Diversity and Online Education

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Online education has a chance to level the playing field and help millions of people who don’t have access to traditional education gain skills and get ahead. But it often isn’t able to close the gap. In this post, I’m going to discuss some of the reasons for this, and share how we’re trying to do better at Dataquest.

Traditional university education has many barriers that prevent equal access to elite credentials. These barriers fit into two categories — financial barriers and network barriers. Financial barriers make it hard for students to get into college, and to pay for college once they get in. Average college tuition is close to $35,000 per year now, up from around $20,000 in 1997.

Network barriers mean you have fewer opportunities to get ahead. Without a strong network, it’s hard to know what opportunities are available or to get second chances when you need them. This means people outside the traditional networks of power can’t get ahead, even if they prove their merit.

A 2017 New York Times analysis showed that, despite affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are even more underrepresented at the nation’s top universities and colleges than they were in 1980. This is largely due to financial and network barriers.

These barriers also explain how the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in computer science went from 37% to 18% from 1984 to 2008. Although computer science had been a relatively diverse field, the pattern of what a “successful” programmer looked like (introverted, reclusive, and male) was set in 1984. Afterward, powerful networks reinforced that stereotype, excluding many qualified women from computer science in the process.

People who struggle with financial and network barriers often have to cope with choices that have negative long-term consequences, like taking on student debt, or enrolling in for-profit graduate programs that don’t deliver on their promises.

The promise of online education is that it can remove these barriers. Online education can be quite cheap (relative to in-person education) since it’s delivered in a more scalable way. And theoretically, online education shouldn’t have network barriers, since the material is available to anyone.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Many edtech companies are founded, led, and invested in by people who look and think the same way. This leads to products that quickly become exclusive and inaccessible, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

Venture capital investment often pushes companies to prioritize fast growth over providing value to all students. Examples of this include spending only 19% of their budget on education programs, like 2U does, and hiring from pre-existing networks that look the same, like many edtech companies do.

At Dataquest, we want to offer something different; something that can open up opportunities.

I know firsthand that learning data science can be an escape from bureaucratic and manual labor — it can be a ticket to freedom. That’s why the mission of Dataquest has never been to make as much money as possible. Instead, it’s always been to teach as effectively as possible.

As a result, we take our values seriously at Dataquest. Some of our core teaching and company values are:

  • A self-reliant business. This means that our revenue comes from teaching, not from investors. Our incentives are always aligned with students.

  • In-depth courses. It’s easy to teach syntax without creating in-depth understanding, but that’s a disservice to students; it doesn’t help you translate your skills into the real world.

  • Affordable learning. We’ve tried to make our price points ($29 a month or $49 a month) as affordable to a wide audience as possible, and we have upcoming programs that will improve this even further.

  • A commitment to hiring our students. One third of our team is former Dataquest students, and we love to work with the people who understand the needs of aspiring data scientists most strongly.

  • A fully remote company. We teach all over the world, and we want our team to reflect that diversity.

  • A diverse team. The attitudes of a team are often reflected in the products they build together, and diversity on a team at an online education company means that the product becomes more inclusive and diverse over time as well. Without team diversity, the products quickly become exclusive, and are no longer about closing the opportunity gap.

Diversity, in particular, is a value that’s critical in an exclusive field like programming. We have hundreds of thousands of students around the world, and the more diverse we become, the better we’ll be able to serve them. I’m proud of how far we’ve come in the past 2 years in embracing diversity and inclusion; both in our product and on our team.

We’ve worked hard to make our hiring process and our leadership criteria more inclusive. Out of a team of 24, 11 of us identify as men, 12 of us identify as women, and one of us identifies as non-binary. Close to half of our team is made up of people of color. Half of our leadership team consists of women.

We’ve also taken other steps, such as:

  • Prioritizing open conversations about diversity and inclusion, including a regular company-wide meeting on how we can do better for our students and team members.

  • Adjusting our company policies to be more open and less U.S.-centric, doing things like switching from a U.S. calendar to offering “floating” holidays with flexible PTO.

  • Starting to improve the Dataquest experience for non-native English speakers, who make up 60% of our students. We’re making our writing style more direct and engaging to avoid confusion, and trying to use data sets in our teaching that more applicable to a wider audience of students, rather than using U.S.-centric examples.

  • Soliciting and featuring student stories from groups that are underrepresented in data science.

There’s still progress to be made, and we’ll continue to improve in the years to come. We’ll reach millions of students in that time, and work with hundreds of colleagues, and it’s important that we make the right kind of impact on them.

Here ‘s what we’ll work on over the next year:

  • Continuing to provide opportunities for people of different backgrounds to grow as leaders in Dataquest and join our leadership team. In particular, we’d like to make progress in including more people of color on our leadership team.

  • Continuing to foster a culture that is respectful and tolerant.

  • Increasing mentorship and coaching opportunities around diversity and inclusion within our team.

  • Increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups that go through the Dataquest curriculum and succeed. This involves everything from where we market our courses to the audiences we tailor our content to.

  • Making our courses even more friendly to non-U.S. audiences.

To me, inclusion is one of the major promises of online education, and I hope Dataquest can help take a step in that direction. There are millions of people worldwide who are capable of amazing things, but face barriers that feel insurmountable. Education done right is a powerful way to level the playing field.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please reach out to me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you (especially if you have an idea for how we can do better).

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