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Athena report due next month

By Katherine Shim

The Committee on Academic Computation, whose job is to assess the past role of Project Athena and other academic computation at the Institute and make recommendations for the future, has finished collecting data. It will release a draft report of its findings late next month.

The draft's recommendations -- which will likely include decentralizing control of the Institute's computer network -- are expected to sharply define the role of academic computation at MIT. They will emphasize the use of computation as a tool to enhance undergraduate and graduate education, and will attempt to bring definition to the previously nebulous function of Athena in education.

To analyze past and future academic computing, the committee collected information from representatives from the five schools of MIT, the MIT Libraries, experts within and outside of the Institute, student and faculty surveys, and site visits to selected universities.

"Recently, the dean from each of the five schools of the Institute sent someone to talk about the needs, recommendations, and past involvement of each school with academic computing," said committee spokesman Gregory A. Jackson '70. "We found that the needs of each school are quite different. The committee must try to accommodate these varying needs," Jackson added.

Its data collection process completed, the committee is presently writing a draft report which is scheduled to be circulated within the Institute in late February. The report will consist of approximately 20 recommendations concerning the organization of computing, sources of funding, and the educational role of computing.

After a period of discussion, a final report consisting of recommended courses of action will be drafted and presented to Provost John M. Deutch '61, who has promised he will act quickly on its implementation.

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Decentralizing control

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Although the draft report will not be released until late February, certain features are already known. The committee is likely to recommend an organizational system in which schools and departments have control of the computer network instead of utilizing a network controlled by a centralized organization. As a result, the committee hopes, the computational needs of each school or department can be addressed individually.

The organization of computation may be further divided so that the boundaries of responsibility between the Institute, the schools and departments, and the individual user are clearly defined.

In a possible organizational system, the Institute would be responsible for the basic services of the computer network as well as the development of curriculum for General Institute Requirement courses and similar central subjects. Schools and departments would be responsible for more specialized curricular development and for clusters with more advanced, course-related technology. Public clusters would still exist for people who do not own a personal computer.

Jackson, in a statement, predicted that, while the committee will not formally recommend that students buy their own computers, the percentage of students with personal computers at MIT is likely to rise with the new organizational system. Jackson indicated that it will become increasingly more attractive for students to buy their own computers as coursework, under departmental control, becomes more convenient for use on a personal computer. Currently, one-third of the students at MIT own their own computers, while at other selective schools one-third to one-half of the students have personal computers.

The committee is also likely to recommend a change in the policy of providing incentives for faculty to create curricular material for the computers. In the past, support was given to many projects in the hopes that a few usable curricular packages would result. The committee is likely to recommend that support be granted in a more deliberate manner so that a smaller number of projects would receive a greater amount of support.

The committee will also recommend that personal computers connect more easily to the Athena network, by means of a set of simple services. Initially, the network would be able to support and interact with Macintosh personal computers, IBM-compatible computers running on MS-DOS, and Unix workstations. This list would grow gradually over time.

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An eight-year experiment

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Project Athena was established in 1983 as an experimental computer network. Initially, International Business Machines and Digital Equipment Corporation contributed $25 million to the program in the form of equipment, a consulting staff, and money. MIT raised between $15 and $20 million for the project.

The installation of the network proceeded at a higher cost and at a slower pace than was originally expected, and Project Athena, originally a five-year experiment, grew into an eight-year program. Both IBM and DEC agreed to continue support for the project during this eight-year period. Financial support from these two companies will officially end in June 1991.

Although Athena did not fulfill its original expectations, it nevertheless has come to play a substantial role in education and student computing.

Last spring, in preparation for the end of external financial support for Athena, Deutch formed the Committee on Academic Computation. He charged it with bringing a clearer focus to the role of Athena at MIT and suggesting a more efficient organization for academic computing.

The purpose of the committee was to evaluate and redefine the educational role of Athena and the appropriate balance between technical computing and personal computing needs. The committee was also intended to evaluate the use of computing for research and administrative tasks, alternative sources of funding, and the modernization of Athena in step with the advancing technology of the next decade.