Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
Forum participation is one important component of the small but growing literature on online classrooms. A small fraction of students enrolled in MOOCs participate in the discussion forums by posting comments, but there is evidence that many more students participate by viewing rather than posting comments (Breslow et al., 2013). Outside of the MOOC context, researchers have found aspects of online discussion positively associated with student perceptions and learning in online courses (Swan, 2002; Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fich, 2007). Participation in discussion forums is clearly an important component of online learning.
We address the following questions in our study:
- Is there evidence of bias in the rates of views, replies or comment points in MOOC discussion forums based on gender or race?
- Are there differential rates of views, replies or comment points by race and gender of commenter?
- Do instructors have differential rates of replies by race and gender of commenter?
- Is there evidence for in-group bias: are MOOC users more likely to respond to those who are more like them (same gender/same race)?
To answer these questions, we conducted a randomized experiment by posting MOOC forum comments using randomly assigned names. The comments we used come from a list of 32 generic discussion forum comments that are neither course- nor content-specific and were modified from actual forum comments. We randomly selected eight comments from the list to post in each course, and we spaced the timing of comments in regular intervals throughout the course. Comments were randomly paired with a name that evokes a particular race and gender combination. The racial categories are White, African American, Indian, and Chinese; in each course, one male and one female name from each racial category posted one of the eight comments. Applying this procedure across 126 MOOCs, we examined the number of views, responses, and comment votes each comment received to determine whether discrimination exists. We also captured the names of the respondents to our comments and estimate their gender and race to determine homophily (in-group bias) effects.
Results confirm the existence of instructor bias as they are more likely to respond to forum posts by ostensibly White Male students; however, we discover no evidence of racial or gender bias from MOOC participants as a whole. We also explore whether there is in-group bias, that is, whether MOOC users are more likely to respond to comments from usernames with the same race and gender as themselves.