Challenges and Opportunities for Argumentation Skills in the online setting

Published on
April 6, 2021

Since March 2020, the Argumentation Skills course, like most other courses at WUR, has been given fully online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the changes that had to be made, shifting from face-to-face group debate activities to an individual debate in an online setting, the quality of the debates has increased and even come to a more authentic level. Students now debate over a variety of Corona controversial topics such as the mandate of a face mask, lockdown, curfew, travel ban or the obligation for the need for a vaccine passport.

Argumentation Skills

Imagine a situation in which government officials need to make a critical decision on Covid-19 related-issues such as mandate of Face Mask, or Lockdown, or Curfew, or travel ban, or the obligation for the need for Vaccine Passport. Imagine yourself as a child trying to convince your parents to buy you a bicycle when they find that vehicle dangerous. Imagine yourself as an employee trying to convince your employer to give you a promotion or a salary increase. Imagine yourself as a student who work on a group assignment with other fellow students who do not agree with your method. Or, just imagine yourself trying to convince your spouse to spend your holidays on a beautiful beach in Gran Canaria rather than visiting your partner’s family in Iran. There are many varieties of these imaginings occurring in daily life and argumentation plays a major role in all these situations.

“Argumentation skills” is a modular course at WUR aiming at helping students to learn argumentation principles, strategies, and techniques for application in various academic and non-academic settings. In this course, students learn how to apply argumentation when they want to convince audience, or when they are engaged in a debate with their fellow students, or when they deal with controversial issues, or even when they just want to convince their partners, friends and family.

This demanding course is offered 3 periods a year and the number of international students in this course varies from 25 to 50 every period. Next to 12 contact hours which is divided over 3 sessions in this course, there is additional 30 hours in which students spend on their home assignments and preparation for the individual and group activities. During the contact hours, students are fully engaged in classroom activities consisting of various interactive presentations of theory, exercises, role plays, debates, discussions and exchange of experiences.

What has changed due to going online?

Since March 2020, the argumentation skills course, like most other courses at WUR, has been given fully online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, apart from missing social interaction, there is not that much change in the learning objectives, activities and assessment of the course.

The only major change is that the group debate activities in face to face (F2F) situations has changed to individual debates in an online setting. In a F2F situation, typically 4 students (affirmative party) debate against 4 other students (negative party) over a controversial topic while there are 4 students as observers who give feedback to debaters and also act as a jury for the debate. After each debate, the role of groups would rotate in such a way that each group plays all three roles of affirmative, negative, and jury. However, the online setting made this group debate difficult. For example, turn taking and also bringing the relevant argument right on the spot by the qualified student in the group would become challenging in online group debates. As a result, the teacher adjusted this activity and offered this debate exercise individually in which each student debate against another student individually while the third student plays the rule of jury. Like the traditional setting, the role of students rotate in every debate in such a way that each student plays the role of opponent, proponent and the jury.

Despite the shift from group to individual debate, the quality of the debates has increased and even come to a more authentic level, thanks to the controversies related to Covid-19 issues. In the online individual debates, students debate over a variety of Corona controversial topics such as the mandate of Face Mask, or Lockdown, or Curfew, or travel ban, or the obligation for the need for Vaccine Passport. In many cases, the debates have been so rich and interesting that students got so much attached to the topic and did not want the time of the debate to be over!

Instead of the lectures in F2F situation, interactive videos are used in the online setting. All the other learning activities (e.g. argumentative speech to convince the audience, opinion exercise, analyzing debates, fallacy assignment) have remained intact apart from transition from F2F to online setting. Writing reflection reports as the assessment method has also remained intact in online setting. Furthermore, a bunch of educational and entertaining games and quizzes (offered through Mentimeter and Kahoot) have been added to the online version of the course to somewhat compensate for the lack of social interaction. If we can call it compensation, of course!

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What has been the impact on students?

The observation of the teacher and also the official results of the PACE evaluations of the course show that students are still quite positive about this interactive course. Especially, the safe atmosphere for practicing important skills such as debating and presentation to convince the audience as well as the opportunity to engage in high quality argumentative peer feedback and interactive games and quizzes through Mentimeter and Kahoot are the highly-appreciated elements of this course by students. Needless to say that, despite this positive evaluation, students miss the social interaction and personal and group discussions F2F. Below are some quotations from students regarding the online course:

  • “I liked the whole setup of the course. The combination of theory and active participation was very good and resulted in me learning a lot!”
  • “The level of interaction and the working environment. In the beginning of the course, it became clear that most students (including me) were a little bit insecure about their argumentation skills. The working environment was very pleasant, which resulted that everyone felt comfortable to do their utter best for the course and could provide useful feedback. To add, one did not feel attacked with the given feedback from student colleagues, which is of utter importance in this course.”
  • “Next year this hopefully won't be necessary anymore, but one thing that could be nice for the coming year, if corona is still keeping us apart, is to arrange a way for the debates in the third session to be on campus. I think it will be easier for students to assess each other’s debate skills if we actually see the debates in person. I also think organizing these debates on campus would be a possibility, regarding the little space you need for a debate group of 3 people.“
  • “The teacher was really enthusiastic and able to transmit his knowledge, it was really a nice experience! We were really pushed to think critically towards the material. Really opened up our knowledge”.
  • “Kahoot was really nice to use and stimulated a bit of healthy competition + enabled us to understand many concepts and use the acquired knowledge in practice. The presentations we had to do were very fun! Also the fact that we had to give each other feedback really helped to reach the learning goals.”

What can we conclude?

Undoubtedly, we all miss social interaction in the online education. Both teachers and students have a difficult job to remain motivated as we are all becoming tired of online communication and getting bored behind computers at home. Furthermore, it is harder to practice and train argumentation skills due to the lack of non-verbal communication and spontaneous interaction. However, the observation of the teacher and assistants as well the evaluation results of students show that it is possible to have a high quality online argumentation skills course. WUR offers excellent support and a wonderful atmosphere for exchanging ideas among teachers. We need synergy among all the stakeholders to keep the rich education culture at WUR for offering challenging, interesting, and pleasant classrooms.