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November 26, 2017

Senior lecturer Dan Levy teaches statistics at the Harvard Kennedy School. (Photo credit: Martha Stewart)

On college campuses across the country, there has been a lot of talk about creating spaces where everyone feels comfortable enough to contribute. Now, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School is taking action, using cloud technology and data inside his classroom. And other professors are following his lead.

There's still a full hour before class begins, but public policy professor Dan Levy and his teaching assistant were pouring over participation data, deciding well in advance who he will call on during class.

"I think you have an opportunity to call on Neetisha if you want to,” his assistant said.

“Oh, ok. Then let's do that then,” Levy agreed.

Last year, after his former teaching assistant tracked every single comment, Levy noticed that although women made up 45 percent of his students, they made only 36 percent of all comments in class. That's almost a 10 point gender gap.

Levy says he was shocked to see such a large gap.

“I just thought I didn't have any gap,” Levy said. “I thought people raise their hand and I called and I tried to balance so that it's not always the same people participating."

Levy said the gender gap in class participation arises, at least in part, because there's a gender gap in who volunteers to speak up.

"The playing field is already one in which unless I take deliberate action to compensate, the gender gap in class participation will just be reflecting the gender gap in who raises their hands," Levy explained.

So this semester Levy has been deliberately trying to close that gap by using new software that his former teaching assistant Karti Subramanian designed.

"We started chatting,” Subramanian recalled. “He was telling me about data, and I told him I started a tech company to help people get off of Excel and into cloud-based software to actually make use of data and his eyes lit up and he was like, 'Oh my God! Can we do something together?’"

What Levy and Subramanian came up with is Teach.ly, a cloud-based software that tracks how frequently – or infrequently – all 70 of Levy's students join class discussions.

Inside Levy's office, charts projected on a flat-screen show his students' gender and nationality, ranking them by who has participated the least. A quick glance at the charts showed the bottom five were women.

Levy said this system is just one tool faculty can adopt to create a classroom environment where more students feel welcome to chime in and professors can level the playing field.

"It's hard to be on a college campus today without being invited or nudged or strongly encouraged to attend some talk about how can we improve diversity and inclusion on campus,” Levy said. “And while I think the goal is very worthwhile, I think we often just talk and talk and talk."

Standing in front of his statistics class, Levy delivered a brief lecture and then – just as he had planned – he called on Neetisha Besra, who was sitting way back in the hall.

"Neetisha! I'm so glad that you raised your voice here," Levy said as he projected her written analysis on the white board.

After class, Besra, a self-described introvert, told me Levy's tracking system has emboldened her to speak up.

"I think in this class I don't really have to think about me participating because I'm a woman, but me participating because I know something," Besra said.

Back in his office after class, Levy reviewed the data to see whether he had managed to further close the gender participation gap. His teaching assistant flashed the latest results on screen. The gap had fallen to three percentage points.

"Whoa! Look at this!” Levy shouted, clapping his hands.

So far, Levy has convinced eight other professors at the Kennedy School to use this new software in 13 classes with more than three hundred students.

He hopes faculty at other schools will soon adopt it too.

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