Debates Via Computer Networks: Improving Writing & Bridging Classrooms

From elementary school through college, we typically tell our students that there are two different ways to understand and use the material they learn. In the ìhardî math/sciences, they should seek the correct and objective answers. In the ìsoftî humanities and social sciences, there is no universally accepted truth, so they can take any subjective position and argue for it persuasively, sometimes disregarding the less convenient facts.

It is no surprise, therefore, that my class of first-semester college students are sometimes confused when asked to write a balanced and objective analysis of a ìsoftî public policy issue. Even if they ultimately recommend one policy option over another, they are to discuss the disadvantages and uncertainties. Many still end up producing one-sided persuasive arguments.

In reality, both persuasive and balanced evaluations are a vital part of every discipline. The theory of relativity and the feasibility of space travel may be considered truths now, but they were once controversial ideas advocated by a few persuasive scientists and engineers. On the other hand, as difficult as it is to determine the truth in the humanities and social sciences, practitioners in those disciplines must attempt to do just that. Did U.S. policies accelerate or delay the fall of communism in the Soviet Union? Would teenage drug use increase or decrease with legalization? Historians and sociologists must seek hard evidence to answer such questions and to sway those in their respective fields, just like their colleagues in the hard sciences.

This paper describes a tool called the Electronic Issue Forum, which was designed with two goals in mind. One is to give students experience in writing both persuasive and balanced papers, and in scrutinizing any alleged evidence for or against their case with skepticism. The other goal is to do so in a way that supports distance learning, whereby students and instructors in different schools form a single class.

Distance Edís Missing Component

Few schools have the resources to offer a wide range of specialized courses that only a fraction of their students would take, such as Advanced Placement (AP) physics, African history, or public speaking for the speech-impaired. Distance learning makes this practical, while also allowing outstanding teachers and individuals with specialized expertise to reach more students. Distance learning also enables students outside of schools to participate, whether they are on the job or in a hospital bed.

Unfortunately, todayís distance learning systems have limited capabilities. Typically, a camera is placed in front of an instructor linked via a telecommunications network to a video monitor that remote students can watch. Many of these systems also have audio or video links from each remote location back to the classroom where the instructor is, so students can ask questions. Much can be achieved with such a set-up, but its still a long way from offering remote students the same quality of education as those who can be physically present, and this imperfect imitation of live classes d'es nothing to exploit the unique advantages of todayís technology.

One serious limitation is that students using these systems have few opportunities to interact with each other. In traditional classrooms, students can learn more from each other than they do from the instructor, and when a class contains a diverse group of students from around the world who share a common academic interest, this is even more likely. Consequently, there is motivation to supplement these videoconference systems. Students need more opportunities to interact with their peers, regardless of whether they are all in the same location or thousands of miles apart.

This is possible by using computer networks such as the Internet for all communications. To date, we have principally relied on two simple tools that allow students to exchange ideas: electronic mail and newsgroups. These tools have the following important advantages over alternatives such as face-to-face meetings, telephone calls or exchanging written text.

Students (and instructors) can communicate by sending and reading mail without ever being in the same place, or ever acting at the same time. Not only d'es this facilitate distance learning, it means students in the same school donít all need their own computer at the same time.

Complete records of all activities are generated automatically, and can be used for student reference, and later for grading. These records can be made automatically available to all interested participants. Mail reaches its destination within seconds, so fairly heated exchanges are possible.

Finally, the lack of visual cues may also be an advantage, encouraging shy students to participate, and maybe even challenge the instructor in a way they would not do in class. Emerging multimedia tools will also allow future students to record and exchange audio recordings, pictures, animation and even video.

What is the Electronic Issue Forum?

Students in a course for first-semester college freshmen now participate in role-playing games via an Electronic Issue Forum over an extended period. Like other forums, this is a place where controversial issues can be discussed. However, in this forum, all communications takes place over the computer network.

Every student selects a role in a given controversy at the beginning of the forum. Once the forum has begun, they submit their writings to a newsgroup dedicated to this issue. An instructor typically sends confidential comments back to students via electronic mail.

