Bias in Online Classes

It seems like a great time to run this post from a few years ago. This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in March 2018. 

A few years ago, I came across an article in the New York Times Magazine that examined the avatars that individuals select when playing online games. Across the series of photos included with the article, different players are shown alongside their digital selves. For some, the likeness is amazingly similar. A man has digitally recreated himself down to his black suit and sunglasses. One woman has created an almost identical digital copy of herself down to the flowered pattern of her dress. For others, however, there’s a stark contrast. A middle-aged man portrays himself as teenage girl. Another represents himself as a robot. When I initially read the article, I thought about the power of the digital world and how we could craft our online identities. We could choose to be seen as we were or as we hoped to be. The online world could be a powerful equalizing and democratizing arena, allowing new voices to be heard and new people to participate. But I also worried how others interact to these digital representations. Does discrimination translate to a world of avatars and digital identities?

I was reminded of this article last week as I read a new study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. Looking across 124 different online classes, researchers examined the student and instructor responses to discussion board posts based on the gender and race of the student initially posting. To conduct the study, the researchers created eight student profiles with names that were “connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Chinese and Indian by gender).” In each of the online classes, researchers used each student profile to contribute a single discussion board post and monitored the responses from instructors and other students. Across all of the 992 posts that the researchers contributed (8 posts across 124 courses), instructors responded 7.0% of the time. Examining the instructor responses based on the racial and gender profiles of the students showed that instructors were more likely to respond to the “White male” students than others. Across the 124 classes, instructors responded to “White males” 12% of the time. Instructor responses were far lower for every other gender/race combination. Compared to the other student profiles, White males were 94% more likely to receive an instructor response than other students.

While these findings are troubling, the study also includes some promising signs too. Looking at the student responses, at least one student replied to 69.8% of the researchers’ posts and each post received an average of 3.2 student replies. While white female students were more likely to receive replies from other white female students, no other statistically significant findings could be made. Regardless of the gender and race of the student profile contributing the post, their online peers responded at similar rates.

As an online instructor, the research provides an important lens for me to view my own practice. Am I interacting with students in unbiased manners? Am I responding to my students’ posts in similar fashion? I spent a couple hours a few days ago looking at some recent online classes to see if I could find some trends in how I interacted with students and responded to their posts. Casually looking across the discussion forums, I didn’t see any clear trends but I’ve been devising a few ways to dig a little deeper into the data. Regardless of what I find, this research study has opened my eyes a great deal to the biases that can happen online. And maybe being aware of these biases is the first step to intentionally overcoming them.

Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment.

Award-Winning Online Practices

As the semester comes to a close and the pandemic crisis continues, I know that many teachers are still in “triage mode.” Despite their best efforts, they’re maybe a day or two ahead of their students. They’re working long days grading papers and providing feedback. They’re finding creative ways to create lessons and assessments. They’re working overtime on behalf of their students.

If these observations resonate with you, I want you to know that I see you! I see your work! I know that you’re probably working harder than you’ve ever had before as a teacher. Remote and online learning is new territory for so many teachers and you’re feeling your way through it. And I know that many of you are closing your eyes at night and wondering if you’re doing enough. Or whether you’re doing the right stuff. Let me provide some comfort.

I came across a research article that was published in Online Learning in December 2019. The researchers examined the instructional practices of eight online teachers who had won awards from different distance education entities (Online Learning Consortium, Association for Educational Communications and Technology, etc.) since 2015. Through interviews with these award-winning online teachers, the researchers found five practices that were consistently employed. As you review these practices, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of overlap with the strategies you’re employing in your classes.

Authentic and relevant course materials that connect to practice.
The researchers found that the award-winning online teachers intentionally made connections between their course content and their students’ lives. The online instructors also chose materials that were appropriate for the online environments in which students were learning.

Use of multimedia resources.
In their interviews with award-winning online teachers, the researchers found that various multimedia resources (videos, podcast, infographics, etc.) were used to help students build their understanding of course content. This variety of resources helps attend to the multiple modalities of learning that online students’ needs.

Student creation of digital content individually and collaboratively.
With the variety of tools available to online students, award-winning online teachers saw opportunities for their students to create content and collaborate with their peers. Whether it was through creating digital stories to document their learning or it was through communicating with peers in FlipGrids and Voicethreads, the award-winning teachers found opportunities for their students to be create content in their online classes.

