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Undergraduate Researchers

Caroline Brunschwyler

Caroline Brunschwyler, Information Systems

“Investigating the Accessibility of Small Screen Devices”

Social networking has become one of the most popular ways to interact with friends online. People share their thoughts and experiences with friends, play a plethora of games to keep them occupied, and upload hundreds of pictures from parties, travels, and get-togethers. Blind and low-vision individuals may not be able to see these colorful images taken by their peers, but they can still get a great experience out of social networking. Any webmaster can alter a web page to suit the needs of those with disabilities. It is particularly simple accommodating for the blind. In this research, I hope to come to understand how a user with low vision views a web page. I hope to learn about all the different types of technology used to aid in viewing a web page and what can be done to a web page to make it accessible to the blind. This research is meant to identify the challenges experienced by blind screen-reader users when accessing social networking websites.


When and how did you find out that you could do research as an undergraduate at UMBC?
I found out about undergraduate research opportunities as a freshman in a First Year Seminar class. They made it sound like undergraduate research was encouraged here at UMBC. Near the close of my sophomore year, one of my professors asked to talk to me after class and suggested I help him with his research. That led me to my current research project, which I am completing over this summer (2011) before my junior year. Now that I am involved in research, I realize how easy it can be to find a mentor to do research under.

What methods do you use in your research?
My research started with reading and reviewing scholarly articles and composing an annotated bibliography on the works. This process helped me keep track of all the articles I read, led me to find new, similar articles, and gave me all the background information I could possibly need to aid me in my research. Now, taking what I have learned, I have composed a list of interview questions to ask willing participants who have to do with my area of research. I plan on interviewing 15 blind or low-vision users of assistive technology with social networking sites.

How much did you know about how to conduct this research when you first started?
When I first started, I had very little knowledge of the subject. All I really knew what that low-vision computer users had to use special technology to help them access the internet or read anything on a computer. I have a friend whose mother is legally blind, and I have seen her use her machine to blow up words so only one letter fits on the screen at a time. Then it flips the letters upside-down so she can better distinguish what character it is, and this is how she reads online. Now I know there are other alternatives to just making words much larger.

Who/what helped you learn what you needed to know to carry out your project?
My mentor (Dr. Kuber in Information Systems) walked me through every step of this project. He is pushing me hard to gather good information in a timely manner to benefit us both. If I have a question about anything, I e-mail my mentor or ask him in our weekly meetings. The specific work I am doing, however, is very straightforward. Reading papers and conducting interviews does not leave me with many questions about the process.

Who do you work with on this project?
I do all my work with my mentor, a faculty member. I have talked to other students doing research, one under the same mentor, just to see what other students are doing. All my work, aside from the interviews of course, is independently done.

How much time to you put into the research every week?
I took two classes while doing research this summer. The work was very manageable. Depending on what I am working on, the work load changes from week to week. When I was reading papers, I spent a lot more time per week, probably six to eight hours a week. When I was developing interview questions and putting them into a database, I worked one or two hours a week. Now that I will be conducting interviews, I will be spending more time working, closer to six to eight hours a week again.

What was the most interesting about this research?
When I was first pitched the idea of looking at how the blind use technology to access social networking sites, I thought it would get boring and tedious, all leading to the same information over and over. Once I started reading, I realized there are so many different types of technology out there that can be beneficial to sighted as well as non-sighted users. Not only is there technology to help the blind "see" web pages, there are even guidelines that make the page easier to "sense," so a blind user can get a feel for the layout. Layouts like these are more beneficial for sighted users as well. Websites designed for the blind can potentially be better for everyone!

How does your research relate to the content of your classes in IS?
Much of the research I conduct uses material learned in my classes. For example, I have all my interview questions in a database. In IS300, Management Information Systems, we learned about how to make databases, create relationships between them, run queries, and perform data mining. All these skills will help me better analyze the data gathered from interviews. Also, IS 303, Human-Computer Interactions, is a great class that really got me interested in the subject. This class gave me all the background knowledge I needed to look at and interpret information through different mediums, as well as how to perform interviews and surveys to do my own data gathering.

What are your career goals/plans for after UMBC?
While I am still at UMBC, I am looking to get into the combined Master’s program to accelerate my education. This is another great program UMBC offers that I was not aware of until recently. With my education, my dream is to become a webmaster. I have been interested in HTML since elementary school and I have a knack for the coding. Since UMBC is such a good technical school, my dream may very well become a reality.

How does your research experience fit into these goals?
My research is providing me with skills and background information in human-computer interactions. Skills like these, along with the knowledge of how to make a website fully accessible, will help me in creating better sites that are intuitive and easily navigable, whether you are using your eyes or a screen reader. I was not interested in getting my Master’s degree so soon until I had started research in the Human-Computer Interaction field. Now I realize, by obtaining a master's, it will help give me an edge in future competition for my dream job.

What would you tell other UMBC students about getting involved in research?
Talk to your academic advisors and ask friends if they know any faculty members looking for research assistants. If you can get a mentor, do the research. Since you do it on your own time, it is really simple and low-stress. If you can do something more involved and more complicated, more power to you. Every research opportunity you come across will be one more thing to buff up your resume! In the IS department, I feel like there is never a lack of research to be done.