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Interactions in Education: A Conversation with Brenda Laurel

Known for her research in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), books and publications including Computers as Theatre and The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, and position as chair of the Media Design Program at the Art Center College of Design, Brenda Laurel has written and spoken widely about interactive media and the cultural implications of technology. Here, Syllabus magazine advisory board member Robert Cavalier interviews Dr. Laurel about her perceptions of HCI in higher education environments.

Robert Cavalier: I'm a fan of your work. Among other things, I teach a course in multimedia production at Carnegie Mellon—not a skill development course, but more of an opportunity to reflect upon what it all means. And when I try to find a conceptual framework for multimedia production, your work is really helpful.
Brenda Laurel: That's great to hear.

RC: I've always been fascinated by the way you use Aristotle's P'etics to reinterpret Human Computer Interaction [HCI]. When did you first notice the relevancy of Aristotle's work to HCI?
BL: Back in the mid-70s, I was in a pretty unique position to see the obvious, as most of the people working in my field in those early days were coming from a computer science background, and I was coming from theater. As an actor, I played early text adventure games, and that was parallel to performing a role in the theater, even though we were only working in text. So, I already had some intuitive knowledge of the link between theater and computers. Then in 1976 I started designing and programming video games to work myself through school, and I was studying Aristotle at the time. I saw the deeper connections immediately.

RC: What was the main contribution of Aristotle's writings to your own understanding of HCI?
BL: Specifically, it was Aristotle's definition of theater as a representation of action where characters are seen as patterns of choice—that's almost exactly what we have in a computer game.

RC: When did you begin to refer to this connection as “computers as theatre,” which eventually became the title of your book?
BL: My advisor at Ohio State in the mid-to-late-70s supported my ideas, even though the CS department, at the time, thought I was nuts. I actually had to find a reader from Stanford for my dissertation. But it was ten years later, in 1986, about the time I was wrapping up the dissertation, that Don Norman, who you may know as an interface guru, helped me see that my work on theatrical theory, along with my knowledge of computer games, could be more broadly applied to HCI in general. So I did some writing for him that expanded into Computers as Theatre.

RC: What would you say is the core principle of Human Computer Interaction?
BL: It's all about just one central inversion. We've usually thought of computers as environments for humans. But when you turn that around and see the human as the environment for the computer, all of the HCI principles that I believe in come into focus. That is, primarily, that the computer should be tasked with supporting and conforming to the person's needs and constraints, and not the other way around.

RC: Can you describe one or two programs in higher education that exemplify this principle of HCI?
Oh sure. At Ohio State, the Advanced Computing Center for Arts and Design—that's ACCAD, which is part of the College of the Arts—is conducting several interesting explorations about how technology can be designed to serve artists. For example, they've built a motion capture laboratory that allows actors to create animated characters that can appear in real time, alongside live actors in theatrical performances. They premiered the first work of this type, called Sleep Deprivation Chamber, in May.

RC: Then is the success of the motion capture lab based on the notion that the animated characters conform well to the actions of the live characters?
Yes. Another model that comes to mind is at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Their IT department has a structure that they call “Discipline-Focused Technology.” Individual academic computing coordinators are assigned to support specific academic disciplines. These folks are specialists in IT and also have academic backgrounds in the curricular areas they support. They act as outreach or missionaries, if you will, for technology. Carleton's experience has really demonstrated, I think, that this approach fosters curriculum innovation, and they've proven that IT professionals can be successful collaborators with educators in the disciplines, creating new possibilities for teaching and learning, and new curriculum. And the students there are trained in HCI and the use of computer tools through the lenses of their particular discipline, so they graduate with knowledge that's both targeted to what they want to do, as well as being generalizable to other areas.

RC: So IT professionals with backgrounds in particular discipline-specific areas can help determine how technology can serve departmental interests. What about cross-disciplinary applications of technology?
At Art Center, where I teach, we're doing a couple of things that I think are really germane to this conversation. One is a growing emphasis on what we're calling trans-disciplinary studios. These are project-based, collaborative studios that involve at least two or more academic departments, and digital media is almost always one of the parties. We've created collaborations with fine art, film, environmental studies, transportation design, and so on, that have been really successful. In fact, until a couple of years ago, we had an undergraduate major at Art Center in digital media, but we found that students from all of the other departments were taking the digital media courses. As we looked at that, it got clearer to us that digital media is really like English or basic math or science, in the sense that it's a core discipline for any well-rounded student. So, we transformed the digital media department into a component of our foundation program. Now, all students are required to take some digital media courses, and most take many more than they are required to. And the curriculum in the digital media track is very flexible and responsive to whatever expressed interests and needs the students may have at any given time, so interaction and experienced design courses are almost universally chosen by the students at Art Center.