Students’ reflection on learning.
Beyond the creation of digital content, award-winning online teachers also provided opportunities for students to reflect on their learning journeys in their classes. Writing about this, the researchers write that this practice helps students:

understand ‘their own value of learning and how far that they have come’ and help them ‘assess their learning and helping (the teacher) understand the degree to which they have achieved learning outcomes in the class.’” (Kumar et al., 2019, p. 169)

Explanation of purpose.
While different instructional strategies can support students’ success online, the award-winning online teachers felt that providing clear explanations that outline the purpose of assignments, activities and assessments helped to make the learning process more transparent for students. Some of the online teachers reported that they recorded introductory videos for each module to introduce students “to the work, why it’s included, what are we going to with it.” (Kumar et al., 2019, p. 169)

As you review these award-winning practices, I don’t want you to worry about the strategies you haven’t incorporated yet. That’s a conversation for another day when we’ve returned to calmer times. Instead, I want you to focus on the strategies you have employed. Considering the academic situation within we’re all working, I consider incorporating any of these practices to be award worthy.

Kumar, S., Martin, F., Budhrani, K., & Ritzhaupt, A. (2019). Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Elements of award-winning courses. Online Learning, 23(4). doi:

What Matters

I began my first teaching job in 1992 at a high school in Western Pennsylvania. The school was led by Mr. P, a hulking individual who would lift weights during lunch or when he was feeling stressed. As a principal, Mr. P had an attention to detail. He would interrupt the school day with announcements over the PA system with things he felt important in the moment.  “Pardon the interruption,” he would regularly announce. And then he’d discuss his current concerns.

“Teachers are reminded that students must have hall passes when they leave the classroom.”

“Students must not wear hats during the school day.”

“Students should remember to throw their trash in receptacles.”

Whether these announcements applied to the current state in anyone’s classroom, Mr. P would interrupt instruction to focus on something that mattered to him.

Over my three years in the school, Mr. P observed me teach several times. In each written observation, Mr. P focused on aspects of my classroom that I found strange. In one observation, Mr. P admonished me for letting a student sharpen a pencil without first asking permission. In another observation, Mr. P questioned me about my window blinds. He advised that window blinds should be pulled down to consistent heights to not distract student learning.

After each post-observation conference I had with Mr. P, I was dumbfounded by the seemingly trivial instructional aspects that mattered to him. His observations didn’t readily apply to my content knowledge or to the interactive lessons that I had designed. His comments didn’t reflect the classroom culture I was working to foster and didn’t acknowledge the supportive yet challenging environment that I was attempting to build. Across all of my interactions with Mr. P, it was clear that we saw the world very differently. The things that mattered to him as a principal didn’t really matter as much to me as a classroom teacher.

I was reminded of these experiences as I reflected on an article that appeared in Inside Higher Education last week. Titled Instructors, Please Wash Your Hair, the article outlined how the current remote teaching situation has created challenges for some colleagues. The author, Kristie Kiser, writes:

Your piles of unattended laundry are not trophies for the amount of time you are putting into your coursework. They are distractions, signs of disorganization and, quite frankly, unsightly and off-putting. Educators, please rethink your approach to your students. In these trying times, the last thing that they need to see is their adult, professional, highly educated instructor falling apart at the seams.

Kiser’s main point is that despite the pandemic and the hasty move online, educators “must endeavor to not be the generation that allowed its integrity to crumble as we caved to laziness, disorganization and unprofessionalism.” Professionalism seems to matter a lot to Kiser.

In my view, Kiser is a lot like my former principal. And like Mr. P, she and I see the world very differently. While she focuses on some distorted view of disorganization and unprofessionalism, I see creativity and innovation and a tireless devotion to education. I know colleagues who have built mini-recording studios in their homes. I’ve seen other colleagues who have fashioned recording devices out of Legos and old iPads. I’ve witnessed teachers who have taught synchronous classes with sleeping children in their arms. I know colleagues who are checking on students’ mental health regularly and others who have raised funds for students in need. In a world that is seemingly turned upside down with threats to the health and well-being of our students and their families, teachers are providing consistent support. When I think about how teachers are navigating this pandemic, I’m inspired by their work, by their dedication, by their resourcefulness and by their resilience.

Are some of my colleagues recording their lessons with baskets of laundry in the background? Are some recording lessons in yoga pants? Are some dealing with these challenges differently than others? Maybe. But none of that really matters to me. I know that they’re all doing the best they can to serve their students.

When I think about our challenges of today, I also think about how we’ll remember these times two or three years from now. Will our students remember the yoga pants? The laundry baskets? The sleeping child? The barking dog? The unkempt hair? I doubt it.

To gain perspective in times like this, I like to draw on a quote often attributed to Maya Angelou.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And that’s what matters to me.


Teaching Online? Consider Immediacy.

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from August 2019 that outlines the importance of teacher immediacy. Enjoy!

This week, I’m heading to Madison, Wisconsin where I’ll be presenting at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference. On Thursday morning, I’m leading a presentation titled Humanizing the Online Learning Environment where I’ll be sharing some strategies for making the online classroom (and online teaching) a little more of an affective endeavor. Most of the quality checklists that online teachers employ focus on design and facilitation elements that can make the online space more effective. While these are important, I think we as online teachers also need to attend to the emotional and human side of our instruction.

