Born to parents who both work in the field of education, Professor Rhonda McEwen jokes that her love for teaching is “technically in the genes.”
However it was McEwen’s own passion for new media and communication that lead her to her current position in U of T Mississauga’s Institute of Communication Culture and Information Technology (ICCIT). McEwen also teaches for the Faculty of Information on the St. George campus.
“I love teaching,” enthuses McEwen. “I try to excel in my teaching. I also make a big effort to get the students to love the material.” The contentment McEwen finds in front of the classroom is paralleled by the joy she experiences conducting her research.
With an educational background in management computing, sociology, telecommunications and information technology, and many years spent consulting to mobile carriers throughout the world, McEwen aims to blend technical knowledge, social thinking and management into her research. As an expert in the area of mobile communication and tablet computing, McEwen has worked on the design and development of media applications, and has also gained an enriched understanding of how users interact with new media devices.
McEwen radiates with excitement in discussing her current research project. She has worked extensively with children on the Autism Spectrum, individuals who are commonly limited in verbal communication. McEwen is interested in how her research participants use new media devices to express themselves. She has also examined the “technologies and applications that are being developed to support their interaction with the world.”
Throughout this research project McEwen has worked closely with a few Toronto District Schools. She is impressed by the level of effort the teachers put into this project and the amount of support and encouragement they give to their students.
McEwen found that while social media is often seen as a tool that separates people from their immediate social settings, the opposite is true for many of her research participants who have autism. Some of the children, although internally reserved, were driven to be more social by devices, such as touch screen phones and tablets. After using these devices, they wanted to play with other children and often initiated communication. “For autism research, it’s about quality of life and it’s changing pedagogy within the special-needs community,” says McEwen. “For educators to finally have something where they can assess what is in the autistic mind is hugely impactful.”
McEwen’s work is also having a wider reach than she anticipated. In October 2011, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a piece on the progress and findings of her current project. “The message has gone to Australia, Dubai, Africa,” says McEwen. “The scope of the research has been substantial.”
In addition to the coverage from 60 Minutes, McEwen has made a variety of media appearances. She feels that being profiled in this way opens doors and opportunities, enabling new networks and contacts, and also gives the ICCIT valuable promotion.
Though the world of technology moves at a frenetic pace, McEwen is up for the challenge to remain current on the developments within her field as well as the emergence of new media devices. “I am intrigued by change, new things, toys and technology, and I am curious about the social consequences – positive and negative – that comes with them,” says Professor McEwen, smiling behind a row of the latest gadgets on her desk: a laptop, tablet, Kindle, and mobile phone arranged in front of her as each intertwining cord flows to respective outlets.
Outside of her work, McEwen’s life is a reflection of the diversity of her media devices, the interdisciplinarity of her research, and her love for change and new things. She has always been involved in drama and public speaking, and she continues to perform in community theatre productions. McEwen explains that learning lines, performing, and being comfortable speaking in front of a crowd are helpful tools for teaching large courses. She also spends a lot of her time with her two children and family. Additionally, McEwen is a zealous reader and member of a book club, and she is also a self-described “travel junkie,” having travelled to many parts of the world.
McEwen explains that she was into scuba diving for a while and that she enjoys adventure travelling. She finds it fulfilling to experience the culture of new places by immersing herself within the world of the people and engaging in activities such as zip lining, skiing, and ice skating. “I’ve lived in a lot of places over time,” says the Trinidadian-born McEwen. “And I think, for me, of all the places I’ve lived, Toronto is the place I can call home now.”
While life, work, and family pull Professor McEwen in a range of different directions, she continues to explore her love and passion for teaching and research in the field of new media and communications. It is through this passion that she finds a source of joy within her own life, while also improving the quality of life for others.
By Baasima Parnell-Hendrickson