Computer scientist Dr Alexandra Uitdenbogerd from the School of Science spoke to RMIT News to provide some insight into her area of expertise.
What do you do at RMIT?
I’m currently teaching Usability Engineering as part of the Master of Computer Science program. I also supervise PhD students who are looking at usability-related problems.
When I’m not teaching, my research focus is on how people learn language from reading; how they perceive the difficulty of text that they read; and how to improve people's language skills with computer-based tools.
What is usability engineering?
Usability engineering is a topic that I think is very important and only recently receiving the attention it deserves in IT education. It’s based on a set of behavioural research methods that are applied at each stage of the software development lifecycle, to ensure that the end product fulfils users' needs, and helps them to achieve their goals as seamlessly as possible.
As a teacher, I encourage my students to look beyond the slick, published standard methods, to analyse the research that led to them (if any) and to think critically about their value.
One of the more amusing elements of teaching this subject would have to be the abundance of examples of bad user interface design in our daily lives!
What initially drew you to your research area and what is it that continues to excite you about language?
I love languages and started applying my information retrieval research techniques to problems related to text readability. Pretty soon it became my focus and continued from there.
My passion for language learning, and the difficulties I encounter when attempting to learn languages myself is the driving force behind my curiosity in this area. With my background in computer science, I’m able to contribute to the field of applied linguistics from a different perspective.
What are some of the challenges in your research on language learning and how does your expertise in this area allow you to teach students about usability?
The main challenge in this area is being on the fringe of several different fields of research – which means I need to build expertise in a wider range of topics than someone who might be focused on a very specific problem in a well-defined field.
On the other hand, it also means there are many interesting opportunities. For example, my current research involves applying mathematical models to past published research related to acquiring vocabulary via reading. Very little has been done in that area to date.
One thing that is a common thread through most of my research is its connection with users. In information retrieval, my earlier field of research, the aim was to understand what was relevant to a person’s query in order for them to be satisfied by the search engine results.
In my approach to computer-assisted language learning (CALL), I'm looking at perceptions of language difficulty – how language skills improve through reading – and ultimately designing tools that help language learners to understand foreign texts and improving language skills via reading. It's very much a user-centred approach to CALL.
What are some of the exciting trends in this area?
I started exploring readability in 2002; and it seems to have become ‘fashionable’ again – this time with natural language processing (NLP) researchers, rather than language education researchers.
With an ability to use advanced machine learning techniques for large quantities of text, researchers are applying NLP techniques to various readability problems to great effect. As NLP techniques become more sophisticated, they can be used to provide better tools for language learners.
Where do you see your research area in five years? What do you hope to be doing?
Over the next five years I hope to have developed successful mathematical and predictive models based on experimental data that will help to explain the improvements in language skill that come from reading for pleasure.
I also hope to have developed a set of useful tools that will automatically recommend stories and articles based on those models. The tools will also provide support, in the form of definitions of difficult words and illustrations.
Ideally I would like my research to have a positive impact on higher education by supporting students with English as a second language in their need to be prepared for the enormous and difficult reading load they need to keep up with during their degrees.
What are some of the student success stories you have been involved with and what sets these students apart?
I have collaborated with several of my PhD students on papers that have won awards at various international conferences.
In my current teaching area there have been a number of students who have shown a passion for usability and user experience, and have gone on to pursue PhDs or careers in a related area.
Students who succeed in this area always have a passion for user-centred design and recognise the importance of the user experience. They have an understanding of how vital working with users is to the success of a product.