Debate Debrief and Results

virtual impersonation 2Tuesday night was my Virtual Impersonation Debate for GSU. I played the role of John B. King, and I had four fantastic classmates doing “Real Time Research” and feeding me information, questions, and answers. Minutes before the debate, I rehearsed and timed my opening statement and wrote a few notes on actual paper to steady my nerves more than anything.

catfish notesI can’t speak for my classmates, but this assignment was one of the most cognitively taxing synchronous sessions I have ever attended. First, there was the initial research to keep track of in OneNote, on paper, in Slack, and in shared Google Documents. Then there were the private messages from my group and keeping up with that dialogue. Then I had to actively listen to the debaters and note their strong and weak arguments.

Minutes before the debate, I posted how one might do a Virtual Impersonation Debate (renamed Catfish Debate), and now, here are some additional reflections from the experience and some caveats when trying a Catfish Debate in your own synchronous session.

Cognitive Presence and Load

Again, let me stress just how much I learned about my person and my topic by completing this exercise to prepare. I have at least a dozen articles annotated about King and more on learning analytics. Then there is the research from my group. Not to mention the nomination hearing from the Senate I watched while ironing before the debate.

During the debate, the research and analysis continued. We listened for weaknesses and commented on classmates’ speeches and questions.

DOE 4 5:30 PM – i agree. not with how la can be easily integrated to online learning. and i found some balling quotes from koller on the equity of education

DOE 2 5:33 PM thats where im confused, why did they choose 4 people for LA and only one against? But from our research and listening to the openings it sounds that he is the only one against

DOE 3 5:46 PM I’ve got a great article slamming Canada too

DOE 3 5:47 PM Canada has TWICE kicked out an entire class. A few years ago, Paul Tough wrote a book about Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone called “Whatever It Takes.” Tough tells the story of Canada firing the entire entering class–three years after they started sixth grade–because their persistently low test scores embarrassed the bankers and lawyers on his board.

DOE 2 5:49 PM snowdens group has their work cut out for them

DOE 4 5:49 PM but now we’re focusing on facebook privacy policies not learning analytics

But not all of it was 100% research:

DOE 2 6:07 PM hello zuckerberg?!

DOE 4 6:08 PM zuckerberg, stop announcing that you are looking through your notes


DOE 3 6:15 PM I’m still ready to smack down Canada

DOE 2 6:16 PM can we give him a piece of our minds after class lol

Together, we wrote 4111 words (including our names and time stamps). The whole class, five teams, generated 14,792 words during the debate, which is 80 double-spaced pages. The professors, who were privy to our private chats, told us most of the chat was analytical and on topic. Researchers studying cognitive presence online look at five levels of depth, and most online courses typically stay at level 3. During the debate, our discussions were level 4.5.

Managing the Debate

How a teacher facilitates the debate depends on the instructional purpose and a teacher’s own pedagogy. If the goal is to explore a specific topic, then the facilitator should remind groups of the topic when asking questions, or maybe even encourage groups to rephrase their questions. Also, if the goal is to eventually choose a winner, then the facilitator should divide the debaters into clear pro and con sides to help groups know who to ask questions, and attack, during the question round.

catfish graphWhat happened Tuesday seemed to be more of a roundtable discussion about online instruction and student data instead of learning analytics. The opening statements seemed vague, and some groups did not position themselves as pro or con learning analytics. To avoid this scenario, a teacher should make sure students have a clear understanding of the debate’s purpose and the outcome.

In addition managing the topic and form, the teacher should also make sure every group has a chance to answer a question. You can see in the image how my professor kept track of the question round by showing who asked whom a question. If one group doesn’t receive a question, the professor said he jumps in with a question.

The importance of an alias

My first thought when told to sign in as the actual character was that it was mere fun. You know, the whole, “When you’re on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” The name, I thought, merely added to the fantasy. The group names, I thought, were merely for comradely.

During the debate, however, I realized that these names are crucial to protect our ideas and to prevent the discussion from becoming personal. For example, during the debate, many things the Gregory Canada group said and did I found incredibly annoying and from left field. Edward Snowden (never mind the fact the group logged in as Eric Snowden) experienced many connectivity issues and was also late. On the other hand, Daphne Koller was well spoken and asked solid questions. You can see from our group chat that we were less than kind toward the other debaters. The aliases created a separate environment from the usual class environment, so after the debate, those biases about the groups faded away.


Finally, when conducting the debate, there are a few things that can go terribly wrong, and the instructor should plan for them and/or know how to react.


If a debater is late, verify he or she is coming by asking the specific group. Then stall as long as you can. Also ask teams to plan for a back-up spokesperson in the event the assigned person is unable to attend class.

Setting up private chats

Since students will use the private chat, make sure each student knows how and sets that up before starting. This actually took a while for one group to set up.


The debate relies on microphones and voice chat. Lag can seriously disrupt a debater’s ability to follow the discussion and ask and answer questions. Should this happen, the instructor should communicate with that individual and offer to repeat questions directed to the individual.

Full understanding of the structure

To maintain a true debate, the instructor should summarize the goal and purpose of the synchronous session. If students will vote at the end, remind students at the beginning. If students should focus on a specific point, emphasize that too.

The Virtual Impersonation Debate was truly a success, and all of the effort students put into researching and planning shows during the synchronous session. I highly recommend this activity, and I cannot wait to try it in my own courses.

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