Online learning technology has given people and communities around the world the opportunity to learn any range of topics and skills with the click of a button. Unfortunately, in spite of the virtuous goals and best intentions of these learning environments, there is evidence of bias and prejudice in the creation process—however unintentional.
Even more startling, there is research showing that artificial intelligence (AI) systems tend to replicate harmful racist and sexist stereotypes when unintentionally programmed by developers to “see” people only as one race or gender.
Bias Is NaturalI have noticed an increasing trend in people labeling the occurrence of bias in others as a negative. Pointing out a person’s bias can be perceived as threatening and sometimes leads the person to use self-protective responses. As a learning and development professional, I am fortunate to have studied human behavior and cognitive neuroscience while earning my master’s degree in instructional design and educational technology.
Our brains are capable of amazing things, but we are wired in a way that inhibits objective thinking. When faced with millions of pieces of information each second, our brain creates shortcuts to make fast decisions. Science has proven that we need these mental shortcuts, but they can lead to mental mistakes called “bias.”
There are 188 known biases that can affect our thinking and actions. This infographic from DesignHacks.co shows them all. Cognitive biases are an on-going cognitive condition and extraordinarily complex. In a single image, we can see the myriad types and categorizations of cognitive patterns we are likely not even aware of.
There is no easy fix to overcome biases because it is part of being human. However, we must be aware that these biases, if unchecked, can significantly impact and harm our opportunities, investments, and aspirations. At the individual level, bias can negatively impact interpersonal relationships at home and work. At a societal level, it can manifest as persecution of an entire group of people.
Unbiasing to Improve Learning ContentIn business organizations worldwide, recruiting and leadership are usually the first point of consideration when seeking to reduce bias. However, occurrences of bias when developing content in all learning environments should not be overlooked.
Even though bias is natural, the problem is when we act on our biases, consciously or unconsciously. Learning publishers develop content and course materials that include real-world scenarios and case studies. They might make decisions on the video footage used or the language and definitions in the courses without fully considering the audience. When the publisher’s biases go unchecked, this harms the communities we serve because we are developing subtle, unintentional acts of discrimination.
An example could be the consistent use of the pronoun “she” when referring to individuals in traditional female roles, such as caregiving or teaching. This reinforces the stereotype that teachers and caregivers are female. Also, consider the use of the pronoun “he” when referring to people in senior leadership roles. This can unintentionally send the message that all people in senior leadership positions are male. Every course author should be aware of their biases and work to reduce them.
Research suggests that using checklists can mitigate bias in decision making. Here is an essential checklist to consider when developing learning courses. These considerations should ultimately be ingrained in the process of learning content creation.The learning industry has the potential to make an impact on developing more equitable learning environments. Even though we can never be completely free of bias, if we are conscious of it, we will be able to reduce the effects and achieve better outcomes over time.
With intentional effort and mindfulness, learning can be diverse, inclusive, and equitable.