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Pursuing a Career in Psychology, Education, and Interactive Media

Posted Oct 25 2009 11:03pm
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I always enjoy getting questions from people interested in integrating media applications into their field of study or in pursuing a career in media psychology. The questions come from around the world and are always full of enthusiasm for learning, the potential of media technologies, and making a positive contribution to society. It is always a chance for me to remember not only how much I love the field of media psychology, but why I think it is so very important.

Media psychology is a broad field. Recently I received a question from a new graduate in the Middle East about how to follow a path that integrates psychology and education using interactive technologies, particularly for special needs populations. I am posting my response since many people may have similar questions and this is a good way to get a conversation going.

You can learn how to actually build the interactive programs by studying gaming and software development or how to implement them by studying education and curriculum development—either way, you must learn how and why they are effective and when their use is appropriate. The latter is particularly important if you are working with a clinical population such as handicapped, mentally-challenged, or psychologically distressed, either from pathology or trauma. In order to serve that population adequately and ethically, you will need clinical background that involves the study of psychopathology, personality development and disorders, cognitive and developmental psychology and an understanding of physical and mental handicaps. An alternative route is to pursue what in the U.S. is referred to as special education. It is a track within an education degree that focuses on teaching special needs kids. It is more about learning and educational pedagogy than psychology.

But the really important thing to clarify is your goal. Media technologies are just tools to get something done. The tools change very quickly. First figure out what you are trying to do and then you can learn the reasons why different technological tools work (or don’t) in achieving the goal Tools to help humans must be designed in a human-centered way. I know that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many things are designed with no apparent thought to human use. (Check out The Design of Everyday Things ).

Once you have decided on your emphasis (the technology, the education, or the psychology), you will be better able to decide your path.

As a psychologist, my bias is toward understanding the how and why and letting someone with good technical skills build the media. As a media psychologist, I have input into the development process but do not do any of the engineering, programming or physical generation of the tools. I will be looking at things like developmental appropriateness, the experience of using the tools (such as whether or not the child not only learns something but feels positive about the learning in a way that supports their self-confidence and motivation), and the cognitive and emotional aspects of the interface such as perception of objects, attention, and engagement.

Another approach to media education, such as public education through mass media, public service announcements, programs that appear as entertainment but are embedded with lessons and values.  These are more general and do not target individual users as much as a group who might benefit from the information, such as teens learning about smoking, alcohol abuse, or drug use.

If your interest is in the use of interactive programs to support special needs children, however, I would recommend either pursuing a masters in education or clinical psychology and taking additional classes in media development—not media studies about content analysis but about the ways people interact with and are influenced by media. There are very few programs that officially integrate media and psychology (or media and education, for that matter) so you may need to build your own curriculum in whatever program you choose.

At the master’s level, most programs in the U.S. will demand a good command of written English because scholarly writing has more rigorous standards at the master’s level than at the undergraduate level. This is also true of the program where I teach at Fielding Graduate University, the Master’s Degree in Media Psychology and Social Change. You may find it interesting to look a the website and curriculum to get ideas about what sounds interesting so you can further hone your search.  The New School in New York is doing some very exciting work in gaming, for example.

You might also want to read:
Gee, J. P. (2004). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brown, J. S. (2000). Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn. Change, March/April, 10-20. Retrieved August 29, 2007 from

Buckingham, D., & Burn, A. (2007). Game Literacy in Theory and Practice. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 16 (3), 323-349.

The following article in online and breaks down some of the theoretical bases of different aspects of interactivity:
Sims, Rod. (2000) An interactive conundrum: Constructs of interactivity and learning theory. Australian Journal of Educational Technology. 16, (1), p. 45-57

I wish people great success pursuing their passion for media psychology. If you have other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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