TDL Brief: Is Online Learning Here to Stay?

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Dec 01, 2020

Back in April 2020, thousands of schools across the world closed down in hopes of preventing the further spread of COVID-19. Students suddenly found themselves without in-person learning. Their teachers, meanwhile, were rushing to adapt to the novel challenges of teaching virtually – in most instances, over Zoom. 

While online learning was previously stigmatized for being less valuable than in-person education, for many people, online learning is now the only option. Education is one of the industries that has had to change most drastically in order to adjust to the ‘new normal’. 

When doors re-opened, some schools gave students the option of returning to the classroom or continuing to learn online, which raised a new set of questions: are children learning as much from home? Will students suffer from Zoom exhaustion if they continue online learning? Should we be paying the same tuition if learning is happening online?

For post-secondary education, a different set of problems emerged, as most colleges and universities still have very limited in-person learning. Many students have moved back home and because of time-difference find themselves staying up all night to attend their virtual classrooms. Online learning has also led to various security concerns. Some professors want to record their lectures for those students who can’t make synchronous sessions, but that might come at the cost of privacy. Globally, there has also been an increase in cyberattacks against universities. These various issues have meant that online learning has been inconsistent and difficult to adapt to because of humans’ aversion to ambiguity and change. For example, the ambiguity effect suggests that we tend to avoid options that are ambiguous, which could cause many students to check out of online learning. 

And it looks like we aren’t out of the woods yet. With many countries experiencing a second wave of COVID-19, there are concerns that schools will shut down again, at the very least for an extended Christmas holiday. More time away from physical classrooms will continue to diminish the social interaction that greatly contributes to learning and continue to challenge teachers to find ways to maintain their students’ engagement without a feedback loop. Educational institutions may have to continue relying on third-party providers that are already conducive to online learning, a limited field that may cause a bad-choice environment. Using external resources can also bring into question the safety and privacy of students, which may be at a greater risk online than offline. With these hardships in mind, it is important to understand how online learning is affecting education. 

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1. Online Learning makes Engagement and Communication More Difficult

By: New York Times, What We’re Learning About Online Learning (June 2020)

The pandemic seemed to take over our lives almost overnight. Schools were suddenly forced shut with very little time to prepare for the transition online – sometimes it was only a matter of days. Uncertainty became a buzzword for the widespread anxiety that stemmed from a lack of a predictable future. Scrambling to find ways to ensure their students were going to be able to continue their education, teachers tried to plan lessons that would still be engaging and informative. However, the baseline of good communication that underwrites good teaching is much harder to achieve online. Some tech-savvy teachers have been able to find creative and innovative ways to conduct their virtual classroom, while others have found themselves lost. This threatens the education system as children find it harder to stay engaged and teachers struggle to convey information in a captivating way. As schools are supposed to help prepare children to be able to continue to move up in the world, online learning may cause challenges down the road for people who are impacted by the pandemic. 

One of the challenges that educators have always fought against is humans’ tendency to procrastinate. We have a tendency to give much greater weight to payoffs that are closer in time to us.2 That means that we are distracted by fun activities, such as watching Netflix, that will give us immediate pleasure, instead of paying attention in class which will only be beneficial for us later down the road. While in a physical classroom, teachers can limit the amount of distractions that can cause students to procrastinate, when learning shifts online, this is made much more difficult. The very device that students now must use to learn also includes a realm of possible distractions: browsing the internet, messaging friends, checking social media. 

Another reason that online learning may be less effective than in-person teaching is that teachers are finding it hard to capture how their lessons are being received, which means they lack a feedback loop. The social cues that inform student-teacher relationships are different, or even completely absent, in an online context. It is much harder to see whether people are listening, or to talk to students one-on-one through an online platform. Similarly, students might not receive as much feedback to know whether or not they are on the right track. While in a physical classroom, a teacher can walk around the classroom and assess whether a student needs help, it might be much more difficult for them to notice when a student is struggling. As a result, students may not know if they are comprehending the lesson. 

With such little experience with mass online learning, how can we know which practices are best? The trial-and-error method may be the only option we have, which means it might take us a while before we ensure that education overcomes the challenges which stem from the way we interact with one another, which are overturned in this unexpected societal challenge. 

2. Online Learning Opens Eyes to Unethical Content

By ABC News, Parents: Online Learning Has Racist, Sexist Content (Oct 2020)

Before online learning, most parents got little insight into the day-to-day content that their children were being exposed to. For the most part, they heard about their children’s education in-depth at parent-teacher conferences, other than little snip bits that their children might tell them themselves. Even though I remember my father asking me “What did you learn today that you didn’t learn yesterday?”,  I also remember that I gave very short answers that gave him little insight into what I really experienced.

