Alan Dix > HCI Education

special times

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column May/June 2003

Writing this last column in SIGCHI Bulletin I started to look back over the past columns I've written, perhaps to bring out themes. I'd not realised how long though, more than three years.

However all the while, and I'd guess the other writers for this issue will feel similarly, there seemed an almost irrelevance in writing, at this moment, about HCI when almost certainly within the next few weeks there will be war, death and the weakening of the rule of international law.

In fact as I thought back over the issues from the past three years I kept finding echoes and reflections of these more momentous events. I think these will emerge as I write.

One thing I must say is how much I have learnt over these past three years. Well, I hope I have learnt in all aspects of life, but in particular I mean learnt from writing this column: learnt both in terms of content and about the process of writing itself.

This ability to learn has of course figured several times in past columns and I ended my very first column with the words "what have I learnt today?"

In post-modern literary criticism they talk about readerly and writerly texts. In readerly text the reader is just that, a reader, taking in the meanings given by the writer (Umberto Eco calls these closed texts). However, in a writerly text the reader's role is more active in interpreting the material (Eco calls these open). By this definition, much of technical writing is readerly, whereas most of poetry is more writerly.

Now strangely enough as a writer I find myself also in these readerly/writerly modes. Sometimes I seem to be functioning as a writer (writerly writing) putting my own existing thoughts and interpretations into the text. But at other times I find that as I write I am a readerly writer - the text speaks back to me even as I write it, giving me back its own meaning. And this is happening now, I never knew about readerly and writerly writing before this very moment.

This is part of that strange process whereby the best way to learn something is often to teach it.

And as I said, I have learnt about writing itself. (But please do not tell my school English teacher that I justed started a sentence and paragraph with "and".) Often having to write about difficult subjects in limited words I have found myself practising and honing word use that has then spilled over into non-technical - 'creative' - writing.

Now isn't that strange? Why is it that writing that is not about something is called 'creative' and separated from more functional writing. This arts-sciences creative-rational split is something that has also come up before. It has not always been so. At Christmas I said to my wife "the interesting thing about Leonardo da Vinci being a polymath is that he was a polymath". As I said these words, I felt again that I had learnt something, but also it clearly needed explanation. We do not call Aristotle a polymath even though he wrote about science, logic and poetics. For a Greek it would have been strange for him to have done anything else. But at the Renaissance there seemed to have been a parting of the streams between disciplines and we all seem the weaker for it.

Why is it that we are so good at putting up fences between ourselves whether it is on academic grounds, or based on economic, religious or ethnic divides?

Some of you may recall in the column I wrote immediately after 9/11 I had been returning home from South Africa - a country struggling to find peace and tolerance and also redress past social injustice. On my way back I read and was enraged by a speech by the Vice Chancellor of London University, Professor Zellick who was attacking the British Government's policy to broaden Higher Education and who, in the process, denigrated the degrees of many students, largely from poorer backgrounds. This issue has flared again in the UK with the announcement that universities will get extra funding for students from socially deprived backgrounds to cover the higher costs of education. As you can imagine those on the 'right' side of the educational divide are protesting and again struggling to pull up the ladder behind them.

Education is a dangerous thing: it levels the barriers that give us power and allows people to think for themselves!

In a peaceful but eerie echo of South African schools' protests, last week all over the country British children walked out from school and gathered in city centres. In London they sat down outside Downing Street and had to be moved by police. Although a few school heads had got wind of this beforehand and sent letters to parents, it had not been widely predicted and took the press as much by surprise as the politicians. Presumably organised in Internet chatrooms and SMS messages the youth of this country announced their judgement. The Government learnt the hard lesson - if you give people the tools to think they may not agree with what you tell them!

Widening education may also mean much harder work than when you choose a social elite. A PhD student I am working with is interested in remedial mathematics for further education students: people who 'failed' at mathematics in school and now need to build up sufficient skills to pursue computing courses. Mathematics is my first love so I always find it sad that so many people say "I can't do maths", but the way we teach in general seems to work particularly badly for mathematics, so many adults have been taught about failure not success.

It is approaching exam time and so students are feeling again that pressure to succeed. In the UK, plagiarism has become an increasingly important issue. I'm not sure if this is because the pressures have increased or just that we are more aware of a problem that has existed for many years. Of course national events again overtake us, and it does not help us as we explain the issue of plagiarism to students when our own Government produced, only a few weeks ago, a report based on 'recent' intelligence, which then turned out to be a verbatim copy of a ten-year-old PhD thesis!

