XXIII.2 March + April 2016
Page: 70
Digital Citation

The future of HCI education: A flexible, global, living curriculum

Elizabeth Churchill, Anne Bowser, Jennifer Preece

Educational curricula in human-computer interaction (HCI) need to be broad and nimble. To address the first requirement—breadth—HCI focuses on people and technology to drive human-centered technology innovation. HCI students and scholars learn about basic human characteristics and develop the necessary skills to study people’s activities with and around technologies. They need to develop investigative, analytical, technical, communication, and advocacy skills to help them shape interactive technologies that augment people’s abilities, enhance their creativity, connect them to others, and protect their interests. Sensitivity to diversity is also critical; for a range of reasons including literacy, availability of and access to technology, economic and business drivers, regulations, and regional/cultural norms, the “user base” of people is widely varied, with huge differences in the adoption, use, and abandonment of technology. Students need to develop methods and skills to understand current users, to investigate non-use, and to imagine future users.



Dizzying technological change demands curricula be constantly reviewed and often revised, based on active and predicted technological innovation. As HCI scholars, we are as much in the business of prediction and anticipatory design as we are in the business of evaluating what is already in prototype or product form. Courses need to reflect the current technology landscape and help students stay ahead of it; students need to develop technical skills and refresh them regularly.

Academic programs are thus expanding, with new undergraduate, M.S., and Ph.D. programs that include topics such as animation, computer vision, machine learning, and data sciences.

Career trajectories are also changing, with some blurring of what have traditionally been fairly linear career paths. No longer do Ph.D. students necessarily aspire to academic careers. Industry-academic collaborations and cross-fertilization are increasing. Ongoing practitioner learning increasingly overlaps with academic HCI curricula—examples include courses in user experience (UX), human-centered design, experience design, and service design. These factors influence HCI students as they interact with colleagues, develop their networks, and forge their careers.

The Special Interest Group HCI Education

It is clear that some courses in HCI offer foundational principles and methods that remain evergreen and always relevant, while others date and lose relevance. With this challenge in mind, we launched the SIGCHI Education Project, a four-year initiative conducted from 2011 to 2014. The project focused on documenting HCI educators’, practitioners’, and students’ perspectives on the current and future HCI landscape, asking them what they consider to be the top priorities for HCI as a field—and, therefore, what we should focus on in our teaching and training courses.

This project included data collection via surveys: 616 were completed in English, 156 in Brazilian Portuguese, 52 in Mandarin Chinese, and 48 in Chilean Spanish. We conducted interviews with 52 SIGCHI community members. We also held a number of hosted discussions at the annual CHI conferences in various formats: two discussion lunches, HCI education workshops, and SIGCHI Town Hall meeting discussions. In addition, we compiled resources including an annotated bibliography of common texts, course syllabi, and a list of student internships, to seed a living curriculum.

In this article, we draw primarily on the English-language survey. An initial pilot survey asked open-ended questions such as “What do you consider the most important subjects, topics, methods, challenges, and resources in human-computer interaction?” Analyzing survey responses generated 114 disciplinary areas in HCI, covering areas such as the development and use of different device/interface types as well as foundational research topics and design methodologies [1]. During analysis, comparisons were drawn between the different time frames of the surveys (i.e., between respondents who took the survey in 2011 and respondents who took the survey in 2014) and between different stakeholder groups (i.e., between students, academics, and industry practitioners; between different cultural samples). Here, we focus first on commonalities for the sake of brevity [2].

A unified vision for HCI education? Table 1 presents important survey items across time frames and across populations. The items in this table received a median ranking of “very important” or “important” for 616 responses (on a 5-point scale that ranged from “very important” to “very unimportant”). They suggest a valuable starting point for articulating a unified vision of HCI education.

As Table 1 illustrates, numerous design and empirical research methods were considered critical, along with HCI focused on mobile technology design and use. While we will argue later that there is no universal standard for HCI education, these items may be considered core in the sense that three important stakeholder groups found them important at two points in time, 2011 and 2014.

While Table 1 presents a collated list of items, we wondered whether there were differences between students’, academics’, and industry practitioners’ opinions, and whether opinions remained consistent from the time we began the research, in 2011, to our final survey engagement in 2014. In Table 2 we show only the items that were considered to be important or very important by all groups and across the time frames. As shown in Table 2, students, academics, and industry practitioners felt equally strongly in 2011 and in 2014 that designing for mobile device interfaces specifically, and learning about design and empirical research methods were critical topics for an HCI education.

Drilling into the data in more detail, students rated computer science, data mining, machine learning, media criticism, natural language processing, probabilistic computing, robotics, and facial interfaces and modalities as “very important” or “important.” Academics who completed the survey rated discount usability techniques, statistics, and computer-supported collaborative work as “very important” or “important.” Practitioners valued topics in communication, business, information architecture, product development practices, and wire-framing as being “very important” or “important.”


