Curriculum

High School Debating Takes a Digital Turn

By Theresa Harrington, Contra Costa Times, Concord, Calif. (MCT) — February 19, 2013 4 min read
Carondelet High School history teacher Phil Miller is integrating technology into classroom debates. He allows students to earn participation points for researching and posting arguments on a digital back channel, providing research support to their teammates making oral arguments in front of the class.
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In Phil Miller’s Advanced Placement U.S. History class at Carondelet High, an all-girls Catholic school here, students have a more sophisticated way of communicating with each other during classroom debates than they had in the past. They are going digital.

During a hotly contested debate recently about whether it was a good idea for the United States to annex the Philippine Islands in 1900, students pulled out laptops and logged on to team blogs to tap out ideas for questions and arguments.

While four students from each team made oral arguments, including rebuttals and cross-examinations, the other students on their teams searched online and posted supporting arguments on the blog that Mr. Miller calls “the back door.”

“This type of program includes the entire class,” he said. “I had one girl last year who would rarely raise her hand, but she’s a really good writer and by supporting her debate team, she was able to make public four arguments.”

In classrooms and forensics leagues around the country, technology is increasingly being used in debate preparations and during the debates themselves—and some organizations, such as the National Forensic League, are even beginning to incorporate technology through online debates. The league, a Ripon, Wis.-based nonprofit honor society with more than 3,000 middle and high schools signed up, is currently testing an online platform that would allow for virtual debates, said Adam Nelson, the director of programs and education for the organization.

Mr. Nelson said debate societies are generally becoming more comfortable with using technology, as more and more debate coaches are embracing administrative software that helps organizers keep track of scores and rankings.

But the online platform, which Mr. Nelson said is scheduled to be ready by the end of the school year, could allow for fully digital debates with participants from all over the world.

“We think there’s a lot of demand for this type of service,” he said.

However, Mr. Nelson concedes that a shift to technology-enhanced debates could raise equity issues, as some students without the right technology at home might not be as skilled in using digital tools as those with better access. And a complete shift to online debating tournaments could cut down on some of the social aspects of debate leagues, such as meeting members in person from different schools or regions.

“But since we don’t see online debates replacing the traditional tournament, we’re not too worried about that, either,” Mr. Nelson said.

‘Cool Way to Learn’

In Mr. Miller’s class, students said they like integrating technology into their debates because it allows for research to be ongoing, instead of preparing arguments ahead of time and then getting stumped if the opposition makes an argument that is difficult to rebut.

“It helps so I don’t feel stuck,” said 16-year-old Julianna De La Torre, who argued in favor of annexation of the Philippines. “I’m going online to do research and getting backup on the blog.”

Arguing against annexation was Kelsey Pasco, 16, who said the tech-savvy debate format keeps everyone involved, instead of only those making oral arguments.

“It’s a cool way to learn,” she said during a break after the first round of arguments. “It makes me want to find out more. And it helps having some backup.”

Scott Wunn, the executive director of the National Forensic League, said that debates help students practice skills that will be in demand, since the Common Core State Standards place extra emphasis on online learning and classroom collaboration. And with more emphasis on technology in debates, barriers to learning are being broken.

Supporting the Speaker

“One of the primary motivators of embracing technology is to increase the accessibility that kids around the country have to the [method] of learning that forensics provides,” Mr. Wunn said. “By allowing the online format, we feel like we’re dramatically increasing the accessibility of this type of learning to students.”

One of Ms. Pasco’s aces in the hole was Olivia Haney, 16, who supplied an argument through the blog that prompted Ms. Pasco to turn and silently mouth “good job” after presenting it.

Ms. Haney said the blog allows all the students to submit their arguments at once, instead of having to wait their turn to speak, as they would in a traditional class debate.

“I think this is a better way to go for people who don’t like to talk,” she said. “There’s nothing to lose if it’s a bad argument.”

Blair Hurlock, one of several De La Salle High students who attend Carondelet classes through an agreement between the two private Catholic schools, echoed Ms. Haney’s sentiments.

“It’s a lot more effective with the computer because we’re able to get our information to the speaker quickly,” said Mr. Hurlock, 16. “Also, it’s a little bit easier for people who are a little more nervous about public speaking to have this as a way to participate without having to actually speak. So, I think that’s pretty cool.”

Mr. Miller, the history teacher, said he’s still working out the kinks in the format. During a break in the debate, he noted that students still wanted to speak to each other about their arguments, instead of just relying on their blog posts, which are hidden from the opposing team.

He also said he would like to figure out a way to allow the speakers to send requests for specific information to their teammates.

“A lot of them need that conversation process along with the digital process,” he said. “They work together. They really do.”

By the end of the debate, Mr. Miller said, the students still wanted to continue researching and arguing both sides.

“It went really great,” he said. “The kids were very much engaged. I would definitely continue to use this method of instruction.”

Editorial Intern Mike Bock contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2013, Contra Costa Times, Calif. McClatchy-Tribune Information Service.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as High School Debating Takes a Digital Turn

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