Study finds student-teacher biases in online classrooms

White male students are 94 percent more likely to a get response from instructors in some online courses, a new study finds.

Max Chao

In a time when online classes are increasing their presence in higher education, some could leave students vulnerable to bias.

In March, Stanford University published a study that found instructors of some online courses were 94 percent more likely to respond to posts from white male students than to those written by other students.

The study is indicative of a larger issue of bias incidences occurring in all learning environments, said Al Beitz, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation in an email statement. 

“How do we create an inclusive learning environment, be it face to face or online?  This is something we are working on at the moment, but there are no easy fixes,” Beitz said.

Biases are well-documented in the classroom, but research is showing that they may bleed into online environments as well, said J.D. Walker, head of research and evaluation at the University’s Center for Educational Innovation.

“One thing people have hoped about online education is that because of its relative anonymity, that a lot of our human biases might go away,” Walker said. “We’re discovering that just because you’re online doesn’t mean that all of our implicit biases go away.”

The study says that most of these issues stem from implicit bias, a problem that the University has launched numerous programs over the years to address.  

Many University faculty members go through an implicit bias training program, said Stef Jarvi, director of education at the Office for Equity and Diversity. 

“We talk about it as being an unexamined bias … and so we start talking about how that shows up in our lives, in our system and in our culture,” Jarvi said. 

While there isn’t training in place to target online classes specifically, bias training has been expanding to more departments at the University, they said. 

Classroom bias can lead to racial and gender achievement gaps, according to the study. One prominent example of this is the “gender penalty” in large science classes, where female students often under-perform compared to their academic potential, Walker said. 

The 124 online classes sampled for the study were offered by four-year universities across the U.S. The classes surveyed were Massive Online Open Courses, which are large classes often hosted by external distribution companies. The size of these classes may have affected the study’s findings, Walker said. 

In contrast to instructors, the study found no evidence of bias in student responses. However, University senior Suleiman Adan said he feels peers are more prone to bias in real classrooms.

“A lot of times in class, students don’t expect me to be … always answering questions, to be ‘well-spoken,’” Adan said, who is a person of color.

Walker said the field of online classroom equity research is likely to continue growing. 

“I think educational institutions are actively trying to make their environments better for everybody,” he said. “But it’s a tough nut to crack.”