Now, however, when children are learning from home, parents are more likely to know what their children are actually learning. This is in part because they might hear part of the classroom discussion, but also because parents had to take on the burden of helping their children navigate online learning. With this extra vetting comes extra concern: many parents are now realizing that their children are sometimes exposed to racist and sexist material. 

Teachers aren’t necessarily the perpetrators of unethical content. As humans, we have a tendency towards the status quo, which means that educators will often reuse the same resources again and again when making choices about the curriculum, instead of choosing material that is most appropriate for students.4 Educators may not pay attention to the specific content that is in textbooks because they trust the publishers due to a long-standing relationship with them. These issues may not have come to light before because what happened in the classroom went mostly unknown to parents, but online learning has shifted the domain to a more public setting. 

Additionally, many schools have turned to third-party programs to supplement learning. Since the transition to online learning was so sudden, the schools might not have the time to evaluate the content before kids are exposed to it. What this evidence shows is the bad choice environment that exists for determining instructional materials.4 Without time to properly decipher what kind of curriculum, or what providers of curriculum, are of high quality, institutions are left making suboptimal decisions for meeting their students’ needs. Parents may have a better grasp on the needs of their children, causing them to quickly pick up on unsuitable content. Racist content is not always noticeable to young students (although they are still internalizing it), but some parents have quickly noticed that some of the information their kids are learning is inaccurate, like mispronounced ethnic names, or that they are seeing degrading stereotypical representations of particular races. 

Perhaps one benefit that will come out of online learning is the ability for parents to intervene when they realize their children are being exposed to racist and sexist content. If enough begin to complain, we might be able to see real change to improve the curriculum. 

3. Zoom Fatigue

By Harvard Business Review, How To Combat Zoom Fatigue (April 2020)

A new term that we’re seeing pop up with relation to online learning is ‘zoom fatigue’, with Google searches of the term increasing since March. In order to try and replicate the in-person environment, students are often asked to have their cameras turned on. However, in classrooms, we don’t usually find ourselves having to stare at 30 different faces for hours (including our own). This can lead to an incredibly stressful experience, and some research has shown that when we don’t feel relaxed, information sharing between peers droop, which can hinder our overall learning experience. Online learning limits our social interaction, diminishing the ability for children to develop their social skills which are also an essential part of education. 

When we learn online, we find ourselves spending a lot of energy trying to just remain engaged. In-person, we can often rely on our peers to whisper to us what we just missed or we can quickly put our hand up and ask the teacher to clarify what they just said.  When it comes to Zoom, these little asides would feel like distractions because the whole class is able to see them. Chit chat is less likely to occur when you aren’t feeling relaxed or supported, and this also contributes to the lack of information sharing.6 So instead, we sit in front of our computer screen, staring at our own face at the video to check if we look like we’re paying attention. The ‘constant gaze’ is exhausting and incredibly unusual – it is almost as if you were looking into the mirror for hours on end. When the only way to show engagement is through our eyes, little glances out the window or to other parts of your room make you feel guilty. 

Research has also shown that emotions play a great role in our ability to learn and memorize information. When we feel fatigued, frustrated, or bored, emotions which may be heightened in online learning, contribute to a diminished sense of self-motivation and satisfaction which hinders our academic achievement.7

Engagement is not only difficult because we lack the ability to communicate through our body language – it is also much harder not to get distracted. The medium through which we are learning is the same medium that has online shopping, our emails, Netflix, and social media sites. Since our teachers aren’t there to tell us to put our phone away, it becomes very difficult to have the self-discipline not to go check a couple of websites. Moreover, because we now learn on the same platform that we do everything else, it becomes a lot harder to shift our mindset into one that is ready to learn. Other distractions can also make it harder for us to be engaged: parents coming in to ask us a question, our roommate blaring music, or the noise of construction happening nearby. 

There’s almost no way around it – looking at a screen all day is also going to contribute to exhaustion. When our learning environment is the same as our relaxing environment, both our education and our ability to switch off and rest are going to be hindered. 

4. Security Concerns Behind Online Learning

By Government Technology, Online Learning Still Struggles – Especially With Security (Sep 2020)

While cyberattacks are not a new phenomenon, they weren’t often linked to educational institutions, at least not on a mass scale. Institutions now not only have to concern themselves with how to best ensure their students are still learning online but also have to spend time, effort, and money trying to ward off attacks. 

You might have heard of “Zoom bombers”, pranksters who hack into virtual classrooms usually with the intention of disrupting the lesson. This wastes time, is distracting and it can be unsettling; sometimes, graphic videos are used in the ‘attack’. The cyberattacks can derail an entire day of learning by hacking into the platforms used to deliver content and causing a denial-of-service. It is hard enough for teachers to try and keep their students engaged through online learning and these disruptions definitely aren’t helping. 