I’ve been thinking about this stuff since I read The Spark of Learning (Cavanagh, 2016) a few years ago. The book examines “the science of emotion” and discusses how different teaching strategies impact students’ motivation and emotional engagement and foster student learning. While the book focuses entirely on face-to-face classroom instruction, I kept thinking how it really relates to all classrooms, online included.

One of the emotional constructs that Cavanagh discusses in the book is called “teacher immediacy.” Online, we talk about “teaching presence” a lot but I think teacher immediacy is a little different. In the book, Cavanagh defines immediacy as “behaviors that are both spoken and unspoken that communicate to students that you are interested in them, the material, and the process of learning” (p. 100). In contrast, the concept of “teaching presence” (which comes from the Community of Inquiry framework) is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.” While there’s definitely some overlap between these constructs, I think the focus on emotions is a much-needed addition to online teaching conversations.

So, how do we develop teacher immediacy online? Cavanagh (and others) actually subdivide the teacher immediacy concept into two separate areas: verbal immediacy and non-verbal immediacy. Here are some ideas for both:

Verbal immediacy:

  • Consider including humor in your video and audio recordings. I have some colleagues who wear funny hats in their videos or have amusing music playing during their introductions.
  • Disclose relevant information about yourself. A few months ago, I shared a blog post about research that showed teacher rapport increased when teachers and students shared common interests.
  • Use inclusive pronouns and first names.

Non-verbal immediacy:

  • For video and audio recordings, be mindful of your facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures. Instructors can communicate powerful positive and negative emotional content with a sarcastic comment, an eye roll or a hand gesture.
  • For email and discussion posts, consider the tone you use. Last fall, I wrote a post about “leading with empathy” and “assuming positive intent” helps to frame my written communication with students.

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.

The Introverted Student Online

With many institutions’ abrupt transition to online instruction, I thought I’d share a post from January 2018 that examines how interverted students navigate the online learning envrionment. Enjoy!

I’m teaching an online class over the winter semester and I’ve been particularly impressed with the level of engagement and involvement from my students. The class is a graduate course on Designing Online Learning Environments and we’ve spent a great deal of time discussing the needs of students and how best to support their learning online. One of the students in the class remarked that she really enjoys online classes because she’s an introvert and that the structure and organization plays to her strengths. While I try to create my online classes following principles of Universal Design for Learning, I hadn’t really thought about how online classes could specifically benefit introverted students. After doing some digging and reading, however, I came away with a few critical thoughts that educators should keep in mind when working with students in online and face-to-face learning environments.

1. Introverts aren’t “shy students.” Psychology Today published an article identifying some behavioral signs of introversion. Across the signs, it’s clear that introverts aren’t people who have social anxiety or dislike other people.  Instead, introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by more solitary pursuits. Introverts are also the last ones to share their opinions in social settings. “Whether it’s a family discussion around the kitchen table or a staff meeting to decide how to market new products, people high in introversion will keep their views to themselves and let the noisy extraverts take control.” Instructors may see this play out in online and face-to-face learning environments with introverted students often being the last ones to raise their hands or post to discussion boards.

2. An introvert offline is an introvert online.  In another article from Psychology Today, Sophia Dembling discusses her use of social media. As a self-identified introvert, Dembling writes, some people are surprised that she uses Facebook and Twitter and even blogs.  While the tools give introverts “control of our airspace, and time to think before we respond,” Dembling also talks about her limits. With technology, she’s able to shut down when she gets “the same kind of tiredhead I get at a party.” Computer-mediated communication isn’t going to instantly make an introverted student more extraverted.

3. Introverts prefer online classes. After hearing from my graduate student, I wondered whether any research had been conducted to examine introverts and learning environments. I found a 2010 study reported in The Internet and Higher Education. In the study, Harrington and Lafredo examined 166 collegiate students and compared their responses on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and their “preferred teaching modality.” Results revealed that a statistically significant majority of introverts preferred online classes and extraverts preferred face-to-face classes.

4. Online classes offer introverts an ideal learning environment to be successful. After reading that introverts need “the opportunity to reflect quietly on a problem,” it’s clear why introverts (like my graduate student) enjoy online classes, especially asynchronous ones.  As Tony Baldasaro writes on Edutopia, “The asynchronous environments found on the Internet can provide introverted students with the ideal space needed for them to learn. The freedom to explore their passions, the ability to connect with similar learners, and the time to participate at their personal pace and depth, all with the solitude needed by the introvert, can make these communities the ideal space for learning and creativity to blossom in the introvert.” By offering the time to process information and craft responses, online classes provide introverted students with an environment that is better suited for the personality.  They can still interact with their classmates to socially construct their understanding of content but the environment gives them the time and space to be successful.