More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete

Next Debate Previous Debate
Online398x239 Illustration by Thomas James

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is the college of the future online? With the popularity of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the availability of online degree programs at a fraction of their on-campus price, we are experiencing an exciting experiment in higher education. Does the traditional classroom stand a chance? Will online education be the great equalizer, or is a campus-based college experience still necessary?

Brought to you in partnership with the Richard Paul Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy, a joint venture of Columbia Business School and Columbia Law School.  The Richman Center fosters dialogue and debate on emerging policy questions where business and markets intersect with the law. More Information.

  • Agarwal90


    Anant Agarwal

    CEO, edX & Professor, MIT

  • Nelson90


    Ben Nelson

    Founder and CEO, Minerva Project

  • Cole90


    Jonathan Cole

    Provost and Dean Emeritus, Columbia University

  • Schuman90


    Rebecca Schuman

    Columnist, Slate and Chronicle of Higher Education

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

See Results See Full Debate Video Purchase DVD

Read Transcript

Listen to the edited radio broadcast

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to the unedited radio broadcast

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Subscribe to the Podcast

For The Motion

Anant Agarwal

CEO, edX & Professor, MIT

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX, an online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT. He taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries. At MIT, he is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and has served as the director of CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Awarded MIT’s Smullin and Jamieson prizes for teaching, as well as the Maurice Wilkes prize for computer architecture, Agarwal was named in Forbes' list of top 15 education innovators in 2012, and his work on organic computing was selected by Scientific American as one of 10 World-Changing Ideas in 2011. He is also an author of the textbook Foundations of Analog and Digital Electronic Circuits. Agarwal is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.

Learn more


For The Motion

Ben Nelson

Founder and CEO, Minerva Project

Ben Nelson is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Minerva Project, a reinvented university experience for the brightest and most motivated students. Prior to Minerva, he spent more than 10 years at Snapfish, where he served as CEO from 2005 to June 2010. He began his tenure as CEO by leading Snapfish’s sale to Hewlett Packard for $300M. Previously, Nelson was president and CEO of Community Ventures, a network of locally branded portals for America’s communities. He holds a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with honors. It was at Penn that Nelson first realized his passion for reforming undergraduate education.

Learn more


Against The Motion

Jonathan Cole

Provost and Dean Emeritus, Columbia University

Jonathan R. Cole is John Mitchell Mason Professor at Columbia University, where he served as provost and dean of faculties (1989-2003) and vice president of arts and sciences (1987-1989). In recent years, his scholarly work and publications have addressed issues in higher education, particularly problems facing American research universities. His most recent book, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected (2011), has been translated into Chinese and Arabic. He recently co-edited the book, Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? (forthcoming). Cole is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the American Philosophical Society; the Council on Foreign Relations; and a Commendatore in the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy. He lectures throughout the world on topics related to higher education and continues to teach a variety of courses at Columbia.

Learn more


Against The Motion

Rebecca Schuman

Columnist, Slate and Chronicle of Higher Education

Rebecca Schuman, Ph.D. is a writer, speaker, adjunct professor, and activist on behalf of adjunct and contingent faculty in the United States. She is a columnist for Slate and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the author of the book Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. She holds a doctorate in German literature from the University of California-Irvine, is the author of several scholarly articles, and has received numerous academic grants and awards, including an American Council of Learned Societies/Mellon fellowship, and a Fulbright grant. She has been teaching literature, composition and German at the postsecondary level since 2002.

Learn more

Declared Winner: For The Motion

Online Voting

Voting Breakdown:

54% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (12% voted FOR twice, 39% voted AGAINST twice, 3% voted UNDECIDED twice). 46% changed their minds (7% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 1% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 14% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 6% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 13% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 5% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

About This Event

Event Photos

PrevNext Arrows
    PrevNext Arrows


    • Comment Link CS Wednesday, 09 April 2014 13:49 posted by CS

      The title of the debate poses a false dichotomy. Online education is, for the most part, a failure. Lecture halls are also, for the most part, failures. When online courses are compared to large lecture courses, they often don't differ much in what they accomplish. However, both are cheap.

