UTM professor awarded Canada Research Chair

Professor Rhonda McEwen
Friday, May 19, 2017 - 12:43pm
Carla DeMarco

When Professor Rhonda McEwen began her academic career in the late 1990s, little did she know she would be at the forefront of the boom in new media that has secured her place as an expert in the field of mobile technology. Since then, she has established herself as a trailblazer in exploring how devices affect the human experience and the way that people with disabilities communicate, and she has just been named the Canada Research Chair in Tactile Interfaces, Communication and Cognition.

It is an “honour to be recognized for [my] work and be given this massive endorsement by the federal government,” says McEwen, of UTM’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology. She will be undertaking three interrelated projects that involve technology such as tablets and smartphones, but also wearable technology and virtual-reality platforms.

“My PhD work focused on young people – and by young people I meant people who were transitioning from high schools into universities – and my interest was in the roles mobile phones played in social support,” says McEwen. “This was in 2006, so this was in the old days – this was pre-smartphones, so people were still on their BlackBerrys or on flip phones – still I could see a shift in social interactions surrounding these new media and I wanted to investigate what was happening for users who were also in transition.”

“Even back then you could see the huge influence that these devices were having and I was really fascinated both from a technological aspect, but also from a social aspect. What are the social consequences of embedding these technologies in our lives?”

In a similar trajectory, she currently researches the communicative interactions that arise when users engage with new media technologies, focusing on the cognitive effects of using touch-input devices.  Her new book, Understanding Tablets from Early Childhood to Adulthood: Encounters with Touch Technology, co-authored with McGill's Adam Dubé, takes a critical look at what is commonly considered to be the intuitive nature of tablets.

“I am interested in what this new, tactile technology means for how we make sense of the world,” says McEwen. “By way of example, people may have read about the ‘quantified self’ where we are tracking data about ourselves, for example ‘how far did you walk today? How much sleep did you get?’”

“These are the devices that are taking data inputs off of our bodies and giving us outputs through our bodies, driven by necessity and creativity by the user, and we have to figure out how to slot this information into our everyday life. This is a new consideration.”

Something that is also new and a somewhat unanticipated for McEwen is watching a Muppet she helped to shape come to life on the small screen: she is an advisor for the long-running, beloved children’s program Sesame Street, and her research informed the creation of Julia, the show’s first character with autism, introduced in April 2017. McEwen, who has been on the advisory board for autism programming for the Sesame Street Workshop since 2013, says it was a great privilege to be involved in this collaborative endeavour.

“Muppets are also media. Julia is a girl-Muppet with a mission to demystify autism for children and the broader society,” says McEwen.  “I was approached by the program coordinators of the Sesame Workshop because of my research on mobile applications (apps) for children on the Autism Spectrum and I worked with some of the finest researchers in the world to provide evidence as content and feedback on design for Julia’s stories and for the accompanying assistive technology apps.” To read a more comprehensive article about Julia, visit the CBC website.

McEwen is extremely enthusiastic about pursuing the CRC projects and the various collaborations she has ongoing with other researchers. She is also proud of her group of dedicated students on the Mississauga campus.

“I have two undergraduate students here through the Research Opportunity Program [ROP] at UTM, and they are working with me on 360-video and virtual-reality project where we are investigating visually-induced motion sickness,” says McEwen. “A completely separate project involves another set of three UTM undergraduate students and looks specifically at children with Rett syndrome, which is a rare genetic disorder that impedes the ability to speak and affects mainly girls, and examines the efficacy of using of eye-tracking on screens as an effective form of communication.”

“I do a lot of work with my undergraduates and I am really proud of that. At UTM we have excellent undergraduate students and my team of researchers here are so curious and engaged. Before this grant came along they volunteered their time, and I paid them when I could from other grants, but now that I have this CRC funding, I’m delighted to have the ability to compensate them for the hard work that they put in.”