Bias is Lurking in Your Online Education

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.


by Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

In the past few months, the very real presence and implications of the digital divide has been at the forefront of conversations on inequities in education.

This is a reality that has been in most schools’ faces since March – access to a computer and a stable internet connection has been, in many cases, the main reason some students were able to to participate in schooling while others could not. Studies have also shown that Students of Color and those in low income communities are disproportionately affected by the digital divide, and have had the greatest challenges in accessing distance learning as easily as their peers. The case has been firmly made, including by the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, that digital equity is one of the most salient civil rights issues of our time. This can unfortunately be palpably seen and felt in the past few months.

If access is one part of the digital equity puzzle, then the other piece is clearly the quality of remote instruction. Unfortunately, quality can be a catch-all term that includes teacher expertise in pedagogy and content, the skills to differentiate across multiple learners, and an ability to utilize culturally responsive teaching practices (to name only a few components of “quality”). One critical part often not discussed is the presence of explicit or implicit bias in the classroom and how it interferes with student learning. Studies have shown that even though schools are supposed to be spaces where equity presides, teachers show similar levels of pro-White conscious and unconscious bias in the classroom as compared to other professionals.

Studies have shown that even though schools are supposed to be spaces where equity presides, teachers show similar levels of pro-White conscious and unconscious bias in the classroom as compared to other professionals.

As online instruction continues to be a strategy many schools employ in the fall, examining and addressing the presence of bias in the classroom as well as in the virtual setting is of critical importance for all teachers. In fact, this research from a few years ago on bias in online education is more relevant today than ever before. In this study, researchers tested for the “presence of race and gender biases among postsecondary students and instructors in online classes by measuring student and instructor responses to discussion comments of 124 different online courses.” I am most struck by the following graph and accompanying stark data point:

“We find that instructors are 94% more likely to respond to a discussion forum post by a White male than by any other race-gender combination.”

Source: Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment

94%. And this is an environment absent of visual cues, as opposed to most online courses in today’s world where students are visible and audible. While some schools may spend significant time working with their teachers on addressing bias in the face-to-face classroom, we haven’t heard of many that have confronted how their bias might be showing up in an online space. How did Students of Color experience the last few months of remote learning? Did they notice, as the research suggests, that as a Black student, they weren’t called upon as much as their White peers? Did they feel other forms of bias for what they were wearing, what their home environment was like, conscious or not, from their teacher or classmates?

If schools have not yet done this type of examination, then they have not done all of the necessary work to reopen in the fall. This work is just as critical as determining what a hybrid schedule will look like and where to place hand-washing stations. Our advice is three-fold: look back, lean forward, and follow through with your Students of Color, particularly your students who are Black and Brown.

Look back:

What data are your school gathering right now on whether and how bias was an issue during remote instruction in the spring? This could be collected through one-on-one or small group conversations with your Students of Color about their experiences in online education as compared to in-person. For some students who were at boarding schools, for example, returning home to learn in the online space may have felt very different and possibly more difficult. For others, they may be feeling excluded in certain ways and they have not had a chance to talk about it with anyone. These open and honest conversations are also opportunities to ask Students of Color what their specific concerns are for whatever reopening model your school is planning for. (It is also entirely possible that some had a better experience online than in-person, and this is incredibly helpful data to be learning about and understanding as it relates to bias that may be present during face-to-face instruction rather than online.)

As you talk to your students, remembering that data has shown COVID-19 impacts are worse in Black and Brown communities is also important. This may in fact mean that African American students are having a different reaction to reopening than the rest of the student population. Awareness and an ability to respond to this is vital to supporting Students of Color in the fall.

Lean Forward:

How is your school thinking about how bias may manifest differently in an online or hybrid environment rather than an in-person one when you return in the fall? For example, if there are some portion of students who will stay home for learning while others come to school, how will decisions be made in terms of makeup of student cohorts – who stays at home and who comes to school for classes? What about those students whose parents cannot work from home and therefore may have additional responsibilities such as caring for a younger sibling? What happens in the very possible situation that an upper school student is on a different schedule than the siblings they need to take care of at home? These situations should be discussed, with solutions presented, before the start of the school year so that there can be a thoughtful approach to addressing them rather than dealing with them on the fly as they arise in the fall.

Follow Through:

How will your school follow through on supporting Students of Color in the virtual context alongside the in-person one when the school year begins? How can you collect ongoing information on these students’ experiences in the online setting and generate awareness for teachers on their bias (conscious or not) by sharing that data back? In a remote class, if it is being recorded, it would potentially be easier than an in-person session for a teacher to watch the video later on and see how many Black students were called on versus White, as one example of opening the teacher’s eyes to disparities in instruction. Doing this alongside all-staff conversations about being aware of bias in the online space could be transformative.

Over the summer, Elevate would love to hear how your school has addressed or plans to address issues related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion during remote instruction. We are interested in highlighting and sharing the work of schools prioritizing this area. Please reach out to Sudipti Kumar at skumar@explo.org.


Sudipti Kumar is the Director of Research for EXPLO Elevate. Prior to joining Elevate she served as Network Director for the National Center for Teacher Residencies where she consulted teacher residency programs on recruitment, curriculum development, and new teacher induction. During her time there, she worked with programs on developing systems and structures to better recruit and retain Teachers of Color as well as to develop culturally responsive teaching practices for all teacher candidates. While at The National Council on Teacher Quality, she conducted and published research on inequitable teacher policies in large urban school districts. Sudipti is a former math teacher who has worked in Brooklyn and South Boston.

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