Debate in an online learning environment

By Jack Frost (Senior Lecturer in Education)

Group work provides students with an opportunity to learn from their peers, view content from multiple perspectives and develop critical thinking and communication skills, as well as creating a community of learning and sense of belonging between students.

When students were asked in the JISC Digital Insight Survey (2020) (click here to open in a new tab), what one thing their organisation should do to improve the quality of digital teaching and learning, “more interactivity and collaboration in digital learning” was the fourth most frequently cited response statistic.

More information about group work and the expectations of the Digital Learning Baselines is available here (click to open in a new tab).

Case Study

In the following case study, I shall explain how I developed an online debate for students enrolled on a MA Education Programme. I will describe the pedagogical approach taken, highlighting as I do some of the challenges I experienced in organising the activity.

Context of the module

Crafting Your Masters Study (7PE511) is a core module on the MA Education Programme and seeks to develop student`s understanding of academic and personal competencies that contribute to successful engagement with postgraduate study in the HE sector. The module is developmental in nature and provides opportunities for students to explore their own strengths and weaknesses in relation to these competencies. The last taught session offers students a chance to galvanise their understanding of module content, by providing a debating forum to operationalise some of the competencies they have been exploring. In the past this had been achieved through a classroom-based activity. I felt the need to transfer this activity to a remote setting. What follows is a brief description and appraisal of my attempt to transfer the activity.

The approach taken

An online group work approach was adopted to imitate the classroom-based activity I had utilised over several years. This basically required two groups of three students to prepare a 5-minute speech `for` or `against` a motion over the course of one week. An example of a motion from this particular cohort was;  “Homework in primary schools should be abolished”. Different motions were generated for each set of six students. The groups of students, starting with `for the motion`, delivered a 5 min speech, followed by a 5 min delivery by those `against the motion`. A rebuttal period of 4 mins for each group was granted to foster a `challenge culture`. The events of the debate were recorded, allowing other students in the cohort an opportunity to listen to the debate and vote in favour of the group putting forward the most convincing argument.

What were the steps and processes that had to put in place to implement this approach?

I initially placed students into groups of three based upon my knowledge of student`s personal attributes. After supplying each pair of groups with a motion to debate and identifying `for` and `against` groups, I generated wiki environments on Blackboard for each individual group in the activity. Only the three students in the group could access their wiki (and me of course). Groups worked primarily in this environment over the course of a week to prepare their arguments. The expectation was for each group member to contribute roughly 1 min 45 secs within the debate. On the day of the debates, I explained the following to the groups in a live session on Blackboard Collaborate;

1) Each pair of groups would have a set time to return to the Blackboard Collaborate Room to engage in their debate.

2) Each debate would be recorded and the recording would be placed in a folder in Study Materials.

3) While not engaging in their own debate, students would be expected to engage with review activities relating to content covered in the module. Additionally, when recordings became available, students were expected to listen to debates and using the voting tool Poll Everywhere, vote for the most convincing group for each debate. Links to Poll Everywhere were available in the same folder as the debate recordings.

4) A plenary session calling upon students to return to the main Collaborate area at the end of the session would be used to provide feedback on the activity (in both directions)

What worked well?

The use of wiki environments proved partially successful, in that I was able to view contributions of students in groups at various stages of the week and view how ideas had changed. Wiki functionality on Blackboard allows you to view student participation and versions of the Wiki page at different stages of the preparatory week. Many students, however, opted to establish their own communication channels to collaborate during the week.

Isolating only the two groups involved in each debate within the Collaborate environment helped to reduce levels of anxiety. The students found the flexibility of engaging with reinforcement activities or viewing recordings of debates to be empowering.

Were there any challenges or limitations to this approach?

Groups, as you would expect, came to the debate with different levels of preparation. Although many had scheduled individual 1 min 45 sec input slots, very often these over ran and thus limited their peers talk time.

The anxiety caused by presenting second in the debate, often led to students not focusing on their opposing groups arguments. Hence the quality of rebuttal was a little disappointing at times.

On occasion, the voting tool highlighted large margins in student`s evaluation of groups. One group contacted me after the debates apologising for their performance based upon the voting score!!!

What have you learnt from undertaking this approach?  Is there anything that you would do differently next time?

Students tended to select their own virtual environments to complete the preparatory stage of the activity. On balance I feel that constraining the prep phase to the wiki environment provides me with some fantastic opportunities to see the growth in an argument and thus allows me to integrate this into the feedback I offer the students. A better orientation of the wiki environment for students, including discussion around how I would use it, would have enabled the class to see its usefulness. I shall be looking to create a Panopto video (using screen shots from groups who did use the wiki) to help students navigate and use wiki environments more effectively in the future.

I`d like to reduce levels of anxiety with presenting and enhance the rebuttal phase of the activity. I see no reason why students cannot record their 5 min response to the motion and upload this to the debates area a day before the final activity. On the day of the activity, we would be focusing upon the rebuttal stage. The expectation would be that students access the opposing groups response the day before. This then ensures that;

a) over running of individual inputs does not impact upon other group members.

b) opposing groups can listen to responses to the motion in a non-threatening environment.

c) time can be taken to critique opposing team’s responses to the motion.

Finally, I`d like to use a voting tool that indicates a win/lose option rather than a vote count. I had underestimated the impact of voting scores on students’ motivation and self-confidence.  Hiding public results and only making results available to specific groups could be another option to explore.

Advice for others;

Do take some time in deciding upon groupings and avoid where possible randomised allocation processes.

As you listen to the debates, do take note of the academic competencies that are being demonstrated (or not). Having a list of these will help you at the feedback stage.

Provide an opportunity for students to feedback on the activity. A simple Padlet would do the job.

If you do have any questions about my online debating activity, please feel free to contact me – Jack Frost (

Links to literature about group work (online environment), debates

Alen, E., Dominguez, T. & de Carlos, P. (2015) University students׳ perceptions of the use of academic debates as a teaching methodology, Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, Vol 16 Pages 15-21

Consuelo Garcia & Jesús Privado (2020) Predicting cooperative work satisfaction of autonomous groups using a wiki tool in higher education, Interactive Learning Environments, DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2020.1764590 (Click here to open in a new tab).