Virtual Debates Via Video Conference Put Low-Income and Wealthy Schools on Equal Playing Fields

Using video conferencing for virtual debates could help level the playing field.

Here’s a debate scenario for you:

That the National Speech and Debate Association National Tournament should be conducted online using video conferencing.

The case for the negative would probably hinge on fears of technological malfunction and a loss of in-room atmosphere.

The case for the affirmative? It’s cheaper to invest in quality video conferencing gear for schools than spend thousands on a one-off trip to Alabama. Especially if your school is on the West Coast.

At the risk of inviting accusations of VC Daily bias, I’m going to skip the actual speeches and award the debate to the affirmative. Why? It represents progress, it makes for a slicker tournament, and it lets every school in the country participate without having to find thousands of extra dollars in their education budget for flights, hotels, and chaperones.

A virtual debate would encourage resource-poor schools to participate, and give them a reason to invest in video conferencing equipment they can use across their curriculum.

Telecommuting for Education

The Speech and Debate Association may not be holding its national debate online yet, but virtual debating by video call is already happening across the U.S. and the world.

Actually, the tiny Norfolk Island K-12 school, situated more than 800 miles off the east coast of Australia, recently won the finals of their state debate championship after beating 27 other schools in the preliminary rounds–all of them staged by video conference.

Costs alone mean the school wouldn’t have even been able to compete had it not done so online. As it stands, the school and its community of just 1800 people will have to find $10,000 to send its star debaters to the finals.

In the U.S., Virtual Debates was acknowledged as the Best Use of Video and Media in Education for its series of online debates across high schools. The Harlan Institute, which specializes in introducing legal studies into high school classrooms, also stages an annual Google Hangouts-powered debate competition that lets students recreate the rigors of courtroom debate.

There’s clear precedent for staging debates by video call, all that’s left to figure out is how exactly a national competition would operate.

How Online Debating Works

The Harlan example is the easiest to replicate on a large scale, due mostly to the ubiquity of the Hangouts platform.

Any school can instantly sign up for the free service after setting up a Google account, and as it’ll stream directly from a laptop or PC browser they can be online in seconds.

Of course, you can improve the visuals and dynamics of the debate by attaching a quality webcam to said device, and there are a bunch of affordable ones that’ll let you pan and zoom and use active speaker tracking, without having to install an entire in-room system.

Just to ensure there’s no funny business going on in the room, you could set up a second camera in the classroom to display the debaters from behind, tripping up any would-be expert assistance. This view could be handy for a moderator, especially one now free to remain in a central location and oversee half a dozen debate contests a day. You could even open the debate up to a public audience by streaming it on the live services offered by Facebook and YouTube.

Now, in this hypothetical situation, each debate team, no matter where they reside in the country, can dial into a central Hangout fronted by an accredited moderator and argue their case. The debate can flow online just as it does in person, and the technological uptick each participating school gets can be used in other areas of the curriculum.

The Benefits of Virtual Debating

Going online turns the school debate into a virtual field trip. In a time of budget restraint following the lingering effects of the global financial crisis, anything that helps keep costs down while still providing access to learning outside the classroom is a bonus.

With their shiny new debate-team webcam and set up, other students can benefit from remote visits from experts, increased connections with other schools, and new ways of conducting educational staples, such as parent-teacher interviews.

But the real focus here is on getting more students, at more schools, exposed to the benefits of organized debate.

Aside from starting them on a path toward one day arguing before the Supreme Court about matters that will govern the way we live, debating helps students develop their speaking skills and learn to better express themselves. It also aids self-confidence and broadens research and self-starting skills.

Staging the debates online has the potential to rob students of the test by fire of speaking in front of a large crowd, but you could overcome that by hosting the later stages of the tournament at a local hall or in front of the school population.

I’m sure if a small school from Hawaii, Alaska, or rural Montana won through to the semi-finals of the National Speech and Debate Association National Tournament there’d be excitement enough in town to sell tickets by the hundreds.

Who knows, that small town team may go on to compete in an international online debate competition, one that uses instant translation tech to pit students’ wits against the best arguers in the world.

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