Online Debate: A Case Study Combining
Cross-examination by Negative
Cross-examination by Affirmative
1st Affirmative Rebuttal
2nd Affirmative Rebuttal
Each side is allotted 4 minutes of
Weeks 8 & 9
cross-examination by Negative
cross-examination by Affirmative
1st Affirmative Rebuttal
2nd Affirmative Rebuttal
allotted for extra time if necessary
Over the weeks, the claims stated by both groups appeared to create polarization in interpersonal settings. Though students were quite cordial to one another before and after class sessions, the seating of the students during class said something much different. The class agreed that the content of the debate would be discussed neither face-to-face nor in the classroom, including verbal discussions within and between groups. However, that after reading claims of the opposing group, individuals chose to seat themselves near one another according to group affiliation during subsequent class periods. Further, the classroom consisted of a single conference table, where each group assembled themselves on opposing sides of the table while the debate consultant willingly sat neutral between the opposing sides, close to the head of the table, opposite the instructor. The non-verbal behavior of opposing group members seemed to state quite obviously that the cohesion of group members increased through the shared experiences of attempting the frustrating tasks necessary to participate in the debate.
The seating of individuals was completely voluntary and seemed to speak volumes about the identity of each group. This did not appear to be a result of the instructor’s chosen strategy or technology, but rather the amount of time the groups contested one another in the online environment outside the classroom.
As each week passed, both groups found themselves increasing the duration between producing claims and arguments. More often than not, each group requested an extension or posted rebuttals more than two days late. Both groups appeared to maintain a constant level of increasing frustration. The groups remain polarized in the classroom throughout the semester and participation levels within groups would decrease every week. The group that seemed happiest in any particular class session was that group that did not have an argument due the following week. What had been intended as a nine-week activity had evolved into a time-consuming task that grew much larger than had been anticipated by group members. As content began to take form, some students found themselves consumed more with the debate and the competitive nature of the task than the overall lesson. Others simply became bored or lost interest by the time closing arguments had arrived.
The apparent inefficiency of the online communication methods, when used in the context of the traditional debate format, seemed to contribute to attrition among individuals in both groups. All seemed to understand that if the debate was held in a face-to-face setting, the duration of the event would consist of a mere fraction of the time spent on the online debate. Yet similar informal debates occur daily among many online users. For example, many political message boards on the internet receive post after post of claims, rebuttals, redirects, retractions, and even angry responses. However, the concept of the task made this debate unique in that students agreed to a formal debate with rules and structure and level of participation affected the overall grade in the class. Some tasks are better suited for synchronous communication while others may be addressed in either asynchronous or synchronous environments.
Most reported that the length of the debate posed the greatest challenge. When the debate had finally ended (after 14 weeks), both groups voted on which group had won the debate. The results were four to four and the debate consultant kept his vote secret to everyone and the debate was ultimately ruled a draw. Following the vote, an hour or more was allotted to debrief the class on how the assigned task of entirely online communication affected students while participating. The discussion was an open forum where everyone revealed their opinions and comments concerning the experience.
Though the debate was considered long, most students found understanding in its purpose. Almost all agreed that the exercise was beneficial and a good lesson in converging debate and online communication methods. Most felt relieved to verbally express their experiences openly in the forum and recognized that if other synchronous methods were used, such as telephones, the debate could have used less time and materials would probably have been submitted on time. Most students reported that the debate was effective but inefficient, due to the removal of particular communication modes.
One of the objectives of the course was to intentionally expose students to the challenges associated with merging traditional learning strategies with newer technologies. The debate exercise was considered by most students, though some may have felt mentally exhausted at its conclusion, an excellent exercise in the necessity to adapt learning strategies for selected technologies. However, selecting technologies does not forgive the necessity for thoughtful instructional design strategies. Throughout the process, the students experienced many frustrations and made numerous adjustments. The exercise also provided a real-world perspective into considering the design and technology as a hybrid of traditional strategy and newer technology. If the strategy and technology were considered and merged into a format so all of the afore-mentioned issues were considered prior to implementing such a design, a debate could be a quite useful learning mechanism for instruction.
Traditional instructional design models are useful in helping instructors adapt traditional methods to new instructional environments. A critical component of the instruction design model lies in analyzing the resources, e.g. the technologies. High-tech resources such as the internet allow for a number of different avenues to be explored. A major consideration in developing a strategy for online instructional design is to first understand the manner in which individuals or groups will communicate over time. One should consider if communications occur in an asynchronous, synchronous, or combination environment. Further, one should analyze what resources work well in asynchronous and synchronous environments.
Media attributes, such as bandwidth, interactivity, interface, and access, can help instructional designers understand the strengths and weaknesses of designing in a particular online environment. For example, if a group of students plan to attend an online course from the workplace equipped with a high-speed local area network and use of videoconferencing equipment, perhaps a two-way video conference would maximize learning. This addresses bandwidth (high), interactivity (high), interface (one mechanism) and access (group attending in one place accessing class through a local area network). However, this same scenario could be complicated if other students, say from a rural area, have access to only dial-up (low speed) internet connections.
