Bias Affects Instructors’ Interactions With Online Students, Study Finds

March 07, 2018

By Emma Kerr

Instructors are nearly twice as likely to respond to comments from white male students in online courses than to those from any other race-gender combination, a new Stanford University study finds.

Setting out to determine whether there was racial or gender bias in online learning environments, researchers drew from several hundred actual student comments in massive open online courses and came up with a list of 32 generic comments that they could post in discussion forums. The comments were assigned names that suggested a gender and race or nationality — white, black, Indian, or Chinese — and then randomly placed in the discussion boards of 124 MOOCs. The courses were offered by an unnamed "major provider" in 2014, and the subjects included accounting, calculus, epidemiology, teaching, and computer programming.

The researchers observed the interactions of the instructors and the real students with the fictional ones. Even in the absence of any visual identifiers, avatars, or face-to-face interactions, instructors were far more likely, 94 percent, to respond to questions if the name suggested the student was a white male, compared with any of the other race-gender combinations. The study found no evidence of biases in student responses to fictional students’ posts. But posts by white women were more likely to receive a response from white female students.