SuperGraduates

Éamonn Grennan talks with psychology lecturer Dr. Conor Linehan about gearing up UCC’s new students for evolving working environments

Like so many banking branches or donut shop outlets tussling for your attention on these city streets, third-level institutes show their courses in a way that makes them seem more competitive, useful, better. Whether you’re an undergrad, postgrad or non-student, you’ll likely be able to recall the shininess of the prospectuses. One course that’ll be vying for its first set of students in September 2018 may just claim to be one of the most unique and pioneering in Ireland. The BA in Psychology and Computing (Hons), a new course in UCC for next year, will be the first of its kind in Ireland for undergrad level, taking inspiration from degrees like it in University of Buckingham, Yale, and The Open University. Combining pure computer science modules with modules on health, cognition and behaviour, it’s a marrying of two distinct yet intertwined fields that seeks to provide a flexible and multi-stranded education in understanding human behaviour and creating something easy to use and technologically sound. So, what’s it all about?

Credit: research.ucc.ie

In development for several years, the School of Applied Psychology and Department of Computer Science were eager to create a degree programme that focuses on all aspects of the idea of human-computer interaction, especially considering both departments have research groups focusing on the topic. Dr. Linehan spoke vibrantly one evening on Main Campus, far from his offices in the Cork Enterprise Centre, about exactly why the timing was right for such a novel college experience on these shores.

“It always felt like a natural thing for us to do,” Conor begins, “but it’s only now that we have enough people to do so. Psychologists and computer scientists have collaborated for such a long time, things like car dashboards, computer operating systems and airplane cockpits have all been designed by psychologists in some way, for example.”

Having achieved his primary degree and PhD in the field of psychology, Dr. Linehan spent a time working in a computer science department, noticing the similarities in the fields. “One of the thing that strikes you about computer scientists, is they have such great technical skills, but often not a lot of background in research methods, and while they’re great at creating things, they sometimes don’t have the skills or knowledge of human behaviour, to create solutions to the complex contexts we work in. We aim for our graduates to have that skill set”. Tied into this the current explosion of the technology age with seemingly every daily action somewhat mediated by an IT device, the inception of a course centred around human -computer interaction seemed ripe.

The options after completing psychology degrees are many, says Linehan, whether it’s towards clinical counselling – “after your three-year degree, you do your masters, then go get your real-world experience, then do a doctorate” – or researching human behaviour on a grand scale: “we teach a lot about research methods, but you still have to be confident in how you do that, nowadays a lot of people see themselves as psychologists”. The beauty of the new degree infused with pure CS modules like usability engineering and web development, is the technical applications it opens to psychology students.

“It’s got that 50-50 split of both, with the genuine central strand of human-computer interaction.”

Where psychologists once “fell” into tech jobs, this degree is seen to prepare graduates more for the advancements in modern commerce, about “learning about interactive technology, how do we make it usable for people, and how do we go about designing this for people”. Modern technology companies have specific careers for user-experience design, which the degree seeks to tool the graduate for. These companies have sought for such skilled people, while Linehan maintains the integrity of the new course as not just feeding a niche.

“People in industry do want these skills, but if it was the only reason we were starting the course, we wouldn’t do it. There is a vibrant academic field at the heart of this degree”.

Equipping fresh graduates with these technical skills means they can apply their knowledge of the human abilities and behaviour to areas like masters’ or doctorates in areas like neuroscience where “they rely on complex software, visualizing and processing data you don’t get much of in pure psychology”.

If there was any nervousness in the related departments on how the degree will be received, Dr. Linehan doesn’t show it. Just like the novel Digital Humanities and Information Technology, or the various Commerce with joint language streams, the new degree reflects how flexibility is the key in an ever-evolving workplace. Something Linehan is really excited about is the prospect of the “team project” in the final year of the course, where significant local tech companies are interested in allowing groups of students work on projects highly relevant to modern health and education issues. “You didn’t have the creative part in applied psychology of actively designing, developing something, taking something from beginning to end and spinning it off to tech companies,” Linehan states in relation to how the FYP will add onto what psychology students know. Indeed, back to the topic of jobs, Linehan praises how the standard of graduate entry jobs won’t be “bog standard, but one where you have a great deal of responsibility – as a designer. You are the person in say, a software company, talking not just to engineers but to clients and managers, part of getting a multidisciplinary team to work together. You’re going to get very interesting jobs.”

Sounds like the way of the future, right? Professor McCarthy and Dr. Linehan will wait until September 2018 to see how students react to going from a coding tutorial to a behaviour & learning lecture either side of a coffee break, although somehow it doesn’t seem as much of a risky leap as it would around 10 years ago. Technology has indeed impacted so much of our lives, and it’s going to be an ambitious and career-driven graduate that emerges, not one unsure of their options, but at the same time with enough flexibility and freedom to not feel channelled into a square box. Likewise, technology will always bring its own share of hang-ups, and Linehan finishes by addressing this intertwining of man and machine, about how “there’s lots more opportunity to solve these tech problems, with the right skills we’re given and improve the world.” Starting with the first set of Irish Psychology and Computing graduates in 2021, his and the psychology department’s own way of improving the world seems assured – as if it wasn’t already.