The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, we often hear. Considering the drive to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, that old trope can be updated: Privileged thinking does a nice job icing the pavement. In an extraordinarily short period of time, the pandemic shifted American education rapidly from the primarily face-to-face tradition to mostly online teaching. Perhaps that rapid transformation is why online education’s three main failures, each based on a lack of understanding of how human beings engage with each other in their world, became quickly apparent. These failures might cause students and parents to wonder why they are paying so much for so little practical engagement and results. At the same time, faculty members might struggle to believe they are providing adequate value and fulfilling their vocation.

Online education has proponents for several good reasons. It is an excellent option for people needing to complete a degree, earn graduate credits or take continuing education classes for their profession, yet who cannot attend in-person classes regularly. Perhaps they are working full-time jobs, reside too far away or face mobility issues. Or they might be older adults who do not want to be in a university environment but value life-long learning. If potential students have adequate technological resources and the required academic skills, they can design their educational experience to fit their lifestyle and needs. Given the reality of declining enrollments and the ability to live anywhere in the United States, because of extensive technology and connectivity, these people make up a potential student pool that many educational institutions should be recruiting.

Unnatural for Social Animals

Online teaching, however, fails to incorporate humanas- social-animal psychology. Tiny, evolutionary adaptations happened to our genetic material over enormous periods of time. Eventually these small alterations added up to significant modifications, including the development of a brain capable of rational belief, critical reasoning and imagination. Socially advantageous genetic patterns, such as automatically favoring kin, became part of how our brains function. As Homo sapiens, we are geared toward social interaction, although it is unclear how much of this is genetic and how much is learned.

Socialization is essential to human development. Human beings need an enormous amount of time compared to other species for their young to gestate, be delivered and then grow enough in physical and mental acuities to care for themselves. Sometimes, when sending our offspring to college, we are justifiably worried they are being pushed out of the nest too early. As we have seen in the last several economic downturns, we were right in our misgivings. Being in one’s 20s, 30s and beyond is no guarantee of independence, if the number of children in these generations returning to their parents’ homes is any indication.

Socialization not only keeps the young alive, it becomes part of who they are and how they function in their surroundings. Unless psychopathic or sociopathic, every human being is socialized into a family, peer group, community and country through active engagement with people around her. She figures out how to speak, think and interact by mimicking others until she can form her own beliefs, values and principles through critical reasoning. As an infant and adolescent, her brain’s neuropathways are stimulated and eventually become “hardwired” if activated sufficiently often. That is why languages should be taught at young ages when a child’s potential for learning with little effort is at its peak. Children’s early elasticity is lost around the pre-teen development stage, which explains why someone older struggles to learn a second language, even if proficient in her native tongue.

Human beings as social animals, thus, are better suited to in-person interactions in which their nature and nurture excels. This fact explains, in part, why MOOCs (Massively Open, Online Courses) failed. In 2008, George Siemens—a university professor, author and expert in cyber sciences and education— developed the first MOOC, with the stated intention to eliminate disparities and open education to new consumers around the world. There was even talk about how the developing world’s barriers to accessing the developed world’s educational system could be torn down through this learning platform. Unfortunately, MOOCs failed to deliver because they relied too much on an idealized version of how human minds are educated, rather than on how our brain circuitry actually functions.

Unnatural for Engaged Teaching

A further online barrier to effective learning is the difficulty many faculty members face in controlling a digital classroom in order to make it as productive as in-class teaching. As evolved social animals, our ancestors were winners in the competition game. They were a tiny bit better at reading their environment and then reacting pragmatically. Our ancestors scanned their surroundings using their relevant senses to evaluate the overall situation and look for anything out of place that would require greater attention than normal. They were sufficiently competent at figuring out when to fight, when to fly away, when to freeze in place and when to do nothing. Those who were a little slower on the uptake became a predator’s main course or suffered another debilitating fate.

This inherited skill of assessing environments is essential to teaching, as well. Businesspeople call this “reading the room.” In the classroom or lecture hall, teachers easily “see” the students as a whole picture and then identify individuals who are communicating as exceptions to the normal state of affairs. Confident students signal to instructors through raised hands or speaking outright, but most students make their message clear only through non-verbal body language, which can be very subtle. A lifted brow, eyes cast inquisitively, shifting feet, hands movements, puzzled noises tell teachers that students need direct engagement to determine the issue and provide the required response.

