Influential Scholar

Written by: Shydale James,
In 1993, Starr Roxanne Hiltz became NJIT's first woman to be promoted to Distinguished Professor.
“It’s important for me to go out of my way to support female students."

A Starr is Born

It’s said that the most revolutionary ideas are often the result of spontaneous creativity.

For Starr Roxanne Hiltz (Distinguished Professor Emerita of information systems at NJIT), a most-defining moment of genius struck in 1977 while spending a year as a National Science Foundation (NSF) faculty fellowship awardee at Princeton University.

Professor Suzanne Keller (Princeton University’s first tenured female professor), who led a graduate seminar on the sociology of architecture, asked Hiltz to design an ideal classroom for the 21st century. What resulted were sketches of interconnected “spaces,” forecasting newfangled forms of interaction and communication, all tethered to one novel idea: A teaching and learning environment could be fashioned in software; it needn’t be brick and mortar—it could be virtual.

“The first time I ever thought of Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALN) was in that seminar,” says Hiltz. “That fellowship was crucial to my ability to develop the whole line of research that I would follow in subsequent decades, and to my change of fields from sociology to information systems.”

That same year, exhausted and with little time for research, Hiltz—by now a mother of two and balancing a heavy teaching load at the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange—and longtime colleague Murray Turoff (now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of information systems at NJIT) managed to draft “The Network Nation,” while applying for grants in computer-mediated communications for various purposes, including group decision support and online learning.

Widely acclaimed as the standard reference for the field of computer-mediated communication, “Nation”—a 1978 Association of American Publishers Award winner for Best Scientific, Technical or Medical Book—explains computerized conferencing, among other things, and is packed with prophesies of a future full of geographically-dispersed people able to communicate, socialize, work together, learn and teach remotely, without the limits of having to be in the same place or communicating at the same time.

Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Information Systems, defined the electronic frontier with her groundbreaking research and prescient, award-winning books about the impact of virtual online communities.

Paving the Way

From 1984 to 1986, thanks to a groundswell of support and funding from grants and contracts secured by Hiltz and Turoff, who served as project director and co-project investigator, respectively, NJIT and Upsala were able to offer nine online courses to over 100 students utilizing NJIT’s Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES). During this same time, NJIT trademarked the term Virtual Classroom.

But that remarkable feat also came with a little behind-the-scenes drama.

“This was an exciting but traumatic time,” admits Hiltz. “It seemed like all I did—besides teaching, of course—was write proposals and final reports, with little time for journal articles or books on the results while this was in progress. We were constantly scrambling to put together the pedagogical team, the hardware and the software necessary to support this effort.”

 

Hiltz was still a professor and department chair at Upsala, which was a subcontractor and partner on the project. “The Upsala faculty urged the dean not to allow the project to proceed because they thought that a mode of educational delivery that was not face-to-face could not possibly create a positive outcome,” she says.

Fortunately, the dean didn’t comply, and allowed the online courses scheduled for Upsala to proceed. “However,” she interjects, “this did make it plain that my work would be more compatible with the mission of a technological university.”

Ever the petri dish for innovative, game-changing research, NJIT continued to champion the idea and support the development of virtual learning with the encouragement of then-President Saul Fenster and the former director of research, Arnold Allentuch. In 1986, the same year she and Turoff wed, Hiltz received a full-time, tenured appointment at NJIT. In 1993, she became the university’s first woman to be promoted to Distinguished Professor.

Another major coup followed in 1996: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded the use of ALN— software designed and maintained by Hiltz, Turoff and the computerized conferencing and communications team—to provide B.A. degrees in information systems and computer science through the blended use of videotape and the NJIT Virtual Classroom. A three-year extension of the initial project was approved in 1997 to greatly expand the courses, departments and degree programs offered via ALN.

The New Normal

Today, opportunities for remote learning through online education abound at NJIT. There are multiple graduate degree and professional development certificate programs available in an array of subjects, from computer science and engineering to information security and project management.

According to a 2015 report that tracks online education in the U.S., public institutions command the largest portion of distance education students. What’s more, colleges and universities paid roughly $1.1 billion in 2015 to companies to help take their academic programs online. And the market for online program management providers could more than double by 2020.

Asked what she thinks of the commercial success of distance learning, Hiltz says she’s never had much interest in the business side of things. “I don’t even approve of the phrase ‘online education industry.’ I don’t think education should be for profit.” But she is blown away by the modernized ways in which distance education is now delivered.

“Wow. Everything has changed,” she says. “Our first Virtual Classroom had to work on slow line printers at 300 to 1200 baud through private networks, such as the ARPAnet. They were text only. Now we have high-speed, worldwide multimedia systems; one can technically do so much more.” Still, despite the advances in technology, for Hiltz, the essence of a successful online course remains the same: “interaction among the students as well as between the instructor and the students.”

