As communities everywhere adjust to the reality of precautions and restrictions associated with COVID-19, Comcast is working to make this transition to virtual environments as easy and intuitive as possible. While in-person educational experiences can’t be exactly the same as learning from home, teachers and educational organizations across the country are going above and beyond to bring students meaningful opportunities to learn from home.
Earlier this month, Comcast was excited to partner with Democracy Builders, the Federal Communications Commission, Facebook, Qualcomm Technologies and Cox Communications for an innovative pilot program – to bring a high school debate tournament into virtual reality. High school debate is a highly social activity that relies upon countless hours of group collaboration after school, and culminates in packed auditoriums to watch future leaders sharpen their skills and debate society’s most pressing issues.
“It was wonderful seeing the incredible growth of the students over just a month of virtual reality debate practice,” said Roger Nix, Assistant Director of After School Debate for the Boston Debate League. “In a few hours per week of practice debates and studying, they went from students who were learning the basics of mandatory minimums and cash bail to students who could argue better than most adults about the pros and cons of life without parole sentences for juveniles, for-profit prisons, and solitary confinement, and a variety of other important criminal justice reform topics.”
Thanks to broadband connections in Boston provided by Comcast and in Tulsa, OK by Cox, and Oculus VR headsets provided by Facebook, Democracy Builders successfully virtualized this experience. Students from two high schools researched debate topics and practiced their skills in a totally virtual environment – including a research “trip” and a VR “audience” during the debate.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai shared his debate takeaways with the students via a virtual welcome. “I’m grateful to this day for the impact that educators had on me,” Pai said. “I can tell you emphatically that high school debate was the most important factor in my success in the future,” he added. “It gave me the skills and the confidence I needed in order to do my job here at the FCC. And more generally, it was just fun. I loved making arguments that seem pretty crazy now and probably did at the time too.”
This shift to virtual reality included additional research experiences that would have otherwise been impossible, including a virtual visit to a Texas jail in order to further their understanding of this year’s National Policy Debate topic, criminal justice reform. During their VR “field trip,” students toured the facility and heard directly from inmates to better inform their points for debate.
We are proud that the Boston-based team from Edward Brooke High School, connected by Xfinity broadband, won the debate in a 3-2 decision by the judges in what was certainly a vigorous and very close challenge between the teams. All four debaters were awarded scholarship money for their participation.
Through the power of strong broadband connectivity and immersive mobile VR technology, programs like this one allow educators and policymakers to rethink traditional models of access to learning and extracurricular activity, like debate tournaments and field trips. Once restricted by geographic and socioeconomic factors, students today can virtually visit anywhere with anyone thanks to robust internet connections.
Comcast has a long history of supporting innovative ideas and programs to expand access to information via the internet. It was an honor for our company to participate in the virtual debate pilot program – especially during this time in which we have doubled down on our ongoing commitment to keep Americans connected and informed.