UF debate wall intended to inspire discourse


The Civil Debate Wall is seen on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2011, at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service in Gainesville, Fla. The Civil Debate Wall is a series of interconnected touch-screen panels that allows students to share ideas on pressing political questions.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 5:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 5:20 p.m.

The University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service has built a wall intended to bring people together rather than keep them apart.

The Great Civil Debate Wall was unveiled this week at the Graham Center’s home in Pugh Hall. The wall is a series of five touchscreen panels, resembling several super-sized iPads, that allow students to offer opinions on political questions and debate one another in a way that is meant to be constructive.

Ann Henderson, director of the Graham Center, said the project aims to engage students with technology to practice civil debate.

Citing dismal voting rates among young people in the last election, Henderson said giving such practice to students will make them more likely to cast ballots or otherwise become involved in civic life.

“Our goal as a university is everyone who takes a degree off this campus ought to be prepared to participate in our democracy,” she said. “We’re not doing that now, and we’re not alone.”

Students type their answers to the wall’s questions into one of the panels or online at www.civildebatewall.com. Cameras at the wall take these students’ photos.

Their pictures and responses are displayed on the panels and the website, allowing others to respond to them. There also is an option to enter a cellphone number, allowing the debate to continue through text message.

“We’re so used to advancing our positions and not listening to someone else’s,” Henderson said.

A mobile application also is planned, and Henderson said she hopes to bring smaller panels to other campus locations. She said she’s in discussions with two other universities about installing walls and would like to see them at all 11 state universities.

She compares the effort to President Barack Obama’s pioneering use of social media in the 2008 elections.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s use a language and form of communication that Millennials are familiar with and let’s see if it works,’ ” she said.

Jake Barton of New York-based Local Projects, who worked on the StoryCorps booths where everyday people interview each other, developed the technology used in the project.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded $3 million to the Graham Center for the wall and other efforts to study and encourage civic engagement.

The wall’s inaugural question — “Is Occupy Wall Street the Civil Rights Movement of our time?” — is the theme of a Jan. 20 event featuring television and radio host Tavis Smiley and author Cornel West.

More than two dozen people had responded to the question as of Thursday afternoon, most answering “No.”

UF senior Sabin Ciocan was one of those students, responding that the civil rights movement “had clear and attainable goals” and the Occupy movement “just seems like a bunch of mad people.”

Ciocan, president of the Graham Center Public Service Council, said students who he has seen approach the wall are initially impressed by the technology.

“Then they see this is something that they can engage with and be a part of,” he said.

The wall displays responses that have led to most debates and the most commonly used words in responses.

Henderson said the project is meant to expose people to others with differing opinions and reveal the common ground between their positions.

“I think it would be great if the entire Florida Legislature came down and did some practice with us,” she said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.

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