their classes.

Collaboration may be defined within the context of this first year as: faculty willingness to engage and wrestle with complexity within their own disciplines; e.g., when asked in interviews, “informatics” could not be universally defined. Rather, faculty had to frame their emerging definitions based on what they were learning in their own classes.

  • For GIS, the discrete use of geographic tools to solve sociotechnical problems shifted in the course to how computational answers or tools might allow a community to pose new questions. Problems were defined by the community, not assumed by the faculty or students.
  • This generative application of informatics was also seen in D, where significant tools were created (and patents applied for) because students (and faculty) were thinking about “informatics” as posing—as much as solving—social problems that they then had to learn to solve using new tools.
  • “Collaboration” in these contexts were indicated by the frequency, nature, length, and quality of interactions with the students and their faculty discipline colleagues in informal reflection.

Social learning was key for undergraduate students. Their informatics club (IC) is an indicator of community building; and service projects undertaken by the IC and within the  D course (including a book that will be published online on how empathetic design changes lives and co-created by her students) indicate an emerging informatics culture emerging. Student-leaders are emerging among those who declare the minor; and those declared minors appear to be students exposed to such focused learning opportunities.

One other potential indicator that we will examine in the coming years are students who took the reorganized CS course at the 100 level expressed being invigorated–inspired may be the word–to be creative and enthused by  CS in general. Unlike a traditional CS 100-level course, the faculty member fully redesigned the class to provide real-time feedback, create a “research lab” approach to each class within the semester, and formulate a learning environment that –instead of being the “weed” course for CS majors—has now grown in its reputation as difficult, but “worth it” to students. Students’ affective responses indicate that re-visioning CS to solve real-world problems (e.g., traffic light timing) takes the “mystery” out of coding and makes it a tool to solve social problems.

Students stated:


Emerson & Feynman: Poetry & Physics

  • “So far it has been really intriguing. I really have enjoyed the teaching style and I feel even more excited for future CS classes.”
  • “The course has been informative and pretty in-depth in terms of integrating what we are learning into real life.”

This type of “design thinking” in the curricular development that impacted the department culture and student experience are thus far most evident in CS, D, LIS, and GIS. Challenges were encountered, however, in courses where coding was seen as outside of the traditional definitions about a discipline (e.g., humanities-based). Those courses faced greater isolation and fewer resources of learning support for both students and faculty, which may have potential implications for sustainable change.

Students’ views of informatics in a CS class expanded the traditional view bound by subject matter. For example, the pre-survey of CS students in the newly arranged 100 level CS course defined CS/informatics:

  • as “a field of study that pertains directly to the knowledge of the internal and external runnings of a computer. Informatics could be helpful when connecting to or setting up various computers.  It also allows people to fix a lot of their own problems on a computer”
  • a way or process of “using technology to better the world around us. I think it goes hand in hand w/ the workplace, because almost any job you have today, you will have to work with computers and the more you know about computers the better off you will be.”

Critical thinking and problem solving, extending beyond traditional disciplinary lines, were identified in terms of efficiency, transferability (of skill), adaptive, and as an applied “hybrid”. Examples from student responses describing “informatics”:

  • As “logical information related to technology that explain how processes in today’s world exist.  These processes can include simple theories to complex machines like computers.”
  • “In the workplace, ‘informatics’ to me means using logical explanations to solve common problems. I see myself in the business field, with an emphasis in economics.  Informatics will help me in my problem solving skills by breaking down complex problems into more simple ones.
  • It is “the study of changing information technology and its effect on the world socially, politically, and economically. Also, it looks at how to better represent information with changing technologies.”
  • “If this course was a car, it would be a Toyota Prius.  It would be a Toyota Prius because manufacturers have learned how to make this car more energy efficient by using simple electricity technology to save gas.   Well, in my experience the past couple weeks I have found myself looking at some situations and wondering how I could make them more simple using information I’ve learned from class.  I’ve also wondered how I could organize some things using a binary number type system.”


*I have removed institutional identifiers




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