Beki Grinter

MOOC Diversity

In academia, computer science on February 5, 2013 at 8:43 am

My colleagues, perhaps like yours, are discussing MOOCs a lot. I’ve got my own set of reservations about them, but today I want to focus on a question. How diverse are the instructors of MOOCs and what implications does that have for increasing diversity in STEM fields?

Recently my colleague, Mark Guzdial, argued that we should do no harm via a MOOC. His point was simple, that MOOCs could reverse the decades of hard-won efforts to diversify Computer Science. I know from experience, every single time I teach Computer Science classes just how non-diverse Computing remains. I’ve been in the situation of doubling the number of women in the class more than once (especially when I have a female TA). It would be nice to get away from that.

And then I saw my colleague, Tucker Balch’s, demographics from his MOOC. Wow! Highly educated men dominated the people who completed his course. As Mark points out in his analysis of Tucker’s demographics, some of this is likely due to the nature of the course, particularly it being an elective (Computational Finance).

This led me to my question. I wonder what diversity is like on the other side, among the faculty who offer MOOCs? And I offer my story of how I stayed in STEM as an example of why I think it matters. My first Computer Science teacher was a woman. She watched out for me and the other one or two women in the class. I remember that she encouraged me, took time to talk to me beyond the content of the classroom… and so I stayed for two years in a classroom with over 25 14-16 year old boys. (I think this deserves a OBE).

This continued with my second teacher, a man. The class was very small, seven and I was the only woman. The advantage of the small class was that we all got to know each other well, perhaps too well. Some boys of 16-18 well, boosting, talking about sex and women in ways that weren’t exactly flattering…  My teacher recognized that this was hard for me, and spent time talking with me about why I should persist despite it. He taught me that developing trust, taking time with an individual student outside of the academic content, could be crucial to inspiring the type of trust that would lead to confidence.

I needed those two teachers. I needed them very much. They are without doubt the reason I am still here. Especially since while I had a couple of faculty at Leeds who really encouraged me (thank you), I didn’t find the part of the discipline that I was passionate about until I reached UC Irvine and my Ph.D.

Given the lack of women in academia, particularly in STEM, I wonder whether the pattern of male dominance repeats itself in who offers the MOOC and I wonder what in turn that does to the student population. Perhaps some would say, offer a MOOC, redress it. But, my route into the field was not about volume encounters, but about those that were very personal. Its only maybe four people who made enough of a difference that I got through, but how can any person be that when they have 50,000 students? Also, how can you achieve these intimacies at a distance, across the network as opposed to face-to-face.

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