Internet Debate Workshop in the Arctic Circle

UVM debater Karen Nelson, one of the founders of the University of Tampere Debate Society with me on the webcam.

This morning was my second encounter with the debaters from The University of Tampere, Finland in a debate context and I have to say that again I am impressed. We did about an hour and twenty minutes of exercises where students came up with some opening and whip speeches based on motions. I think they have some good speakers there that will be outstanding debaters with some refinement and some more public speaking experience.

Karen, pictured above, was a UVM debater near the beginning of "The Experiment," which by now you know is the term used to describe the introduction of WUDC/BP debating in the Northeastern United States. Now studying abroad, Karen has done a great job of introducing the BP format to her colleagues and peers at Tampere. The UTA Debate Society blog chronicles a lot of their great activities. Most importantly (in a selfish way) the experience she's invited me to participate in has me thinking in new ways about the relationship of the internet to teaching.

What is the model of education that we have been placed in our whole lives? What terrain does that model inhabit? This brings us to the thoughtless requirements of one board, desks facing a certain way, a lectern, four walls, and a closed door. Classes meet at a particular set of four dimensional coordinates. Internet communication technologies have the potential to shatter this model, placing student engagement and adaptation to student need on a different metric of education entirely.

Observing debate practice in Finland from my study in Queens. I really like my super-serious academic face in this picture.

Teaching over the internet is something that I am convinced we are going to have to accept as a part of our daily lives as educators. The extreme costs of physical, embodied and immediate education combined with a political will (at least in my country of the United States) that wants to see fewer resources go toward education make it a necessity that communication technologies over the internet be explored by those who understand the value of good teaching. Without that important pioneer work, we are going to be left thrown into the world of online education without a lot of thought, principles or ideas to help us figure out how to do it well. And the students will suffer.

A good example of this is the unthoughtful uncritical application of Powerpoint at all levels of the University. Nobody questions following the generic slide order, slide style, or thinks about ignoring the demand for a title and a name on slide one. Everyone uses the bullet points without reflection. How did we miss the part where we interrogate the new communication technology in order to bend it to our purposes? Does communication always bend to the demands of the new technology? They aren't even demands, so perhaps the frames offered by the new technology are read as demands? This would be in line with Freud's observation that a capacity quickly becomes an obligation. "Because I can, I should."

In the fall I hope to do a lot of experimenting with another instructor from the University of Vermont with our debate classes. With this new inexpensive technology available, why teach in a vaccum at all? Why must online courses replicate the closed off, walled-in classroom? I see a future where online courses are not just bad copies of physical classrooms, but challenge the idea of a classroom directly. What sort of distinction is this, and what are we endorsing when we make such distinctions?

Breaking out of a paradigm of education that extends at least as far back as the Roman Republic is not easy. But we kid ourselves we are making advancements in education when we simply inject these technologies into our pedagogical frame and fail to light the fuse. Debate and these newer modes of internet communication have explosive potential and I look forward to seeing what innovations to the paradigm as a whole come out of this mix.