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Although “discussions”, in one form or another, are probably a teaching staple in social science classes, one of their major drawbacks is that they can be devilishly difficult to structure, control and record.

Which is both a shame and a problem:

• the former because students seem to find discussions useful and teachers can use them to generate further knowledge and understanding about an issue or idea.

• the latter because without structure and recording it’s difficult to keep track of what’s been argued and, most importantly, why it might be significant.

In other words, one of the inherent problems with debates is the noise that intrudes: non sequiturs, moving away from the object of the debate, getting side-tracked into unfocused discussions, a small number of students monopolising the discussion and so on.

One way to resolve these problems is to create a structured debate using something like Kialo  – a free online debating platform that’s highly structured, so you can easily follow a discussion and jump into it at any point. It’s also very accessible: every student in your class, for example, can simultaneously contribute to the debate. No-one’s voice will be drowned-out and everyone, whatever their level of individual comfort or confidence, can contribute.

Getting Started

While it’s not hugely complex to set-up a question and invite users it’s probably a good idea to familiarise yourself with the general interface, how everything works and so forth – something you can do by having a run through the quick tour that takes you though some of its main features.

Once you’ve got a broad grasp of what the software involves it’s probably a good idea to familiarise yourself with how it functions by setting-up a dummy debate, adding pros and cons, rating different ideas etc. This will be helpful even though the basic principles involved in setting-up a structured discussion are relatively simple and straightforward:

The administrator (you) needs to set a question, which can be anything you like but ideally it should have a number of different “pros” and “cons” (uses and limitations, strengths and weaknesses, etc.) to give your students sufficient scope to create a discussion. This format makes the software useful for both relatively simple discussions (“Do the strengths of covert participation outweigh the weaknesses?”) and more complex “assessment-type” questions (“Assess the contribution made by right realism to our understanding of crime”).

This discussion can either be public – anyone who happens along can contribute – or private: in the latter case only those specifically invited to contribute, such as your students, can do so.

Once you’ve invited your students to participate they can then contribute to the discussion by either specifying information that supports the proposition or argues against it. Students are not restricted to one or the other – they can, for example, specify arguments both for and against the proposition.

An interesting feature of Kialo is the ability of participants to rate any contribution to the debate; ideas that receive higher ratings from participants (in the Kialo jargon “make the most impact”) rise to the top of the discussion chain. This makes it easy, for example, for your students to identify what they think are the strongest and weakest arguments for and against a particular proposition.

The “Comment” feature of the software also makes it possible for students to discuss ideas outside of the main discussion chain; this means they can, for example, discuss with each other the best way to make a contributing point, ask each other questions and the like without any of this appearing on the main discussion board.

Finally, the debates that you create are persistent; they will exist for as long as you decide to keep them and they can be “published” so that anyone can see the complete discussion even if they have not been invited to participate / contribute. This opens-up a range of interesting ideas for sharing information with other schools, colleges, teachers and students…

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