The roles adopted by students vary tremendously, but each role belongs in one of two categories: partisans and decision-makers. There are two critical differences between the two. First, a decision-maker must ultimately make a balanced decision that considers the needs of all parties. In contrast, a partisan argues from the perspective of a particular group or organization in the debate, and the partisanís goal is to influence decision-makers.

For example, if the issue were a bill before Congress on Medicare reform, the partisans might include representatives from the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Medical Association, Blue Cross and the Concord Coalition, while the decision-makers could all be members of Congress who must decide how to vote and explain their decision to their constituents.

The second difference between partisans and decision-makers is that partisans must do outside research for evidence to back up their points, while decision-makers rely on input from partisans. Each student plays a partisan in one forum, and a decision-maker in another.

Initially, partisans must try to understand their roles, and begin research on the positions they should take and the evidence they might present. Partisans eventually begin posting their initial statements on the appropriate newsgroup. These statements may be deliberately incomplete. For example, a partisan may argue that there are three issues that matter, and then proceed to discuss only one of them in the first statement. As more partisan positions are taken, partisans can start to comment on each otherís statements, perhaps leading to open debate.

To further encourage discussion, decision-makers are required to comment on the status of the debate at one point during the forum, and each decision-maker is given a different deadline to do this. In this comment, the decision-maker lists the positions that have been taken by partisans so far, the most compelling arguments made so far in favor of each of these positions, and any critical issues that have not yet been adequately addressed. The latter is a way that a decision-maker can signal to partisans what they might have to address to win the decision-makerís vote.

Finally, there is a deadline after which partisans may no longer add to the debate. One week later, each decision-maker submits a balanced evaluation of the issue, a final decision and the reasons behind it, drawing exclusively from the research done by partisans.

Advantages, Opportunities, Variations

While all participants in our Electronic Issue Forums are students enrolled in the same class at the same university, they are not all in the same section. Eventually, we hope to include students taking similar courses at other universities in these forums.

It is also useful to include non-students. After all, any one who is connected to the Internet can easily participate. For example, in the above debate over Medicare, one might include an interested doctor, or someone who is currently receiving Medicare. Input from these outside parties can improve the quality of the debate. Students reacted very favorably to this idea, so even if such outside parties say little, their presence may motivate students to take the work more seriously.

There are many advantages to the Electronic Issue Forum. By explicitly separating the balanced analysis from the persuasive one-sided argument, students can better understand both. It is clear from studentsí work that this goal was achieved. Also, since both rival partisans and decision-makers will react to and possibly discredit their writing, the students acting as partisans have strong motivation to seek evidence that is difficult to refute.

As in any place where students exchange ideas on a problem, they can also learn much from each other by example. This includes any thing from how to write a solid persuasive argument to how to apply some of the concepts learned in class to a specific problem. Moreover, like the Internet pen-pal programs many schools already employ,[1,2] the Electronic Issue Forum exploits the fact that students are often more motivated to write well when they know their work will be read by peers. Finally, students may learn something about the actual process of policy-making, which often d'es involve the clash of partisans who must lobby a decision-maker over an extended period.

While this format has been described in a policy context, some variant of it is applicable to a wide variety of subjects. Partisans could be adopting a particular position on any subject where there is cause for disagreement. What was the most important cause of the American Revolution? Is matter best viewed as particles or waves? The examples are endless and diverse.

Alternatively, students can adopt competing methodologies rather than competing positions. For instance, have them interpret a given set of events in A Tale of Two Cities using Marxist, feminist or deconstructionist analysis. Or direct them to explain certain anthropological discoveries using Darwinian theory, Lamarckian theory or Catholic ideology.

Also, while the primary interest at Carnegie Mellon University is to enhance college-level courses, there is nothing in this format that precludes use for younger students, provided the activity is more structured. For example, there could be more specific deadlines, more detailed instructions, suggested sources that partisans should read, etc.

Hard Lessons Learned From Use

The biggest problem we encountered with forums is that, like any long-term project, students have a tendency to procrastinate. This is a particularly serious problem because forums, by their nature, work only when a critical mass of students become actively involved.

As with face-to-face debates, once enough students become genuinely enthusiastic, the discussion takes on a life of its own, and instructors must simply keep out of the way. If it takes too long for this to occur, those students excited by the issues become frustrated that their positions are not being challenged by classmates, while the other students make little progress. The challenge is to get a significant number of students engaged early on.