Instructors are often distracted by unwanted views of students’ living spaces, including messy bedrooms and inquisitive pets, especially cats that insist on walking between students and web cameras.

Additionally, many students blank out their screens so that instructors see only their names on the screen. Perhaps they just rolled out of bed, but the blank screens make teachers wonder if these students are paying attention or even there.

Even if all students are present on-screen, large numbers of students create a space problem. Computer screens provide a much smaller visual range than a classroom. The number of students determines how large each student’s image appears on the instructor’s screen. If there are only two students in the class—great for Oxford tutorials but a disaster for the student credit-hours needed by university bottom lines—then the images are quite large. As the number of students increase, each student’s image becomes smaller until instructors perceive a mosaic of very tiny heads. Even worse, some classes have such large enrollments that the entire class cannot be seen at once. Teachers must manually click through multiple screen pages to see all their students. Although the digital software automatically selects the student who is talking, many if not most students are offscreen and beyond the teacher’s attention.

Secondly, our brains do not process information the same way as a computer. Our minds must focus on one student’s image at a time to fully process the data in that image. Also, humans cannot perceive the whole class as adequately online as when they are in the classroom and can engage with attention-grabbing anomalies. In contrast, groupings of images on a computer screen cannot be processed into a coherent whole the way a group of people at a business meeting can be processed. To illustrate, try seeing the writing on this page on a screen while simultaneously looking at every object in front of the computer. You can either read what is written or pay attention to the larger visual range. Likewise, we can focus narrowly and pay attention to one student at a time, which means that the odds are we are not seeing other students needing help. Our peripheral vision cannot be used efficiently in two-dimensional cyberspace. Those odds mount as the number of images increases on the computer screen. The images start looking like tiny puzzle pieces, but they don’t come together to create a comprehensive tapestry.

  • Among special ed students who were previously writing at grade level, 43% are now writing below grade level.
  • Among low-income students who had performed math at grade level, 34% now perform below grade level.
  • Among Native students who were previously reading at grade level, 42% are now reading below grade level.

From “Student Achievement from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020,” K-12 students in North Dakota, Ellie Shockley, PhD, NDUS.

This situation is even worse when teaching face-to-face and online simultaneously, since the instructor then has two complex views to decipher at the same time. We have students in the classroom and the blurry jigsaw puzzle on the computer screen. One of the first questions is how should these two views be handled by the instructor, when it is difficult enough engaging in one?

Perhaps all these challenges to effective teaching explain why students rate face-to-face classes higher than their online twins with the same content and instructor.[1]Michael Marzano and Robert Allen, “Online vs. Face-to-Face Course Evaluations: Considerations for Administrators and Faculty,” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, v19 n4 (Win … Continue reading Moreover, the face-to-face and online experiential difference might account for the loss of motivation that a recent study of how remote learning affected student learning environments showed. There were 98 college students in the study who also reported an increased struggle to maintain grades (59 percent) and do the course work (85 percent).[2]Kori Fay, Lizzie Bannister, Eric Lanton, and Smith Dicken, “How Remote Learning Has Affected Students Learning Environment and Motivation Levels,” University of Colorado Boulder A&S Academic … Continue reading

Barriers to Equality

No doubt all decent people naturally desire that community members have a fair opportunity to thrive in their environment, especially those from historically disadvantaged groups. Online teaching, however, seems to be created by advantaged folks who discovered something that works well for them, but perhaps do not realize it is reinforcing social inequalities.

There is a particular type of student who excels with online dedication. He is self-motivated and already possesses the skills the class requires before he begins the first session. His interest in the class’ subject is high, and he is unlikely to have enrolled in it by mistake or because he thought it sort of sounded interesting when filling his schedule’s empty slots. He knows what he wants, why he wants it, and he can make what he wants to happen because he has connectivity, access, financial resources and academic skills already in place. This type of student also likely shares many characteristics with the people who program and promote online education.

