Term papers sustain knowledge ecology

To University of Washington Information School Assistant Professor Kevin Desouza, higher education is a kind of ecology. Some ecosystems are necessarily more fragile than others. Desouza has involved his students in the iSchool's Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) program in the Global Text Project (GTP) (globaltext.org) to bolster the class environment while moving some of the benefits of his students' work further downstream, where it is much needed.

GTP began as a way to create and provide affordable, up-to-date and academically rigorous textbooks to the developing world.

Desouza got involved for the first time when the project began development of a text on Information Systems. He worked with a group of eight students, giving them carte blanche to proceed as they saw fit.

"The whole goal of the project from an academic perspective is to, first, give them experience working in virtual projects," Desouza said. "Second, I want to give [students] hands-on, practical knowledge about the topic they are learning in class. Third, I want to move them from being knowledge consumers to knowledge creators."

GTP began with Richard Watson of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, who planted the seed for the project in a graduate class on XML.

Students in that first class each wrote a chapter on the subject and were asked to teach a class about what they learned and develop exercises. Watson's colleague at Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, Don McCubbrey, liked the idea. As co-directors of GTP, the two looked around for a bigger problem to tackle.

"Textbooks are not affordable in the developing world," Watson said. A textbook can cost as much as the equivalent of three months of income in Africa and parts of Asia.

Through a former student of McCubbrey, GTP was able to enlist volunteer support from the management and technology consultant firm BearingPoint. "BearingPoint staff has been working with students. They came up with the original outline [for the change management book] based on what they think are the critical change management issues facing practitioners," Desouza said.

Ramkumar Jayaraman, a former student of McCubbrey's, brought GTP to the attention of his colleagues at BearingPoint. Jayaraman solicited volunteers from within the company and is coordinating the effort to draft the chapters for an introductory textbook on change management. He also is reviewing and editing various chapters in the book.

"We are confident that the project will not only help the students at the University of Washington to improve their research and writing skills but that the students will equally benefit by interacting with professionals at BearingPoint and other companies. Most importantly, we are hopeful that the textbook will be a great resource for students in developing nations who will be able to gain access to this knowledge for little or no cost," said Jayaraman.

Al Youngblood was a second year student in the MSIM program when he took Desouza's Information and the Management of Change course. He wrote the Change Strategy Approaches chapter of the change management text.

"Anytime you put somebody's work out in the open, once it's out in the public domain, it becomes everyone's property," he said.

"In that regard, I'm a little more cognizant of what I'm writing, but I think that the level of work product being produced is going to be higher, because I'm accountable not only to myself and to my [professor] but also to the public.

"I'm really privileged to be a part of the iSchool, in that every class, you're given the opportunity to synthesize a new way of learning. HCI, project management, information theory, system dynamics, change management, it blows me away the kind of education I'm getting. But at the same time I can ask, What if I were in another place, with other less fortunate experiences? That's where the project fits in: giving back to those who need it half a world away."