Online education avoids the ‘hidden curriculum’ of cultural expectations


Several years ago, one of us wrote an anonymous article on the dangers of anonymity in online education. Since working together on a new educational platform called Outlier.org, the error in his manners has become obvious to him.

Despite all its risky anonymity, online education usefully reduces many signals of class and status. The online world is more multifaceted than physical spaces; many signals of difference, such as dress, hairstyle, accent or eating habits, cannot be causes of exclusion and alienation because they are not (unintentionally) presented. Even in the “Zoom classroom”, students have more control over their self-presentation and interaction.

Of course, not all difference signals are blocked. The use of words in discussion forums can be a source of alienation, for example. But the signals are less numerous and their character is perhaps more pedagogically relevant. Word choice, for example, is relevant when writing an essay, while a faux hawk haircut is not.

Rachel Gable shows in her recent book, The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Former Universities, how first-generation students face a steeper academic climb than their campus peers. Gable, who is Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, details the “hidden curriculum,” a complex set of social and cultural expectations that are reflexive for those in the mainstream culture but that the cohorts of first generation must learn quickly in addition to their official learning goals, the manifesto curriculum. The first few months, if not years, of campus life are notoriously disorienting, sometimes in positive and uplifting ways; but this disorientation can be deeper for first-generation students – and damaging.

The mantra “Maslow before flowering” comes to mind. That is to say, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should be prioritized above before Bloom’s taxonomy standard learning objectives. Campus life poses considerable challenges for students in relation to the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy: physiological needs. Where do I eat? How can I afford accommodation? Am I eligible for this housing program?

Even cleaning poses challenges. Where to wash my clothes? Are the showers private enough? And, of course, roommates, fraternal or sisterhood organizations and other elements of extracurricular life pose risks to her as well. At worst, these risks include violence, sexual or otherwise. According to the National Rape, Abuse and Incest Network, 26.4 percent of undergraduate women and 6.8 percent of men “have experienced rape or sexual assault by physical force, violence or abuse. ‘incapacity’. In addition, 23.1% of “TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming) students have been sexually assaulted”.

For every social benefit of campus living, there is likely a correlated social cost, as any economics professor can devilishly point out. The assumption that after Covid every student is eager to be back ‘on campus’, to learn in an intimate seminar environment, may belittle an elitist mindset that everyone should be equally comfortable being face to face. This mindset is wrong. For a number of social and political reasons, students today do not enter their physical classrooms on an equal footing.

Campus life, regardless of online trends, needs continuous reform. Again, we need Maslow before Bloom does. It is vital that we help students with the hidden agenda, rather than encourage them to hide from it, yet as the popular warning says, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We must not let a vision of a perfect, socially level campus life prevent us from seeing the immediate cures of online education.

Indeed, reformers who elevate such a vision may perpetuate the stigma that online education is second-rate and second-class, thus preventing students who are best served by these more affordable and arguably online courses fairer, to register. We should send a better message to those who sign up for online courses and thrive in that format.

And here’s one final controversial thought: Maybe students who would have historically attended elite universities in person would do well to take a few anonymous online courses – just to have a real sense of equality in a classroom.

We hold that online education is a complement to on-campus education, not a substitute. The two modes benefit from a mutualism where the correlated cost of each is attenuated by the benefits of the complementary mode. Simply put, friendship is superior to hostility.

We both know the sometimes derailing pains of campus life, having endured them in our own hectic campus lives. But it’s probably a lot worse for others: we’re both white males in a society that still gives us the benefit of the doubt. Fortunately, given this online format, we do not have to disclose any other personal information unless we choose to do so. And to some extent – to an extent that we ourselves determine – we like that anonymity.

Jonathan van Belle is editor and content expert at Outlier.org. John Kaag is president and professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, an instructor for the introduction of aberrant philosophy courses and a thexternal professor at the Santa Fe Institute.


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