Not all students are like the one described above. They are not as knowledgeable, driven or prepared. They are ready for college but not for online education and subject matter. Philosophy, for example, is perceived as a cool subject in which people dress in black sit in darkened rooms sipping coffee or absinthe, or appear on TED Talks, speaking about life’s meaning, instead of getting a productive job. In reality, philosophy is an extremely difficult subject focusing on the basis of reality, knowledge, morality, religion, society and logic itself. To learn philosophy requires a great deal of intellectual engagement with the course materials and lectures, which explain concepts and arguments that develop the discipline’s foundation. More work is demanded when the instructor sends students to think it out for themselves and then build their own value sets and principles and the arguments to justify them. Face-to-face engagements between faculty and students, either individually or in-class, facilitate student learning in ways that distance—that is, distant—education cannot.

Philosophy is not unique in this regard; the other academic disciplines and specialties have their own levels of difficulty. Unless the subject has been dumbed down in a class taught by a fraud, students work hard to receive passing grades and even harder to earn an ‘A.’ Students without the skills, background and drive needed to succeed with online classes can easily become overwhelmed and drop out. Additionally, different classes in the same institution sometimes require students to master several incompatible learning platforms, such as BlackBoard, Zoom, Slack and Discord. Moreover, there is no set way to deliver instruction: Some faculty use synchronous and live, others are asynchronous and recorded, and yet others combine all four. No wonder a 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics noted that as many as 33 percent of urban children are not participating in online classes.[3]Danielle G. Dooley, Asad Bandealy, and Megan M. Tschudy, “Low-income children and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the US,” Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics 174, no. … Continue reading Although all students exhibited decreased performance in online classes, those with the greatest declines were males, Blacks and those with lower levels of academic preparation.[4]Di Xu and Shanna Jaggars, “Performance gaps between online and face-to-face courses: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas,” Journal of Higher Education, 85, no. 5 … Continue reading Of course, some disadvantaged individuals belong to more than one of these groups.

As a result, online classes are geared toward the privileged and widen existing disparities. To benefit from such a learning environment, students must have a computer capable of Zoom meetings and performing online work, as well as WiFi or other easy connectivity to the learning platform. Although most disadvantaged students have access to those resources, many still do not. In May 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics stated that 20 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native children, from three to 18 years of age, as well as 10 percent of Black and Hispanic peers, do not have online access. In comparison, 4 percent of White and 2 percent of Asian children cannot get online.[5]National Center for Education Statistics, “Children’s Internet Access at Home,” asp. Accessed 11 November 2020. The quality of computer equipment is also unequal and reflects racial disparities: Approximately 10 percent of Black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaskan Native children can access the internet only through a smartphone, not a laptop or desktop computer. Only 2 percent of Asian and 3 percent of White children, usually from poorer families, do not have the computer equipment they needed for successful online education. This gap is one of the reasons that government institutions are pouring enormous resources into purchasing tablets and laptops for students.

If digital education continues at current levels, with the connectivity, equipment, motivation and skills barriers in place for poor or otherwise disadvantaged students, then unearned privilege will not only be reinforced but will widen and deepen. One study in 2017 showed that online classes reduced college success for disadvantaged students and lowered their grades in future courses, whether online or on campus.[6]Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb. “Promises and pitfalls of online education,” Evidence Speaks Reports 2, no. 15 (2017). Perhaps these students did not acquire the skills they needed from digital courses to be successful in subsequent classes.

