Online education avoids the ‘hidden curriculum’ of cultural expectations

Campus-based education has its advantages but, for first-gen students, its digital complement can have more, say Jonathan van Belle and John Kaag

July 30, 2021
A woman in a crowd covers her face in shame
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Several years ago, one of us wrote an anonymous article about the dangers of anonymity in online education. Since working together on a new educational platform called, the error of his ways has become apparent to him.

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

Not all signals of difference are blocked, of course. Word use in chat rooms can be the source of alienation, for instance. But the signals are fewer and their character is perhaps more pedagogically relevant. Word choice, for example, is germane to essay writing, whereas a faux hawk haircut is not.

Rachel Gable shows in her recent book, The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Legacy Universities, just how first-generation students face a steeper college climb than their campus peers. Gable, who is director of institutional effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, details the “hidden curriculum”, a set of complicated social and cultural expectations that are reflexive for those in the dominant culture but that first-gen cohorts must quickly learn in addition to their official learning objectives, the overt curriculum. The first few months, even years, of campus life are notoriously disorienting, sometimes in a positive and exhilarating way; but that disorientation may be deeper for first-gen students – and detrimental.

The mantra “Maslow before Bloom” comes to mind. That is, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should be prioritised above before Bloom’s taxonomy of standard learning objectives. Campus life involves considerable difficulties for students with respect to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy: physiological needs. Where do I eat? How can I afford housing? Do I qualify for this housing programme?

Even cleaning poses challenges. Where do I wash my clothes? Are the showers private enough? And, of course, risks to one’s person are also posed by roommates, fraternal or sororal organisations, and other elements of extracurricular life. In the worst case, those risks include violence, sexual or otherwise. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 26.4 per cent of undergraduate females and 6.8 per cent of males “experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation”. Also, 23.1 per cent of “TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted”.

For every social benefit of campus life, there is likely a correlated social cost, as any economics professor may devilishly point out. The assumption that, post-Covid, every student is anxious to be back “on campus”, learning in an intimate seminar environment, may belie an elitist mindset that holds that everyone should be equally comfortable being face to face. This mindset is misguided. For any number of social and political reasons, today’s students don’t enter their physical classrooms on an equal footing.

Campus life, regardless of online trends, needs continued reform. Again, we need Maslow before Bloom. It is vital that we help students with the hidden curriculum, rather than encouraging them to hide from it, yet as the popular warning goes, we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We mustn’t let a vision of the perfect, socially levelled campus life prevent us seeing the immediate remedies of online education.

Indeed, reformers who elevate such a vision may be perpetuating the stigma that online education is second-rate and second-class, thus inhibiting those students who are better served by these more affordable and, arguably, more equitable online classes from enrolling. We ought to send a better message to those who do enrol in online courses and flourish in that format.

And here is a final controversial thought: perhaps students who might have historically gone to elite, in-person, universities might do well to take a few anonymous online classes – just to get a true feel of equality in a classroom setting.

We do hold that online education is a complement to campus education, not a substitute. Both modes profit from a mutualism where the correlated cost of each is mitigated by the benefits of the complementary mode. Put simply, friendship is superior to hostility.

We both know the sometimes derailing pains of campus life, having suffered them during our own up-and-down lives on campus. But it is probably much worse for others: we are both white males in a society that still gives us the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully, given this online format, we do not have to divulge any other personal details unless we opt to do so. And to a certain extent – an extent we ourselves determine – we like that anonymity.

Jonathan van Belle is editor and content expert at John Kaag is chair and professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, an instructor for Outlier’s introduction to philosophy course and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute

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