Teacher Reflections

Students’ Anonymous Debate: Trump vs Clinton


How can we have students meaningfully engage with content that is being created in real-time? How can we create spaces where students feel comfortable asking peers probing questions on critical issues?

One solution: Carefully structured online spaces that provide live peer commentary and anonymous discussion.

Excerpt from students discussing September 26, 2016 Presidential Debate

Verso is just one of many tools such as Todays Meet, Google Classroom, Moodle Discussion Boards, and Back Channel that help facilitate online discussions. However, what sets Verso apart is that students post comments and questions anonymously and students can “up vote”  posts.  While teachers can see who has posted what, students post anonymously which makes students who might normally be reluctant to speak up in class comfortable sharing their views. Also, up-voting allows students to bring their peers’ attention to ideas they find interesting or important.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGaSzE2bilk]
Verso can be an effective tool for helping students collaborate to create new understandings, as suggested by student-centered, reflexive pedagogy, and it is especially useful when learning about issues that are manifesting themselves in real time.  Below are seven principles of reflexive pedagogy as characterized by William Cope at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed by how they can be applied to students analyzing the Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.   For this activity, students received the following prompt & instructions:

  1. Before watching the debate:

    • Read Clinton & Trump’s views on key issues using this Washington Post overview
    • Post 1-2 questions that you would like to discuss with your peers during the debate.
    • Upvote as “helpful” the questions you believe are the most important & interesting
  2. During the debate:  Address at least 2 different classmates’ questions and/or post 2 thought-provoking observations about each candidate’s performance or how they addressed a specific issue.


  1. Ubiquitous Learning: anywhere, anytime, anyhow

Although students began the discussion in class by formulating questions, the conversations continued throughout the evening during the debate. Also, we were able to see which questions most students found interesting or important and analyze what made the question effective. Students could watch the debate on TV or stream it on a tablet, laptop or cellphone.  They could also use Verso on their computers or a mobile app.  

  1. Active Knowledge Making: the learner-as-knowledge producer and discerning knowledge discoverer/navigator

Students were able to deepen their understanding of key issues like the economy, national security and immigration by reflecting on their own views and supporting their opinions with evidence from the debate.   

  1. Multimodal Meaning: new media texts, multimodal knowledge representations

The students discussed by writing their responses but it was based on the debate they watched on TV. The discussion could be extended by asking students to post infographics or additional videos to provide evidence for their arguments.

  1. Recursive Feedback: formative assessment, prospective and constructive feedback, learning analytics

By encouraging students to respond to each other’s writing, students received feedback on the quality of their arguments.  However, to improve this activity next time, it would be important to ensure that all students get

  1. Collaborative Intelligence: peer-to-peer learning, sourcing social memory and using available knowledge tools appropriately

The anonymous posting allowed students to share their views confidently. Also, students learned from a broader range of students

  1. Metacognition: thinking about thinking, critical self-reflection on knowledge processes and disciplinary practices

Students had to self-assess what they already knew about an issue and formulate questions on what they wanted to learn about a candidate’s views.  Students also had to reflect on why they agree or disagree with a position, articulate their position and adjust their views in response to their peers’ challenges.

  1. Differentiated Learning: flexible, self-expressive and adaptive learning, addressing each student according to their interests, self-identity and needs

Although the online platform allowed students to share links to articles, video, etc, most students just responded with written commentary.  In the future, I will encourage students to find a greater variety of sources to support their views. Providing students options for the types of questions and responses they posted gave them the opportunity to pursue their own interests in issues facing our nation.

NOTE: This post was inspired by  coursework from the New Learning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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