Education for IA: Talking Heads and That D-Word Again!
Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Feb/March 2004*
The issue of IA education is raised every now and again among the IA chattering classes even if the topic has lost some of its luster since the initial explosion of interest in 2000. In my last column I mentioned the work of the ASIST committee on Information Science Education, which spent a large part of the previous year compiling a listing of IA education opportunities. The results are, on the surface at least, impressive (see www.asis.org/Board/educationprograms.html): 33 universities, two commercial schools and six distance education programs offer a range of courses, programs, certificates, sites and degrees in information architecture. You can download another, partially overlapping, listing of worldwide programs now at the AIfIA site (www.aifia.org), thanks to the efforts of a team led by Victor Lombardi. We should all give thanks to both groups for the efforts – such work is very helpful to many of us, but will prove next to impossible to keep up-to-date.
Outside of the self-proclaimed IAs, education in the subject, it seems, is based on courses or combinations of courses in various LIS programs or from several interaction design programs. Dedicated degrees in IA are still pretty rare, though at least four now exist. I've mentioned the Kent State MS degree in IA and knowledge management which was the first, and which has already graduated students, as far as I can tell. The University of Baltimore, Capitol College in Maryland and the Illinois Institute of Technology also all offer IA degrees. I contacted each of these programs to get an estimate of the number of graduates each had produced but at the time of submitting this column had received an answer only from Baltimore where I learned there are currently 22 students enrolled, with the first graduate likely in Spring 2004. I am keen to hear more as I have yet to meet anyone who has a formal IA degree and it would be nice to learn how such folks are getting on.
We should not lose sight of the remarkable fact that there even are degree programs and graduates soon to emerge when the first serious conference on IA only happened in May 2000. Given the speed at which universities typically operate, this is truly surprising. Moreover, what the ASIST and AIfIA listings reveal is just how many schools are offering courses in the subject. The cynical side of me notes that some LIS programs have just re-packaged old classes, but an examination of others indicates some serious efforts have been made.
I did pose a request to SIGIA-L about people's perceptions of the state of IA education. This inquiry produced a few responses, some quite lengthy. The general tone of replies suggested that degrees in IA were either premature or not required to gain a position. This may reflect the biases of those without the degree, but it made me wonder how new graduates will be received among their professional peers upon completion of their studies. Heaven forbid we have a new professional society that only admits degree-carrying members to its ranks.
The education picture is still confused by the rather narrow view many people have of IA. If you consider the subject only to be concerned with organizing websites, then it is pretty clear that a master's degree in the topic may be overkill, and a course or two within a more general program will probably suffice to get you on the path. But if, like me, you think of IA as a more encompassing effort aimed at understanding how information can be organized and presented for human and organizational use, both within and beyond websites, and addressing issues of performance effectiveness and efficiency, user satisfaction, sustainability and indeed aesthetic response to a resource, then a degree program looks to be more like a minimum requirement to get started. Regular readers will note that I even managed to say the above without once mentioning the "D-word", definition, which in IA circles is prone to set off the same arguments one starts by mentioning the "L-word" at an ASIS&T conference.
David Byrne, the man behind Talking Heads, is clearly a Big-IA guy. On the occasion of launching his PowerPoint art, he told Newsweek that the "architecture of the software makes assumptions about how you do things." Quite right, and he did not need an IA degree to discover this. But then, how many people are as naturally gifted as Mr. Byrne, even if they do make a living creating PowerPoint presentations? For the rest of us, IA education makes a lot of sense. Let's see how it plays out in the coming few years.
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*This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 30, No. 3, February/March 2004, a publication of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 510, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA. Phone 1 (301)495- 0900http://www.asis.org