More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete

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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?

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  • 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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    • Comment Link Peter Lu Tuesday, 16 September 2014 20:47 posted by Peter Lu

      It was highly uncomfortable listening to Rebecca Schuman express her insecurities about her professional worth. She made the debate far more personal than it needed to be.

    • Comment Link Cassandra Monday, 18 August 2014 09:08 posted by Cassandra

      I think the affirmative side did an excellent job demonstrating that online learning is useful and has a lot of potential. They also did an excellent job demonstrating that the university system is flawed. However, I do not think they went all the way and demonstrated that the university system is *obsolete.* Never once did they try to envision a world in which the university system did not exist at all. In fact, at once point they used examples of students who had used online learning as a stepping stone to attending a university as an argument for their side. The fact that attending a university was that students goal seems to be an argument that there's still a place for the university system.

    • Comment Link dan Monday, 11 August 2014 19:34 posted by dan

      A bit unnerving that Jonathan Cole references "learning styles" as a reason against MOOCs in his opening statement. There is no evidence that learning styles exist. NONE. This is an idea that has taken root that has zero scientific evidence and yet many attempt to design learning by attempting to create auditory, visual, tactile learning experiences as if to suggest that we don't all use all of our senses to learn everyday, all the time. It is complete folly to attempt to design around learning styles. The fact that no one rebutted this comment caused me to realize right away, that none of the panelists are well versed in learning design (aka instructional design).

      The other thing I took issue with was the moderator's comments when he said:

      "So let's make it clear that this is not this kind of fight
      to the death over this issue, but it is a discussion over emphasis. And I think in the
      emphasis there is a wide gulf. And I think some of that emphasis has to do with faith in
      technology itself to solve some of the problems."

      No - this is wrong. Technology will not solve education's problems. We should not apply faith to technology. We should instead apply faith + effort in DESIGN. Design of education will solve education's problems. Technology is the servant and not the master. When we design great learning experiences, whether online or in person we are solving education's problems. Design is about understanding the problem by empathizing with the audience. What does the audience want and need? What does the institution want and need? Prioritize the needs of the audience over the needs of the institution (but don't throw out either) and we are on the path to fixing education.

      Next, use real science instead of pseudo-science (learning styles and personality tests, I'm looking at you) to apply what we know about how people learn. Design, coupled with the science of learning IS the way forward.

    • Comment Link vance geiger Sunday, 10 August 2014 00:45 posted by vance geiger

      I listened to the debate and looked at the comments for a major correction but did not find it so here it is. Tenured professors do not make 100,000$ let alone 200, or 300,000$ The assertions from the pro online debaters was an outright lie, a deliberate lie. Again, this was a deliberate lie on their part which should you to wonder what else they just straight up lied about.

    • Comment Link Stan S Thursday, 15 May 2014 14:33 posted by Stan S

      Getting a higher education after High school requires motivation to pursue a degree in a personally selected career, it requires hard work and social interactivity amongst all different people. I think that on campus learning with live instructors is something that will not change or deplete any time in the near future. With online courses you don't get the experience you would from a live class, such as auto-mechanics, on campus you have instructors to help guide you through diagnosis and unexpected procedures working on real customer vehicles, the shop environment is very closely related to that of a repair facility, or dealership, and with these advantages you are better prepared after graduating to be successful and comfortable with the equipment in the shop. online courses cannot provide anything like that. Send a real customer vehicle via mail, is quite difficult. This also goes for many other courses of study, you just don't get the live face to face interaction with other students

    • Comment Link KH Wednesday, 14 May 2014 15:10 posted by KH

      Online classes are the key to the future when it comes to education. The around-the-world accessibility enables anyone to learn no matter where they are. Features like pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding lectures is essential in helping students to be able to fully understand a lecture, taking adequate notes, and helping them study for exams and quizzes. Lectures can be extremely tiresome, and taking a course online can ensure you are paying attention and lets a student capture every idea spewed out from a lecture. Being able to get instant feedback is crucial to success in college. In some larger classes in colleges and universities, it is hard to be able to connect with the professor, and it is also hard for them to get you feedback quickly. In the next twenty-years or so, I do believe the university will be a thing of the past and distance learning will dominate the education scene.

      Over the last decade, technology has advanced in ways we never knew it could. From phone apps, to electronic cars, to 3-D printers, technology continues to improve and I think education should right along with it. Online labs have been created for subjects such as math and science, meaning the possibilities are endless for what can be developed in the future for online learning (Nelson).

