Recap of Grand Debate at ITC09

This is the first of probably three posts about the Grand Debate at the ITC eLearning 2009 Conference. This will be the most basic (just the facts, please) of the three posts.

  • When: Sunday, February 22, 2009 at lunch
  • Where: ITC eLearning 2009 Conference at Portland (OR) Hilton Grand Ballroom
  • What: Debate Topic – Virtual Worlds are the Second Life for Online Education
  • Why: The Grand Debate is a tradition at the ITC conferences
  • Who: Chris Collins and Barry Dahl (me)

fleep-small vs.

We used Turning Point clickers to measure audience reaction before, during, and after the debate. Many thanks to Turning Technologies for providing the clickers on very short notice. The technology worked flawlessly.

Initial vote – it is a tradition at the Grand Debate to take a straw poll of audience position before beginning the debate. 294 people voted on the slide shown below, clicking either button #1 for the Pro position or button #2 for the Con position.

After the coin toss by Michael Catchpole, ITC Board Member and debate moderator, Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) made her opening statement taking the pro side of the argument (10 minutes max for openings).

A few of the points made by Chris during her opening argument include:

“Loyalist College is training their students to be border crossing guards between U.S. and Canada, and we’ve seen already from the initial reports that the retention rate is high. Students are actually learning valuable skills when they can be in the virtual environment and see what the spaces look like and role play searching the cars and doing the interviews. It has a tremendous affect on what they’re learning and how much they retain.”


“Also, regarding the Language Lab as shown below, “They can role play; if you’ve taught a foreign language class or taken a foreign language class, you know how stilted it can be in the classroom to get students to role play with each other. What if you could take them to Paris and actually speak with native speakers of French? How much different would that learning experience be for them”?

Fleep shot of language lab in second life

A few points made by Barry during his opening argument on the con side include:

“Linden Labs provides their users with no significant means of I.T. support, besides some frequently asked questions and a help page. So, is your college help desk ready to handle these new problems – and there WILL be problems. Second Life sucks up an enormous amount of bandwidth and requires superior processing power on the PC. Your minimum technology requirements will need to be severely upgraded if you begin requiring SL for your classes. Any student with a PC more than two years old can probably forget-about-it. Distance student on a dial-up connection? Forget-about-it. Second Life on a Mac? Forget-about-it, mostly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Linden Labs has admitted that they have a hard time making their grid work with Apple products – and they don’t really seem to care. Do you care? Will you care when your help desk gets to handle these calls?”


Have any of you been paying attention to one of the hottest topics in distance education during the past year – the whole student authentication deal-ee-oh? The whole “how do you know that it’s the right person at the other end of the fiber optics that is taking your online course”? That deal-ee-oh? (Side note: I was beaten up by someone posting online who couldn’t believe I used “deal-ee-oh” in a debate.) Is that robot really who he says he is? What about that silver surfer on the left? Who is she really? Is she really a she? (Chris said “no.”) Most people in Second Life do some combination of the following – gender bending, age shifting, or they resemble animals or other unworldly creatures – NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT!! – and of course, none of them use their real names. Come on now – is this really what you want your classroom to look like?”


During the rebuttal sections, the audience voted with their clickers. The idea was that they would give a thumps up for points that they thought were useful, powerful, or on target; and they would give a thumbs down for points that they thought were the opposite of those things. #3 on the clicker was a neutral rating, with 1 and 2 being negative and 4 and 5 being positive ratings. The line chart updates every five seconds.

Chris’ rebuttal chart is shown below.

Barry’s rebuttal chart is shown below.

A few quotes from Chris’ closing argument: “Where are we in terms of using virtual worlds for education, we’re in the very beginning stages, we’re experimenting.” … “Why is Second Life the one that all the educators are flocking to and interested in? Because of all the virtual worlds, what SL does that no other virtual world at this point does is it allows you the ability to build and create and start experimenting with what it means to create your own virtual environment.”… “It’s the first software to make some of these tools available to somebody who has a lower level of technical skill. I’m not a programmer; but I can create a virtual environment and experiment, so that’s one of the reasons why Second Life has really taken off.”

A quote from Barry’s closing argument: “I didn’t write my own closing argument, but I’d like to share with you a little piece that I found that I think will serve quite nicely. I’ll give the citation at the end.” Then I read most of the information from section 5 of the blog post titled “2008: The Year of Limits” (section 5 is titled “Limits of the Second Life platform and our current Metaverse”). Of course, at the end of the closing it was revealed that Chris/Fleep had actually written my closing argument for me, for which I will be eternally grateful.

After the closing arguments, Michael asks the audience to indicate whether their opinions have moved during the course of the debate. This doesn’t indicate that they changed positions, a Pro person can now be more pro and that would register the same as a con person who is nor more pro, but still a con (etc. etc.)

None of the votes previous to this point really mean anything at all. I always think that the slide above is the best indicator of the success of the debaters – how many people were influenced one way or the other? However, the debate is considered to be won or lost on the basis of the final vote, shown below. In this case, the con side did get the most votes, and more than the number cast at the pre-debate straw poll. So this time there isn’t much question about the debate winner. However, we have had the situation before where the final vote was closer than the initial vote and still the winner was crowned despite losing some of the audience support during the debate. Therefore, it is fairly easy to conclude that you want to be on the most popular side of the argument, regardless of whether you have the best points, issues, and illustrations or not.

The debate did cause quite a stir, from audience reaction in the room, to tweets and live blog posts that included people in the room as well as many people not in the room. Some people really take this stuff seriously which you can get a sense of by reading the comments posted to Bryan Alexander’s live blog post about the debate. I was particularly saddened when someone who I respect and admire took shots at me for not being serious enough. I’ll talk about that more in a later post. Luckily, I did receive many favorable comments from people who were in the room. There were many first-timers in the audience who were unfamiliar with the tradition of the ITC Grand Debate at the eLearning conferences. The impression of these first-timers is most likely that the debate is not at all a serious exercise – and they’re somewhat correct in that conclusion, but not entirely correct or even close to it. There is definitely a serious nature to the debate – but we try to do it in a fun and entertaining way (this is my first and only time as a debate participant). My “performance” (please suggest a better word for that) was a bit more over the top than most. They’re usually a bit irreverent, they’re usually a bit strongly stated, and they’re oftentimes a bit snarky. In all cases my shot at it was more than just a bit of all those things. More about that in a later post when I plan to write about how I really feel about SL/VW.

To end this first post, let me say that meeting Chris was really a pleasure. She is a fabulous young lady who is working on some amazing things and who has an incredibly bright future. She is a great example of the many younger people who are working so hard to reshape the way that we do education. A tip of the virtual hat to her for her participation in the debate, for her enthusiasm about the topic and about education in general, and for her very good nature and kindness.

Image credits:

  • Loyalist College Border Simulation – (Fleep’s slide)
  • Language Lab in SL – still looking for citation of Eiffel Tower pic (Fleep’s slide)
  • Tech Support – original CC Flickr photo by Alan Levine (Barry’s slide)
  • Student Authentication – original CC Flickr photo by Chris Collins (Barry’s slide)