Lost in translation: the debate

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

have been working on a series of blog posts about translating existing teaching practices into online models of delivery. In previous posts I looked at the lecture and the seminar, in this one I want to focus on debates.

One of the things I have noticed as the education sector moved rapidly to remote delivery was the different models that people used. However what we did see was many people were translating their usual practice to an online version, some have called this practice mirroring. As part of my work in looking at the challenges in delivering teaching remotely during this crisis period I have been reflecting on how teaching staff can translate their existing practice into new models of delivery that could result in better learning, but also have less of detrimental impact on staff an students.

Debating  is a really useful way of enhancing learning, whether it be a formalised classroom debate, or an informal discussion arising from a presentation or a video.

Chairing and managing debates in a live classroom environment is challenging, but as a chair you need to ensure that the proponents of both sides of the debate, have their chance to put forward their view, but also that they are both given a fair hearing. You need to ensure that people have a chance to contribute to the discussion and ask questions, as well as ensuring that they can be answered. From an educational perspective, you also want to bring in everyone into the debate, so that they are engaged in the learning process.

Trying to translate a debate into an online version can be challenging and fraught with difficulties and may not necessarily engage all the students into the process.

So how do you, and how could you translate a one hour debate into an effective learning experience that happens online. The key aspect is to identify the learning outcomes of that debate and ensure that they are achievable in the translated session.

So at a simple level, you could translate your 60minute debate into a 60 minute online video conference debate.

Merely translating that one hour debate  into a one hour Teams or Zoom discussion probably works fine for many in isolation. However it’s not just an hour, students may also be involved in other online seminars, Zoom lectures, live video streams and more online content.

This can be exhausting for those taking part, but also we need to remember that in this time there are huge number of other negative factors impacting on people’s wellbeing, energy and motivation. People may not be able to participate in synchronous sessions, they may have childcare or other dependents they need to look after, they may be other household challenges.

Running an online video debate, is a different experience to doing a face to face debate. It can be harder to read the visual cues that we take for granted when listening and speaking. It’s challenging to avoid a stilted conversation, as participants try and engage when there are latency issues. There can be multiple people all trying to speak at once, this can be both frustrating, but can also put people off from talking and contributing.,

So though you may be experienced in a face to face debates, it can be useful to structure and plan a video debate, so the students have a clear idea about what is expected of them and what they will need to contribute to the debate and subsequent discussion.

Structuring who will be talking and having clear guidance on how to work out who wants to talk and how they identify themselves.

In a physical situation this can be easily done via people raising their hands. Though tools such as Teams and Zoom allow a virtual hand raising it can be easily missed, unless you are paying attention to it. 

Another challenge is ensuring that everyone is engaged in the whole learning process.

One of the affordances on using an online video conferencing tool such as Zoom or Teams for debates is that you have people discussing and contributing using the chat function.

If you do have a simultaneous textual chat during the online video debate then it can help to have another person to review that in addition to the person chairing the debate. Some students may prefer to post their thoughts and questions to a text chat than turn on their video and use the microphone. They may also be in an environment where that isn’t possible.

You could even lose the video aspect.

So another possible translation, you could take your 60 minute debate into a 60 minute synchronous live text debate.

Again it will be useful to structure and plan a textual debate, so the students have a clear idea about what is expected of them and what they will need to contribute to the debate and subsequent discussion.

It doesn’t take much planning to transform that  60 minute debate into a week long asynchronous textual debate.

This format is useful for students who have challenges in attending at a fixed time due to home or personal commitments, but it’s also an ideal format for students who may be resident in different time zones.

The teacher can interject and encourage students to participate in the debate across the week and this is much easier to manage than trying to do this in a one hour session.

Using digital tools allows much more flexibility into debates. You could record the opening statements, so that they can be seen in advance. You can add a live session to the end.

Taking advantage of asynchronous textual chat you could combine various aspects of all of these possibilities.

Use pre-recorded videos for the opening statements, use asynchronous textual chat for the subsequent discussion and questions. Use live video for closing statements, and even voting or polling software to have a vote on the issue. 

Asynchronous and online debates can often be participated in by much larger groups than in a face to face environment so debates could happen across cohorts, subjects, departments or even with other universities.

The teacher interaction becomes more flexible and they can decide when to participate and adapt it to their own personal circumstances.

In terms of contact hours, or timetabling you can see how the final model would be challenging.

Image by Spencer Garner from Pixabay

Simply translating what we do in our physical buildings into a online remote version, is relatively simple, however it may not be effective. Thinking about what you want that learning experience to achieve and what you want the students to learn, means you can do different things. Of course knowing how to do those different things, is another challenge.

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