Assistant Professor of Communication Studies focuses on equity and inclusion in virtual learning

Dr. Angela Cirucci, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies

Angela Cirucci headshot

Tell us about the DEI research that you are doing:

I am currently analyzing data from an open-ended survey that focuses on Glassboro campus undergraduates and their experiences with virtual learning environments like Zoom and WebEx. In line with my research interests, I am exploring how the platforms’ designs have an impact on identity maintenance and performance, particularly for students that identify with marginalized communities. This includes variables like background choices (actual and virtual), display names, inclusion of pronouns, reactions, “camera readiness,” and so on. Previous research has found that people of color and LGBTQ youth are less likely to have consistent access to smartphones, computers, and Wi-Fi or to have the resources to obtain relevant skills. In addition, members of marginalized groups are less likely to feel comfortable within digital spaces generally, largely due to the fact that apps are often designed with the assumption that users are from privileged backgrounds. 

What made you want to undertake this work:

I have always been interested in the ways in which emerging adults build, maintain, and express their identities online. (And by always I mean since I was in high school and a frequent AOL chat room visitor!) It is not that people are different online than they are offline, but that online spaces provide specific interfaces, choices, and outcomes that work to steer users to have certain beliefs about others and themselves. Early research compared online identity-building within sites like MySpace to how a young adult may decorate their room. This analogy immediately came to my mind once most of us had to take our classes to a virtual format due to COVID. Now it is not so much that students are building their online spaces like a room, but instead their professors and classmates can now literally see the room they are in. Just being on camera, within an app, having to “play by the app’s rules,” no matter how much the professor attempts to make the class like an in-person class, necessarily changes the nature of the learning experience in a multitude of ways. Because members from marginalized communities have been found to be less comfortable in online spaces, the switch to online learning has already been found to be especially jolting for these students. Against this backdrop, I am interested in this work because I want to be able to make data-driven suggestions for providing more inclusive and engaging virtual learning experiences not only during the pandemic, but in the future as well. Just as in the offline world, online spaces are designed with the “normal” user imagined as identifying with stereotypically heteronormative identities. But, digital spaces arguably make these differences more visible, more felt, and more “objective” because they are tied to programming, computers, and “logical” thinking. 

Why would our students at Rowan University be interested in this work:

 First, I think many students would be shocked to realized just how much the design of an app can lead users to think and act in certain ways. Whenever I talk about this with the students in my classes they are very intrigued by the topic and quickly realize just how powerful end-user interfaces can be. Second, it is no secret that students would like to be back in the physical classroom. However, while we remain mostly virtual for now, and some classes may still be in the future, in my experience students welcome any ideas to make their classmates feel included and comfortable. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your work?

 The best part of my research is getting to hear from students and then trying to implement change based on their views and needs! I hope to present my findings and recommendations in the near future!!