Academic journal article Journal of Education for Library and Information Science

Usability/User-Centered Design in the iSchools: Justifying a Teaching Philosophy

Academic journal article Journal of Education for Library and Information Science

Usability/User-Centered Design in the iSchools: Justifying a Teaching Philosophy

Article excerpt

Researchers from two universities surveyed a decade's worth of iSchool graduates who had taken and passed at least one master's level course in usability and user-centered design (UCD). The purpose of the survey was to assess the value of a teaching philosophy that considered usability skills to be of value to future information professionals, even when they are not pursuing careers as usability engineers. The survey results strongly validated this teaching philosophy, with 94% of respondents reporting that they use the general principles of usability on the job regularly, despite only 20% stating that they were hired to perform UCD. The researchers argue that these results justify a teaching philosophy that emphasizes the value of usability for all LIS students, regardless of their career goals, and make a strong case for including usability/ UCD as a core course in the iSchools and the LIS curriculum.

Keywords: usability, user-centered design, LIS education, iSchools, survey methods

Introduction

The iSchools movement represents a response to a variety of perceived needs, including the need for Library and Information Studies (LIS) pedagogy to embrace new technologies, and the need for an integrated approach to the study and practice of information use by human beings. The 33 member institutions that comprise the iSchools recognize that building successful relationships between people, information, and technology requires an "understanding of the use and users of information" (http://ischools.org/). This recognition has led many iSchools to include courses on usability and user-centered design (UCD) in their curricula.

The LIS programs at the University of Texas at Austin and Florida State University (both members of the iSchools consortium) teach graduate level courses in usability/UCD, and have done so for about a decade. These courses are offered based on an implicit belief that the topics covered are valuable for LIS students, despite the fact that neither usability nor UCD appears anywhere in the American Library Association's Core Competencies of Librarianship (ALA, 2009). The decision to offer courses on usability and UCD as électives for students pursuing master's degrees in LIS, therefore, represents an ideal case study of the impact of the iSchools movement on the evolution of the LIS curriculum in the 21st century. Does it make sense for LIS students, the vast majority of whom will never work as usability engineers, to take courses on usability and UCD?

To answer this question, this study presents results from an online survey designed to explore the following research questions: Are usability / user-centered design courses of value to LIS students in terms of the skills they need in the workplace? What aspects of these courses are LIS students most likely to use as practicing information professionals upon graduation? Exploring these questions will help educators and students better understand the role of usability and UCD in the LIS curriculum, and shed light on how the iSchools movement, with its focus on the use and users of information, has influenced teaching and learning for LIS students and faculty.

Background

The evolution of the iSchools movement has taken place in parallel with an increased need for usability and user-centered design in education and practice. While it is still possible to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree in computer science or electrical engineering without taking a single course in usability, and UCD practitioners still struggle to demonstrate their value to the developers of information systems, there has been an increased appreciation for the value of usability and UCD in the development of all human-machine systems (Vredenburg, Righi, & Isensee, 2002). The clearly quantifiable benefits of integrating usability analysis into systems design (Bias & Mayhew, 2005), combined with the demonstrated need for usability expertise given the dramatic growth of the number and types of tasks people carry out online everyday (Nielsen, 2005), has not only increased the number of practicing usability professionals, but also driven the inclusion of usability and UCD courses in educational programs. …

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