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XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 74
Digital Citation

Baraza! Human-computer interaction education in Africa


Authors:
Shaimaa Lazem, Susan Dray

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Africa is the continent with the youngest population, the most languages (between 1,500 and 2,000), and the second-largest area, with 54 countries, two de facto states, and 10 territories. It is a continent where information and communications technologies (ICT) are growing and promising transformational change. Locally developed technologies that meet the unique challenges for African users are successful. For example, Ummeli (http://ummeli.com/mobi/) is a system that helped more than a million young people in remote areas put their résumés online using a flip phone. M-Pesa (https://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa) and Tala (https://tala.co/) provide microfinancing services for millions of people who would not otherwise get it.

back to top  Insights

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In Africa, human-computer interaction (HCI) is an emerging discipline. The first African Conference for Human-Computer Interaction (AfriCHI; http://www.africhi.net/) was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2016 to develop and sustain a forum for local HCI and interaction design expertise in Africa, and to increase the visibility of African researchers and practitioners internationally. The conference committee worked to build and promote the identity of African HCI researchers, as individuals and collectively. For instance, conference organizers encouraged workshop submissions in local languages, and panels were held where panelists and attendees sat in circles similar to those of African traditions. In the Gumzo track, there was a venue for oral performances to showcase traditional and contemporary voice and/or body performances, which is much closer to how African cultures share meaning in regular life [1].

As a natural part of AfriCHI, HCI education was discussed and featured through a workshop and a panel, moderated by the authors, where we discussed teaching HCI and a possible pathway to a living curriculum. In line with AfriCHI’s emphasis on African identity, the name for our workshop was Baraza, Swahili for “a meeting.” It was less about structure and more about inviting everyone to share their stories of teaching HCI.

In this article, we present the contextual challenges that African HCI academics face and ways to localize the HCI curriculum, mainly from synthesizing the notes taken by us and the attendees. We add necessary background to link the discussions to global HCI efforts.

We wrote this on behalf of our Baraza and have given examples in order to give people a sense of the African context, which may be unfamiliar. However, we caution against overgeneralizing because Africa is a diverse continent.

back to top  The Africhi Baraza

The concept of the living curriculum was developed by a SIGCHI Task Force led by Elizabeth Churchill, Anne Bowser, and Jenny Preece. Instead of a single curriculum with specific necessary parts in fairly rigid arrangement, they proposed a “flexible, global, and Living Curriculum” [2]. The HCI Living Curriculum Workshop, or Baraza, held at AfriCHI 2016, was attended by about 15 academics (both post-graduate students and lecturers) from Africa, who discussed their own HCI teaching practices, including previous experiences with HCI curricula along with the institutional barriers they face. We used three opening questions from the workshop call for papers to prime the discussions (Figure 1). We shared the main themes that emerged from the discussions along with a proposed broad action plan with a wider AfriCHI audience in a subsequent panel at the same conference.

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back to top  HCI Education in Africa: Challenges

As we found in our Baraza and panel discussion, HCI education and research are not yet institutionalized in African universities, except perhaps for some schools in Namibia and South Africa, which have established HCI research groups. Aside from there, some universities have only one or at most two HCI faculty members, who usually earned their HCI degrees outside their countries and who attempt to transfer the knowledge back. Participants shared local examples in which mere replication of Western technologies without attention to cultural models and details has often led to failure. One example is an e-voter registration system in 2001 that flopped and cost Uganda over $22 million USD [3]. To address these cultural and other local differences, it was argued that modern African HCI curricula should be more attuned to sociology and anthropology and reflect more of the African social sense of self, which places less emphasis on individualism. They noted that it is also crucial for HCI methods to reflect an updated understanding of African concepts of community.


Some professors feel they are just one step ahead of the students in their own understanding of the subject.


