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The diverse background of Sweden's digital master

Published Aug 29, 2013

Data, design and psychology are the three vital pillars of his activities. Gulan – or Jan Gulliksen as it says on the passport – is chairman of the Swedish government’s digitalisation commission and has acquired the title of digital champion. He is also Dean of the School of Computer Science and Communication (CSC) at KTH. But it is not the Master of Science in Engineering that he has found most useful in this job - it is his theatrical background.

Everyone’s right of access to digital technology is an issue close to the heart of the Dean of the School of Computer Science, Jan Gulliksen. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

Sweden came close to losing a leading researcher in the field of human-computer interaction and user-oriented IT. Gulan, the nation’s foremost advocate for digital participation and the user viewpoint within digital communication, had other far-reaching plans.

Despite the fact that showed a gift for mathematics at an early age (he was solving university-level mathematical problems already at middle school), it was the theatrical profession that most attracted Gulan. He was involved in different theatre groups and, in fact, devoted a lot of his time to the dramatic art. Mathematics, for him, was more of a hobby.

“I applied to drama schools before this profession took precedence in my life. It was, after all, rather simpler to make a living in this field and have drama as a hobby, than the other way round,” Gulan says.

“That which I learned in the theatre has been the most important foundation for my role today as teacher, researcher, supervisor and dean of studies. 

However, he has benefited greatly from the time he has devoted to the theatre – where, over a long period, he worked as producer, director, scriptwriter, actor, member of the orchestra and everything conceivable one can think of in this field.

“That which I learned in the theatre has been the most important foundation for my role today as teacher, researcher, supervisor and dean of studies. That background knowledge is much more important than all the subject knowledge I have acquired.”

Drama should be a core subject

Gulan believes that drama should be a core subject at school. The pupils would then learn to express themselves, to speak and to communicate with the body. Moreover, they would learn to interpret other people; what they do; how they look at one other and be able to respond to them, he says.

Gulan at home in Uppsala.

They would also learn how one develops a conversation if someone isn’t feeling well, has suffered an accident or feels depressed and needs encouragement.

When I ask him how he views the discussion about having more optional courses in higher education, he says that he believes the very concept of a university course is now in the process of becoming redundant. He believes that the Master of Science in Engineering will, in future, be an educational programme where one learns to create, construct and solve problems.

“To bundle together different elements into courses in order to enable us to examine and award credit points – it is clear that there are administrative and practical reasons for things being the way they are. But the goal for a student is not to take a certain number of courses. The object is to acquire a professional competence that can then be used in trade and industry or as a researcher at university,” Gulan says.

Build on what the student already knows

Gulan says that the best learning situation arises when one builds on the student’s existing knowledge and ability. He points out that one of the teachers in the School of Computer Science usually begins his courses by interviewing the students about their present knowledge.

Where he has a student, for example, who spends a lot of time programming computer games in the evenings and he is running a course on visualisation, then this teacher encourages the student to make use of his knowledge within computer gaming and to consider how one can build extra modules that are related to the course goals. That is a good method, in Gullan’s opinion.

The goal for a student is not to take a certain number of courses. The object is to acquire a professional competence ...

The very concept of the university course is now becoming redundant

“On the one hand, the point is to learn something that one doesn’t already know; after all there are many students today who apply to courses where they already know the content. On the other hand, the course also becomes relevant for this particular student. And, above all, it is really fun. Frequently, the students perform at a much higher level if one can adapt the course in this manner.

At any rate, he believes that the education will look very different in future. Not least, owing to the fact that students will probably find the information which is offered today through traditional lectures via the Internet. This will make special demands on universities to find other ways of working. 

“What we can do here is to create an environment, a workshop where the students will exercise their skills in working creatively and solving problems together.”

Three vital pillars

Gulan’s activities rest on three pillars. To start with, he is a computing engineer. The second pillar on which he stands is psychology. At the School of Computer Science and Communication, where Gulan leads a team of 370 persons, activities are focused on the slightly softer sides of data and IT – more software than hardware.

The best pedagogical approach is to build on the students’ own interests and existing knowledge, believes Gulan.

