Intelligence Brief: Is The Lecture Hall Obsolete?

In this week’s Intelligence Briefing, we are diving into the new reality of remote learning in higher education. We invited two experts in education policy to “Agree to Disagree” on the future of online education, its merits, and how educators and students alike are reacting and adapting to their new virtual reality.


Here’s what we have in store for you this week:
-Agree to Disagree: The Virtues of Virtual Learning
-Intelligraphic: Ed-tech in America: Divided We Learn
-Points of View: Insights and analysis from past debaters
-Double Digits: $29,900
-That’s Debatable: Yes or No: Campuses should open in Fall 2020
Sign up here to find us in your inbox each week and if you like what you read, consider sharing with a friend here. You can always reach us at with ideas and feedback.

Two points of view, one question

Is the Future of Higher Education Online?
“More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall Is Obsolete.” That debate resolution meant something very different before America’s lecture halls went dark in light of the pandemic. Now, as students zoom through their courses and continue school remotely, we ask: What does the future hold for online learning? Can online universities make higher education more affordable, more engaging, and more equitable?
John Donvan is joined by Ben Nelson, CEO of The Minvera Project, and David Deming, economist and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, to do what we do best: argument, but not a formal debate in our usual way. In this exchange, Ben and David “Agree to Disagree” about how colleges are adapting to online learning, what students and educators are missing, and how we must adapt to the new normal. Here’s what we learned:

-The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting the business model for higher education.
-Ben Nelson argues that technology enhances education by offering effective, data-driven instruction at lower costs.
-David Deming says there aren’t scalable online substitutes for the most valuable and personal parts of teaching: tutoring, mentoring, and giving feedback.

Ben Nelson
“Technology is a tool. […] The idea is that if you actually can provide some additional ways of doing education using technology that you can’t do offline, then by definition, you should be able to do something better.”
Ben Nelson, CEO, The Minerva Project 

David Deming

“My big concern… is that online tools are used as a way to cut costs, rather than as a way to increase quality. And so my concern is that cash-strapped universities are going to be hit extremely hard… by declining state budgets in the wake of the recession.”

David Deming, Economist & Professor, Harvard Kennedy School 
Listen to the full conversation here:
Podcast Player: Virtues of Virtual Learning

Ed-tech in America: Divided We Learn

Across the nation, students of all ages are out of the classroom and learning online. But just what does this unprecedented emergency transition to digital learning look like in America today? And who has access to high-speed internet to attend class? The data below tells two stories – one from the Federal Communications Commission and one from BroadbandNow – about broadband connectivity in the United States.

-Some are optimistic that online education has the potential for personalized curriculum and engagement.
-Others are concerned that online education may widen the academic achievement gaps between poor, middle-class and wealthy students.
-According to a recent study, 4 In 10 teens in the U.S. are not attending online classes.

Data on the Digital Divide


Top insights and news from the intellectual leaders who have battled it out
on the Open to Debate stage.


When one number tells two stories.

The average debt of 2019 college graduates.

Students across the nation are filing lawsuits and organizing strikes to demand refunds for on-campus services. Does their case have any merit? And with average tuition costs of college at $21,950 for in-state, $26,820 for out-of-state, and $36,880 for private universities, will schools across the nation have to reduce their price to retain and attract students?

Yes to Reimbursement:
ABC: College students clamor for tuition refunds after coronavirus shutters campuses.

No to Reimbursement:
Marketwatch: Harvard and other major universities still charging full tuition as classes go online amid coronavirus outbreak.


Two perspectives on one of the nation’s biggest debates this week.
Should campuses open in Fall 2020?

This week, President Trump suggested that governors should consider reopening schools before the academic year wraps up. While many acknowledge that restarting the American economy depends, in part, on children returning to elementary and secondary schools, what about higher education? Campuses across the nation have closed their doors, and some worry if they aren’t open by the fall, they’ll never open again.

In Favor of Opening Campuses in Fall
The New York Times: College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It.
“The reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority. Institutions should develop public health plans now that build on three basic elements of controlling the spread of infection: test, trace and separate.”

Opposed to Opening Campuses in Fall.
The Atlantic: There’s No Simple Way to Reopen Universities.
“[T]he desire of the virus to propagate and the desire of the university to educate are in dangerous harmony. A properly functioning university is a never-ending festival of superspreader events, and to open campuses in the fall will be a challenge.


Join a community of social and intellectual leaders that truly value the free exchange of ideas.
Readings on our weekly debates, debater editorials, and news on issues that affect our everyday lives.
Help us bring debate to communities and classrooms across the nation.