      The alternative that is missing from the title, and far too often absent from higher education, is the seminar. That's what the high price of elite liberal arts colleges buys for its students. That's where learning, beyond mere memorization of fact, can occur. It is heartbreaking that our society isn't willing to pay to genuinely educate our young adults.

    • Comment Link Ray Sunday, 06 April 2014 14:40 posted by Ray

      I've done online, extension center, and on-campus work. I have a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree, and am working toward a second Master's degree. Online education is important and for some classes is better than attending a brick-and-mortar classroom. However, there are benefits to being in a live classroom that can't be duplicated. I would recommend anyone to do their general education classes online as they are just information anyway, but when you get into specialized classes especially at a graduate level, you would be better served by an in-class experience in most programs.

    • Comment Link KC Saturday, 05 April 2014 23:50 posted by KC

      I would like to compare this debate to a debate I used to have with my parent every year, until my mother passed away. Every year, they would insist on visiting me or me visiting them. "Why?" I would ask. It takes too much time, I hate commuting. It is costly to travel. We have all the technology we need to interact. There is the phone, skype, google hangout, facebook, and what not. There is really nothing we can't talk about or do in person we can't do over the internet. We may not be able to smell each other today but I am sure the MIT trained engineers are working on it.

      After the passing of my mother and the birth of my child, I started questioning how I would feel if my relationship with my son is all through a medium like the internet like I advocated. Will I still care about his well-being? Should I care about a person who only care about his own convenience? If I am getting paid to care, will I care? Will he be a better person if I cared or it does not matter either way. Should I care that he will be a better person? Am I thinking about this because my mother cared about me? Am I a good person?

    • Comment Link David W. Saturday, 05 April 2014 20:54 posted by David W.

      I have never seen a debate where one side spoke so eloquently and clearly and the other sounded so close minded and negative. Anant and Ben - thank you doing such an amazing job. Schuman turned this whole debate about her and how she knows shel'll lose her job (very self-interested perspective and totally missing the focus on the student). Cole was so negative and left such a bad taste in my mouth. Columbia students should be ashamed by his performance. The lecture hall is terrible. More clicks all the way.

    • Comment Link zscores Saturday, 05 April 2014 17:27 posted by zscores

      Personal contact with instructors is overrated - one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch. The current age demonstrates a Socialist education system a vis plank 10 communism: The Fed Dept of Education standardization and bastardization of the correct political viewpoint like in the "Common Core" Communist rewrites; the Teachers Union(s) rewarding bad behavior and mediocrity; a general abdication of the lessons from history teaching instant gratification and "sensation" is knowledge; and rejection of unalienable rights, Laws of Nature, self evident truths, and Virtue - as described by Montesquieu (The Spirit of the Law). Unless the Communists in Power give away the Internet, students may always have the opportunity to "Trust but Verify". Perhaps a more salient discussion can be meted from discussion of "IQ versus EQ". Today we see low IQ "teachers" directing and repressing a high EQ Citizenry who are catching up online ....

    • Comment Link Edna Browne Saturday, 05 April 2014 13:15 posted by Edna Browne

      The regular class room education will continue to be in use because many of us do not understand much technology and also don' have that much college education to do online classes. there are also people in the third world countries that do not have the opportunities to the computer world.

    • Comment Link Yoni Friday, 04 April 2014 18:33 posted by Yoni

      Response to Kathryn.
      An implementation of many is that in the future we may have some programs fully available online and then institution that just teach say, physical sciences.
      In the institution, you may get your general education courses online.
      I am sure certain studies will greatly be enhanced by going digital. Others with a mix of online and in class. Then others all out in class.
      The ones in class may be similar just as going to a welding school where you need the hands-on experience; it being 100% necessary.
      I think there is no going back on the movement of MOOCs. They are going to change the current educational system some how and our job is to support the details that will benefit everyone; individuals with certain interests.
      God bless everyone.