Activities in the School involve developing and designing user-centred services; consequently there is a need to build up considerable knowledge concerning how people think. Interviews with people about what they do – and how they do it – when they use technology offer many valuable insights. But it is not sufficient, in itself, in order to understand such complex and irrational beings as we humans are, according to Gulan.

Frequently, people find it hard to state what exactly it is they are doing when they perform different tasks. Moreover, people seldom do what they say they are doing. Thus, in order to acquire knowledge of how people really behave when they use technology, Gulan and his colleagues make use of sociology, anthropology and ethnology.

“If I interview someone concerning what he or she needs and how he or she approaches a particular task, then I certainly obtain a picture of it. However, if I actually go and study your approach to a particular task then I can see masses of things that you yourself are not even aware of.”

Everyone’s right to the new technology

The first two pillars – data and psychology (together with sociology, ethnology and anthropology) – support that which is the actual object of the activities undertaken, namely design. In this context, design encompasses the development and design of user-centred, data-oriented products and services.

Gulan’s work on issues relating to the user perspective has had a resonance far beyond the academic world. In 2012, the IT minister Anna-Karin Hatt appointed him chairman of the digitisation commission and, later in the year, the government gave him the title of Sweden’s Digital Champion (part of an EU initiative to promote an inclusive digital society). He is also actively involved in discussions on, and lecturing about, usability issues and access to new technology.

It is his view that the question of access is vitally important as digital technology becomes ever more widespread. After all, there will be an increasing number of tasks it will not be possible to carry out unless one has access to this technology. This being the case, it becomes urgent to find solutions for those who encounter obstacles in accessing the information and different types of services.

“How will a person who is blind or partially sighted be able to handle and follow what is taking place? It should not only be possible but as easy for these people to assimilate the information as for others.”

Family from Norway

It is possible that his own background, where he had to relate to two languages and two cultures, has had a certain effect on his choice of research field. As child and teenager, Gulan lived in Finspång (Sweden), but his parents came from Western Norway and he grew up in a Norwegian household and within a Norwegian cultural milieu.

“I happen to be bilingual and eat goat’s cheese (Gjetost) and have a Norwegian sweater. And I’ve stood up in the university in Oslo and lectured in Norwegian. In that sense I’m fully Norwegian.”

When he was 18 years old, Gulan moved to Uppsala where he took his degree (engineering physics with data specialisation) and where he also worked at the university before coming to KTH about four years ago. He still lives in Uppsala with his wife and three children.

The nickname Gulan has long followed him. To begin with, it was his older brother who was called Gulan, whereas he was called Mini-Gulan. With time it became just Gulan, a name he has come to identify with; it has even become something of a trade name.  Sweden’s king calls him Gulan as does the IT Minister Anna-Karin Hatt and the Vice-Chancellor.

 “It’s only my mother-in-law and the personnel manager here who call me Jan.”

Text: Håkan Soold

Text: Håkan Soold

Jan Gulliksen – Master of time-sharing

  • Name: Jan Gulliksen
  • Age: 48 years
  • Occupation: Professor in Human Computer Interaction and Dean of the CSC School
  • Other assignments: Chairman of government’s digitisation commission, KTH’s representative for the Stockholm Node for EIT ICT Labs
  • Home: Uppsala
  • Family: Wife and children (son, 13 years and two daughters, 18 and 20 years respectively)
  • Leisure time: I enjoy travel, DIY, theatre and music
  • Arrives at work: Fairly early by train from Uppsala
  • Travels home from work: A little too late (according to my family) by underground, train and cycle (last stretch)
  • Lunch preference: Slightly too many business lunches unfortunately, otherwise I like a fresh salad.
  • Hidden talent: World master in time-sharing – sitting down working on my laptop at the same time as I watch a good TV series.

Campi Podcast - Listen to the entire interview with Jan Gulliksen.

Article Series: Campi profiles KTH:s deans. This is the second in a series of Campi portraits of the deans of KTH. Read the previous article about Stellan Lundström, Dean of the School of Architecture and the Built Environment.