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OAC Mission Statement and Strategies

Academic Technology: Strategic Vision
November 1, 2003

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Mission

The mission of the Academic Technology (OAC) is to enhance and sustain an environment within the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) in which computational, network and information technologies are developed and integrated to support the educational, research and service goals of the University.

Role of Academic Technology at UT-Houston

Academic activities in the 21st century are inextricably dependent on highly integrated information resources. The collaborative environment which is central to scholarly activities is absolutely dependent on pervasive, global digital networks that securely interconnect data archives, information repositories, high-performance computational systems, smart instruments, e-leaning systems and communication tools for shared discussions and learning.

Collaboration is no longer only among people, but also between people and increasingly capable digital assistants as well as among the digital assistants themselves. Computer-to-computer collaboration includes distributed processing among massively parallel systems, information discovery, semantic analysis of Web content, and interactions among smart agents

The manifestations of scholarly endeavors are increasingly becoming digital expressions having value-added attributes that greatly exceed the limitations of paper based materials. Such manifestations include hyperlinked multimedia objects, advanced computational models of biological processes, and massive archives of scientific data. These digital tools are required to expand our conceptual understanding of molecules, enzymes, receptors, drugs, cells, physiological systems, environmental interactions and other complex systems. Researchers depend on these tools, for example, to develop more effective pharmacological agents and understand how to repair genetic defects based on comparative analysis of genomes across species and individuals. The common theme across these examples is the sharing of “grid-based” digital resources by collaborative research teams.

The role of the Academic Technology includes:

  1. Work with faculty, students and staff to strategically determine what central IT resources and infrastructure are required to support the research, educational and community service needs of the University.
  2. Work with Information Services to design, coordinate and operate the campus-wide information technology (IT) infrastructure.
  3. Host the core applications required to support primary academic activities.
  4. Develop standards, policies and procedures as they relate to the integrated operation of academic IT applications and services.
  5. Lead and coordinate the application of new technology – particularly as it pertains to academic endeavors.
  6. Provide academic oriented services to departments and schools that do not have the required resources.

Academic Technology Strategies

The strategies summarized below build on the existing IT infrastructure required to support the primary research, education and service missions of the University. This infrastructure must be seamlessly integrated to include both the academic and administrative needs of the University. These strategies identify major activities required to keep the academic IT capabilities

e-Learning infrastructure
On-line learning resources, such as e-Learning management systems, (e.g. Blackboard), Web content servers, Web application servers, identity management systems and support services for creation of learning ware is critical to the support of the University’s academic missions. These services are also required to provide mandated compliance training.

Grid computing for advanced computational research and scholarly activitiesA "grid" is an infrastructure enabling the integrated, collaborative use of high-end computing systems, high speed networks, data archives and scientific instruments operated by multiple organizations. Grid applications often involve large amounts of data and/or advanced computational resources that require secure resource sharing across organizational boundaries.

The grid infrastructure for science and advanced scholarly activities typically includes the following elements:

  • Smart instruments. Advanced scientific instruments, such as large scale gene sequencers, micro-arrays for testing gene expression, environmental monitors, magnetic resonance imaging systems, neural signal analyzers - coupled with remote supercomputers, users and databases- to enable interactive collaboration and analysis.
  • Data archives. Scientific data produced by large-scale computations or obtained from high-resolution scientific instruments. Extracting and correlating data from these distributed archives is fundamental to making new biomedical discoveries.
  • Distributed collaboration. Shared access to data, computing, and discussion, often via high-bandwidth, audio-video conferencing.
  • High performance computing systems. Increasingly, these systems are based on large number of commercial microprocessors connected by high-speed local networks and integrated via Linux and other open source software to function as high-performance computing systems. Laboratory clusters typically contain tens of processors, whereas clustered supercomputing systems contain hundreds or thousands of processors.
  • Intelligent agents. Use of rule and knowledge-based systems to assist researchers and scholars in the efficient utilization of extremely large data archives.

Middle ware for securely sharing on-line resources across organizational boundaries
Licensing of library resources, grid research collaboration, sharing educational resources and cross-institutional faculty participation, as in residency programs and other e-learning activities, require an inter-institutional system for the identification, authentication and authorization of individuals. Federated identity is currently a major national initiative.

Web publishing services for distribution of academic content
Operation of a multitude of Web servers by schools and departments to distribute academic content is neither operationally nor financially efficient. Issues pertaining to the need to integrate Web servers with other systems, provide operating and application software support, configure multiple application specific security requirements, and employ standard, user friendly publishing procedures necessitates operation of a centrally managed publishing service.

Web-application services supporting academic endeavors
The demand for three-tier Web applications (i.e. Web forms, application logic and relational databases) to support academic functions is enormous. Central operation of the server and software components to support this need is critical as is the need to assist in the development of such applications.

Multimedia and application programming support
Creation of both learning ware and thee-tier Web applications requires central support by Web designers and application programmers. Most schools have little or no resources available for the creation of Web applications. In contrast to the development of Web applications, schools do and should maintain support staff for creation of Web-based learning ware. However, a central staff is also needed to assist these individuals in learning needed new technologies, services and procedures and to provide advanced development skills when required by specific projects. This support is also required for development of Web content by central administration.

Resources for on-demand streaming of audio and video content
Extensive educational material is currently provided as streaming, on-demand audio and video. The demand for both the delivery of such material and the need to receive progressively more material at greater bandwidths via the Internet will increase.

Resource discovery, cataloging and semantic markup of on-line content.
“Search”, originally a simple keyword-lookup functionality for files, has become a fundamental Internet service required for academic endeavors. This discovery process requires the use of both progressively more sophisticated indexing servers, and the markup of content with meta-tags for using meta-data to locate desired content and allowing “intelligent” agents to determine semantic meaning within documents.

Videoconferencing
The need for videoconferencing for both academic and administrative purposes is exploding. Academic Technology currently operates the H.323 multipoint conferencing unit to support conferences with more than two participants. This capability needs to be expanded as does support for coordinating the development of both desktop and conference room points of origin.

Identification and creation of standards for integrated information environments
The interactive, collaborative mesh of people and digital assistants required to support today’s scholarly activities includes a weave of multiple standards that are constantly evolving. Failure to understand, incorporate and adapt such standards often results in the acquisition of systems and creation of digital works which are incapable of fulfilling the desired expectations of their developers and users. Such failures significantly hinder the University’s ability to attain its goals, waste resources and generally frustrate users.

Training and support for developing skills for learning and working in cyberspace
Training of personnel to use existing IT resources would greatly enhance productivity throughout the University. The entire fabric binding scholarly activity today is dependent on knowing how to learn and work with digital resources in cyberspace. Training needs to be centrally funded and mandated for certain positions and activities. Failure to have adequately trained students, faculty and staff significantly decreases the University’s competitive capability.


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