Dr. Angela Cirucci (Communication Studies)
Zoom Affordances and Identity: A Rowan Case Study
In the pandemic-induced move to virtual learning environments (VLEs), I noticed that, while professors and students alike were trained in how to use the technical tools, little thought was given to the ways in which digital affordances had an impact on students' identities. Indeed, how to engage students online became a popular topic of study. Largely left out, however, are the ways in which the VLEs themselves have implications for student identity maintenance and, consequently, learning quality. All digital spaces are human-made, and thus include "baked-in" prejudices that privilege some identifications while pushing others to the background.
This case study of Rowan University undergraduates pairs a walkthrough analysis of a popular VLE—Zoom—with responses (n=250) to an open-ended survey to investigate how VLE affordances impact student identifications and, subsequently, quality of learning. Overall, Rowan students found Zoom to be more user-friendly because it is designed to look like popular social media apps, yet they were not comfortable being visible. Many students were concerned about their classmates and professors seeing their physical backgrounds, particularly those who reported having family incomes below $50,000. Subsequently, they rarely turned on their cameras. BIPOC who identify as women feared being judged based on their physical appearance and chose to rarely turn on their cameras.
As one of the first studies to explore VLE affordances and their impact on identities, findings suggest that already marginalized groups feel the pains that came with the shift to online learning more acutely. Because digital spaces are performative, as well as subjective reflections, it is important to understand how the design choices, tools, and functionalities have implications for identities. I recommend that professors and universities provide training for identity personalization and to find ways to invite students to participate that do not include mandatory cameras.
* The current project is under review for Eastern Communication Association conference.