Making A Difference Award (2012) — Starr Roxanne Hiltz

The SIGCAS Making a Difference Award is given annually to an individual nationally recognized for work related to the interaction of computers and society. The recipient is a leader in promoting awareness of ethical and social issues in computing. The recipients of this award and the award itself encourage responsible action by computer professionals.

For almost 40 years, Starr Roxanne Hiltz has been studying group communication via computer networks, in terms of its social impacts. Most of this work has been carried out in collaboration with Murray Turoff, her husband of over 25 years.

Whereas Ben Shneiderman’s Making A Difference award (2001) cites his “commitment to the ideal that computer systems should always be designed to empower the individual and improve the quality of life,” her work could be summed up as centering on “how Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) can be designed and used to empower groups and improve the quality of life.”

In their first major book about what would eventually become the Internet and “social media”( The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer, Addison Wesley 1978), Hiltz and Turoff described how group communication systems operating within a worldwide computer network could be structured in many different ways to support different types of group tasks, and would have profound social impacts in the future.  They introduced the concept of collective intelligence, which they defined as the ability of a group to collectively reach a better solution to a complex problem than any single individual would have obtained using the same information on the situation and acting alone (pp. 42- 46).

From 1975 through about 2000, Murray designed and managed EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) operated by NJIT, which provided tools to support thousands of members in distributed groups engaged in many kinds of tasks. Invited initial users were members of scientific research communities reaching towards new paradigms and interdisciplinary fields of study.  EIES’ central feature was threaded asynchronous “conferences” (now referred to as discussion boards or forums), enhanced by features such as voting and the ability to jointly author documents.  Roxanne designed and carried out the studies on users- why and how they did or did not use the system they were offered, and the impacts it had on them and their groups.  She noted that the members of this system, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, devised new forms of online sociability, such as a group- authored science fiction story and a Poetry Corner, as well as discussing theories and research methods and producing joint research documents.  This was one of the earliest and pioneering longitudinal studies of Online Communities (Ablex Publishing Corp., Human-Computer Interaction Series. 1984 ), which was edited and encouraged by Ben Shneiderman.)

Roxanne also designed and conducted some of the first controlled experiments on structures and processes to support group decision making and group collaboration within a computer-mediated communication environment (“Computer Support for Group vs. Individual Decisions,” Turoff and Hiltz, IEEE Transactions on Communications, 1982); these are generally now referred to as “Group Decision Support Systems” and “Computer-Supported Cooperative Work” (CSCW).

Perhaps her most influential contribution was the invention of a “Virtual Classroom,” embedded in a CMC system.  This idea came to her while writing The Network Nation but it took several years to obtain funding to build the software, develop pedagogical guidelines for effective teaching in this new environment,  and motivate instructors and classes to try it.  She designed, managed the implementation of, and studied the first version of such a system in 1985-88.  Its discussion spaces offered unique features to support both individual and collaborative learning, including a “Question-Response” activity in which each student had to answer a question before seeing the replies of others. These online learning systems now generally referred to as Learning Management Systems supporting “Asynchronous Learning Networks” and are being used by hundreds of educational organizations and over 4 million students around the world.  The basic idea was computer supported collaborative learning guided by an instructor, with discussion and group projects the heart of the online course.  She has continued teaching and research on Learning Networks until the present time.

Teaching has always been important to her, and she designed and then coordinated NJIT’s course on Computers, Society and Ethics throughout her tenure there as Professor and then Distinguished Professor of CIS (Computer and Information Systems), 1985- 2007.  She especially treasures her Ph.D. students and has advised 19 dissertations so far; many of these students remain among her closest friends and coauthors.

During the last five years, since transitioning to Emerita status at NJIT, she has enjoyed teaching and research at many universities throughout the world, including serving as Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Media and Communications at the U. of Salzburg (2008-2009) , and award of a Catedra de Excelencia research chair at Carlos III University of Madrid in 2010-2011.  She has continued work on Online Learning and Distributed Group Support Systems and Virtual Teams, but has also added work on information systems for emergency management.  In particular, she has been studying ways to improve the effectiveness of use of social media in crises, and has been active in the ISCRAM (Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management) association and annual conferences.  In 2014 she will be Program Chair for ISCRAM.  She has also remained an active reviewer and editor for journals and conferences, including serving as Associate Editor for ACM TOCHI from 2003 until the present.

The early work (from 1975 on) and reports of Starr Roxanne Hiltz and others at the NJIT Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center (CCCC) are available free through the NJIT library archive collection 

This includes the reports on the first quasi experimental comparisons between face-to-face classes and online classes in the same subject areas.  It also includes a number of experiments which include measurements of collective intelligence in online problem solving discussions vs. face to face,” along with other parameters such as consensus.

Text of the plaque:
Pioneer in the study and development of
The Impact of Network Technology on Social Interaction
Virtual Teams
Virtual Classrooms