Each faculty member at UTM has a unique list of past experiences and education which help them excel in their role. This week, The Medium spoke with Dr. Rhonda McEwen, Associate Professor of new media and communication at UTM, about her journey to academia and her recent appointment as the second director of the ICCIT program.

As an undergraduate, McEwen completed a Bachelor’s of Science in sociology and management from the University of West Indies. She then worked in the telecommunications sector in the Caribbean and the UK. As she “always loved school,” McEwen went on to complete two master’s degrees—an MBA from City University in London, UK, and a Master’s of Science in telecommunications from the University of Colorado. After working as a telecommunications consultant at Deloitte Consulting, she worked for IBM Global Business Services in Canada.

McEwen reminisces, “While I was at IBM, I decided to do a Ph.D. as I was very curious about was happening in the tech world at the time.” After doing her Ph.D., McEwen remained in academia, and has now been at the University of Toronto for the past twelve years.

In 2016, McEwen was named a Canada Research Chair in Tactile Interfaces, Communication, and Cognition. One of her research interests “focuses on virtual reality [and] how people understand gene expression by putting them into virtual reality.” Other topics which she has researched include the ability of 3D printers to facilitate children’s participatory learning, the effect of using smartphones on bonding with peers, and the social consequences of the consistent availability of information and communication.

She attributes her interest in her research to a fascination with “new and emerging technologies,” and states that she is “particularly interested in how humans [are] having more and more communication with technology.” In addition to this, McEwen is interested in exploring how individuals who have sensory deficits interact with touch, vision, and/or virtual reality.

In 2017, McEwen coauthored a book with Adam Dubé, an assistant professor at McGill University titled Understanding Tablets from Early Childhood to Adulthood: Encounters with Touch Technology. According to the publisher’s website, the book, “offers an alternative to dominant and populist narratives that young people are intuitively able to successfully use tablet devices.”

McEwen explains how she “did several experiments [in regard to] how children used tablets to understand math concepts” along with “studies with adults examining working memory” and the effect of using touch-input devices such as iPads on learners with ADHD. Her findings “pointed out [that] there is a cognitive load that comes about with using these devices,” and that the “cognitive deficits [that result from] using these devices can be detrimental.” The book details how “using a two-dimensional screen is much closer to manipulating information [by oneself] than watching someone manipulating information.”

McEwen was appointed as the Director of the ICCIT program at UTM for a 5-year term beginning January 1, 2019. Speaking of her new position, McEwen states that she is “really excited” to take on the role from Dr. Anthony Wensley, the inaugural director of the program. McEwen praises Wensley, who she says has, in the eight years he directed the program, “really built the institute into an exciting program [with] very strong and internationally recognized faculty and amazing students.”

McEwen remarks that since the institute is now “of a nice size and not new and growing,” it is a “fun time to take the baton” from Wensley, and “start to solidify, make strategic decisions, [and] make our program internationally known.”

As the director, she plans to create a mentorship program. McEwen is also excited about “recently receiving approval for a Certificate in Experiential Learning that [they] are offering” as it will allow students to participate in paid work experience opportunities. She is currently “working with the leadership at UTM to find ways to cluster some of the things [they] do with other units.” She explains that the topics taught and researched in the ICCIT program “may involve psychology, computer science, digital media” and other disciplines, and therefore, by clustering the different areas together, “[they] can push further in teaching and in research.”

When asked as to why she decided to take on the role of director, McEwen replies that she believes “it is a good time for me to help the institute in this new phase and offer my support.” She was the first tenured professor hired to teach in the program and has been at the institute for seven years as a faculty member. Additionally, McEwen has been closely working with Wensley and has received mentoring from him as well.

McEwen ends by stating that she is appreciative of the “great mix” of experiences she has had—“first in business and then tech consulting”—and the fact that she gets to incorporate them into her teaching. She has taught multiple courses, including first year introductory courses, courses based on research, and courses which involve examining human interaction with technology.

McEwen’s five-year term will span from January 1st, 2019 to December 31st, 2023.

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