Contextualizing our view. In addition to asking respondents to assess the value of different subjects, topics, and methods, we asked general questions about important challenges and future directions for HCI as a field. Some respondents requested a specific and detailed core curriculum; others warned of the difficulty of keeping such a curriculum current. People understood the difficulty of balancing breadth and depth, noting that HCI has become so broad that any attempt to fashion a one-size-fits-all curriculum will undoubtedly fail. Frustration with disciplinary differences and lack of integration were also expressed, as in this comment from one of our interviewees:

There’s still too much of a disciplinary focus in HCI—still a lot of tension between people who do human science from a very experimental study view and people who do very much contextual work, observational work, and grounded theory, engineering, and design. There’s not a lot of programs where you can see those disciplines really working together to give deep and rich training to the students.

Clear regional and contextual differences became evident, raising concerns about the relevance of a single HCI curriculum that would be globally applicable. This makes sense, and invites an HCI curriculum that acknowledges geographic and cultural differences in terms of user “need” and that offers locally relevant content.

Reflections and Recommendations

A consistent theme throughout our project was the desire for an online repository of materials shared among HCI educators. Such a repository, if curated well, would offer a flexible, global, and frequently refreshed curriculum—what we have dubbed a living curriculum. A living curriculum would focus on connecting people and resources, and on the collaborative creation and maintenance of resources. The vision is for a highly connected social network of HCI scholars and educators that would complement and deepen relationships forged during in-person conferences but that would be focused on the sharing and co-development of course outlines, curricula, and teaching resources.

Some respondents requested a specific and detailed core curriculum; others warned of the difficulty of keeping such a curriculum current.

To explore this idea a little further, we hosted a number of lunch meetings and workshops, including one at CHI 2014 entitled “Developing a Living Curriculum to Support a Global HCI Community,” with students, academics, and industry practitioners from North and South America, Europe, and Asia. We explicitly invited attendees to share with us what kinds of resources and support they would like for HCI education. Attendees characterized a living curriculum to be a set of community-created, high-quality resources that are constantly updated and curated to maintain relevance.

Resources would represent diverse theoretical perspectives, cultural contexts, and knowledge traditions. Resources could be in the form of course materials, case studies, descriptions of new methods being trialed, key papers, datasets, and prototype videos. The possibility for discussion and commenting would be key. Many believed that in order for a curriculum to succeed, contribution to and participation in any such resource-sharing community should be linked to the achievement of a measurable attainment of professional goals. Others suggested fruitful alliances with other professional bodies would be highly beneficial (e.g., with IXDA and the IA Institute), even if the community were to start within SIGCHI and ACM.

What’s Next?

There is no question that a successful flexible, living curriculum will benefit the entire HCI community by helping HCI to maintain and even extend its legitimacy as a field of endeavor. The current status of the living curriculum is that it needs resourcing in a number of ways.

First, and most important, more work is needed on community building. An excellent example to follow is the SIGCHI Accessibility community [3]. Success may be more likely with the appointment of an employed community coordinator and resource manager. Second, the SIGCHI community infrastructure is a good first step for promoting conversation. However, to create a truly vibrant and content-focused living curriculum, it may be necessary to extend the current SIGCHI community infrastructure or adopt another technology platform and/or services—the key is to adopt a platform for effective content sharing and collaborative content production. Third, adjacent efforts focused on conference-based courses and teaching may be beneficial. For example, in response to requests to provide programs to support lifelong learning, we are in the process of enlisting help from the SIGCHI Executive Committee Chapters Chair, and we are discussing with the Conference Management Committee the recording and sharing of conference course materials across SIGCHI conferences. We see these efforts as complementing the living curriculum’s focus on higher education as college courses.

However, as noted above, the key ingredient will be a group of dedicated individuals who can champion these ideas, write proposals to gather resources, and seed the creation of a mutually supportive, content-focused social network. We invite everyone in the HCI community to take part, whether you are an educator, a student, a practitioner, or an interested lifelong learner—this effort needs your involvement. We have a nascent list of volunteers, but more volunteers are needed. If you are interested, please sign up for the SIGCHI Education community and/or email us:


1. See for more details on our survey.

2. For more details see our reports on the SIGCHI Education site:

3. See


Elizabeth Churchill is a director of user experience at Google. She has been a scholar and research manager focused on human-computer interaction for over 20 years. A Distinguished Scientist of the ACM, her current work focuses on HCI aspects of the social web and the emerging Internet of Things.

Anne Bowser is a senior program associate with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center. Her research focuses on supporting citizen science, particularly through cooperative technology design. Anne contributed to the SIGCHI HCI Education Project while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland iSchool.

Jennifer Preece is professor and dean emerita at University of Maryland’s Information School. She researches community interaction via technology in citizen science and environmental education. She is co-author of Interaction Design: Beyond HCI and a member of the CHI Academy.


T1Table 1. Items considered “very important” and “important” components of HCI education across all 616 English-language surveys. Survey items are user-generated terms that emerged from our pilot research.

T2Table 2. Survey items that received a median ranking of “very important” or “important” by students, academics, and industry practitioners in surveys completed in 2011 and 2014.

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