Online is a great place to have an argument
Most of us know that the textual online environment can bring out the argumentative side of almost anyone.
As teachers, we can do something with that.
Many college writing courses are about argument. A standard activity in these f2f classes is to have students debate in class. As McKeachie says, debates "can enliven your class" . Indeed, they can, but many of these classes will be somewhat subdued. One or two students will take the lead while the rest hang back. Even in really energetic groups, it is difficult to get everyone involved.
I think the online environment is an ideal place to hone students' argumentation skills. Instead of their writing three or four static essay arguments over the course of the term to that ever-odd audience--the teacher-- they can engage in dozens of written, fluid arguments using course message boards. Everyone can get involved.
Rather than the kind of no-holds-barred--and thus, pointless--arguing that goes on in cyberspace, the structure of the class can keep the students focused on writing well and persuasively about complex topics while maintaining a reasonable tone.
By encouraging written, asynchronous debates in the online writing class, we are teaching them how to argue in a fast-paced electronic environment, how to argue succinctly, how to address multiple opponents in a written debate at once, how to maintain a level of correctness when arguing passionately, and how to use evidence at every step of an argument to strengthen it (I really make demands here--the Web is right at their fingertips).
You'll need to be a big part of this process, though: encourage debate while making sure things don't get ugly. But, after all, that's what online moderators do.
One strategy I have tried recently that I thought was effective was "debate the teacher." I will post an extreme position as a kind of caricature of myself (I was even calling this argumentative alter ego "The Master"). The students' task is to shoot holes in my argument. At the end of the week, I go back over the method and substance of their rebuttals so we can learn something about textual argument in this environment: Are they using the text(s) to debate me? Are they engaging in ad hominem personal attacks against me? Are they addressing carefully the flaws in my position?
I try to trap them, of course, but unlike the classic flaming war, these conversations have a constructive backbone that normally keeps things civil: We're all trying to learn something. My job is ultimately to help show them ways of honing their written arguments.
As part of that, when they eventually outmaneuver me, as they almost always do, I bow my head in defeat.
1) See Wilbert McKeachie, ed. McKeachie's Teaching Tips.