    • Comment Link CM Thursday, 08 May 2014 15:59 posted by CM

      After viewing the debate, More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete, I still stood by my opinion that the lecture hall still provides valuable learning experiences that online education could not provide. For example, even though I agreed with the opposition when Anant Agarwal told a story about how in big lecture hall classes, students tend to lose interest in the professor after about fifteen minutes. Even though that might be true in most cases with students, we shouldn’t discontinue the lecture hall because it can still provide valuable hands on learning experiences and communication skills that will be useful later in life. The side against more clicks points out, in my opinion, the strongest point in the debate, what about students with disabilities? They noted that online education over looks kids with disabilities because most of these kids need a professor to get help from throughout the year and professors that do have students with disabilities in their class room know that this student needs help in different ways from other students. Online education wouldn’t know that a certain student has a disability and therefor that particular student would probably struggle with his online classes.

    • Comment Link WindWalker737 Thursday, 08 May 2014 15:30 posted by WindWalker737

      I have a good deal of personal experience with online and digital education. After spending five years enrolled in a virtual academy I have a bit of material to work with. Granted this was for grades third through seventh, but the principles are the same and if colleges are to succeed they need to start here. My education took the form of what would be termed a ‘blended modal.’ It had both offline labs and book work and online interactive labs and lessons. All of the tests though were online.

      Digital education is not for everyone, that is never going to change. Just like the existing system inadequately handles people with large amounts of energy. Online learning will inevitably not work for some people. That is part of being human we are not all the same. But there are people who are learners, people who know intuitively how to learn, people that love to learn. Those people will teach themselves if they have to. I should know I am one. When I was homeschooled it was with an online curriculum my parents weren't to engage they were too busy helping my brother learn so I picked up the books, click through the online material and learned.

      When I rejoined the public schools in eight grade I was at least a year ahead in math, reading, history and at the same level in the rest. Digital education might not replace the bricks but it will give those that need it a better, for them, option.

    • Comment Link Marissa Thursday, 08 May 2014 14:45 posted by Marissa

      I agree with Anant Agarwal and Ben Nelson, in the fact that our future education system will need and eventually adopt the more clicks, fewer bricks idea. Our education is stuck in a rut, it needs to change so our future generations can grow and develop along with their world. They need an education system that can morph around their individual learning needs. I believe that once the online education system fixes it problems, our children will be learning even faster than before. It will give our children access to a completely different types of education. Where a child growing up in a small town could have the opportunity to take a French or German class. Which with out it being offered online wouldn't have been offered at their school.
      From a small town girl of only 1000 people

    • Comment Link Ben Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:26 posted by Ben

      While the argument was strong for both sides, they seemed to come to a collective understanding that online education can have positive impact on student's college experience. Currently, schools are incorporating more and more online services to assist those who can't be there on the day of class or need more follow-up instruction. Similar to Jonathan Cole and Rebecca Schuman, I see the physical classroom, not only as a useful tool for teaching kids what they should know about math, science, history, etc., but also teaching them to be unique and discover what makes them happy, ultimately leading them to live a content life. With the stock market, it is unwise to put all your money into one stock incase that stock crashes; similarly, I believe it would be foolish in today's world to completely change the environment in which so many people have achieved success and happiness. We are constantly producing better gadgets, but until we can observe the outcomes of a full online education, and career thereafter, I believe the classroom is the way to go.

    • Comment Link ljlang Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:25 posted by ljlang

      Both online classes and lecture halls have their own strength and weaknesses.

      As we’re living in modern time period, technologies are getting sophisticated, developing very fast. Just in a one click it delivers you to new knowledge. Society nowadays is living very close with technology. Also, many people nowadays are very busy with many things, between education, jobs, and households. And it is nearly impossible to pursue higher education that takes a lot effort to achieve the degree for those busy people.

      So then, online classes is very convenient and beneficial for busy people. It allows students manage their own time, in between work, household, and studying. Online classes even allow students to study with comfy sweatpants and slippers in bed. Even though study in bed is not a good option, either you really study or fall asleep instead.

      But however, online class can't take the whole place in education system. Online class can't work for people with a disability such as dyslexia. Online class also can't make sure the student is understand with the school's material. In this case, direct communication is needed in educational learning.

      Even it's called obsolete, I support lecture halls as main educational learning. Lecture halls allow students to communicate with the teachers, also make friends! Making friends can be related to applying job references in the future career as well. Because actually, I saw many successful people achieved their goal career not just because skills and knowledge. But also supports from friends and other relations.

      However, either online class and lecture hall, it depends on people's need in pursuing their education.