    • Comment Link AgileBill Krebs Friday, 04 April 2014 02:31 posted by AgileBill Krebs

      I agree with all four debaters, so I want to rate this a tie, except I enjoyed the talk so much online, without having to drive to Columbia or sit at the back of that big hall.

      Data. Have we proven it? No. online seems great, but will need time to gather metrics.

      Contact. Energy. I think the brick team assumes we are using videos online. They are right that videos are not engaging enough. But we can watch each other's faces in Google Hangouts or Sococo while we collaborate on a poem, or read our work to our peers. I can create a spatial venue in a virtual world and walk around the data, and even program the data points so I can interact with them - as a small group of learners. This has been done as you can see in Joel and John's videos in my URL. But it's too new to have proven data (I agree w/ Dr. Cole on that)

      We can teach poorly in both online and in physical classrooms. Evolving technology lets us try new ways - some will work, and some won't.

      But watching this debate online sure worked for me! :-) (your comments helped too!) (would be even better if I got experience points for it and leveled up). --- I wish you happy learning in either or both media!

    • Comment Link Angela Thursday, 03 April 2014 20:32 posted by Angela

      I agree with Kathryn 100%. I am a graduate student and an adjunct professor. I have been teaching physical and online classes for my fifth academic term and find a big difference in both the student and professor experience.
      Since students do not know me as a person, I have found that they are far less kind, and far more demanding than those I teach in class. The students in the online course are also more likely to lack important academic skills.
      I think online courses are a great tool and complement to the regular academic experience, but to allow students to complete degrees completely online simply encourages introverted and cut-off lifestyles that are already pervasive partly due to our dependance and addiction to technology.

    • Comment Link Jackson Thursday, 03 April 2014 07:04 posted by Jackson

      Balance is the key. But, as a father of three college age kids, one still in college, one graduated and evaluating graduate programs and one in medical school I can say this. My med student son cannot wait for the 80% classroom attendance requirement to be met so he can finish his lecture classes on-line. The lecture halls with 80-100 people, clicking pens, tapping feet and other nervous ticks are a big distraction. Not to mention, many instructors are not native english speakers which can require a 'replay' or 'pause to understand what was said' at any time. As terms or concepts are introduced that may not be clearly understood, the lecture can be paused, a personal breakout session to research the topic can take place, therefore adding value to the remainder of the lecture that builds on itself.

      And a topic for another debate, why if the college I am paying for claims its 14 football national championships generate big revenue to the school, why has the tuition, fees and housing gone up every year? Where does that money go?

    • Comment Link kriya Wednesday, 02 April 2014 22:58 posted by kriya

      Awesome debate. Online schools are here to stay and are working perfectly. The higher the quality of online the lesser the drop out.

    • Comment Link Wale Wednesday, 02 April 2014 21:44 posted by Wale

      Trust me! Online learning is obviosly important in this modern society. It offers a lot of flexibility particularly , the working class who needs to undergo some courses for career advancement. This is what I called 'learning at ease'. Of course there are certain arears and professions that are pracical oriented. I will recommend practical placement, Intenship, and work experience to be part of eLearning program!!

    • Comment Link BNill Lipkin Wednesday, 02 April 2014 06:43 posted by BNill Lipkin

      Yes, face to face is the best instruction method but properly supervised on-line courses also serve a purpose for many students who can not get to campus and can benefit from Distance Education for some, not all, of their courses.

    • Comment Link Marissa Louie Tuesday, 01 April 2014 17:50 posted by Marissa Louie

      I support MOOCs.

      Although MOOCs currently suffer from low course completion rates, sometimes as low as 1-5% completion according to some studies, there are success stories too:

      A former coworker of mine went from being an analytics analyst to a Machine Learning engineer by taking just one course: the Intro to Machine Learning Course by Andrew Ng of Coursera. The course material is high quality and on par with what is offered at Stanford University, but at zero cost to the student.

