Like many other students at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), I am a fellow member of Generation Z. Born between 1997 and 2012, our generation has been coined as the “iGeneration” as an ode to being raised with technology since childhood. Unlike my parents, who grew up with a coil-cabled landline, I got my first cellphone when I was 12. My friends and I shocked our parents with our quick adaptability to new technology while they were all left using the one-finger typing technique on their first smartphone.
Dr. Cosmin Munteanu, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), studies how humans and computers interact with the goal of making technology accessible to groups who are often left with confusion.
Beginning his journey at UTM in 2014, Dr. Munteanu has been actively researching the societal aspects of the human-computer world. His research heavily focuses on the design of technology, specifically digital interfaces, with an eye for inclusivity. Recently awarded the UTM Annual Research Prize in Social Sciences for his contributions to the study of human-computer interactions, Dr. Munteanu reflects on the importance of advocating for digitally underrepresented groups, with a primary focus on older adults.
The UTM Annual Research Prize rewards researchers and faculty who are producing outstanding research in the fields of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences. Recipients of the award receive $2,000 to continue their research development and contributions to their field of study. Typically nominated by the chair of the department in question, the nominees are voted in by a selection committee, which is chaired by UTM’s Vice-Principal Rhonda McEwen. Other UTM professors awarded for this year’s research prize include Dr. Bailey McMeans and Dr. Andrew Beharry for Sciences, as well as Dr. Owen Ware for Humanities.
“With shifting services online, we risk creating a two-tiered society created by a digital divide, and we are actively contributing to that divide if we don’t understand the ways we can make this technology more accessible,” says Dr. Munteanu. As the pandemic pushes toward a virtual switch of critical services such as healthcare and banking, the conversation is ever more relevant. Rather than slowly incorporating technological elements into these services, the brisk shift has halted some in-person services.
“The question is, how can we support their needs through different designs?” adds Dr. Munteanu. If we don’t focus on making these technologies more accessible, it’s possible that older generations will no longer have access to essential services. “The risk is that there are groups of people that are left behind.”
Dr. Munteanu currently teaches CCT380: Human-Computer Interaction and Communication, a third-year introduction to the field of study. “This is my favourite course to teach,” he shares. “It is the first significant course where students learn about human-computer interactions. They tend to get excited about the course because they haven’t previously put much thought into the space.” CCT380 is a fundamental course that looks at human factors of design in digital interfaces. This includes key design principles and user-centered design, all while keeping the needs of the user in mind.
Being in a multidisciplinary field of research, Dr. Munteanu has worked on a multitude of societal aspects that factor into the human-computer interaction world. His previous work ranges from the study of wearing sensor-based fall risk assessments in older adults, mobile language assistance for adults with low-literacy, as well as ways to improve the accuracy of automatic lecture transcription, a topic relevant with university lectures being primarily conducted through virtual settings.
Co-directing the Technologies for Ageing Gracefully (TAG) Lab at U of T alongside Ph.D. student Benett Axtell, Dr. Munteanu identifies common problems of aging that can be addressed through beneficial development in technology. He encourages students who are interested in research to reach out to professors they would be interested in working with. “When I was in my undergrad, one of my [teaching assistants] approached me letting me know that a professor was looking for a research assistant,” he recalls. “I spent the next three years working as a research assistant.”
Although I stop and chuckle when seeing my parents struggle with texting, I do understand the challenge. They didn’t grow up surrounded with the technology that comes so easily to our generation. Like any other field, a push in accessibility and representation for underrepresented groups is the next step to a more inclusive world, even if it potentially leads to frustrating tutorials. Rather than letting the gap between older generations and the digital world grow bigger, we can all play a part in bridging the divide through reflecting on ways to help those around us.
Associate Features Editor (Volume 48 & 49) — A recent graduate from UTM, Dalainey is currently working on completing her post-graduate studies in Professional Writing in Ottawa. She previously served as Staff Writer for The Medium‘s 47th Volume and as Associate Features Editor for Volume 48. Through her passion for languages, Dal hopes to create a fun and inviting atmosphere for readers through her contributions to the paper. When she isn’t working, Dal focuses on developing digital art and writing her first novel. You can connect with Dal on her Instagram or LinkedIn.