    • Comment Link Alicia Parellada Thursday, 08 May 2014 00:16 posted by Alicia Parellada

      After watching a debate about taking online classes versus the traditional learning method, my conclusions have rested the same. But, as most of the things in life, my opinion is not just ‘’black or white’’. I agree with the option of taking online classes as it is another effective way of learning for most of the students for some reasons such as the fact you can watch the videos whenever you are available, so that you can also have time to work and earn money at the same time as you study, in case you cannot afford it or just to earn some extra money. It also helps you being responsible as you manage your own schedule to better prioritize all the things you have to do. You can also devote more time to sports or to study another career or other courses you are interested in. I know from some of my friends that they choose to take online classes because they get distract when they are in a classroom, and they have a better focus in the concept when they are sitting down by themselves at home.
      I would suggest to read and study the chapters at home, and then go to class around three times a week and discuss them with the professor and your classmates. Another important component of the classroom learning is the social and communicative interactions between students and teachers. The results of our education in the next year will decide exactly how much this online classes are hurting the learning environment for generations to come. We all want this debate to be solved, but with people saying that they prefer online classes as well does not help the real situation out how our people can increase and fight for better education.

    • Comment Link Matt Wednesday, 07 May 2014 22:35 posted by Matt

      I guess I don't get a few of the points the anti-MOOC side is making. The first is that "liberal arts" can't be done justice. One point that was made several times was that you can't teach someone to do careful close readings of a text online. I just don't get that. In a traditional lecture setting, the prof lectures, assigns readings, there may be some light class discussion, and has students write stuff.

      All of this is possible in a MOOC, and in fact, I just finished taking Coursera's course The Modern and the Postmodern. As someone who has completed a college degree, I have to say that the discussion board is what made this class better than the traditional setting. I couldn't just spout stuff off-the-cuff like in a class. Every reply I made or discussion I participated in required effort and thought because I was writing it. There were also 100's of more discussions possible and going on than in a traditional class, because there were no time constraints. The discussions were all organized, searchable, and recorded unlike in a real class.

      I'm actually somewhat confused which aspect of a literature class is worse online. To me, every aspect of the class was better than a traditional one...and I don't even think the technology was utilized to its fullest! I really want that part of their argument fleshed out a bit more.

      The other point is that Rebecca kept making anecdotal references to the disappointment of her edX class. This seems more the fault of the student than the course. If the student doesn't put in the time and work, then they won't get much out. This is true of the traditional setting as well. I'm sure she has her own students that just scrape by and get nothing out of it. Ironically, the course she is taking should have taught her that she has a cognitive bias called selection bias, and this is probably what is going on here. That class should have taught her that this is why anecdotes are not good arguments.

    • Comment Link upandey Wednesday, 07 May 2014 21:55 posted by upandey

      I think classroom educations are much better than the online education. We can interact with our professor and our friends too when we don’t understand something. Example: mathematical problem, problem of science, any problem that you have during your courses. From my opinion when you interact your view with other and when other interact their view with you, its helps more to understand. The classroom education helps us not only to become education person but also teach us how to deal with real world. It teach us to interact with different people, how to talk, how to have patience on you. Classroom education teaches us how to deal boring meeting in our real life and in online class we can never learn these things that we deal in our real life.Yes, online classes save our time. In a tough schedule and while working full time job online class is the one that help us to keep our education going. But, is online class is for everyone? Some students have a tough time with online classes. They easily get frustrated and there is no one to give them motivation. Atleast, in the classroom if we get frustrated with any topic then our professor help us to get motivated. The most important thing how popular will be online class, the way our professor teach us no one can replace that.

    • Comment Link mldudley Tuesday, 06 May 2014 22:02 posted by mldudley

      Replying to Jackson, posted April 3rd 2014, Thursday at 07:04. I agree with him that balance is key in learning a new dance, or trade. Actually teaching an old dog new tricks. I've had the benefit of both worlds, online classes and in class classes. the mixture of the two is a great start. I can see how some things can be eliminated from bricks. People talking, not learning, should be enforced so others may pay attention better. Distractions, Distractions, Distractions. I agree with the peer to peer learning is a must in some cases like in auto-mechanics but i think that some online classes can help said mechanics focus better on the academic side of things. I've done two online classes so far and look forward to more because I work during the day and online classes are about flexibility. Within one of my online classes I have the ability to learn from tutorials that are online like from YouTube and other sites like The Onion to see how funny people really are. Intelligence Squared Forum was very interesting to watch because I have never heard of it. The debate more clicks, less bricks the lecture hall is obsolete was very intriguing to me because I'm right in the middle or beginning of something huge. Technology grows like wildfire.

