Online course instructors were 94 percent more likely to respond to students with names that suggested they were white and male than other race-gender combinations, according to a study published in March.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine; Stanford University; and Vanderbilt University conducted an experimental study to test the presence of racial and gender bias in online courses with discussion forums. The study, "Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment," measured response rates to students in 124 different massive open online courses (MOOCs).
For the study, researchers placed eight discussion forum comments by eight fictive student identities in each of the 124 MOOCs. The students each had a name that suggested their race (i.e., white, black, Indian, Chinese) and gender, the study states. In order to create a list of names, researchers "...drew from Anglo-American, African-American, Indian, and Chinese names that were recently used in studies that have also experimentally manipulated perceptions of race and gender," the study read.
One reason I think this result is important: it tells us social identity matters even in online learning environments. In my experience, thoughtful scholars of online learning can have a blind spot on this point, often viewing online students as asocial "brains in a jar."— Tom Dee (@Thomas_S_Dee) March 8, 2018
The findings of the experimental study revealed that while the overall response rate for instructors was seven percent, white men elicited a 12 percent response rate from instructors.
Thomas Dee, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University told NBC News that the experimental study revealed a "dramatic finding."
"That’s a really dramatic finding because we think the discussion forums are important settings where student engagement and learning motivation gets supported and catalyzed,” he said. “If there's this type of bias in who's getting the engagement with the instructor, that, in a way, just reinforces patterns of inequity that many of us care about.”
According to the study, researchers did not find general evidence of biases in student responses to their peers. However, the findings did reveal that white women were more likely to receive a response from white female peers.
"We find that [white] women were over 10 percentage points more likely to respond to a post with a [white] female name than [non-white] women," the study read.