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To hear some ed tech enthusiasts tell it, online learning is sweeping aside the barriers that have in the past prevented access to education. But such pronouncements are premature. As it turns out, students often carry these barriers right along with them, from the real world into the virtual one.
|Research shows that female students learn better when they are
surrounded by other females. But online courses are overwhelmingly
taught by men. |
Photo by Chagin/Thinkstock
Female students, for example, are poorly represented in science, technology, engineering, and math courses offered online, just as they are scarce in STEM classes conducted in physical classrooms. Demographic analyses of the students enrolled in much-hyped “massive open online courses” show the depth of the gender gap. Circuits and Electronics, the first MOOC developed by the online consortium of universities known as edX, had a student body that was 12 percent female, according to a study published in 2013. Another analysis, posted on the MOOC company Coursera’s blog earlier this year, found that female enrollment in the company’s courses was lowest—about 20 percent—in subjects like computer science, engineering, and mathematics.
These dismally low numbers provide a reminder that “access” to education is more complicated than simply throwing open the digital doors to whoever wants to sign up. So how can we turn the mere availability of online instruction in STEM into true access for female students?
One potential solution to this information-age problem comes from an old-fashioned source: single-sex education. The Online School for Girls, founded in 2009, provides an all-female e-learning experience. (A companion institution, the Online School for Boys, is creating courses now.) It appears to be doing an especially good job of educating girls in STEM: Last year, 21 of its approximately 1,000 students were recognized by the National Center for Women in Technology “for their aspirations and achievements in computing and technology.” And over the course of the 2013–2014 academic year, the Online School for Girls prepared 30 female students to take the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. To put that number in perspective: Twenty-five American states each prepared fewer than 30 girls to take the AP computer science exam.
Annie Murphy Paul: 2013 Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow
Annie Murphy Paul
Source: Slate Magazine and NewAmericaFoundation's Channel (YouTube)