Choosing the correct technology can be difficult. More and more universities and colleges are investing in devices that are intended to facilitate communication and interaction, store data for instant retrieval, and provide access for all users. This means that more and more options for delivering instruction in the classroom and across networks exist in environments that have yet to even catch up with yesterday’s technology. Further, the current trend in resource investment seems to be moving toward higher bandwidth and higher interactivity. This poses a great challenge, because there is no particular standard for choosing the best technology and the best strategy. More importantly, not all students possess compatible machinery or software to interface with higher-tech equipment. Therefore, the choice must be made by the instructional designer as to what methods will maximize learning for particular students or groups. Hakkinen (2003) states that “it is not enough just to provide a forum for students to collaborate, but their constructions of shared understanding and meanings have to be supported.”
In the case of an online debate, time/place independence will play a role in the usability of technology in relation to desired outcomes associated with debate structure. Additionally, one must consider the reliability and ease of use of a particular technology. Therefore, brief online debates might become more productive if the debate parameters include synchronous (rather than asynchronous) communication methods that are simple to use. This might include chat, instant messages, audio conferencing, and video conferencing. However, as the complexity of the technology increases, so do the demands associated with the user. For a simple debate, instructors might use a chat session in order to maintain synchronous communication while adhering to formal rules. The instructor should moderate the discussions according to time constraints, processes, evidence, and other debate principles. More complex technologies, such as audio and video conferencing should involve a technician who maintains the network connection and communication devices while the instructor moderates. The point is to communicate in real-time so the debate does not last longer than necessary.
On the other hand, asynchronous methods may also work. Tu and Corry (2003) state that “simply requiring students to post messages to address the instructor’s questions may not result in effective learning” and suggest implementing an online collaborative learning community consisting of 1) online learning, 2) collaborative learning, and 3) online community. As mentioned earlier, both groups discovered that a circulating document worked best for a long debate that involved a small group. This allowed individuals to contribute their own thoughts and incorporate their own words into the argument. Because there was an entire week between arguments, students could circulate the document more conveniently. However, by following the traditional format, the debate grew long. Perhaps a different design is necessary to conduct a group asynchronous debate. The designer might suggest the circulating document, but reduce the number of official arguments, including the second rebuttals. Tu and Corry also state that:
asynchronous discussion separated by a week’s duration is beneficial, yet the topic should be engaging and new. Further, the authors pose that “debating has been a structured exercise and, in an online environment, the instructor must provide rigid instruction for step-by-step presentation, debate, and defense.”
Other formats might require adjustments to the design of the debate. For example, if the debate occurs on a message board, individual rather than group arguments might be more efficient. Again, the instructor might adjust or limit the number of rebuttals and redirects, yielding to timely arguments. Lastly, the instructor may limit the words used in each phase of the argument to the number of words one might use in a timed face-to-face debate session. However, as students prepare for a debate in an asynchronous environment, the accumulation of messages in discussions between group members may become overwhelming and because of time lapses, some information exchange may be taken out of context (Hron and Fredrich 2003).
The lessons learned were two-fold. First, students understood the complexities of exclusive electronic and online communications in a group context. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, students discovered that traditional methods of debate are complicated when the constructs are originally designed for a completely separate communication method. The online debate was effective because it produced spirited and valid arguments, but inefficient in its use of time. This aspect can certainly translate into the academic and instructional design of distance learning and online course design. As instructional designers develop online courses, they must understand the complexities of online environments when incorporating traditional instruction. Instructional designers should consider the attributes of technology and media in the context of synchronous and asynchronous environments. Further scientific investigation is needed to explain the main effects of the strengths and weaknesses of online debates. Perhaps this case provides a basis for further study.
Clark, Richard E. (1994). Media Will Never Influence Learning. Educational Technology Research and Development. Vol. 42, Number 2.
Hakkinen, P. (2003). Collaborative Learning in Networked Environments: interaction through shared workspaces and communication tools. Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 279-282.
Hron, A. & Fredrich, H. F. (2003). A review of web-based collaborative learning: factors beyond technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Number 19, pp. 70-79.
Kozma, Robert A. (1994). Will Media Influence Learning? Reframing the Debate. Educational Technology Research and Development. Vol. 42, Number 2.
Tu, Chih-Hsiung & Corry, Michael, (2003). Designs, Management Tactics, and Strategies in Asynchronous Learning Discussions. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Vol. 4(3),
Shawn M. Love
Shawn M. Love is a doctoral student in Adult and Higher Education at the University of Oklahoma.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Communication and a Masters in Human Relations, emphasizing Human Resource Development.
His current research involves online collaboration and use of video in online education environments. Shawn is the president of SML Group, Inc., an Education Technology consulting company. At The University of Oklahoma, he has served as an adjunct professor of Freshman Programs and developed distance education courses in the College of Engineering. He is currently assisting Oklahoma City University’s Meinders School of Business with the implementation of an online Continuing Professional Education program.
Shawn M. Love can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.