Argumentation online

The skeptic thread seems to have caused quite a stir, attracted lots of posts and whipped up a fair bit of emotion. This thread, and others initiated by the same author, is where the action is – certainly where there’s a lot of fierce, interesting, stimulating and compelling discussion. And yet this seems to have disturbed some course participants and possibly even course leaders.

It seems difficult to get the balance right online. Either you just can’t get your students to engage in critical discussion – they are all too polite to each other, don’t say what they really think, perhaps don’t even have the necessary critical thinking, argumentation and debating skills needed for academically rigorous discussion or just don’t seem to want to engage the brain – or – they’re going at each other hammer and tongs.

At the Networked Learning Conference in 2004, I was interested that the Open University was trying to tackle a lack of argumentation skills in their students and I often refer back to their paper when working with students online. In my own experience lack of challenge is always more of a problem than ‘flaming’ or the equivalent online behaviour.

As with everything context is all important. If this were a small intimate online course (say 20-30 people), then the fierceness of some of the posts, however justified the content of the argument (and I am finding a lot of the arguments being put forward very thought provoking), could cause a complete collapse of the course, if it caused enough people to withdraw from posting. If it were a small course and I was moderating I probably would do some ‘back channelling’ to try and get the balance right. However, on a course of this size, I can’t see collapse of the course as a possibility and there is no doubt that the sceptic threads have added an energy to the course.

So as a moderator in this situation of a large course and fierce debate in some of the threads, what would be my responsibility to participants who feel intimidated and therefore won’t post. I suppose the alternatives for these participants would include:

  • find smaller/calmer discussion threads/groups to join
  • connect through means other than moodle discussion forums – blogs etc.
  • join the live sessions – Elluminate/Ustream
  • exploit opportunities for making connections between concepts/ideas, through reading, listening, observing and ‘lurking’
  • find like-minded participants and set up your own small groups
  • recognise that participation in forum discussion is voluntary not obligatory

For myself, I haven’t felt the need yet to join the discussion forums. Presumably this means that I am not taking full advantage of this connectivism learning theory – am not connected? Maybe so, but at the moment it feels OK to me.

2 thoughts on “Argumentation online

  1. Prokofy Neva September 15, 2008 / 9:27 am

    Jenny, I really marvel that the mildest of expressions of skepticism — necessary in any democratic discourse in a liberal university — would cause such a furor. There’s nothing “fierce” there. If that is your idea of “fierce,” I guess you never see real debates. People are extraordinarily thin-skinned, fearful, cautious, conformist on this Moodle (replicating the way they are in tech talks and edu talks in general), and smug about those in power fulfilling their wishes to step on someone they feel is going beyond their comfort level.

    You advise all these tactics for avoiding actual thought — go and hang out with your friends in a comfy corner — only stay with those who already think as you do and reinforce each others sameness; don’t even look at debates as they might scare you; only talk in very small groups where “disrupters” can’t disrupt — it’s just amazing, the lengths you go to in order to defend the status quo.

    Each person in this course prides themselves on being modern, progressive, liberal, experimental, thoughtful. And yet all this behaviour shows them to be leading the most stunted tribalist lives. Where do young people aquire such rigid conformism today? They are being taught to conform and hive-mind in the collective by their teachers.

    Prokofy/Catherine Fitzpatrick

  2. jennymackness September 15, 2008 / 11:19 am

    Hi Catherine – it’s great to have your comment. Thanks!

    Here are some further thoughts by me – provoked by your comments

    1. I really marvel that the mildest of expressions of skepticism — necessary in any democratic discourse in a liberal university — would cause such a furor. There’s nothing “fierce” there.

    The question of whether of whether an expression is ‘mild’ or ‘fierce’, must surely be one of perception. If it is perceived as ‘fierce’ then it is ‘fierce’ to that person, but equally could be ‘mild’ to another person.

    2. I guess you never see real debates

    Yes I think you are right here, although I hadn’t thought about it before. I’m one of those people who hates confrontation and has to turn off the radio when the politicians start slanging at each other. The physical tension I feel in these circumstances is unbearable and I have to distance myself from it. That’s not to say that I don’t like discussion, even what I consider to be ‘fierce’ discussion, but if it goes beyond what I perceive to be constructive discussion, and beyond what is helpful to me as a learner, then I withdraw. I have to look after myself first. I wonder if this limits my learning. It probably does.

    3. People are extraordinarily thin-skinned, fearful, cautious, conformist on this Moodle

    Not just on Moodle. This is a reality. I myslef am certainly cautious. I do think we need to help students on all degrees – not just politics – to be able to constructively challenge each other’s thinking and ideas. As a tutor I try and always remember and empathise with how different people are ‘feeling’ so that I can respond accordingly. I can’t teach, have a discussion with, or learn from someone who is not there.

    4. You advise all these tactics for avoiding actual thought

    I didn’t advise these tactics to avoid actual thought or to maintain the status quo. As a teacher, encouraging people to think has always been one of my concerns. I suggested these tactics as a way of trying to ensure that everyone can find a place in the course where they feel they have ‘connected’ sufficiently well with enough people to be able to learn.

    5. Each person in this course prides themselves on being modern, progressive, liberal, experimental, thoughtful.

    Isn’t this an assumption Catherine? I don’t think I pride myself on being any of these things. In fact quite the opposite. I think they are all things I would like to be, but struggle with. Does being on this course necessarily mean that we are more ‘modern, progressive, liberal, experimental, thoughtful’ than others. I don’t think so.

    Finally – and you may find this question exasperating – ‘how did you find my blog?’ I suspect I’m in the technological dark age compared to you. I made this blog public to test whether it would connect me with others and it seems it works. I found your blog, simply because you are so ‘visible’, but I haven’t quite worked out how to find other people who think along similar lines to me. Do we just come across people by chance or are these all random connections?

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