RC: What you point out is my experience as well, with regard to redesigning the curriculum in the face of the new media. There are several courses at Carnegie Mellon that emphasize the role of new media from within the liberal arts tradition, so it's a kind of deep literacy that we're really exploring here.
Carnegie Mellon really led the way, when they drew connections between rhetoric, design, and computer science. It's just grown from there. It's a great institution.

RC: Related to deep literacy and the use of various interactive media, you once wrote that 'The coming times call for a complex form of ethical literacy—the ability to determine what is true, good, and valuable in a world that is radically different from our own.' What do you mean by that?
We're surely seeing it unfolding right now. I wrote that before 9/11, and the complexities of our situation are a lot greater now than I imagined then. I think that over the last, say 50 years, American ethical and political intelligence has been relentlessly dumbed down by consumerism—and by that I mean the creation and fulfillment of desire, as opposed to an economy that would work around the genuine satisfaction of real needs. I think, until quite recently, the media has been the servant of consumerism and the conduit for advertising and social modeling through programming content that's made us an increasingly passive people. And I think the Web promises to change that, but the economic recession has really slowed that progress down.

RC: Well what is the potential of the Web, as a more interactive medium, to help in reducing that passivity?
It is true that people can get a more personalized and probably more diverse view of what's going on in the world by looking around on the Web, and they do and can publish their personal views via Web logs and chat rooms. The problem then becomes, how d'es somebody find that? How do people begin to communicate around these snippets of personal writing or views when they're so distributed on the Web? One answer that my class is currently working on at Art Center is to figure out ways of both collecting and aggregating personal stories and personal views into a channel, if you will, an interactive channel that has the same weight and cultural size as the broadcast media. That's the final step in the process, to me. Certainly we have the ability to express personal voice and to find personalized information. What we don't have is the ability to transform that into a widely used forum for developing citizenship. So I think that strategies around aggregation, publishing, and dissemination, along with increasing the size of the forum for public discourse on the Web is the problem that's in front of us right now.

RC: But do you think that this problem will eventually be addressed?
I have faith that will happen and that we can certainly be training our students right now in how to utilize the Web to change things like the construction of power and consciousness in citizenship and personal voice.

RC: Is this a political or technological problem?
Both. I can't disentangle this discussion of interactive media from politics because I think it's logically inappropriate to do so. The challenge is to have some awareness of how our principles and our behaviors affect the world situation at all levels.

RC: How can we as educators respond to this challenge?
The most tractable problem is to use technology to model the physical environment and our impact on the environment. It's harder, but I think it's just as important, to start thinking about how to model the effect of purchasing decisions or our sense of entitlement or our understanding of personal freedom and tolerance. In general, I think Americans need to be ethically and intellectually tuned up in order to see the complex and subtle relationships among things like local personal behavior, global social justice, and planetary health. So, for example, we do things in my program at Art Center like tracing the life history of your shirt or your breakfast cereal, to start thinking about the interconnectedness of all that we do and to begin to create some more sophisticated technology-based models.

RC: Could that include current issues like the situation in Iraq?
I've seen educational institutions responding to the war, and there has been a real, amazing lack of dogmatism and superficiality, at least at Art Center, in the way in which that issue has been worked into what we're doing in all areas. Students have investigated the war and the complexities of its historical situation in all kinds of ways—visually, and interactively. I think the willingness of institutions and teachers to encourage students to explore contemporary matters that are highly politically charged, is what will lead us into new cultural and political literacy. I think that as educators we just have to become more and more aware and willing to latch onto the real world and all of its chaos and diversity to help students understand why education matters and to make the education we give them something that will empower them to act for positive change throughout their lives.

RC: Well I know in my own case, my students certainly feel free to go to online forums and discuss these kinds of issues, and it is in a certain sense a kind of virtual polis or city-state that gets created in some of the best images of these kinds of discussions. And I'm sure that there are roles here for vivid simulations.
I think that simulation is such a flexible tool that it really gives us the chance to hook into what's on everybody's mind right now and re-work the curriculum around the issue—not the other way around.

RC: And since simulations are, in a certain sense, representations, I guess that brings us back to Aristotle's understanding of P'etics, and your understanding of Human Computer Interaction.
Yes, and the original idea of the theater as a place where the public thought together about issues of deep importance just keeps coming back. It's always amazing to me that those early tragedies, you know, the ones written by Sophocles and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes were stories that people already knew. It wasn't about, 'Oh gee, what's going to happen next?' It was about, 'Let's look at this again from the context of today, sitting all together in a public place, and let's see this as part of both our spiritual and our political practice.' That's a really robust model and I think it's as applicable today as it was 2,500 years ago.

[Editor's note: Brenda Laurel will give a keynote, “Integrative Design: Revisioning Educational Infrastructure,” on Wed., July 30, at Syllabus2003; and Robert Cavalier will present a full-day seminar, “Building a New Media Curriculum on a Liberal Arts Foundation,” on Sun., July 27.]

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