Nestled in the forests of the Ontario countryside, Professor Rhonda McEwen lounges in a patio chair, book in hand, and basks in the surrounding nature—the soft breeze tickling the trees and sweet birdsongs serenading the sky. She sits beside her family, enjoying the time she gets to spend with them. With no Wi-Fi or incessant distractions of the city, McEwen forgets, at least momentarily, that she’s living amid a pandemic.
Back in March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and, just a week later, the Canadian government imposed a federal lockdown. McEwen, who was travelling abroad with her family at that time, had to abandon her trip. Unfortunately, as the pandemic continued into the 2020-21 academic year, her trip wasn’t the only thing McEwen had to abandon.
Flash-forward to April. The ever-bustling and honking of Toronto’s downtown streets are tame. COVID-19 cases wage on across towns and cities. Brown paper covers local shop windows. A small number of people go outside, streets dissipating into ghost towns. When the few people do go out to walk their dogs, they cross to the other side of the street, wary and respectful of each other, not sure whether to say hello or nod amid the awkwardness and unfamiliarity of it all.
It’s an alarming difference for a city—and species—so driven to connect and share in our experiences. The fallouts have been loneliness and confusion amid an ever-growing uncertainty. We’ve lost our usual modes of personal interaction and semblance of normalcy. People had to change.
But how is communication changing? What technologies are involved? And what are the personal and social consequences of these strategies? All these questions are at the heart of McEwen’s research. So, even while secluded in Ontario’s countryside, she got to work.
McEwen holds an extensive research background in everything from sociology and information technology to psychology, virtual reality, and human physiology. She brings forward an inter-disciplinary approach, which often puts her at the forefront of innovative research in social robotics and communication.
In April, McEwen, a social communications professor and director of the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology (ICCIT), became one of only 36 researchers who were awarded a grant from the University of Toronto’s $9 million COVID-19 Action Fund. There were 338 applications. The initiative aims to fund developments in our knowledge and treatment of the novel coronavirus and the inevitable physical and mental health consequences that will ensue in the coming years.
Earlier this year, McEwen was entrenched in another study on social robotics. Social robots, McEwen says, “aren’t only the humanoid forms that many of us know, but include many other types of technologies, such as smart toys children can play with or voice-based agents like Google Home and Amazon Alexa.” McEwen and her team sought to uncover how individuals perceive and physiologically respond to robots, focusing on emotions like trust. Do we, as humans, follow a similar pattern of trust with machines as we do with other beings?
With this study on hold due to the pandemic, McEwen immediately began recruiting subjects for her newest study, titled Digital technologies and Chinese interpersonal communication on the mainland and in the diaspora: the case of Covid-19. McEwen is working alongside three of her co-investigators, Zhao Zhao, Yaxi Zhao, and Tony Tang, all native Mandarin speakers, two of whom hail from mainland China.
“We want to do more research on how technologies are being used during COVID-19,” says McEwen. “We also want to look at the different ways learning is happening across the two countries, China and Canada.”
When The Medium first spoke with McEwen in the waning days of August, the conversation began, as most Canadian interactions do, by discussing the weather. The sun was out in full force, prompting McEwen to say, “we have to take the good when we get it.”
Over the course of the interview, this idea permeated much of our conversation about family, social media, and the new challenges of school. McEwen’s enthusiasm for her work and optimism for the fall semester radiated throughout our Zoom call.
“The social experiment is underway. As we see in Ontario at least, the elementary school children will go back in person, [and] the high schoolers will start in a rotating manner,” says McEwen. “But the research I’m doing with my team right now is looking at China because they’re about three to five months ahead of us in terms of progressing through the pandemic. They’ve been back in school with spikes and we’ve been watching to see how students are handling it.”
Besides social robotics, the main form of interaction during this pandemic is social media. McEwen studied social media activity across demographics when completing her Ph.D., where she analyzed the differing uses and emotional effects of using social media platforms to form communication networks among undergraduate students. In the current digital age, currently amplified by widespread isolation measures, no machine-mediated communication method is more widespread than social media platforms.
Despite her background in technology, McEwen is somewhat ambivalent toward social media, and rightfully so. Social media can be the proverbial double-edged sword. “We have very conciliatory communication and lovely friendships [online],” says McEwen. In a pandemic, social media allows us to satiate that hunger of face-to-face communication. But while social media enables connection and positivity, it also has its downfalls. Just as we encounter toxic people in real life, online, “there is contentious communication and we see that amplifying,” says McEwen. You also see “more troll-like behaviour, people being very dismissive, being very single-minded.”
Social media can also amplify tribalism. “People create very tight communities, where they’re speaking to people that look like them, act like them, [and] talk like them.”
Unfortunately, even with good intentions, some people aren’t as versed in social media behaviour, and so they may encounter some serious problems. Moreover, as McEwen says, “there are a lot of mental health issues that arise when people are no longer able to stay connected in some way.” The chief illness among them being loneliness and depression.
Regardless of culture, as human beings, “we still have a strong willingness and motivation to communicate,” states McEwen.
To minimize any loneliness among students diving into the unknown waters of online learning, McEwen created the ICCIT Peer Mentorship Program. The program will have senior ICCIT students support first and second years as they come into this new delivery mode. It’s a program McEwen hopes can help simulate the feeling of life on campus.
“Having students who know the programs well, who are also finding ways to cope—I think it’ll be super helpful.”
Students won’t be the only ones feeling a little lost this semester. Many professors have never taught an online course, let alone one live over Zoom. It’s something that presents many new challenges, ones McEwen feels ready for.
Just like with her current research, when The Medium asks about what she’s teaching, McEwen beams. This semester, she’ll teach her course, CCT202: Human-Machine Communication. The class explores the many technologies humans use to communicate with in our modern world, including virtual assistants, social robots, and smart toys, while also considering their ethical and privacy implications. As the semester rolls along, McEwen will also intersperse findings and data she’s collecting from her current Covid-19 study.
While it may still be Fall and the sun’s still shining, McEwen acknowledges that students and staff will face some new challenges as they navigate virtual learning. But sometimes, challenges can be good.
“We need to see this period of time as part of a challenge. One we can take on and maybe discover some new things about ourselves and the world around us.”
As The Medium thanks our guest for her time and insights, and our conversation turns to goodbyes, McEwen adds one last thing. “When we stumble, know that we’ll rise again.”