One strategy that proved useful was to attempt similar role-playing games over issues of significant interest during a single class period. This leaves no time for useful resolution, but it shows students how the process works and, if all g'es well, that it can be fun. Students asked to participate in these mini forums did markedly better work when the Electronic Issue Forum began.

Another way to make students more enthusiastic is to give them the power to choose roles they would enjoy. In the process, students are given a number of forum issues, which they rank in order of preference. They are then assigned to a specific forum, using their preferences to the extent possible. Next, as a group they determine what the partisan roles might be. They can then each select one of these roles for themselves.

This leads them to a role of their choosing, but there are dangers. Some students select roles without understanding how hard they will be, and must be guided elsewhere. Also, instructors must insure that the list of roles is evenly balanced. If 80% of the partisans are in agreement, the forum is more likely to flounder.

To begin, the students must first understand the role they selected. If a student is a partisan for the American Medical Association (AMA) in the Medicare debate, she must know whom the AMA represents and what aspects of this issue are likely to be a concern. Students should be required to discuss this with an instructor individually or in a small group early in the process. In the past we made such meetings optional. It is clear that students who attended these meetings got off to a better start with less effort, and they generally maintained this advantage throughout the forum.

Grading Criteria & Other Student Needs

Students must then begin work on their first partisan statement. Since this is something new for them, clear instructions are important. We give them detailed guidelines, which include grading criteria.

In particular, partisans are graded on six criteria: (1) the relevant information they were able to uncover, (2) the analysis they performed, (3) the persuasiveness of their arguments, (4) the timeliness of their submissions (where early is always better than late), (5) the organization of their submissions, and (6) the writing style, e.g. whether it is clear, concise, interesting, and free of spelling and grammatical errors.

Decision-makers are graded on five criteria: (1) the positions they took in the final decision, and the persuasiveness of the reasoning behind them, (2) the restraint of the final decision, i.e. the extent to which it is balanced and declares its own limitations, (3) the organization of their submissions, (4) the writing style, and (5) their mid-forum summary of the strong arguments made to date by partisans, and the important issues not yet addressed.

One issue that particularly must be stressed in the guidelines and grading criteria is that each submission to the Electronic Issue Forum is like handing in a paper. Because submission occurs by electronic mail, some students are tempted to take it less seriously, yielding more informal writing and sloppier thinking.

We simultaneously emphasize that while students may disagree with each other, personal attacks are completely unacceptable. Thus far, however, this has never been a problem. Finally, in addition to grading criteria and instructions, example partisan and decision-maker submissions are very useful.

The most important thing missing from our first set of guidelines was a deadline for the first submission. A student is unlikely to even read his classmatesí work before he has submitted something. It is essential that all partisans submit an opening statement fairly early in the process. This also gives others something to argue against.

Naturally, instruction d'es not end with the initial guidelines. It is hoped that students will improve their work over the course of the forum. Feedback from other students will help in this regard, but it is not enough, especially in the early phases of the forum. Instructors must be prepared to send comments back to students via electronic mail quickly after each submission.

Conclusion

The Electronic Issue Forum has great promise. It is a valuable educational tool for students from a single class, and because it relies exclusively on network applications, it can easily be extended to include students from other schools, as well as interested professionals. Consequently, distance learning can be well supported by using videoconference technology for lectures, and the Electronic Issue Forum to promote student interaction.

The Electronic Issue Forum can also be enhanced through technology. In addition to text, future students will be able to exchange other forms of information like persuasive speeches and animated demonstrations, giving them practice in expressing themselves through other media.


Jon Peha is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, jointly in the Department of Engineering & Public Policy and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. His research spans many technical and policy issues of computer and telecommunications networks, including the use of information technology for education, and promoting universal access. To this end, he has worked with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, private schools, community centers, Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Public Housing.

Web page: http://www.ece.cmu.edu/afs/ece/usr/peha/peha.html


References

  1. Peha, Jon M. (October 1995), ìHow K-12 Teachers Are Using Computer Networks,î Educational Leadership: Journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Vol. 53(2), pp. 18-25.

Peha, Jon M., ìInternet Use in Schools: Observations and Issues,î Educational Psychology, Annual Edition 1996/97, pp. 159-65.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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