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Democracy Builders Partners with FCC , Comcast, Cox, Facebook and Qualcomm to bring high school debate to VR

Tulsa Debate League students enrolled in Tulsa Public Schools recently participated in a virtual reality debate competition. 

This blog post is on behalf of Democracy Builders, who partnered with FCC, Comcast, Cox, Facebook and Qualcomm to bring high school debate to virtual reality.

At Democracy Builders, our mission is to expand choice and voice in our democracy through innovation in technology and education. Thus, when schools across the country had to begin remote-only teaching due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, Democracy Builders in partnership with Revolutionary Education Ventures took the opportunity to advance a pilot that we had been trying to get off the ground for years--the use of virtual reality to improve educational engagement and outcomes for underserved youth.

Students from the Tulsa and Boston Urban Debate Leagues were excited to join us and break-new-ground together. We got donations and sponsorships from Comcast, Cox, Facebook and Qualcomm to ensure that students had the requisite level of broadband internet access, as well as the hardware and software needed to participate without barriers due to financial limitations. Thanks to this partnership we were able to get the pilot off the ground quickly, and if it works we hope to apply these learnings to expand this work over the next few years. The Federal Communications Commission was instrumental in making this pilot happen, bringing these companies together to expedite and support the initiative. 

Today, VR doesn’t require a powerful desktop PC connected to a headset through wires or cables. Instead, impactful VR experiences just need a headset with a solid internet connection to take a person to almost anyplace on earth. Even more exciting is that VR provides a completely new modality for learning that transports students to new experiences, environments, and opportunities that they couldn’t necessarily access or afford without VR. 

This was the first time we were hosting a debate league tournament in virtual reality, so we all had a steep learning curve. High school debate is usually a social activity characterized by after-school practices and weekend tournaments in packed auditoriums around the nation. With the inability to practice or gather in large groups, VR presented a new opportunity to bring students, coaches, teachers, and parents together to participate in a whole new manner.

Our first practices in April were clunky.  Students and teachers alike were simultaneously learning to use the hardware, software, and new content required for the national debate topic. We powered through the initial bumps because we had confidence that our students, coaches, and great teachers are resilient--and they proved us right.  After just two weeks, we were holding practice rounds with spontaneous argumentation in a virtual meeting space that students and teachers convened in using their Oculus Quest headsets.

While It’s true that VR based debate loses some of the human touch of seeing an in-person event live, it comes much closer to real-life interactions than a 2D conversation. In VR Students are able to have both close personal conversations as well as projected conversations for their debates in a way that mirrors in-person experiences.  Online video chats simply cannot replicate this.  In a 2D video chat only one person can speak at a time, and when they do, they speak at the same volume to the whole group.  In VR, you can walk around a room and the volume at which you hear people changes based on virtual proximity. Students can also turn on a feature to amplify their voices, creating a virtual megaphone for debates. 

VR also adds new ways to research the topic and express ourselves. For example, all our debaters were able to go on a virtual field trip to a Texas jail in 360 video and experience the physical space as well as hear the sentiments of the inmates directly-- all in the safety of their own homes. Furthermore, we found new ways to gesture and support our teammates and to present rigorous evidence in a virtual space.  Not only did our students learn new content and develop new skills, but they also had new experiences  that would not have been possible without virtual reality.

The final debate between Tulsa and Boston took place on Friday June 5, and it was a lively virtual affair. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai opened the event and addressed the students, congratulating them on their work to date and thanking the teachers, coaches, leagues and sponsors for their support of this ambitious endeavor.  The chairman reminisced about his own high school debate league experience in Parsons, Kansas, crediting it with giving him the skills and the confidence he needs to do his job. He also talked about the commission’s commitment to bridging the digital divide and keeping Americans connected during the pandemic through programs like this. As the chairman closed his remarks the audience cheered virtually and clapping hands filled the screen.

The students then commenced the debate, which was focused on mandatory minimum sentences. The Tulsa team took the affirmative position that we must end mandatory minimums and reform our criminal justice system, while the Boston team took the negative position, claiming mandatory minimums ensure serious offenders see justice. It was a lively discussion to say the least and the audience showed their support with virtual hearts, claps and high fives. Five “celebrity” judges oversaw the event including Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist, Boston-area Professor of Education Stacy Birdsell, and CBS News Anchor Anne Marie Green. Each debate league was also represented on the judges panel, with Mike Haskins from the Tulsa Debate League and Raymond Tejeda from Boston Debate League. It was a split decision 3-2, but Boston was ultimately named the winning team while the top speaker award went to one of the debaters from Tulsa. All four debaters were awarded scholarship money for their participation and the crowd went wild – with virtual fireworks going off celebration of their accomplishments.

VR debate tournaments are just one example of how we’re working to engage young people in our democracy in this new COVID-19 world. For example, we’re also launching a new low-residency model of higher education for low-income first generation students that incorporates virtual reality and other technology tools to bring cutting edge skills and content to communities that are usually last to receive them. Pilots like this one are allowing us to completely rethink access and opportunity for young adults across the country and at least level the virtual playing field-- if not yet the real one.