Educators debate whether online education can really replace face-to-face learning

lecturehallresizedCollege by radio was a failure. College by television was a failure. Now, college by internet. Will it be different this time?

That’s the question ABC News’ John Donvan posed to four education experts Wednesday during an Intelligence Squared debate at Columbia University set around the motion “More Clicks, Few Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete.”

While the motion is certainly a divisive one, none of the four debaters were actually arguing completely for or against online learning. Rather, as Donvan admitted, it was an argument about emphasis. Participating in the debate were four educators whose emphasis could be easily surmised before they took the stage.

For the motion: Anant Agarwal, CEO of massive open online course (MOOC) platform edX, and Ben Neslon, CEO of the Minerva Project.

Against the motion: Jonathan Cole, former provost at Columbia University, and Rebecca Schuman, a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education and Slate who gleefully wrote about Sebastian Thrun admitting Udacity MOOCs are often a “lousy product.”

Thrun’s revelation, and his company’s pivot toward vocational training, was brought up early in the night’s discussion. Online learning, particularly MOOCs, are not reaching the audience they were intended to reach, Cole said.

He presented several questions he believed MOOC proponents had yet to answer. What is the cost model? How will intellectual property be divided up? How do you really know what kinds of students you are reaching?

Cole also took issue with the way online learning prevents the sort of personal, physical interaction that takes place on college campuses.

“People learn from each other when they eat together, read together, converse together, sleep together,” he said.

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