CECI will raise money for computing research
By Joanna Stone
As the eight-year experimental run of Project Athena comes to a close, Provost Mark S. Wrighton announced that the educational computing research Athena initiated will now be done under a new umbrella organization -- the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives (CECI).
The Athena project will conclude on June 30 of this year when grants and support from IBM and the Digital Equipment Corporation expire. According to the current director of Project Athena, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Earll M. Murman, until now, Athena has been structured in two parts: "the research part, which has developed the software that people are now out there using, and the service part, which keeps things running."
After June 30, the service part of Project Athena, which has recently merged with Information Systems, will be funded by the Institute. "And the research part is moving to be funded externally," said Murman. It is this research function that CECI will take over, Murman explained.
What students know as Project Athena through their day-to-day use of it will remain basically the same for the near future, said Murman.
Lerman to run CECI
Wrighton appointed Steven R. Lerman '72, professor of civil engineering, to direct CECI. Lerman will also head the Academic Computing Council, recently established by Wrighton to identify computing needs in the community and help gauge what research MIT should be doing. Wrighton plans to announce council appointments next month.
The hope is that IBM and DEC will lend their financial support to this new extension of the
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Athena project, said Lerman. "Certainly we're in discussions with [IBM and DEC about future funding]," he said. However, Lerman said he does not expect future funding to be "large and broad scale," like funding for Athena. Instead, he expects funding for specific projects, funded by multiple industrial partners, similar to the manner most research in laboratories is funded.
According to Lerman, CECI is also "in discussions" with Sony and Bull in Europe. "We're still in the early stage," he said, adding, "There's been no commitment at this point."
Lerman is hoping to get some initial funding by July 1. "Some ideas will be funded early on, [and] additional ideas will be funded as they come up," said Lerman.
The first research idea on Lerman's agenda is to continue the work on multimedia applications, including the development of Muse software, which began while Lerman was director of Athena.
Muse allows students to create -- quickly and without programming skills -- highly interactive multimedia applications. The prototype for Muse contains interactive ideas on how to write applications, said Lerman. He hopes to further develop, among other things, the software's abili-
ty to relate moving video to text and graphics.
There are many other things on Lerman's agenda, including scientific visual tools in which students could interact with a visual concept such as vector fields as they learn about it. Further down the road, Lerman hopes to develop educational tools to help in Kindergarten-12 teaching.
Lerman noted that CECI will eventually merge its developments with those of Athena. The newly-merged Athena and IS will probably do some work towards making Athena more tolerant to DOS, Unix and Macintoshes, he said.
Now that it is entirely supported by the Institute, funding for any research or upgrading of service for Project Athena has dropped 60 percent for the upcoming academic year, to $3.7 million.
IBM and DEC said they did not want to continue funding Athena as it is now. "Both DEC and IBM have expressed the viewpoint that the service part of Athena is MIT's responsibility. They helped us to create it, now we should pay for it," said Murman. IBM and DEC feel the same way about library services, he added.
Yet, Wrighton still hopes to obtain outside funding for what he terms the infrastructure of Athena. He said he would still "like very much to secure addi-
tional support" for more workstations and improvement of the service segment.
Athena has become a prototype
Wrighton said he was extremely pleased with the results of the eight-year experimental phase of Project Athena. "I think it's been a remarkable achievement. It went from something very much research-oriented to something that provides [a variety of services] for a large fraction of [the MIT community]," Wrighton said.
According to Wrighton, Athena has become a prototype that many other institutions are using, and some of Athena's research partners are now commercializing products and techniques developed during the past eight years.
Murman also noted how pleased he was with Athena's success in becoming more user-friendly. "So, now a person who knows nothing about Athena can get started [using it]," he said.
Murman said he was not displeased that Athena's experimental period was over and that continued research would have to be done under CECI. "It's like the Apollo program and going to the moon," he said. "You set a goal, you take a giant step forward, and once you've done that, it's time you take on new direction. We've set up a computing environment, Act I has been completed, and it's time we raised the curtains on Act II," he said.