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Are MOOCs sexist?

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Are MOOCs sexist?

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There’s a perception that the social web is a largely meritocratic kind of place and that you live or die by your abilities rather than any more external factors such as your race, gender and so on.

Except there are a few studies highlighting how this often isn’t the case.  For instance one looked at the sharing economy and found that black property owners on Air BnB were charging around 12% less than their white peers.

This was replicated by a study looking at Craigslist, which found that when the item for sale was held in a black hand, it received much fewer offers than when it was held by a white one.

It isn’t confined to race of course, with a study revealing that investors are much more inclined to back male entrepreneurs than they are female ones.

So it was interesting to read a fourth study today that was looking at the world of MOOCs and how students perceived their instructor.  Would they treat their teacher fairly or was there an implied sexism at play that saw them lean more towards male teachers rather than female ones?

The study suggests that students were given higher ratings to teachers they thought were men, even when they actually turned out to be women.

“The ratings that students give instructors are really important, because they’re used to guide higher education decisions related to hiring, promotions and tenure,” the researchers say. “And if the results of these evaluations are inherently biased against women, we need to find ways to address that problem.”

The research saw a class of students undergo an online course, with the class split into four groups.  Two of the groups were led by male instructors, with two led by female instructors.

The catch is that one of the female instructors told her class that she was male, whilst one of the male instructors did likewise, telling his class he was female (obviously none of the students actually saw the teacher).

At the culmination of each course, students were asked to rate their instructors across 12 different traits that were designed to analyze their effectiveness and interpersonal skills.

“We found that the instructor whom students thought was male received higher ratings on all 12 traits, regardless of whether the instructor was actually male or female,” the paper says. “There was no difference between the ratings of the actual male and female instructors.”

So students were giving lower ratings to the teachers they thought were women, regardless of who was actually teaching them.  When the woman pretended to be a man, she scored much higher on things such as fairness, enthusiasm, professionalism, promptness and respectfulness.

“The difference in the promptness rating is a good example for discussion,” the researchers say. “Classwork was graded and returned to students at the same time by both instructors. But the instructor students thought was male was given a 4.35 rating out of 5. The instructor students thought was female got a 3.55 rating.”

The plan is to further explore this line of thinking in additional online courses to see just how robust the finding is.

“We’re hoping to expand this approach to additional courses, and different types of courses, to determine the size of this effect and whether it varies across disciplines,” the researchers reveal.

Suffice to say, in most MOOCs you actually get to see the person teaching you, but it would nonetheless be interesting to see if these findings are replicated in the MOOC world as well.

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