Does Bias Exist In Online Learning? Yes, But It Doesn't Have To

Does Bias Exist In Online Learning?
Artur Szczybylo/
Summary: It’s tempting to think of eLearning as a naturally inclusive environment, free from the bias and prejudice documented in traditional learning settings. Yet, bias exists in online learning too.

What You Need To Know About Bias In eLearning

Online education gives learners all over the world the opportunity to learn from some of the best and brightest in their fields and choose from a huge range of topics and skills. While the topic of minority and female students facing discrimination in traditional settings is well-documented, it can be trickier to spot in online learning. In fact, even robots develop bias if they’re unintentionally programmed to see “people” as caucasian males by developers who aren’t vigilant about their algorithms! Here’s what you need to know about bias in online learning and how you can work to combat it in your course authoring.

Top 3 Things To Understand About Online Learning

1. Bias Is Natural

Bias is a natural phenomenon of our cognitive process. When faced with a staggering 11 million pieces of information a second [1], our brain creates a shorthand to deal with some of the information so it can prioritize cognitive power. The problem happens when bias becomes unconscious, and we stop paying attention to it.

2. Bias Exists In Online Learning Too

A study from Stanford University found that bias is strong in online course discussions. For the study, researchers posed as students using male and female names that identified as white, black, Indian, or Chinese and participated in the discussion forums of 114 Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Overall, instructors responded to 12% of white male students’ comments, and only 7% of the comments by their fictional student group.

The researchers concluded that this finding was important, especially as more learners start to be educated online, because it shows that the “anonymous” nature of online discussions doesn’t remove the inherent bias an instructor may have.

3. Unconscious Bias Can Be Overcome

Unconscious bias [2] is another obstacle that can make it more difficult for learners to persevere through courses [3], so it’s something every course author needs to be aware of and work to eliminate. On the flip side, online classrooms are the perfect place to work toward truly equitable learning environments! So, if our unconscious bias is unconscious, how can we eliminate it? Here are some simple tips for reducing bias in online learning.

  • Make instructors aware of their own unconscious biases
    Evaluation is an incredible tool for actively thinking about how our unconscious biases manifest and what the repercussions of them may be. Simply learning that these biases exist can help instructors be more aware of their behavior and work toward exhibiting more equitable behaviors instead. One way to do this is to review an instructor’s responses in a forum and share the data with them. Project Implicit [4] is a free tool created by Harvard University to help users test their own biases.
  • Rethink discussion forums
    By removing identifying information from user’s profiles, like names, there is less information that could be associated with a particular race or gender. One report suggests other design choices for classrooms like single-gender subforums could help promote equity. By not giving their brain information that could trigger an unconscious bias, an instructor can avoid acting on them.
  • Form new associations
    Course authors should take opportunities to counter stereotypes in the content and design of their course. From storyboarding to casting to voiceover work, there are opportunities at every stage of course authoring to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Ask for (and listen to) feedback in order to gain new perspectives. Seek out different voices so that you're showing accurate and diverse representations.
  • Train
    eLearning is the ultimate training ground, so it’s an obvious choice for helping to train course authors and instructors on how to identify and eliminate bias in their content and classrooms. One study [5] found that training teachers on empathy, versus objectivity, decreased suspensions and increased their ability to avoid stereotyping behavior.

Biases Are Obstacles To Success

As workplaces, schools, and offices increasingly comprise various cultural, racial, and ethnic groups, it's more important than ever that online learning accurately reflects the diversity of our communities. It’s all of our responsibility to work constantly at dismantling and eliminating the unconscious biases that are holding learners back from achieving their goals. Online learning can be a diverse, inclusive, and equitable learning environment, but not without our intentional and persistent effort to design it that way.


  1. Your Brain Sees Even When You Don't
  2. What Is Unconscious Bias? +Top Strategies to Help Avoid It
  3. Race and gender biases appear in online education
  4. Project Implicit
  5. Four Ways Teachers Can Reduce Implicit Bias