The attendees reported having large classes of up to 100 undergraduate students and more. In Uganda, HCI courses are taught to information systems, information technology, software engineering, and computer science students with different foci [3]. In Egypt, due to the lack of HCI staff members, one university lists HCI courses, which are electives for computer science students, under humanities [4]. Most of the teaching models and pedagogies focus on theoretical concepts of interface design and evaluation rather than practicing them. HCI is an interdisciplinary subject, so professors feel they must sidestep departmental requirements for content and grades that come from other disciplines. For instance, some departments weigh final theoretical exams as high as 60 percent of the grade, which leaves little room to incentivize project-based work, regardless of the time and effort students put into it. Professors could include questions about the yearlong projects, but it would require a long time to grade these answers, particularly for large classes. This is challenging in a practical subject, eventually leading to a disconnect between study and practice, leaving students without important workforce skills in user research such as ethnography, participatory design, prototyping, and usability evaluation.

ins03.gif Figure 1. HCI education workshop priming questions.

Some classrooms also lack sufficient access to computers, recent textbooks, and professional HCI conference and journal proceedings. Countries whose official language is not English cannot easily access HCI resources, most of which are in English. Furthermore, since their time is consumed by their teaching workloads, professors often have not done HCI research themselves and have had little to no professional development opportunities.

We also discussed how many or even most professors teaching HCI in African universities were not well equipped to do so, lacking formal HCI education or previous industry practice. Indeed, some professors with computer science or information systems backgrounds feel they are just one step ahead of the students in their own understanding of the subject. Given the nascent status of the HCI profession in Africa, this was not surprising, but it does suggest a need to provide materials to help professors to learn about the field. This is a major difference from the requirements for professors in North America and Western Europe, who are graduates from established HCI programs with exposure to local and international HCI research and practice communities.

As a result of these factors combined, we agreed that Africa needs its own local living curriculum materials, pedagogical models, and delivery techniques so that professors can be prepared to face the aforementioned contextual challenges.

back to top  HCI Curriculum Localization

HCI literature recognizes the value of localization when HCI knowledge is transferred from Western case studies to the global context. Andy Smith and his colleagues [5] have argued that the localization of HCI methods such as usability evaluation methods (e.g., think aloud protocol) is necessary to deal with cultural and organizational differences. Recent research has supported the need for localization by demonstrating that culture and cognitive attitudes affect students’ performances in HCI analytical tasks (e.g., heuristics evaluation) and intuitive design tasks (e.g., creating personas) in a cross-cultural study [6]. Smith et al. proposed a model to provide guidelines on localizing HCI practices to support international software development, presented in Figure 2.

ins04.gif Figure 2. International “institutionalization of HCI and usability” (Figure 1 from [5]).

To help unpack the concept of localization and organize our discussion about it, we propose incorporating the local living curriculum into the framework by Smith and colleagues [5] (Figure 3). First, we adopted the definition proposed by Churchill et al.: “A living curriculum would focus on connecting people and resources, and on the collaborative creation and maintenance of resources…that would be focused on the sharing and co-development of course outlines, curricula, and teaching resources” [2]. A Localized Living Curriculum (LLC) would provide materials in the local language(s), including case studies from the local context to create authentic and practical learning experiences for students. For instance, African case studies could focus on illiterate users or users in remote areas with poor access to power sources. All of these would require researching the applicability of Western HCI methods (e.g., structured interviews, participatory design, cultural probes, personas, paper prototyping, and heuristic evaluation, etc.) in African contexts. The LLC could connect HCI educators, researchers, and local ICT companies to help form local HCI communities of practice (Figure 4). Roles for HCI educators in HCI curriculum localization would include the following:

ins05.gif Figure 3. Localizing HCI and the Localized Living Curriculum.
ins06.gif Figure 4. A Localized Living Curriculum transcends the strong boundaries between teaching, research, and the ICT industry in Africa.
  • Redefinition of HCI in the local culture. One way to do this is to conduct experiments to understand the extent to which Western data gathering, design, and evaluation methods work in the local cultures. Students enrolled in HCI classes could be the subjects in those experiments and then replicate them with community members. Reports about the methods’ appropriateness and effectiveness will be co-created by students and included in the LLC with sufficient information about the experiment design.
  • Embedding HCI in local national organizations. A fairly common concern is that professors cannot afford current professional SIGCHI fees, although they can afford special rates for ACM membership. Since being part of such SIG groups is paramount to building and sharing disciplinary knowledge, we discussed launching student chapters. To create HCI awareness among peers, professors can organize seminars or small reading groups. Furthermore, the ICT industry should be involved in proposing ideas embedded in African contexts for student projects. For example, projects could consider supporting and empowering local farmers, computerizing government services, and documenting cultural heritage.
  • Rollout of localized HCI and usability practices. Free social media platforms are a good place to start LLC dissemination and host discussions around it. Professors could seek informal education opportunities, such as creating online videos or dissemination seminars to roll out the LLC material to the local ICT industry as well as national and international research groups.

back to top  Conclusion

These are exciting times for the global HCI community to work with the emerging AfriCHI community. The momentum to institutionalize HCI is being built from the ground up by enthusiastic students and early-career academics who believe in the impact of ICT in facilitating economic and social development. To maintain this momentum, it is crucial to build capacity of HCI user researchers and designers. Our Baraza identified a clear need for a local African Living Curriculum and for ways to support African professors teaching without formal HCI education or experience in the field.

The SIGCHI Executive Committee is also helping maintain the momentum by commissioning the SIGCHI Across Borders Initiative. Meetings are planned in North Africa in January 2018, and in Latin America (place and timing TBD) to learn from local HCI researchers and academics and to help them plan the future of HCI in their regions. We hope this initiative will grow and eventually cover more of the world.

back to top  References

1. Bidwell, N.J. Decolonising HCI and interaction design discourse: Some considerations in planning. XRDS: Crossroads, THE ACM Magazine for Students 22, 4 (2016), 22–27; http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2930884

2. Churchill, E.F., Bowser, A., and Preece, J. The future of HCI education: A flexible, global, living curriculum. Interactions 23, 2 (Mar.–Apr. 2016), 70–73; https://doi.org/10.1145/2888574

3. Baguma, R. Teaching HCI and research in local HCI problems in Uganda: Current status and recommendations; http://www.hcixb.org/papers_2017/hcixb17-final-56.pdf

4. Lazem. A case study for sensitising Egyptian engineering students to user-experience in technology design. Proc. of the 7th Annual Symposium on Computing for Development. ACM, New York, 2016, Article 12; https://doi.org/10.1145/3001913.3001916

5. Smith, A., Bannon, L., and Gulliksen, J. Localising HCI practice for local needs. Proc. of the 2010 International Conference on Interaction Design & International Development. A. Joshi and A. Dearden, eds. BCS Learning & Development Ltd., Swindon, UK, 2010, 114–123.

6. Abdelnour-Nocera, J., Clemmensen, T., and Guimaraes, T.G. Learning HCI across institutions, disciplines and countries: A field study of cognitive styles in analytical and creative tasks. Proc. of Human-Computer Interaction – INTERACT 2017: 16th IFIP TC 13 International Conference. R. Bernhaupt, G. Dalvi, A. Joshi, D.K. Balkrishan, J. O’Neill, and M. Winckler, eds. Springer International Publishing, Cham, 2017, 198–217; http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-68059-0_13

back to top  Authors

Shaimaa Lazem (https://truthfan.wordpress.com/) is a researcher at the City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications, Egypt, focusing on HCI education. She earned a Ph.D. in computer science from Virginia Tech, U.S., and was a postdoctoral researcher at Open Lab (https://openlab.ncl.ac.uk/), U.K. She is the co-founder of the ArabHCI initiative (https://arabhci.org). slazem@srtacity.sci.eg

Susan M. Dray (http://www.dray.com/) is president of Dray & Associates, where she provides contextual and ethnographic user research, usability evaluation, and interface design consultation for a wide range of products, systems, and applications. She contributed to the founding of ACM SIGCHI, was the 2006 recipient of the SIGCHI Lifetime Service Award, was a recipient of the SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement in Practice Award in 2015, and was elected an ACM Fellow in 2017. susan.dray@dray.com

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