How Innovative Online Group Debates Using Scientific-Based Arguments Can Build an Engaged E-Learning Community: From a Pilot Project to Real-World Application

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Online group debate is an effective problem-based online teaching strategy to help students develop highly transferable skills to discover scientific-based evidence, enhance collaboration, present cogent arguments, and evaluate solutions for controversial issues. Participants will discuss/explore pros and cons of online group debates through didactic discussion and group activities.


Cheng-Chia (Brian) Chen, PhD, is an assistant professor of public health in the Department of Public Health at University of Illinois at Springfield. He obtained a PhD in Health Behavior from the Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University School of Public Health–Bloomington. Chen’s research is broadly focused on health promotion, health policy analyses and online teaching technology. His recent research projects include investigating and developing a better understanding of social determinants of obesity and related health conditions to enhance strategies for intervention, prevention, and health policy making from multidimensional approaches. He teaches biostatistics for MPH students (for both online and on campus sections). He was selected as a Faculty Research Fellow for the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Additional Authors

Dr. Vickie Cook is the Executive Director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service (COLRS) and Associate Research Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Springfield. Dr. Cook has been actively engaged providing consulting and faculty development with educational leaders across the U.S. and in Mexico. Her work has been published in a variety of national educational publications and serves as a reviewer for top journals in the field of online learning. She worked as part of a team that authored the UPCEA (University Professional & Continuing Education Association) Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership. She teaches online in the Masters of Arts in Education graduate degree program at University of Illinois Springfield. Her current research agenda focuses on two areas: 1) Exploring learning and professional development through a heutagogical lens; 2) The impact of a systems approach for online leadership. Dr. Cook has served on several regional and national committees, as well as having been a long time member of Illinois Council on Continuing Higher Education (ICCHE) serving in multiple roles on the Executive Board; serves on the Board for the University Professionals & Continuing Education Association (UPCEA); has served as a mentor for the Association for Continuing and Higher Education (ACHE); is a member of the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and has served on program steering committees for the UPCEA Annual Conference and OLC Annual Conference. Dr. Cook curates top articles in online learning, online leadership, and pedagogy that she shares on LinkedIn and Twitter daily.

Extended Abstract

Learning Objectives

  1. Design online group debates that facilitate teamwork and collaboration.
  2. Evaluate learning/collaborative outcomes through real stories from students and group leaders of the debates.
  3. Justify problems of online group learning and solutions to enhance the debate environment.

Introduction and Background

Online education is a growing field. More than 29.7% of students took at least one online course in Fall 2015. A persistent challenge is to successfully adjust traditional methods of instruction to online course delivery modes. A large body of literature provides evidence that online courses can be as effective as face-to-face courses when the pedagogy is well-designed to match online learning needs and students are able to interact with their instructor and classmates. In addition, studies have shown that requesting students to simply post their opinions to address the instructors’ questions may have limited learning effectiveness. To resolve this issue, implementation of online collaborative learning communities (e.g., online group debate) is needed.

Debate in education settings has been broadly used as an effective teaching strategy for collaborative learning. This teaching approach can be especially effective in courses where certain topics don’t have right or wrong answers. Educators have long been applying debate techniques and evaluating their effectiveness in increasing the capability of critical thinking and active learning among students, improving students’ writing/research/public speaking skills, and enhancing the overall learning process and engagement between students and instructor. However, it is challenging to provide an ideal debating environment for online students due to limited opportunities (e.g., lack of face-to-face class meetings) to interact with their peers closely.

The objective of the study was to examine the effectiveness of online group debates in an online public health course. We will also demonstrate an intensive case study that provides hands-on experiences and strategies to design an effective and collaborative online debate using scientific-based evidence. An online group debate can be a useful tool for interjecting social presence in online learning. In addition, sound instructional online group debate design and strategies are paramount in achieving remarkable student learning outcomes. Student collaboration enables development of team skills and affords a peer learning environment in which to develop critical thinking and communication skills. Students must draw upon scientific-based evidence to argue controversial policies and topics that may have a significant impact on public health interventions and prevention strategies.

Interaction/Engagement Activity:

Q1: Does anyone have online debate experience as an instructor or a student and would like to share your personal experience?

Q2: Regardless of your online experience, what would be the differences between in class debate and online group debate? 


Data Collection and Analysis

There were 23 subjects enrolled in an online section of a public health course from a Midwestern university. Seventy percent of the students were females. Mixed methods were used to evaluate student attitudes assessed through an online survey and selected voluntary interviews at the end of the semester.

