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Asynchronous Debating - Why not all debates need be in real-time
Submitted by Gordon Stables on 19 October 2012
What does it mean to ‘debate’ online? This simple sounding question deserves consideration. As new social media technologies make it easier to engage others it is certainly possible that online debating could be primarily considered translating the routines of debating to these new platforms.
What if translation is only part of the challenge? What if we consider the opportunity new technology provides to revisit the basic elements of a debate? We are certainly familiar with the expectation that a debate involves competitors coming to same place, speaking, being judged and then leaving. Does this have to be the exclusive option?
Embedded in that traditional model is the expectation that the debate will largely occur in real-time. Except in some formats for a minimal allocation of preparation time, the debaters are expected to immediately follow each other according to a specific blueprint. Historically rules also prohibited competitors from any outside assistance. Across many different formats, there is a norm that competition debating required competitors to enter this competition ‘bubble.’
The notion of the competition bubble has been undermine, but not eliminated, by the expansion of wireless internet access. A second and perhaps more fundamental shift away from the competition bubble is now also possible. What if the debate did not take in place real time? What if participation in the debate competition was one of many items that were part of our daily responsibilities?
Asynchronous (or not real-time) video debates are now possible and potentially valuable set of formats. When reviewing debate styles, it is noticeable how different formats reflect different educational and competitive rationales. Events can encourage more or less advanced notice about the topic to calibrate the optimal role of preparation. Speech lengths can be modified to challenge speakers with more abbreviated commentary. Why not consider how debate could function with the opportunity to debate, pause and debate once again?
Debate exposes young people to learning the skills of judgment. Admittedly simulating a legislative experience is a useful means of encouraging young people to confront the relative merits of public policy choices. When much of academic debate formats were generated, these were logical templates of public deliberation. Today, however, even those legislatures are confronted by the diversity of ways in which information is produced, distributed and engaged.
By placing people into discussions about issues it encourages us to challenge our understandings of those subjects. If we are interested in simulating the way individuals are exposed to information today. The campaign Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children to raise awareness of the crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony became a viral sensation , not because of legislative activity but of the tremendous reach of the their video campaign. The video peaked with 31 million views in a single day and has now been seen over 92 million times.
The remarkable distribution of this video created a deal of controversy, much of it suspicious of how an organization with a relatively low public profile (especially when compared to larger human rights organizations) could gain so much exposure. The controversy over the organization itself, their goals and tactics closely resemble the controversies that motivated the rise of traditional debate formats. Individuals found them assessing being forces to draw their own judgments about the relative merit of this new campaign, just as individuals once struggled to assess new forms of media such as radio transmitted speeches or television productions. The setting is new, but the need for critical citizens remains.
The role of asynchronous video is not limited to the non-profit sector. Private companies utilize their YouTube channels to reply to consumer concerns, as in this example from FedEx. Companies can also generate new news routines through these videos. Paramount Pictures utilized the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ decision to tell the star of The Dictator, Sasha Cohen, to attend the Academy Awards as himself, not in character, as an opportunity for a viral video campaign. Cohen’s character posted his reply and extended the media cycle of this’ event.’ Even YouTube itself has struggled with its protocols to address the challenge of individuals generating attention by having the provocative YouTube girls reply to other videos and drive very unique traffic patterns.
All of these campaigns recognize the dialogic nature of asynchronous video. A video produced by someone unknown and unavailable to us can still be significant to us in our normal media routines. We don’t have to do anything more than open our Facebook or Twitter feeds to consume the messages. Unfortunately, this entire genre of media consumption is still largely outside our understanding of debate, let alone civic engagement.
In a recent survey, The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that less that only 18% of internet users have posted videos that they have produced. When even within a relatively high internet use society, more than 80% of internet users experience these videos only as consumers we can see skill with very limited use.
Lawrence Lessig, the influential Harvard Law professor and digital media critic, encourages us to be concerned with social trends that dissuade individuals from producing digital culture. He outlines a concern as we move to “Read/Only” models where individuals consume, but cannot generate their cultural artifacts (Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, p 520-521). He encourages us to consider the “Read/Write” model where individuals develop more sophisticated means of engaging others through learn to produce, critique, and consume. This sophisticated skill set resembles what my remarkable USC Annenberg colleague Henry Jenkins calls “appropriation” or “the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.” In the significant work, Convergence Culture, he argues this is one of the core skills needed for effective education (p. 56).
This spirit of adaptation to new technological mediums is also found within educational reforms. The Common Core State Standards For English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies & Science encourages innovation. Specifically it suggests that today’s students should, “… employ technology thoughtfully to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use …. they integrate what they learn using technology with what they learn offline. They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals” (p. 7).
These perspectives all provide evidence for why today’s youth can be better prepared to engage in their dynamic world with these skills. Educators will also find tremendous flexibility in being able to integrate the act of debating into their current academic routines. At a most basic level, instead of trying to block entire class periods for a single debate, debating can occur at regular intervals. Just as individuals increasingly diversity the time (live or recorded) or means (television, Video on Demand, DVR, laptop or tablet) of their entertainment programming, academic activates like debate can also utilize these new routines.
We are now at a phase where innovation is starting to explore the contours of asynchronous video debate. Early experiments at the University of Vermont and our tournament competition at USC Annenberg have led to continuous development and exploration. This blog and project reflects the commitment from IDEA and the Open Society Foundations to help explore these possibilities in ways that will promote better educational experiences for global youth. The partnership with Second Line Digital to build VBates, an asynchronous video debate platform, is an important step forward in encouraging user innovation.
There are certainly new issues raised by these formats, but there are also tremendous opportunities. This isn’t the first time technology allowed debate professionals to consider tinkering with the competition bubble. Consider the very successful Brewer Bricker debate competition that mixes asynchronous writing (long-form essays) with traditional speaking experiences. The spirit of innovation reflects the need for careful planning and user experimentation. Asynchronous learning advocates recognize that there is a place for both real-time and start/stop models of education. Debate can and should embrace this same perspective.