Monday, 11 June 2012

a very quick review of running online debates - not much out there


This literature review analyses 3 number of journal articles made in the last 10 years. They are drawn from the ERIC database and google scholar. The low number reveals a lack of publication in this area.

In terms of the online classroom, research literature has shown that a debate can be effectively facilitated using text-based internet communication tools and achieve its intended aims and goals (Jugdev, Markowski & Mengel, 2004; Pilkington & Walker, 2003).

Key questions

What is good practice in terms of instigating or preparation for online debates

Stipulating that students need to use evidence from the literature to support their position regardless of the side they take. In some examples students are taught a process by which they research and gather evidence and what are acceptable sources (Park et al., 2011).


Park et al (2011) suggest having a list of debate topics for students to choose from and to prepared students by discussing the fallacies of logic and other aspects of debating.

Park et al (2011) put students into pairs and then randomly assigned them either the pro and con side of a topic. Debates are best programmed over strict time constraints and need clear instructions on the process (Park et al., 2011). Everyone should have access to both side of the argument when students put up their postings. (Park et al., 2011)


What are good practice methods for managing online debates

Jugdev  (2004) chose 2  groups of 5 students, assigning them a current and controversial topic to argue either “for” or “against” a resolution. They chose very subject related topics such as “that project team-related issues (such as performance and disciplinary matters) are the sole responsibility of the functional manager to whom the team members report, and not the project manager’s responsibility.”

They then followed a simple 5 step approach that other case studies have also used.

1. Develop group code of conduct: Each group prepared a code of conduct to guide the group work.

2. Develop a position statement: The 1000 work document is created collaboratively by the group and accessible only to group members, which contains five key arguments for their side.

3. Develop a rebuttal to other side’s position statement: Each group then studied the position statement posted by the other group and developed a formal 1,000- word rebuttal to it. The rebuttal involved developing clear and logical points that identified and addressed weaknesses in the opposing group’s position statement.

4. General discussion: Once the rebuttals were posted, all members of both groups engaged in a final general discussion on the debate.

5. Peer evaluation: The students were asked to evaluate the participation of the members of their groups in the debate process. (Jugdev, 2004)


In another example, students put up their opinion pieces. Then two days later students reply with their rebuttal in answer to the first posting. The whole class can now read and contribute to the debates.

“Three days later, the two debaters each posted a summary of their positions. Finally, the debaters wrote self-evaluations that included what they had learned by debating online and what they would do differently if they were to debate online another time, and emailed these reflective summaries to the instructor. In this course, the debate comprised 35% of the students’ course grade, plus an additional 10% for participating in others’ debates. An individual mark was given.”

(Park et al., 2011)


Another process has working groups of 8 – 9 students given 2 weeks to prepare 1,000 word formal position statement (10% of final mark). The entire class can read these. The students then have a week to make a rebuttal statement to the opposing side (10% of final mark).

“They were asked to provide three to five clear, logical, supportable, and convincing arguments that support their side and to do the same in the rebuttal, where they were to address weaknesses in the points presented by their opponents”

(Park et al., 2011)


All students then engaged in further debate and discussion on these statements and introduce new aspects not covered in the statements. All students were then involved in online informal polling to measure the strength of each argument in convincing or changing opinion. In this course, the debate comprised 20% of the students’ course grade, and it was a group mark.(Park et al., 2011)


In another example individual students take both sides of the debate sequentially. The students have 4 - 5 weeks on their papers which includes an annotated bibliography. Students are then asked to write an essay in which they present both sides (Park et al., 2011).

What are good practice methods for assessing online debates

Examples tend to have formal summative processes of assessment. Positional papers are followed by rebuttals and online discussions are summarised by individual students as evidence of learning.

A typical example looks like this

The debate was worth 20 percent of the course grade. Although students were assigned a group mark for the debate, the academic coach could adjust an individual’s grade on the debate based on the peer evaluation.


“• used arguments based on logical and relevant material, not simply opinions

• focused on key issues

• challenged flaws in the opposition’s arguments and research

• used constructive criticism and rationale

• avoided faulty generalizations, distorted information, or over simplifying issues”.

(Jugdev, 2004)

Some examples include student self-evaluation to foster personal insights and reflective learning (Park et al., 2011).

What are the benefits

Debates have been suggested to

·         promote critical thinking (Darby, 2007; Kennedy, 2007) in (Park et al., 2011)

·         increase engagement, enjoyment with subject area and increase memorisation and deepen learning (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006; McGraw-Hill, 2009; Tessier, 2009) in (Park et al., 2011)

·         help with reading, writing and researchskills (Lewis & Wakefield, 1983; Scott-Young & Samson, 2008, p. 40) in (Park et al., 2011)

·         encourage empathy (Tessier, 2009) leading to open-mindedness (Berdine, 1987) and tolerance (Galloway, 2007) in (Park et al., 2011)

·         problem solving and decision making ability (Bellon, 2000; Huryn, 1986; Jackson, 1973; Strait & Wallace, 2008) in (Park et al., 2011)


Advantages of using technology

·         more flexibility and creativity to modify the traditional, structured debates to suit pedagogical needs (Roy & Macchiette, 2005; Tu, 2004) in (Park et al., 2011)

·         Support for non native language speakers (Pilkington and Walker, 2003)



What are the issues, and methods to mitigate them

Students need time to overcomes the issues involved in the mastering the technology (Love, 2004), and the lack of non-verbal cues (Tu, 2004) both in (Park et al., 2011)


Debates can be the time-consuming if not formally managed (Jugdev, Markowski, & Mengel, 2004; Lin & Crawford, 2007; Tu, 2004) in (Park et al., 2011). Pilkington and Walker (2003) suggest that students should be slowly introduced to a more active roles in managing online discussions and debates. This can take some of the burden from staff, in areas such as students  keeping themselves on task. This should also lead to ‘ground rules’ that allow all students to build trust in this virtual activity.

A list of suggested attributes of this increased role are:

·         “Exploratory inquiry – asking others to elaborate, explain or clarify anything that is unclear or not explained in enough depth or asking for other examples;

·         Task management/focus – keeping people focused on the issues to be discussed, encouraging them to move on when necessary and to discuss as many of the issues as possible in the time available;

·         Encouraging participation – encouraging those who are not participating to join in whilst encouraging others to make space for them;

·         Positive feedback – encouraging contributions by giving positive feedback when someone contributes well;

·         Negative feedback – discouraging disruptive off-task behaviour, inappropriate social behaviour, SHOUTING or non-constructive criticism;

·         Content building – answering others’ requests for suggestions, points of  view, examples, evidence or explanations.”

(Pilkington and Walker, 2003)


Students can have an inherent bias or develop one during the process. “Budesheim and Lundquist (1999) suggested that preventing biased may be possible by having students prepare both sides of the argument before being told which side they would be supporting.” (Park et al., 2011) Getting the students to reflect on their developing understanding and change in position might be useful (Park et al., 2011). Students can also be made aware of this issue before the start of the debate. (Park et al., 2011).




JUGDEV, K., MARKOWSKI, C., & MENGEL, T. 2004. Using the debate as a teaching tool in the online classroom. Online Classroom, 4-7.

PARK, C., KIER, C. & JUGDEV, K. 2011. Debate as a Teaching Strategy in Online Education: A Case Study. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 37, 17.

PILKINGTON, R. M. & WALKER, S. A. 2003. Facilitating debate in networked learning: Reflecting on online synchronous discussion in higher education. Instructional Science, 31, 41-63.




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