Online Group Debate Project Components

Each debate involved 2 teams of 3-4 students. All group members were expected to participate in research, development, and presentation of their group’s debate position. During the first week, the instructor asked students to post a short biography and a picture of themselves on Blackboard. During the second week, group members were randomly assigned by the instructor and each group signed up on a first come, first served basis, specifying both the debate topic and desired position (i.e., affirmative or negative). During week 3 & week 4, each group completed a team-building exercise including communication methods, time frames, each week’s goals, agreements, and internal due dates. Moreover, team leaders were required to report teams’ progress to the instructor each week.

Each debate project contains the following elements:

  • Pre-debate Activities: Students collected relevant resources and developed draft statements using Google Docs. The instructor gave timely comments and worked closely with students for multiple revisions.
  • Position Statement and 3 Support Arguments: The position statement and support arguments included a discussion of the debating issue, a detailed description of the perspective, an overview of the upcoming arguments, and 3 different support arguments. Students worked in groups to create an evidence based group position statement and posted it to the course website.
  • Rebuttal: Each group then created and posted a group rebuttal statement responding to the other side’s argument and providing further evidence in support of their own original case statement.
  • Response to Rebuttal and Position Summary: Students were then required to write a summation of their group’s perspective, arguments, response to the rebuttal, as well as closing statements providing scientific based evidence and argument supporting their definitive conclusion.
  • References: Only peer-reviewed journal articles were to be used.
  • Peer Evaluation: Students were asked to evaluate their own participation and contributions to the group, as well as that of their group members.
  • Audience Opinion Paper: Each audience member (non-participant in a particular debate) was required to provide comments for both debate teams and share their own opinions.

Interaction/Engagement Activity:

Q3: What would be the most effective online collaborative tools (e.g., Google Docs, Blackboard Collaboration Tools such as Wikis and discussion board, Facebook Workplace – team collaboration tool)?

Q4: How can an online debate with modern technologies play a role in online learning collaborative communities?

Q5: How can online students use collaborative tools to facilitate their group projects?


Student Attitude

Students’ attitudes towards the following items through online group debate are as follows:

  • Critical Thinking: The online group debate has increased my skills in critical thinking (92% of students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement).
  • Motivation: The online group debate has motivated me to work to my highest level (83% students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement).
  • Challenge: The online group debate has given me a great challenge in this course (96% students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement).
  • Engagement: The online group debate has increased my engagement with my groupmates to accomplish collaborative group work (82% students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement).
  • Learning: The online group debate has helped me to learn (91% students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement). 

When students were asked what they liked most and least about the online group debates, 12 students (52%) reported that they could learn from different perspectives and 9 students (39%) expressed that they had difficulty communicating with their group mates.

Collaboration Tools and Communication Methods

Over 50% of students reported the use of two or more communication methods such as GROUPME and Skype. More than 50% of students strongly agreed that communication methods had a positive influence on their group collaborative experiences. When students were asked to describe their experiences, and explain the impact of the communication methods on their group work, 11 students (48%) reported that GROUPME was effective and allowed them to communicate whenever they needed. Four students stated that they had difficulties getting their Skype to work.

Students’ satisfaction with collaboration tools is demonstrated as follows:

  • Google Docs and Google Slides are useful tools for your group’s collaboration (95% of students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement).
  • Google Docs and Google Slides are useful tools for your learning (91% of students reported that they strongly agreed or agreed this statement).

Interaction/Engagement Activity:

Q6: In addition to the above measurements, can you think of more interesting and meaningful assessments for a collaborative activity such as online group debate? 

Q7: What would be the best practices to achieve effective communication for teamwork and collaboration?

Q8: What can instructors do to facilitate communication among group members? 

Conclusion, Discussion, and Take-away Messages

  1. In terms of students’ attitudes toward online group debates, results from our survey revealed that students perceived enhanced critical thinking, motivation, engagement, and learning outcomes. Moreover, most students thought that the online group debates were challenging in a positive way.
  2. Regarding online debates, the most common positive feedback (52%) from students was that they enjoyed exploring and evaluating multiple perspectives in a collaborative learning community.
  3. Effective communication was considered the most challenging component during the collaboration, although the instructor had incorporated a team-building exercise into the beginning of the debate project and regularly checked with team leaders and group members.
  4. When implementing the online group debate, instructors might need to find a way to setup multiple videoconference calls with groups.
  5. Due to the inherent differences between online and face-to-face debates, it is critical to add a clarification statement in the syllabus to distinguish the difference between traditional in-class debates using personal opinions and online debates requiring peer-reviewed journal articles as references.

Interaction/Engagement Activity:

Q9: What is the most useful and practical knowledge that you have learned from today’s presentation?

Q10: How can you apply what you have learned today for your job position (e.g., instructional designers, online educators, or online education vendors)?

In addition to the above discussion, we will create a real-time online survey with 10 specific evaluation questions to assess the attendees’ learning outcomes.