      Further, the technology entrepreneurship MOOC course that I have been a mentor for enjoys a 45-65% course completion rate. Chuck Eesley of NovoEd has used some really innovative techniques such as group learning and pairing students with mentors to achieve this:

      In essence, we can help level the playing field and make education accessible to students of all skill levels by offering high quality courses online. This will particularly help students in low income areas and third world countries.

      As the online education industry advances, I expect the student engagement level to increase dramatically. The current setbacks are due to the fact that the current MOOC platforms aren't doing a great job at understanding student needs yet. It will take more than a few years to disrupt the old industry of education. But once that happens, education will become democratized and our potential for innovation as a human race will increase dramatically.

    • Comment Link Mark Krebs Thursday, 27 March 2014 09:29 posted by Mark Krebs

      Let's cast aside the technology of the question, accept the imminent ubiquity of good video conferencing, and ask instead if interactive, realtime lecturing is needed. Salman Kahn is a better math teacher than I, but he cannot react to a question with a targeted response as an avatar. Maybe that will shortly be overcome: my daughter's physics homework offers a hint when she misses an answer. Can offering the *right* hint based on the nature of the error be far behind? As a part time prof, I will lament the loss of the lecture hall, but I think we will soon deliver most (not all) of the content and quality at a tiny fraction of the cost. I will watch eagerly for any defensible alternate position, but doubt we'll hear one.

    • Comment Link Dave Tuesday, 25 March 2014 04:47 posted by Dave

      We spend far too much time in school. We spend far too much money on "education". Going to college has become more of a social experience than anything else. There are some advantages of going to an actual school but people learn when they study. It would be far more efficient to hire tutors for subjects that you need help with than it is to pay for years of college. It doesn't seem practical to substitute school for everything obviously but in terms of a general education, there is no reason to pay for that anymore. Look at the Ben Carson story. Going to class was a waste of his time. Bricks and mortar really have no purpose outside of technical learning. It will ultimately be up to business to decide how valuable a proper interview is. I get the feeling that as long as colleges continue to crank out woefully inadequate employees that business will begin to put more emphasis on the people rather than the credentials.

    • Comment Link Clifton McVea Sunday, 23 March 2014 20:23 posted by Clifton McVea

      All of this falls in line with the "technology separates us" question raised by those who fail to understand how fundamentally life will change.

      Information technology will only replace/alter academia regarding communications, not an actual academic environment that includes physical activity, tools, resources, and items not found at the residence.

      In the case of a building whose exclusive purpose is fitting a few hundred bodies within earshot, such things are no longer necessary.
      Turn them into opera houses if possible. I can understand getting up to listen in first person instead of trusting a microphone to effectively represent some vocal chords hard at work.

    • Comment Link Hilary fox Friday, 21 March 2014 07:09 posted by Hilary fox

      For those students that can't be present for whatever reason this is the solution,

    • Comment Link Jocelyn Torres Thursday, 20 March 2014 19:34 posted by Jocelyn Torres

      Ground colleges are not necessary with the technology we have today for students to interact with each other and the instructor. Only those who wish to continue the professor-student hierarchy are afraid of using the vast options available in today's elearning world, because it reduces the power and image of "the professor" as the only one with the knowledge. Students today can attend a lecture while sitting in the comfort of their own homes. Those who could not attend college before due to various constraints now have an equal opportunity to learn. It's time to let go of the ivory tower image of learning and take it back to what Socrates first imagined: discussions and dialog open to anyone who wanted to learn.

    • Comment Link Andrew Caudell Saturday, 15 March 2014 02:15 posted by Andrew Caudell

      As I see it, lecture halls could be said to be obsolete only on the grounds that you need not be physically present in said hall to hear and see the lecturer. You can watch live via teleconference or after the fact on YouTube. But at the end of that digital connection, there is still a physical person in a physical brick and mortar lecture hall giving the speech (or debate).

      So no, the lecture hall is not obsolete. I oppose the motion.

    Leave a comment

    Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.