Dr. Angela Stewart Is Reframing What Classroom Engagement Looks Like

April 18, 2023

Dr. Angela Stewart is an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems. Stewart’s research focuses on “how we can flexibly model social and cognitive phenomena in learners, in order to account for the diversity of ways that they show up in learning spaces.” Stewart said that she is “really interested in making learning more equitable and accessible to all students.” To achieve this, Stewart uses an “analytics approach,” utilizing “artificial intelligence and machine learning” to “model how learners show up.” More specifically, Stewart asks, “how do we embed technologies into learning spaces, such that it supports the agency of learners, affirms their identities, and supports their critical consciousness development?”

Stewart said that one of the larger aims of her research is “not just making technologies that affirm the status quo of what technology is, but instead, learners making technologies that are for social good and social justice, and that disrupt societal oppression.”

Stewart’s research builds “deeply upon the work in personalized learning and learner modeling.” In practice, this means trying to capture “traces of learners’ activity in learning environments. For example, things they’re clicking, things that they may be looking at with eye gaze detectors, things that they’re saying.” The basic question for such research, Stewart says, is “How do we take all of these signals and convert them into some sort of metric that is usable for us to make better learning environments?” Combining this approach to measuring learner engagement with insights from culturally responsive computing, Stewart’s work reframes what engaged learning is and how it appears in the classroom. Stewart advocates for an “asset-based approach” that focuses on “what learners are doing, what they care about, and what their values are.” This sits in contrast to a “deficit approach, where you correct things that students don’t know or change the way that they show up in the space.” She added, “I think just pushing back against those standard views of how people are going to behave in these spaces is particularly important for historically excluded learners’ success and academic achievement.”

Recalling her training and what lead her to focus on this area, Stewart said her interest came from working on “multimodal modeling of collaborative problem-solving behaviors,” in addition to her being “a Black woman in technology, where there are not a lot of us.” She said she is “really deeply concerned with how we make learning spaces more equitable so that students can come into these spaces.” Stewart added, “I see supporting students in STEM education as one way to support learners who have historically been excluded, and one way that I can use my own expertise to create a more equitable world that I want to live in, and hopefully students after me can live in, too.”

These concerns inform Stewart’s teaching as well. “In every single class period, I always have collaborative activities. There are just things and ways of thinking that learners can learn more deeply from their peers, rather than from me. There is that inherent power imbalance between me, instructor and them, students. So, I think that encouraging them to do collaborative work can disrupt that.” She added that “a lot of my research is really about societal implications and how we should design learning environments. It is not just about gaining technical skills, but also thinking about the impact of what you are building, whose voices are included in what you’re building and whose aren’t, who has benefited from what you’re creating and who has been harmed by it. I really focus on getting students to think about those things.”


--Daniel Beresheim