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HCI Education: Where is it Headed?

Andrew Sears

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As we conclude the celebration of ACM's first fifty years, it is time to look to the future. So based on some recent trends, here are a few ideas about the future of HCI Education.

Defining the Discipline

As HCI continues to mature as a discipline, we must continue to question the bounds of the field. We must define what is within the realm of HCI and what is not. To begin, we can explore some of the proposed definitions for the discipline:

  • "Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is about designing computer systems that support people so that they can carry out their activities productively and safely." -- Preece et al. (1994)
  • "Human-Computer Interaction (or HCI) is, put simply, the study of people, computer technology and the ways these influence each other. We study HCI to determine how we can make this computer technology more usable by people." -- Dix et al. (1993)
  • "Human-computer interaction is a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them." -- Hewett et al. (1992)

Each definition stresses four important ideas: people, computing systems, interaction, and usability. How you interpret these words determines the scope of the discipline. So, as we define HCI as a discipline we must think about how far we can, and should, push these terms. Researchers tend to push the boundaries of a discipline more than educators and HCI is no exception, but how far behind should education follow?

HCI researchers regularly use the term people to refer to an individual or a group of people working together to solve a problem. This brings many additional issues including computer supported collaborative work (CSCW) under the umbrella we call HCI. While researchers may explore new methods of supporting CSCW, HCI classes usually just mention the concept. Little time is spent in a classroom discussing the issues introduced when two or more people work together to solve problems.

Similarly, HCI researchers often use the term computing system to refer to new, experimental, devices that are unlike traditional computers. HCI classes often include brief descriptions of novel systems and devices to inspire students to use their imaginations, but most of HCI education still focuses on designing and developing traditional computer systems.

Interaction and usability tend to be less controversial terms, but even here HCI education often comes up short. Researchers regularly evaluate the usability of the systems they develop, while some introductory courses focus on design and implementation but fail to stress the importance of defining and measuring usability. While it is impossible to master all of the issues involved in HCI during a single course, students must be exposed to these issues and understand their importance. Students must understand the difference between designing a system and designing a system that actually helps users accomplish their tasks. If they only learn about design and implementation, but don't understand the importance of testing their creations, we may end up with systems that are attractive on the surface, but don't really solve the users' problems. Graduates that think they understand the issues involved in HCI, but do not, are far more dangerous than those that understand their own limitations.

It is clear that HCI deals with far more than implementing traditional desk-top computer systems, but this may not be so obvious if someone looks only at HCI courses. Defining the discipline will help everyone better understand when, where, and why human-computer interaction professionals should be involved in the development of new systems. It will also help define topics that should be covered in HCI courses.

HCI Degrees Will Help Broaden the Definition of HCI

HCI education continues to struggle to keep up with the rapid evolution of the discipline. While new concentrations and degrees are being introduced, most universities still offer only one or two courses, if any, from within traditional degree programs. Having a limited amount of time, these courses and concentrations are forced to focus on the fundamentals, which includes designing traditional user interfaces. While this makes sense in the context of a single course or a concentration, a different approach may be more appropriate for HCI degrees.

Initially, HCI degrees will focus on traditional topics like designing interfaces for desktop computer systems. However, as these programs mature, broader definitions of HCI will be used. For example, the SIGCHI Curriculum Development Group suggested that computing systems could include "embedded computational machines, such as parts of spacecraft cockpits or microwave ovens". Using this definition, HCI professionals could design the interaction between one or more people and any device that relies on a CPU including ATMs, information kiosks, medical equipment, telephones, airplane cockpits, stereos, fax machines, VCRs, and even traditional desk-top computers. If HCI degrees provide the appropriate knowledge and experiences, HCI professionals will not be limited to designing interfaces to traditional computer systems.

Students pursuing a degree in Human-Computer Interaction should be provided with a broader education. Traditional HCI topics may continue to be the focus, but additional issues should be integrated into the curriculum. Design can be taught as a more general subject, rather than focusing on designing graphical user interfaces or command languages. Additional time can be spent on gathering information about users, their work, and their goals. The discussion of users can be expanded from the traditional computer user to include individuals with a broader range of skills and limitations. Courses can be offered that explore the issues involved in designing systems for people with disabilities. Computing systems can be expanded to include any CPU-based device people interact with. The possibilities are endless.

Another step in the process of defining the discipline is to create a common vocabulary. Currently, we have not even agreed on a name for the degrees students earn when studying this discipline. A recent survey asked faculty to identify degrees they were involved with that focused on Human-Computer Interaction [Sears96]. Sixteen degrees were identified, three undergraduate and thirteen graduate. Eleven different names were used, including:

  • Computing with Psychology,
  • Designing Worldwide Interactive Systems,
  • Human-Computer Interaction,
  • Human-Computer Systems,
  • Human Factors and Applied Cognition,
  • Information Systems and Human Behaviour,
  • Information Technology,
  • Intelligent Systems,
  • Interactive Computing System Design,
  • Interaction Design, and
  • Multimedia.

Interestingly, the only name used more than once was `Human-Computer Interaction'. Of the six degrees that use this name, at least four were introduced in the last two years. While many names are still in use, it appears that we may have started converging on one name for these degrees.

Finding a Home

Human-computer interaction will continue to exist in a variety of homes. Computer science programs are a natural home since many, but not all, HCI professionals are involved with implementing user interfaces. Psychology departments also provide a natural home. Other departments, including industrial design, graphic design, information systems, industrial engineering, sociology, and electrical/computer engineering could also offer HCI courses and concentrations.

