By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies
When schools closed in March to contain the spread of COVID-19, thousands of schools and millions of students from K-12 to college-level brick-and-mortar institutions adopted technology, including video conference calls, to finish the academic year. However, while continuing classes, many universities have overlooked the need to maintain healthy student organizations and other extracurricular activities during the crisis.
Students at American Public University System (APUS) have the opportunity to engage in a wide range of groups, clubs and professional student organizations. These extracurricular activities have remained active during the COVID-19 crisis.
Specifically, the experiences of the APUS chapter of Phi Alpha Delta and the school’s Model United Nations Club offer a template for other universities and educational institutions for maintaining student engagement and peer-to-peer interaction in this COVID-19 era.
Debates, Mock Trials and Model UN Conferences Provide Rich Educational Experiences
Short in-person competitive experiences like debates, mock trial competitions, and Model United Nations conferences provide online students with rich educational experiences and also the opportunities to network with and compete against their brick-and-mortar peers. Inspired by these beliefs, the APUS chapter of Phi Alpha Delta and the Model United Nations Club have spent hundreds of hours preparing for and competing in several in-person competitions over the past few years. The two groups have largely done most of their preparation for their in-person conference participation using technology more than a century old, the telephone.
The experiences of these two student organizations demonstrate how simple technology can be a tool to connect students in many different areas. They have purposefully opted for telephone calls rather than video conferencing for a host of reasons, including paying attention to the cyber dangers of video conferencing in educational settings.
Both Student Organizations Have Admirably Competed against Their Brick-and-Mortar Peers
Preparing for in-person competitions using telephone conference calls is admittedly challenging. However, both Phi Alpha Delta and the Model United Nations Club have admirably competed against their brick-and-mortar peers at numerous conferences before, which demonstrates the continuing utility of the telephone.
Their hard work has earned the students praise and recognition from the organizers of several competitions as well as several awards. Most recently, the Model United Nations Club distinguished itself at a Model United Nations competition in Texas in February.
APUS Students Will Compete in Several Virtual Competitions in the Fall
Despite the barriers posed by the COVID-19 crisis, students from the APUS Model United Nations Club and Phi Alpha Delta have not missed a beat. Over the past months, students from Phi Alpha Delta have successfully organized robust programming, while at the same time planning for a host of future projects. For example, the chapter played virtual host to George Douglas, Senior Admissions Counselor at the University of Dayton’s Law School. He discussed the law school admissions process and its innovative hybrid law degree program.
Additionally, inspired by the COVID-19 crisis, chapter students engaged in an intramural debate with the school’s chapter of Sigma Iota Rho, the Honor Society for International Studies on whether the United Nations should promote remote work. During the debate, the students, who prepared remotely for the competition, presented strong policy and legal arguments in support of their respective positions. The competition was a vivid illustration of the utility of debates as an educational tool.
Faced with the COVID-19 crisis that jeopardizes several in-person competitions scheduled for the fall, the two student organizations plan to participate in several virtual events over the coming months. The Model United Nations Club and the school’s chapter of Phi Alpha Delta had the foresight to plan for virtual alternatives, while at the same time, hoping to participate in in-person competitions in the Washington, D.C., area.
Students from the Model United Nations Club will take a leadership role in the organization of a simulated Model United Nations Security Council session in September hosted by the Osgood Center for International Studies. Based in Washington, D.C., the Osgood Center seeks to advance an understanding of public policy and foreign policy issues through internships, an annual leadership forum, educational programming, and other activities in the D.C. area.
At September’s Virtual Model UN Session, APUS Students Will Represent the United States and Russia
At the September 2020 virtual Model United Nations Security Council session, about 10 APUS students will represent the United States and Russia, two nations with conflicting national interests and veto power. As such, these APUS students will likely play a central role in the simulation that will also feature students from other universities across the United States. To prepare for the virtual Security Council simulation, the Model United Nations Club at its August meeting will host the President of the Osgood Center, Shelton Williams, an expert in both experiential education and nuclear nonproliferation policy.
Likewise, students from Phi Alpha Delta have begun preliminary discussions to organize a friendly moot court competition with students from another school. They will focus on one of the cutting-edge legal issues that will be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Participation in these virtual events demonstrates how technology can be used to provide students with rich educational opportunities and meaningful relationships with their peers and in-house instructors even during the COVID-19 era.
Schools Should Look to the Experience of APUS’s Student Organizations
Given the academic uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a strong likelihood that some schools will use remote learning when they reopen in the fall.
Students from APUS’s chapter of Phi Alpha Delta and the Model United Nations Club over the years have demonstrated the ability to use technology including telephonic conference calls not only to conduct meetings but also to prepare for in-person competitions like debates, mock trials, and Model United Nations competitions.
The experience of the two APUS student organizations and their use of technology to prepare for in-person competitions offer the broader educational world a template to maintain student engagement during the pandemic while also hinting at a hybrid future that merges technology and in-person experiences.