An online debate methodology in a nutshell: Part one


With the current European elections and the need of public figures to share their political projects online, I came across some pros and cons about doing or not doing that. In my view the better the politicians share their political projects with their voters the better the election outcomes. I then find this approach a natural undertaking.

Benefiting from the technology facilities to communicate to people remotely has become a daily routine, which is taken for granted by most of us while face-to-face communications are still common activities at our working place or at home.

Assisting Margot Wallström, former Commission Vice-President, during an online debate in 2005

Assisting Margot Wallström, former Commission Vice-President, during an online debate in 2005

The technologies make electronic communication remove physical distances and overcome time constraints. Everything happens at an incredible speed. On the other hand, both face-to-face and online communications complement each other. They respond to certain needs and it would be unfair to say one is better than the other.

This article does not cover any considerations about the current elections, be it local, regional, national or European. Instead, the article introduces a practice example which describes a solution I came up with in response to the need of debating online via a chat tool.

Why looking for an online debate solution?

The example goes back to 2000 when chat tools were in their earlier years. By that time, user generated content was the latest trend happening on the Web, and there were no ideas and signs about the today’s social media and social networks platforms, but some online communities, which even today enable people to gather online and share basic information and files.

In 2000 I needed to figure out something new in the way schools and public figures get together online. I was asked to come up with a new idea in the context of a grant request and a project proposal to respond to a number of EU calls for projects.

Bringing teachers with their students to meet key public figures online to talk on a relevant subject was not an easy task. Coming from a former communist country the idea appeared appalling to me and reminded of those terrible years before 1989, when we were forced to listen to never-ending talks in wooden language, performed by the communist party activists in schools.

Piloting the methodology idea

I had to propose a solution to bring together the two communities: public figures and classes. I first decided to pilot the idea with some teachers from different European countries. I was surprised to note that, especially in the Nordic countries, debating is part of the curriculum and therefore teaching students to debate is essential for their future.

Some teachers in other countries mentioned that bringing debating and politics to school is forbidden by law in their countries, especially when elections are scheduled. During such periods politicians are not even allowed to visit schools or get in touch with students and teachers by any other communication means.

In the following years I noticed that debating lessons in school were introduced little by little in Central and Eastern Europe. Educationalists realised that mastering debating skills is key for the preparation of students to face life as adults.

The pilot project led me realise that teachers actually would like to debate online and link this kind of activity to their debating lessons. I was therefore in favour of naming the activities “online debates” and not “chats”, which has different meanings to different people. “Online debates” is closer to the purpose and outcome of such an activity.

First attempt

For a number of reasons someone else was in charge of the first “online debate”, which happened in the autumn of 2000. Classes from 10 countries were unable to enjoy a decent dialogue with a top level expert from the Commission. It was a real mess.

The students actually ignored the guest and started talking each other on unrelated subjects, therefore, the chat tool was just the pretext to get classes there exchanging information on a large range of subjects. Participants used an unorthodox language register. It was a total failure and the event host was disappointed.

Questions that helped build the “online debating” methodology

I started with some basic questions to help myself build a good methodology. I put myself in the shoes of both teachers/students and hosts. The questions helped me outline the methodology concept:

  • How to overcome teachers’ fears to involve them with their students in sensitive debates where political views can damages their students’ perceptions about society?
  • How to sell such a methodology to teachers who felt oppression in certain former communist countries?
  • How to motivate teachers in the so-called “old EU countries” to respond to the enthusiasm of their counterparts and Central and Eastern Europe? The “enthusiasm” in the former EU candidate countries was higher due to the opening they have been experiencing after the ’89.
  • How to ensure proper communication in a virtual space where communication variables are difficult to control?
  • How to persuade potential hosts to approach subjects that are of interest to potential school-based audiences?
  • How to gently urge potential hosts to soften their political discourse and adopt a plain language approach while talking to young people?

I finally designed the methodology that enabled a proper dialogue between a key public figure and participants. The methodology was based on a lesson approach with certain flexibility to enable teachers to see the benefits of such an opportunity to have an online guest in their classroom for about 50 minutes.

Moderating an online debate in 2002

Moderating an online debate in 2002

The teachers were encouraged to integrate our offer either as a curricular or extra-curricular activity with a cross-curricular dimension since it implied communication in a second language, some basic computer skills and some basic knowledge about the public figure field of expertise.

Part two of this article

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