Simon Fraser UniversityThis researcher lowers the barriers to learning new technologies

This researcher lowers the barriers to learning new technologies

Imagine a world where anyone can easily learn computer programming, use complex software, and even create their own technology solutions.

That’s what SFU computing science professor Parmit Chilana is working towards.

She is the inaugural Ebco Eppich Research Chair in the School of Computing Science. Her research expertise is in human-computer interaction (HCI).  She examines the challenges we face in learning and using a range of complex, feature-rich software applications in fields such as education, health and software development.  Then, she creates user-centered tools that can help us manipulate these applications more effectively.

“Keeping humans in the loop right from the beginning, focusing on their needs and what kinds of tasks they are trying to accomplish as we innovate on technology, is very important,” says Chilana.

Her interdisciplinary research reaches beyond computer science to consider aspects of information science, psychology and learning sciences. A common theme throughout her research, she says, is “harnessing the wisdom of crowds.”

One of Chilana’s recent inventions is the Customizer system, led by her PhD student Laton Vermette. Customizer runs atop learning-management systems such as Canvas and improves how instructors discover, experiment and import feature-specific customizations from other instructors.  Chilana and Vermette, in collaboration with UBC computer science professor Joanna McGrenere, have developed an in-context approach for instructors to easily share custom course settings and layouts during times when online learning is most prevalent. The research team is currently running field deployments of Customizer to assess how it can improve both the instructor’s and the student’s experience.  Their work received a 2020 honorable mention award at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Designing Interactive Systems conference in 2020.

As well, Chilana received a 2020 Discovery Accelerator Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to further her research into designing user-centred interactive tools for monitoring software learning patterns. 

Chilana currently co-directs the Interactive Experiences Lab with SFU computing science professor Sheelagh Carpendale, where they use an interdisciplinary, human-centered approach to invent, design, prototype and study new interactive data visualization and computing systems.

This approach is especially important when considering the diverse populations who use computer science technologies.

“In my research on software learnability, I especially make an effort to reach out to those populations that are as different from us computer scientists as possible,” says Chilana.

Her goal, as always, is to help people from all backgrounds and skill levels successfully tackle technology and data challenges. 

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