Two sites, two opportunities
Recently, in a 12th grade English classroom, I asked students to navigate between two different types of sites while researching to prepare for debates. I wanted them to begin their research on the New York Times Room for Debate page, so I showed them how the site worked and asked them specifically to read the introduction of a high-interest topic and then to read each of the expert articles associated with the topic. A week or so later, I sent them to a different site, Debate.org. This time, I asked students to find examples of strong and weak online debates. Instead of explaining how the site worked, I asked them to explain it to me.
The assignment endeavored to move us away from the familiar discourse about web content, where we identify some as informal, and therefore bad; and some as a formal sites from reputable publishers, and therefore good. Certainly, we needed college-bound seniors to know that they cannot cite Debate.org in their research papers. Also, they had to know that the authors selected by the New York Times had a certain amount of credibility deriving from this publication, if not for their credentials under their bylines.
Rather than stopping here with our consideration of the sites, though, I hoped they would see that Debate.org is a social network where people engage in competitive debates of varying seriousness and political correctness. The New York Times, of course, is the New York Times. This online, 21st Century version of the venerable newspaper is increasingly participatory and has many elements of a social network, too, but it is a different genre than Debate.org. In the 12th grade classroom, we wanted students to see that the sites differ in the level to which they invite participation. If I read the New York Times and do not comment, vote or debate, I'm a reader. If I read Debate.org and I don't debate, comment or vote, I'm a noob, or a lurker.
Something these seniors and I observed in our work is that some participants on Debate.org formulate better arguments than the experts invited to write for the Times. Students would read some expert articles and come away with no more information about their topic. Ironically, some of the arguments on Debate.org proved to be models of strong inline citation and link students to credible research about their topics. Readers have to filter more strategically in Debate.org, lest they spend their time reading an informal debate that consists entirely of “Your momma” jokes. So, filtering strategies were key. When I read the reflection written by Jacob, a regular high performer in class. He wrote:
While I was siphoning through the challenges, I have acquired a basic working knowledge of how the site works and what can be done with the site. During my search the most well supported debate was a debate arguing whether or not the Muslim religion endorsed terrorism. The least supported debate was a joke debate that lacked any real knowledge of the subject to be funny.
His critical thinking helped me decide that the exploration of a social network had benefits and I was glad that our research and preparation for class debates took students to a virtual space not normally traveled in an English class.