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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Posted: Apr 23, 2014 6:10 PM
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From The New Yorker, Tuesday, April 22, 2014.See

By Michael Guerriero

On one recent night, the Intelligence Squared
U.S. debate series put forth a motion on Columbia
University's campus: "More Clicks, Fewer Bricks:
The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete." This is heavily
contested territory, as both the setting and the
style of the debate reflected. Columbia itself is
the owner of quite a few nice-looking bricks,
but, only last month, the university signalled
its intention to start producing online courses.
The Intelligence Squared events are inspired by
traditional Oxford debates, decided by the votes
of the audience, but they're judged
electronically. The points and counterpoints were
streamed and tweeted live, but in tone the
evening still evoked the charm of a winsome
classroom professor: percussive jazz-fusion
tracks piped in before, friendly anecdotes
during, and a reception, in lieu of office hours,

The four debaters, each one an expert and three
of them professors, knew their arguments
well-this battle has had many skirmishes. Anant
Agarwal, the C.E.O. of edX, an online education
platform, opened for the clicks. He conceded that
fewer than five per cent of the students in his
online course had successfully passed it, but
pointed out that so many people had signed up for
the course that those five per cent were still
more than he could teach at M.I.T. in forty
years. Columbia's own entrant, Jonathan Cole, the
John Mitchell Mason Professor of the university,
parried, citing a lack of evidence for any of
online education's "messianic" claims and
professing faith in the established model.
"People learn from each other when they eat
together, read together, converse together, sleep
together. If nothing else, sex will reinforce
bricks over clicks on the campus," he said.

Rebecca Schuman, a professor, columnist, and
bricks stalwart, admitted that the online courses
she had taken in preparation for the debate were
fun and educational, but said that she just
didn't believe that they could replace the
intimate interaction between a teacher and
students. That sort of uncertainty, and where it
rubs up against the idealism and potential of
online education, is at the core of this debate.

Alisha Fredriksson happened to be seated in the
audience. Fredriksson, a high-school senior at
the Mahindra United World College, in India, has
been accepted for the inaugural class of the
Minerva Schools. When she enrolls, she'll be part
of a grand experiment in undergraduate education,
a member of a small, globe-trotting cohort whose
college experience is almost entirely removed
from the traditional campus.

After attending a preview weekend for admitted
Minerva students in San Francisco, where the
first year of the program takes place,
Fredriksson took the same plane east as the
program's founder and C.E.O., Ben Nelson. He was
en route to Columbia, to argue for clicks
onstage. She was headed to visit her older
brother, and so she came along to the debate as
testimony to Nelson's argument, and, at the very
least, as a vote for his cause.

When Fredriksson enrolls at Minerva, she'll begin
a modern, digitally enhanced version of the old
grand tour, stopping for hyper-immersive
semesters in San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Berlin,
Hong Kong, Mumbai, New York, and London. Her
experience will be mediated by an online learning
interface ("Skype on steroids," she called it),
which seems to be equal parts panopticon and
academic seminar: everyone can see everyone
else's face on their screens, and the professor
can call on anyone at any time, or rewatch and
review any student's session.

As one of the first and most important variables
in this educational experiment, Fredriksson and
her fellow-students in the founding class won't
have to pay tuition. (Subsequent classes will be
charged ten thousand dollars for each year.) But
the stripped-down cost of the re├źngineered
college, while certainly attractive, isn't what
most excites her. "I know how to do well on
tests, but that's not relevant," she explained.
"Now I want to learn by doing."

What Fredriksson wants seems, at first,
counterintuitive. She attends a rigorous
International Baccalaureate high school halfway
around the world, but says that she hopes to gain
a more intensely local experience through this
online program. If she does, she'll rely
primarily on a remote interface to form close
connections with other young people and to
navigate her surroundings. As she sees it, her
role as a first-year student at Minerva will
place her among "the guinea pigs of guinea
pigs"-she's been promised the freedom to shape
her own education in a novel way, even while her
classroom activities, like the wider program
around her, are closely monitored. (Being a
guinea pig, of course, may not be what every
student wants from their college
experience-Minerva boasts Bob Kerrey as executive
chairman and Lawrence Summers was an adviser, but
its program is still largely untried.)

Back onstage, the panellists were coming in for
scrutiny as well. In a round of audience
questioning, the clicks side was asked if, in
attempting to separate research from instruction
and then package the latter for the masses, they
were, "in effect, freeloaders on the university
system," disseminating knowledge without creating
it. Others wondered how well the online model
could prepare students to enter the job market,
and questioned its suitability for less
vocational coursework, in poetry, creative
writing, or the broader liberal arts.

On this evening, though, the doubts seemed doomed
to rearguard action; it's difficult to argue
against technology when the audience is voting
instantly and electronically. The crowd, filled
with Columbia students and academics who live and
work among the bricks of their classrooms,
libraries, and dorms, awarded the win to the
clicks. For one night, anyway, the lecture hall
was deemed obsolete.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: The Debate Platform --
Photograph courtesy Intelligence Squared.

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