The Life of an Emerita

Although she retired and transitioned to Emerita status in 2007, Hiltz never stopped researching and teaching. “I love them both!” she proclaims. “I just cut down on the teaching and cut out the administrative and committee work.”

She teaches about one course a year when in the U.S., advises Ph.D. students and collaborates with faculty and colleagues. “I also have been blessed with a series of visiting appointments at universities abroad since retirement,” she adds.

Her scholarly expertise has taken her to universities in China, Norway, the U.K. and the Basque area of Spain. She earned a Fulbright/University of Salzburg Distinguished Chair in Media and Communications in Austria and a visiting research professorship, the Catedra de Excelencia, at Carlos III University of Madrid. “These have enabled me to grow a network of research collaborators around the world, which has been very exciting, but NJIT is still my home base.”

Today, she’s focused on equity and privacy issues related to social media and other forms of computer-mediated communication, and how they intersect with civil liberties, particularly fitting for the sociologist-turned-computer scientist.

“One cannot be trained in sociology and not be aware of the many inequities in our society related to social class, race, gender, the criminal justice system and many other factors,” she insists.

Even her Ph.D. dissertation was a rallying cry for the disenfranchised, highlighting the poverty penalties and imbalanced financial services at a time when many banks redlined residents in black neighborhoods. “I brought this perspective to the area of computer systems, and actually developed and offered my first course in computers and society while teaching sociology at Upsala. As computer systems are embedded in more and more aspects of our lives, it is obvious that they are sociotechnical systems that affect those lives very much.”

Back in the day: Hiltz and Turoff in the early 2000s

Hurdles Along The Way

In high school, Hiltz dreamt of being a physicist. Yet, the male science teachers, and even an uncle who was a chemist, offered only discouragement. “They said I would never get promoted or be able to make it in a male-dominated field,” she remembers. “They thought I would be better off in the social sciences where there were more women.”

At Vassar College (an all-women’s school at the time), where she earned her undergraduate degree, Hiltz was inspired by the female faculty and studied alongside soon-to-be luminaries. “The women there encouraged one another to go into fields like the sciences and medicine,” she recalls. One of her classmates was part of the team that found the Higgs particle; another became a world-renowned architect; many attained Ph.Ds., MDs and law degrees. “There was a recurring theme that you can be anything you want to be.”

With her ambitions fostered, self-confidence intact—and a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University to boot— Hiltz nevertheless found herself gobsmacked by the flagrant discriminatory practices that pervaded workplaces in the 1960s and 70s.

“I was shocked,” she says. “I applied to one university that said they would not allow pregnant women to teach, and if I got pregnant, I would be fired. At other places, I was quizzed on my use of birth control and asked if I would use it.”

While teaching at Upsala, Hiltz discovered that she was earning 25 percent less than a male colleague with similar credentials. Not one to acquiesce, she made an appointment with the dean to complain and was told “my husband was earning good money so I did not need to make as much as a man. These are just a few of the examples of overt gender discrimination that I encountered, which was legal at the time.”

Pay it Forward

It’s an undisputed fact that women are continually underrepresented in the tech field. A recent Industry Gender Gap report revealed that women only hold 26 percent of all tech jobs and only stand to gain one new STEM job for every 20 that are lost in other disrupted industries. At NJIT, groups like the Women in Computing Society are lending their voices to the chorus calling for a change: Tech isn’t just a boys’ club.

“I think that peer support as well as mentoring from female faculty members are crucially important to the success of this fundamental cultural shift,” says Hiltz.

That conviction is at the bedrock of why she helps other women who continue to elbow their way up the corporate and university ladders to shatter glass ceilings.

“It’s important for me to go out of my way to support female students from when they are considering what kind of university to attend,” she says, “to the undergraduate and graduate years and then through the post-Ph.D. years, when female graduates need to contend with balancing family and career, and encountering outright discrimination based on gender.”

And if anyone has the capacity to measure the long-term impacts of female empowerment, it’s Hiltz. It not only gave her the incentive to take herself seriously, but also drastically altered her trajectory.

“Suzanne Keller was among several female faculty members who supported me while at Vassar College. That support gave me the motivation and the fortitude to go through the Ph.D. process and push for excellence in all that I do,” she confirms. “Professor Keller allowed me to take an independent study course with her that cut the number of days I would have to commute to campus from 100 miles away…I got married after two and a half years at Vassar, and the rules there at the time said that married women could not live on campus.”

Ten years later, Keller would go on to write a letter of support for the NSF faculty fellowship, securing Hiltz an invitation to spend the year at Princeton. “It is very important to me to pay it forward,” says Hiltz. “Without that crucial NSF early career award, I would probably still be teaching sociology at a small liberal arts college. Keller also wrote the forward for ‘The Network Nation’ and taught the seminar on the sociology of architecture that I audited at Princeton, which encouraged the very idea of the Virtual Classroom.”

And the rest is history.