Case Study: NYC Special Education

Live Online Debate Program for NYC Special Needs Students Improves Learning Outcomes

Webcasting Case Study


K-12 Education


Webcast and Event Production and Online Instructional Design


New York City Department of Education, Special Education District 75


Special education students across New York City debate each other – live and online.

District 75 provides educational, vocational and behavior support programs for students with moderate to severe special needs. It covers the five New York City boroughs with more than 350 school sites and approximately 23,000 students.

For the past seven years, the Applied Learning Department has conducted an ever-growing online debate competition, as a way to engage special needs students in current events and develop a host of skills they will need in other areas of their lives.


The traditional classroom environment tends to place special education students in a more passive role, with adults directing the learning. It is particularly critical that these students learn how to collaborate and work independently and in the process, improve their confidence and social skills. A more learner-centered approach is wanted, one that moves the teacher to the role of facilitator and director.

Solution: Online Debate Tournament

LearningTimes collaborated with District 75 on the design and logistics of the debate program. Along with technology partner, Elluminate, an online classroom environment was provided, complete with interactive tools such as an electronic whiteboard, a chat function and multi-way video and sound to enable real-time communication between users. Judges log in from around the world to score each debate based on a set of criteria that encourages preparedness, speaking and presentation skills, research and the ability to think on one’s feet. LearningTimes instructional staff members host and moderate the online debates, and student teams from each participating school advance through the competition. The debate season culminates with a championship round with an in-person audience and judges.

Debate topics began with school-specific issues such as cell phones in the classroom or the wearing of school uniforms. Gradually, topics became broader in scope, including global issues like troop withdrawal from Iraq, the death penalty, U.S. immigration policy or gun control in New York. Through each debate round, students become familiar with the debate format in the non-threatening environment of their own classrooms and master the use of the technology. By the end of the tournament, they have the confidence they need to stand up and speak out, and feel comfortable engaging in civil dialogue with others.

New York City Online Debate Program The following video documentary, produced by New York City Department of Education’s District 75, introduces the debate program and some of the many students who have participated over the last seven years of this successful program:


The students in the program have eagerly embraced multiple roles and responsibilities while mastering a new technology. They have learned how to collaborate without assistance and in the process, developed a point of view relative to current events. Their reading, communication and social skills have improved along with their confidence and willingness to approach intellectual tasks. LearningTimes continues to host the program, work with students, and support the professional development of teachers and staff. The online debates are now in their seventh year.


“One main goal of social studies is to enable students to understand their world better,” said Cara Coffina, Coordinator of Applied Learning for District 75. “I think we’ve definitely succeeded in doing that here.”

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