Online Debate Camp Shopper’s Guide

Choosing an Online Debate Camp: Suggestions for Coaches, Parents and Students

COVID-19/The novel CoronaVirus has, in a world of uncertainty, changed the world of summer debate training for students. Many workshops are making the decision to go online. This document is a resource to give relevant stakeholders things to consider in selecting online training for students and/or coaches.

Summer debate camps powerfully influence the practice and culture of contemporary debate. Given the educational ramifications of debate instructions, coaches and parents are encouraged to be informed participants in decisions about which, if any, online debate instruction students might choose. Directors of programs should be proactive in helping families understand the issues and assess their alternatives.

Knowing the right questions to ask is only part of the challenge. Finding reliable answers to those questions is also important. Few coaches, and virtually no parents, have the chance to observe debate camps first-hand, and certainly not online options. Student reports are often colored by considerations of style, loyalty to their instructors, powerful advertising, and a desire to be hired by the debate camps they have attended. The best advice is to seek information from as many sources as possible, including people whose judgment you already trust, and to ask direct questions that are likely to elicit precise answers.

Ultimately, anyone can set up a website to promote their camp. Beyond the glitz of a fancy website, due diligence should be utilized in assessing the qualifications of the persons who are setting up curriculum and selecting individuals to work with students, most of whom are minors.

The following are questions we believe parents, coaches, and students may find helpful to ask about prospective online debate camps:

  1. Who are the directors of the debate camp? What are their credentials to address the needs of high school students? You will want an online debate camp’s administrator to be people who can be trusted to make important academic, social, and safety decisions for a large and heterogeneous group of high school students. Are the directors of the debate camp classroom teachers who are active coaches? How will they keep your student interested to maximize the educational return of this financial investment?
  2. Who are the debate camp’s teaching staff? What are their academic and teaching backgrounds? Sometimes the advertised staff and the actual staff are not the same. Some advertised staff may be primarily administrative or may only be guest speakers. Recent high school graduates who were successful debaters are often an integral part of the teaching staff. While talented as debaters, these staff members have little or no teaching experience, and few academic qualifications. You might want to consider the overall experience level of a debate camp’s teaching staff and inquire about whether and how the debate camp trains and mentors recent graduates in their new role as teachers, especially with an online platform.
  3. Is the online curriculum grounded in an understanding of the learning process, especially on a digital platform? An effectively designed online course or program must take into account multiple factors – the characteristics of targeted learners, the nature of the content, the role of the community in shaping learning, and integration of ongoing feedback and assessment; ample opportunities for practice and expert feedback to guide the development of knowledge in action. What Learning Management Platform are they utilizing? How are they balancing asynchronous and synchronous learning?
  4. What are the specific academic objectives of the debate camp? How does the debate camp accomplish those objectives? Debate camps may agree on their most general goals—e.g., to make students better debaters—but they differ considerably in their interpretations of these general goals. It makes sense to find out what a debate camp means by “good debate.” Likewise, while it is easy to state impressive objectives, debate camps should be able to provide detailed explanations of how they achieve those objectives. Different students thrive in different social settings and comparing the overall size of potential debate camps as well as the size of their working lab groups may help to reveal the potential for substantial one-on-one contact with teaching staff.
  5. What training exists for Faculty and Staff? Does the program require a formal background check of all those working at the camp? Is any attempt made to instruct faculty and staff on basic tenets of cultural competence, equity, or inclusion, in addition to the recognition and avoidance of microaggressions by students and faculty alike?
  6. Does the debate camp teach anything, stylistically or substantively, that I would not want my student to learn? Some debate camps, for example, may teach a model of LD value structures at odds with various regional understandings. Or a debate camp might promote a faster, more evidence-driven “national circuit” style of debate that a coach does not support. Ask around to be sure that prospective debate camps respect your values and priorities.
  7. Is the student committed to doing the work? Whether it is in person, or online, you get out of a debate workshop what is put in effort wise. The reality is doing work from home has inherently more distractions. A student is not right there with their lab leaders and is separated from workshop friends. Online education takes more planning and dedication from participants to get the same benefits from participation. The commitment to not multitask, refrain from being on social media, getting enough sleep to maintain focus during instructional time, despite being in one's home, seems important. The GDS will have trained staff that will engender an environment that prioritizes focus. That said, students must be willing to create an in-home environment that facilitates instruction in an online environment as much as possible.
  8. What is the student’s level of “tech readiness”? Having a stable, fast, reliable internet connection to get the most out of the technological options is important. Does the student know how to access/utilize their devices in the most efficient way possible? Does the camp have a person with technological expertise to help students navigate the online platform being utilized?
  9. Does the institution running the camp have experience in running face to face workshops and the challenges they bring to help navigate the digital learning environment? Experience matters - the digital learning environment will be new to many students, especially ones who have attended debate camps before - does the institution have instructors who have experience with digital instruction in the classroom?
  10. Can the Learning Management System utilized enhance student attentiveness and involvement? Does the workshop use synergistic participation and communication that aids in learning and retention?


Content was modified from the Lincoln Douglas Education Project Shopper’s Guide and supplemented by the staff of The Global Debate Symposium