Intelligence Squared U.S.
11:00 am
Wed April 9, 2014

Debate: In An Online World, Are Brick And Mortar Colleges Obsolete?

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 4:18 pm

Online degree programs are proliferating – and many cost a fraction of the price of a traditional, on-campus degree. Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCS, are also catching on in the U.S. and around the world.

In a society that conducts more and more work and play online, these online offerings seem to represent a natural progression of the higher education experience. Proponents point out that "college by Internet" is flexible and economical, and allows students to review material as needed. But skeptics are concerned that taking courses online is a pale substitute for real-world exchanges with instructors and peers inside a classroom.

Two teams recently faced off on the motion, "More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete," in an Oxford-style debate for Intelligence Squared U.S. In these events, the team that sways the most people by the end of the debate is declared the winner.

Before the debate, the audience at Columbia University's Miller Theater in New York voted 18 percent in favor of the motion and 59 percent against, with 23 percent undecided. Afterward, 44 percent agreed with the motion, while 47 percent disagreed — meaning the side arguing that the lecture hall is obsolete were the winners of this particular debate.

Those debating were:

For The Motion

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX, an online learning site 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. He is also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and has served as the director of CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. 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.

Ben Nelson is the founder, chairman and CEO of Minerva Project, a reinvented university experience for bright and motivated students. Prior to Minerva, he spent more than 10 years at Snapfish, where he served as CEO from 2005 to 2010. He began his tenure as CEO by leading Snapfish's sale to Hewlett Packard for $300 million. Previously, Nelson was president and CEO of Community Ventures, a network of locally branded portals for America's communities.

Against The Motion

Jonathan R. Cole is John Mitchell Mason Professor at Columbia University, where he served as provost and dean of faculties from 1989 and 2003. In recent years, his scholarly work and publications have addressed issues in higher education, particularly problems facing American research universities. He is author of The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected, and recently co-edited the forthcoming Who's Afraid of Academic Freedom? 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.

Rebecca Schuman is a writer, speaker, adjunct professor and activist on behalf of adjunct and contingent faculty in the U.S. She is a columnist for Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and author of the forthcoming book Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism. She has been teaching literature, composition and German at the postsecondary level since 2002. She 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.

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