There are also ripple effects for students and their communities. Simply put, getting better jobs requires better grades. The grade disparities between online and in-person teaching will worsen the longer disadvantaged students are availed no other options. Instead of the essential human connection between student and instructor that can bring disadvantaged students more help with personal connections and instruction, these students become remote, abstract images on the instructor’s computer screen. There is no opportunity to build the reciprocal empathetic relationship required for the most productive teaching, in which faculty work with students because they care about them, and students respond by learning because they know they are cared for. This claim is not mere ivory-tower speculation. Positive teacher-student relationships correlate highly with student scholastic engagement and achievement, as discovered in a meta-analysis of 99 relevant studies.[7]Debora L. Roorda, Helma M.Y. Koomen, Jantine L. Split, and Frans J. Ort, “The Influence of Affective Teacher-Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic … Continue reading That lack of social cosocial contact leaves students, who need help in taking advantage of opportunities or creating new ones, without the required resources to reach their potential.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics repeatedly tells us that earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees increases income significantly. This wealth advantage has long-term impacts on individual success and society’s flourishing. Lacking higher education often means not getting the best-paid jobs with the highest prestige, and therefore not being able to compete, collaborate and succeed as others can. If these tickets to a better life are guaranteed only to already advantaged individuals, then instead of working toward a more equitable society, we continue to entrench disadvantage and privilege in our communities. What is worse is making these disadvantaged groups more vulnerable by degrading their ability to compete and reducing meaningful opportunities. The feeling of being in a permanent underclass, because of forces outside one’s control, disrupts personal and family lives and other valuable relationships, and harms wellbeing and the feeling that one’s life has meaning. If such a feeling becomes endemic, then it leads to social unrest, as we have seen in recent protests across the United States and elsewhere.


Is digital education inherently a bad idea? Not really, it just needs to be redesigned to become more pragmatic and creative. Face-to-face classes are superior in many aspects, but they are not always needed or possible. For people who already have the drive, skills and interest in a subject—but are busy with other activities that do not permit them to attend an in-person, synchronous class—a digital education is ideal. It can also help with students distributed over vast geographic distances who cannot travel to an in-person class.

The practical key to making digital offerings effective is to keep these classes small enough that faculty members and students can see and engage with each other as social animals. If we can eventually replace the small screens and isolation with a simulated reality, such as the gaming equipment many use for less educative pursuits, then we might be able to overcome some of the alienation caused by not being able to socially interact in person in real time of online teaching.

Online classes are being enlisted as a prime way to deal with COVID, and especially given the prospect of more lockdowns, this will continue. Even so, we must not lose sight that they have considerable defects at present. Perhaps the best we can do is to create carefully designed education models with many components to address student needs and abilities with the end goal of helping individuals, communities and our society thrive as our founders envisioned, as articulated in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more Perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Dennis R. Cooley, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics and Director of the Northern Plains Ethics Institute at NDSU. His research areas include bioethics, environmental ethics, business ethics, and death and dying. Among his publications are five books, including Death’s Values and Obligations: A Pragmatic Framework in the International Library of Ethics, Law and New Medicine; and Technology, Transgenics, and a Practical Moral Code in the International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology series. Currently, Cooley serves as the editor of the International Library of Bioethics (Springer) and the Northern Plains Ethics Journal, which uniquely publishes scholar, community member and student writing, focusing on ethical and social issues affecting the Northern Plains and beyond.


1 Michael Marzano and Robert Allen, “Online vs. Face-to-Face Course Evaluations: Considerations for Administrators and Faculty,” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, v19 n4 (Win 2016). winter194/marzano_allen194.html. Accessed 11 November 2020.
2 Kori Fay, Lizzie Bannister, Eric Lanton, and Smith Dicken, “How Remote Learning Has Affected Students Learning Environment and Motivation Levels,” University of Colorado Boulder A&S Academic Advising Center: 2020/05/01/how-remote-learning-has-affected-studentslearning- environment-and-motivation-levels. Accessed 11 November 2020.
3 Danielle G. Dooley, Asad Bandealy, and Megan M. Tschudy, “Low-income children and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the US,” Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics 174, no. 10 (2020): 922-923.
4 Di Xu and Shanna Jaggars, “Performance gaps between online and face-to-face courses: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas,” Journal of Higher Education, 85, no. 5 (2014): 633-659.
5 National Center for Education Statistics, “Children’s Internet Access at Home,” asp. Accessed 11 November 2020.
6 Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb. “Promises and pitfalls of online education,” Evidence Speaks Reports 2, no. 15 (2017).
7 Debora L. Roorda, Helma M.Y. Koomen, Jantine L. Split, and Frans J. Ort, “The Influence of Affective Teacher-Student Relationships on Students’ School Engagement and Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Approach,” Review of Educational Research 81(4)(2011): 493-529.