Debating in Google Docs

Today’s post was inspired by a New York Times article I recently came across, titled ‘Breaking Up the Echo.’ In the article, the echo-chamber effect is discussed, which is basically the phenomenon that when individuals seek out information sources that align with their ideologies, their views can become even more polarized and extreme. This explains a lot about why seemingly intelligent people can be incredibly irrational when it comes to certain beliefs (e.g. politics). From an information literacy point of view, it is why we discuss bias with our students and point them to sources that are more balanced in view. But, according to this article, “balanced presentations can fuel unbalanced views” in another phenomenon called biased assimilation. Academic studies have found that when individuals are presented with competing arguments side by side, they can become even more polarized. In other words, they selectively choose what to believe and what to dismiss.


This made me wonder about the way we are instructing students on how to evaluate information. It is often done prescriptively (e.g. CRAAP test), and that may not be teaching students how to consider both sides of an issue. This would be especially true when dealing with controversial issues where students may be coming in with some very strong preexisting beliefs.

So, what is the solution to this problem? I suggest debates. Biased assimilation can be overcome when individuals are able to closely identify with their source of information, such as peers. And debates are a powerful peer instruction tool.

I think Google Docs is a great forum for conducting debates, especially for the one-shot IL session. Why not use Google Docs to have students debate a hot topic and collaboratively add links to articles and other sources that support their positions? The beauty of Google Docs is that all the students can be doing this simultaneously, working in groups or pairs, and the outcome is a document of their activity which you can easily monitor and discuss. It also gives you and the classroom instructor valuable insight into students’ information seeking behavior. I found a nice Google Docs template that would work well for this.

What do you think? And if you have tried this technique, please share your experiences.


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