Recently I contributed to a book about fun and experience. Many of the chapters refer to Csikszentimihalyi's idea of 'flow'. Imagine walking on a pavement, not exactly engaging in itself, you may look at the faces that pass you, but there is no deep experience of actual walking. Now imagine it is an icy day and each pavement is a glassy sheet ready to propel you into the road and the path of skidding cars. In the first walking is boring, in the second terrifying - neither an optimal experience. Now imagine you are on a rocky beach. Some of the rocks are covered in that slippery green slime, some are bare and dry, others wet. You carefully pick your path, watching both immediately where your feet lie, sometimes having to stretch, sometimes only just catching your balance, and you look ahead scanning for a path across the rocks that bypasses the most difficult patches. Of course you could have simply walked on the promenade, but this is a holiday and scrambling on rocks is fun - you are fully engaged in what you are doing - flow.

These middle grounds between routine and risk are the most productive in many areas. In educational theory the "zone of proximal development" encompasses those things that the student can just do, but only with some sort of human help or artificial aid - perhaps doing multiplication sums with a times-table book to hand. Teetering at the edge of our experience we can have both confidence and excitement.

How often do we drive our students beyond that point?

Building this sense of mastery over existing knowledge that enables you to learn has been a recurrent theme in my columns. Recently we've also touched on more difficult topics - having the confidence to accept that we also need to learn and to say when we are wrong! Again it seems as though the national stage reflects the same issues, but with yet more significant consequences. Recently Tony Blair gave a speech laying out the moral case for war in Glasgow. One of the planks of this was over a million deaths in wars waged by Iraq on its neighbours. Of course, neatly side-stepping the fact that most of these, including the heavy use of primitive chemical and biological weapons against Kurds and Iranians, was carried out with the blessing and military advice of the US and UK. I can still recall as a schoolchild reading in Readers Digest the harrowing stories of the Iran-Iraq war and the attempted cover ups. When will we learn that moral legitimacy comes from accepting past mistakes and past wrong doing. To say "I was wrong" does not mean you cannot speak up for the right.

So, it was deeply heartening, although I didn't agree with her conclusions, to hear the hawkish Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute talking on BBC News 24 HARDtalk programme. To my surprise she said that yes, for 30 years the US has pursued policies that encouraged undemocratic repressive governments, but under Bush no more! Of course, few politicians on either side would be as honest, and if they were we would still not agree on all issues. However, we would at least speak with legitimacy and perhaps begin to earn back the respect of the youth who have lost their belief in national and international governance.

As educators it is the business leaders and politicians of tomorrow that we nurture. Do we give them confidence in their own ability and understanding of their limitations? Do we give them the knowledge that to accept failings and mistakes is a sign of strength. Or do we leave them with the belief that success depends on getting by with half truths and deception?

My co-authors and I have been working hard on the 3rd edition of our HCI textbook. It has been exciting seeing the areas that have changed in the discipline, including an increased focus on experience and enjoyment and also the growth of ubicomp and digital/physical integration. It has also been good to see how much has not changed - there are fundamentals that transcend ephemeral shifts in technology.

Being so wrapped up in that I get the feeling I have almost slept through the whirlwind of events on the global stage. Waking periodically and seeing the growing storm it seems, as I said at the beginning, that our jobs as researchers, practitioners and educators in HCI are somewhat futile and insignificant.

However, seeing the parallels between global and more parochial concerns is not just a literary device, but reflects the universal issues of humanity. We are people and hurt each other and care for each other at all levels. And of course, when we want students to learn about the ethics of plagiarism, or to have sober confidence in their abilities, or to be ready to admit their limitations - these things are not because one or other of these students may happen to grow into a world leader. We want these things because they are important in themselves for that person.

What we do as educators is special, because each student is special.


... and yes ... Readers Digest ... have I permanently destroyed my academic street cred?



Csikszentimihalyi (1990), Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. NY: Harper and Row.

I have no idea the issue of Readers Digest I read back in the late 1970s, but here is a recent account: Jonathan Rhodes. "War on Iraq: The Case Against Saddam: Saddam Attacks Iran". efreedomnews, War On Terrorism - An American Perspective.
Tony Blair's speech at Glasgow:: BBCi, "Blair speech - key quotes", Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 12:38 GMT


the book on fun is:
Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment. M. Blythe, A. Monk, K. Overbeeke and P. Wright (eds.) Kluwer.

my chapter in this is called deconstructing experience – pulling crackers apart, and is about the recreating expriences in new media

more about creativity in research on my pages on research and innovation

and more about writing in my position paper: 'exploring the future in story and folktale' for the 2002 workshop on 'Understanding User Experience: Literary Analysis meets HCI'

and my own writings on my words page and journal