Exactly where these courses and concentrations will thrive depends on a variety of factors. For example, some departments welcome HCI with open arms while others work to ensure that it will never be more than an elective that some students can choose. What are the factors that have the biggest impact? The following paragraphs provide a few thoughts on this subject while Gasen and Preece (1996) provide a more complete analysis of the topic.

Industry can certainly have an impact. Hiring graduates with experience in HCI makes it clear that this is an important topic from an industrial perspective. Industry can also influence academia through funding, internships, and collaborative projects. Students also have some influence. If HCI courses fill to capacity, someone is bound to recognize that this topic is worth further thought. Finally, organizations that make curriculum recommendations or define areas of national interest can also make a difference by highlighting the importance of HCI research and education and by directing funding to these programs. However, none of these factors can make a significant difference without support from within the university.

If the fact that HCI is not part of the traditional definition of computer science, psychology, or whatever other discipline the department emphasizes, causes it to be seen as less rigorous or less important, HCI will not expand beyond being an elective. If the department does not appreciate the importance of interdisciplinary studies, HCI will always be an outcast. Most importantly, someone in the department must recognize the importance of the discipline and be willing to fight for its future. If there isn't an advocate for HCI, or if the department is too tied to tradition, HCI cannot thrive in a traditional single-discipline department. Fortunately, with more Ph.D. students doing HCI research, the number of faculty dedicated to expanding HCI is bound to grow.

With the introduction of HCI degrees, new alternatives may emerge. Since HCI is interdisciplinary by nature, a natural alternative would be to create new, interdisciplinary departments or schools. HCI students must take courses in a variety of disciplines, and they could go to each department and take one or two courses, but the faculty teaching these courses may, or may not, be actively involved in the HCI community. Bringing faculty from these different disciplines together in a single academic unit will expose HCI students to the knowledge, vocabulary, and techniques of the different disciplines while ensuring that they see the connection to HCI. Learning about these disciplines is good, but learning how they relate to HCI from faculty involved in HCI education and research is even better.

Of course, creating an interdisciplinary department or school will include all of the factors that influence the success of HCI within a traditional department, plus a commitment from even higher levels of the university. One example is the new interdisciplinary School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Expanding Opportunities

HCI education has followed a natural evolutionary process. Initially, human-computer interaction was taught as a special topic when it could be fit into existing courses. Eventually, specialized HCI courses were offered as electives in a variety of departments including computer science and psychology. Next, concentrations were offered within traditional degrees. Finally, HCI degrees were developed at both the graduate and undergraduate levels [Sears96].

As the importance of the discipline continues to be better understood, the demand for individuals that understand how to design effective systems will lead to more opportunities to learn about HCI. This will come in the form of more concentrations within traditional degrees such as graphic design, psychology, and computer science as well as additional degrees that focus on human-computer interaction. Finally, continuing education will become increasingly important as the number of HCI professionals increases and the field continues to evolve. Keeping up with the rapid changes is difficult and providing HCI professionals with the opportunity to take concentrated seminars on new ideas and techniques will be critical.

Conclusions

HCI Education continues to expand. At the same time, it must continue to adapt to the changes in the discipline. As more degrees are introduced, the need to define the discipline increases. We must begin to define the fundamental issues that all students learning about HCI should be exposed to. This includes defining which topics should be dealt with in introductory HCI courses, HCI concentrations, and HCI degrees. As these new HCI degrees mature, we will see a broadening of the definition of human-computer interaction to include more flexible interpretations of the terms human and computer.

We will also see the emergence of new interdisciplinary departments and schools to house these HCI programs. These schools will include faculty with a variety of backgrounds including computer science, psychology, graphic design, industrial design, and perhaps even human-computer interaction. These interdisciplinary groups will allow HCI students to learn about each of these distinct disciplines and how they contribute to the field we call human-computer interaction. The result will be students with a more well-rounded education that have a better understanding of the issues involved in designing computer-based systems that meet users' needs.

A Few Final Words

As always, if you have resources to share or time to dedicate to improving the status of HCI education, please let me know. A number of projects are under way to address these and other issues related to HCI education and more energy is always welcome. If you are trying to expand the HCI offerings at your institution and have questions without answers, let me know. I'll do my best to provide answers or to put you in touch with someone else who might be able to. Finally, if you have issues you would like to see discussed in the Bulletin, please contact me. Contact information can be found inside of the front cover of the Bulletin.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank my pool of informal reviewers for helping shape these ideas and put them down on paper. In particular, I want to thank Mary Czerwinski, Laurie Dringus, Jean Gasen, and Julie Jacko for providing comments on earlier drafts. I also want to thank Hans de Graaff for catching a few last-minute mistakes.

References

Dix, A., Finlay, J. Abowd, B. and Beale, R. Human-Computer Interaction, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Gasen, J. & Preece, J. (1996). What shapes the face of Human-Computer Interaction in higher education? A framework of the influences. Journal of Computing in Higher Education (in press).

Hewett, T., Baecker, R., Card, S., Carey, T., Gasen, J., Mantei, M., Perlman, G., Strong G., and Verplank, W. (1992). ACM SIGCHI Curricula for Human-Computer Interaction. Report of the ACM SIGCHI Curriculum Development Group, ACM. (available at http://www.acm.org/sigchi/cdg/)

Preece, Jenny. Human-Computer Interaction, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Sears, A. (1996). HCI Education: Some progress and some new questions. SIGCHI Bulletin 28, 4.

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