Unfortunately, classroom disruption is actually lower down on the list of concerns when it comes to the threats that cyberattacks pose. Institutions have a responsibility to protect their students’ privacy, but this is incredibly hard to do online. The number of cyberattacks has steadily increased since we moved to online learning, especially when it comes to universities. Universities have masses of sensitive and confidential information stored on their servers that is now being hacked, with threats if institutions don’t fork up thousands of dollars. For example, the University of Utah paid over $450,000 in a ransomware attack. While educational institutions often ensure that data is safe with anti-virus software and encryption technology, hackers are now able to come at the school through students who do not have the same preventative measures installed on their phones and laptops. 

This issue brings to light a debate that continues to emerge with regards to technological advances: is there a trade-off between privacy and technology? (TDL) Must we in part give up security in order to reap the benefits of online learning? 

Much like many of the problems that have surfaced as a result of the overnight transition to online learning, one of the reasons that cyberattacks are so frequent is because regulations are not yet in place. Information about preventative measures is not being transmitted to institutions to ensure they are doing everything they can to protect their students. Fortunately, companies, schools and the government are beginning to work together in order to develop national cybersecurity learning standards to fill the gap.

5. How might the financial economy impact online learning?

By Teach Online, What is Next For Online Learning During and After COVID-19? (April 2020)

Even as restrictions begin to be lifted and the world tries to work its way back to ‘normal’, with it looking like the world is heading towards a recession, even when a vaccine for the virus is available, schools might not be able to return to in-person learning. 

For one, families might not be able to afford to send their children to post-secondary institutions if they lost their jobs during the pandemic. Although during recessions, people usually turn to education, university costs thousands of dollars yearly and people may not have that disposable income available right now. Most institutions barely reduced their tuition prices even when they transitioned to online learning, giving no relief to the millions of people whose financial status were negatively impacted due to the shutdowns caused by COVID-19. Specifically, enrollment of international students is likely to fall, with international tuition usually a considerable amount higher than domestic or in-state tuition. While domestic students can often take advantage of loans and bursaries, or can work part-time during their education, the same opportunities are not available for international students. 

The pandemic also saw governments giving out stimulus packages to their citizens. Although this relief was of dire need, it also means that most governments now find themselves in a devastating amount of debt. Public schools are funded through the government and there may be less funding available over the next few years, which will change the structure of education. While previously, education was a supplier-driven market, based on the notion that if a course was offered, people would enroll in it, we might now see education become a demand-driven market.  With limited funding available, governments might have to make difficult decisions on what kind of classes can be offered right now. 

The kind of content that is being demanded is also likely to change. During the pandemic, many industries have taken a huge hit, while other businesses were able to smoothly transition to a world that, for the most part, happens virtually. We might see less demand for courses that help students get jobs in the hospitality, airline or restaurant sector and instead see the desire for courses that will help people land digitally based jobs. 

What is clear is that even if we get to a stage where the health concerns of COVID-19 no longer impact the ability for schools to have in-person learning, the financial mess than the virus will leave behind is sure to change the landscape for a number of years. It will be hard to predict exactly what kind of economic activity will exist after the pandemic, which means that we might need to turn to behavioral economics to better inform us how people are actually acting, instead of models that are predicated on the belief that consumers are perfectly rational beings.


  1. Carey B. (2020, June 13). What We’re Learning About Online Learning. The New York Times.
  2. Hugill, J. (2020, October 7). Precommitment and procrastination: Behavioral tools for students. The Decision Lab.
  3. Kelleher, J. S. (2020, October 5). Parents: Online learning program has racist, sexist content. ABC News.
  4. Rae, J., Collett, N., & Montenegro, M. (2020, November 15). How Might Behavioral Science Transform Education? The Decision Lab.
  5. Fosslien, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2020, April 29). How to Combat Zoom Fatigue. Harvard Business Review.
  6. Pettigrew, K. E. (1999). Waiting for chiropody: Contextual results from an ethnographic study of the information behaviour among attendees at community clinics. Information Processing & Management35(6), 801-817.
  7. Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in Psychology8
  8. Lohrmann, D. (2020, September 19). Online Learning Still Struggles – Especially With Security. Government Technology.
  9. Teach Online. (2020, April 30). What Is Next for Online Learning During and After COVID-19?

About the Author

The Decision Lab

The Decision Lab

The Decision Lab is a Canadian think-tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science through research and analysis. We apply behavioral science to create social good in the public and private sectors.

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