    • Comment Link Omotade Adekunle Kelvin Monday, 05 May 2014 12:58 posted by Omotade Adekunle Kelvin

      Have you ever missed words out of what a lecturer lecturing a class says and then you feel shy to ask about what you missed, just because you don't want all eyes to be on you or draw the class back?.If you've been in such problem, then you will have no other choice than to agree with me that online education is better than college campus education.I say it is better because, If a student misses word out of what a lecturer talks about in an online class, the student can go back to listen to what he missed from the teachers teaching for as long as he or she likes. Are we to talk about the expense of transporting oneself to school everyday? the money that will be used to buy gas for students and lecturers to fuel their vehicle or enter bus everyday to school could be used to purchase text book's if it is an online education. What about apartment for the student to live in, if the student lives in a far place that's far from his school, he or she would need to rent an apartment or a room in the school hostel? Renting of apartment close to the school will not be needed in an online education, a student can receive lecture anywhere, any day, and anytime the student chooses to. Are we to talk about the expense of setting up buildings that will be referred to as classrooms and offices, the expenses that will be incurred by running a college campus by the school authority will be eliminated, expenses like replacement of bulbs, cutting of grass, paying of electricity bills, and keeping the building neat and clean so it wont be irritating or disgusting to students, it will always be made to be attractive to students so that student can come and enroll, but in an online education all this expenses are not needed, what is needed to invite student to enroll in an online education is just an advert, the advert would be made to convince the student to enroll. Learning is meant to be in a quiet place and not in a noisy place, classrooms get noisy a times with side talks from students, a student will choose the best place that he or she feels is quiet enough to learn in an online education. I strongly believe that campus education can never and would never be as stress free as online education is.

    • Comment Link Rajagopal V Friday, 18 April 2014 06:28 posted by Rajagopal V

      I am a 69 year old senior citizen living in retirement in Bangalore India. My Son- in Law from USA forwarded this to me.
      I just finished listening to the debate. It was a fascinating and fantastic experience and it was possible because it was on line. It was an enlivening doing it on line where I could pause
      it to answer three phone calls, twice to answer the door and once to put eye drops to my wife who had a
      cataract surgery recently
      I don't think I would have enjoyed and learnt this much had I attended the debate in person and personally
      shook hands with the Ananth, Nelson, Cole and Rebecca.
      Kudos to MOOC.

    • Comment Link Jeff Shrager Wednesday, 16 April 2014 17:56 posted by Jeff Shrager

      I think that Anant Agarwal shot his argument to hell with this assertion: “...[MOOCs] cost between 10,000 and half a million dollars to create. But the second time you offer the MOOC or you bring that into your classroom, the third time, the forth time, it’s like a textbook. A textbook...for someone who’s written a textbook ... took me five years to write the textbook, but then to stamp out a new textbook is 50 bucks a hundred bucks, so repeating is much easier. And with MOOCs and online education, that’s how it is, the repetition is very cost effective. And very high quality.”

      Indeed, it (at least the contentious lecture part) IS like a textbook, but textbooks (or e-texts, if you prefer) have all the good qualities of MOOCs, and none of the bad ones. Or, in the eloquent words of a caller to KQED’s forum discussion with Sebastian Thrun some time ago: “My textbook talks to me; give me a professor!”

    • Comment Link Michael Wednesday, 16 April 2014 07:58 posted by Michael

      I can't help but notice that everyone on the panel is a product of the brick and mortar model of Higher education. College is about establishing contacts and making friends as much as it is about learning. How do you think they got on the panel. Most people do not get jobs because they have good grades. They get jobs because of who they are, who they know, and how they present. Also, getting a job is secondary to the real value and goal of higher education. Higher education is in the business of making better citizens. The guys arguing for MOOCs have a financial stake in the success MOOCs, not teachers or students. It's the same factory platform as brick & mortar without the real-estate, sex, or the beers after class where you make fun of the professor. I've gone to many lectures and have never had a problem with "losing my professor." Maybe Anat suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. Listening is a valuable skill. Where I come from, if you lose the thread, you raise your hand and ask the professor to clarify or repeat. Every lecture I've attended has been interactive. Also, many professors record the lecture so you can revisit the content. Lectures aren't the sole means of teaching in college. There are also study groups, seminars, field trips etc.

    • Comment Link Chris Rushlau Tuesday, 15 April 2014 12:13 posted by Chris Rushlau

      I tuned out after the 37-year-old Ph.D. who made 14,000.00 a year teaching two courses seemed to complete her opening statement by asking for the audience's vote, not having made an argument yet.
      Resolved: education cannot be fixed as a matter of policy because there is an irremovable ambiguity as to who owns the learning establishment, inasmuch as, in the present day, both public and private colleges and universities are beyond political purview and there is no legal mechanism in sight to impose accountability on "higher education".

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