online debates -tailor made

I was module leader for the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at University of Leeds. To introduce academic colleagues to use of technology in teaching I designed an online task ( structured academic controversy) in the form of a formal debate on a given motion ‘This house believes…’ tackling an issue which is of real concern to module participants.

My specific teaching aims were to support my learners in:

  • Critical analysis and evaluation of the literature (both generic and subject-specific)
  • Searching for appropriate evidence online
  • Reflecting on own practice/knowledge
  • Experiencing  using post, reply and tracking tools in Bodington
  • Team-working online

The ‘thrilling courtroom drama’ is a ‘many-to-many’ asynchronous group task designed to model a blended learning approach with changes of pace, place and players. It is particularly well suited to the rather ‘formal’ interface of the Bodington VLE but it could be transferred to any other VLE.

The learning design centres around  ‘roles’ an online asynchronous debate ‘play’ which supports and enhances the face-to-face teaching on the module. The debate runs for 6 weeks and participants take specific roles as proposers, seconders, debaters, whips and judges. I have written a ‘job description’  for each of the roles which outlines the progress of the ‘play’ and timetable of proceedings.  An online debate room and judges chambers are provided for group working.  The debate motion is presented to participants in the form: ‘This house believes…’ and the participants are divided into two opposing groups with three independent judges.

The debate lasted six weeks, running alongside face to face classes. The asynchronous nature of the debate online ensured that time was given to participants to prepare and reflect on postings and to gather evidence from materials covered as the module progressed. Feedback gathered from the participants indicates that this task was significantly different for them in comparison with other focused reading tasks and that they approached it in different ways. They also indicated that team work and peer competition were motivators in a way that they had not been in other learning tasks. The successful use of structured online tasks to support face to face teaching depends largely on the design of the task and the teacher’s support of the process.

We ran the debate four times, with two groups each time so the model was tested and refined 8 times.

The idea of using online debates was suggested by Paulsen (1985)* as a technique for ‘many to many’ learning in which all participants have the opportunity to take part in the interaction. This approach has been shown to be successful in achieving specific learning outcomes for participants and in ensuring participation in a group activity online. The result was  to create and test a successful online discussion task appropriate to the module and to offer it as a model for use in other contexts.

The group worked towards a specified goal, using their role descriptions and the timetable of proceedings.  Although there is quite a lot of preparation for the teacher before hand, while the debate is running, the responsibility for the process/success lies with participants and they make use of the ‘tracking’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘history’ tools in Bodington to whip their teams into shape. The result is to create an online environment where the teachers ‘voice’ plays almost no significant role in progressing the task. I found this to be a fascinating compliment to the face-to-face sessions during which I was facilitating and talking with individual participants and groups for much of the session.

In the context of this masters level teaching it was important to recognise that participants come to the class with preconceptions and opinions which may be deeply entrenched. The task is designed for deep learning and knowledge construction, asking participants to call upon existing knowledge and to re-order their thoughts and test those in this new context.  The vehicle of a debate encourages participants to search relevant literature to provide more than anecdotal evidence support their position. They are also involved in discussing their ideas with their team and hearing the opinions of others. The groups involved in this debate always bond during the task and this is reflected in the way they organise chairs and tables in the face to face sessions. The group identify their own criteria for assessing the success of the task. In addition to promoting group work and peer support online this debate has the advantage of building a lasting, peer reviewed knowledge base for the cohort as they bring and analyse evidence in support or opposition to the motion.

This was an assessed course, but participation in the debate was not specifically assessed. In each cohort I have seen near complete participation. The only exceptions being participants who missed the first key face-to-face sessions and failed to bond with a team.  By calling upon my colleagues’ competitive nature and enthusiasm for knowledge I am able to move beyond extrinsic motivation for participation in online tasks.

Feedback gathered from participants indicates that they find the task stimulating, challenging and enjoyable and that they see the relevance of the process as well as the activity.

 “When first outlined I wondered whether this task was going to be taken seriously by the participants.  It seemed very ambitious. As a result, the degree of participation and quality of the contributions made in the on-line forums took me by surprise.  It seemed that most participants took their own contributions very seriously and the whipping roles helped peers to encourage others in engaging with the task. The competitive element in the task also helped bond the two opposing groups in a united purpose and encouraged participation.”

“Best online task: certainly labour-intensive, but outcome much more obviously useful (others felt more like hoops to jump through though).”

“The online debate was a lot of work and was quite daunting initially, but I think it was an inspired and very valuable task – it certainly engaged me more than some of the ‘sit and listen’ sessions.”

“People did seem to engage with the online debate and most engaged with the literature. I think it was an interesting idea and one to repeat.”

“I think I see the debate as something which provided a structure to have more in-depth group work: a successfully complementary medium to the sessions, in which, due to the limitations of time, we don’t have the opportunity for research before we bring our ideas together. It did something which we couldn’t do in the face-to-face sessions (good use of technology ;-))”

Feedback to review the nature of the task has also been gathered from experienced academic colleagues.

“I liked the idea of the debate because it offered participants the opportunity to experience an exciting and different approach to learning.  We are trying to encourage them to be innovative in their approaches to teaching and learning and this was a good example.”

“It provided an example of an appropriate use of technology to support face to face learning, an opportunity for you to ‘practice what you preach’.  The participants gained the opportunity to experience contributing to an online discussion for themselves and to take on different roles.  You also gave them the opportunity to experience the thinking behind the task from design through to evaluation a valuable experience for PGCert participants.”

“I have read, and thoroughly enjoyed, the judgements. Certificate colleagues are to be congratulated for their contributions. I am left with the impression that the debate has caused (some) colleagues to analyse and evaluate the evidence – the literature- far more carefully and diligently than they would have without the incentive of the debate. And, as M-levelness is partly about analysis and evaluation of the literature…”

Colleagues who are interested in trialling the model in their own teaching are welcome to the materials including role descriptions, debate storyboard, and indicative structure for delivery online in conjunction with face-to-face teaching.

*Paulsen M (1995) The Online Report on Pedagogical Techniques for Computer-Mediated Communication [Online]. Available : (accessed August 2012)

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