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New Study Finds Discrimination and Bias in Online Course Forums

By Henry Kronk
March 15, 2018

Online courses, with their lower costs and availability, typically attract a more diverse crowd than brick-and-mortar four year institutions. Among online course participants in a 2017 Georgia Tech Computer Science course, for example, the percentage of women and ethnic minorities enrolled was double the national average. But a new study conducted by Stanford researchers suggests that the issues of diversity, discrimination, and equity in online courses go far beyond mere enrollment.

In the new report, “Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” researchers looked into whether or not students and instructors displayed racial or gender biases in online courses. In 124 different MOOCs, the authors “tested for the presence of racial and gender biases in these settings by creating fictional student identities with racial- and gender-connotative names, having these fictional students place randomly assigned comments in the discussion forums, and observing the engagement of other students and instructors with these comments.”

Diversity Doesn’t Always Mean Inclusion

One might expect in-person prejudice to translate equally into an online setting, but that is not the case. When it came to students answering students, there were no major statistical anomalies. Students were slightly more likely to answer others of the same demographic. (Of all backgrounds, white women were the most likely to do so.)

online courseBut when it comes to the instructors answering students, a clear anomaly came to light. Instructors were 94% more likely to respond to comments made by white male students.

Significant evidence supports the presence of such bias in brick-and-mortar education. According to the authors, “boys generally receive more attention and comments from instructors than girls in primary education … There is also evidence that teachers treat Black students more negatively than White students … and reinforce social aspects of behavior for Black girls while highlighting academic behaviors of White girls.” These biases have been documented in all levels of education.

Sources of Discrimination

The authors cite three potential sources for bias in education. The first is a more inherent sentiment that reflects throughout society and is difficult to consciously recognize. The second is “intentional, explicit discrimination.” The third could be described as racial profiling. In explanation, the authors cite another scholar, who writes, “skin color or sex is taken as a proxy for relevant data not sampled.”

This study is one of the first of its kind. The authors write, “Discussions of equity in online education tend to focus on either how their comparatively low cost and online delivery can broaden access or, conversely, on how the uneven distribution of computer hardware and broadband connections inhibits the realization of this promise (i.e., the digital divide). However, we know of little evidence that examines issues of equity within online classrooms. Our study is motivated by the view that this is an important omission in the literature on online learning environments.”

This study changes the narrative of online courses. True, there is no doubt that they expand access to education to marginalized communities. According to College Atlas, many ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. are overrepresented in online courses. While black Americans makeup 12.7% of the U.S. population, they constitute 19% of learners studying online. What’s more, 70% of online learners are women.

The new Stanford report highlights the fact that the question of equality in higher education doesn’t stop with enrollment. While it manifests in different ways, remote students, too, experience bias just as their in-person peers do.