By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies
More than four years ago, our students and alumni formed the Model UN Club in order to participate in Model United Nations conferences in person. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted in-person meetings for the past two years.
To handle this change, the Model UN Club embraced virtual programming. As a result, this student organization has exemplified how virtual programs are an effective tool to dismantle exclusionary barriers, which point to higher education’s increasingly hybrid future.
Before COVID-19, students from our school’s many student organizations and clubs, including the Model UN Club, used various forms of technology to communicate with each other. Those tools included conference calls by phone and social media platforms. They helped to create internal communities that were not limited by geographic boundaries and allowed those students to prepare for in-person conferences more easily.
The COVID era shows that technology tools can also foster ties between our students and other institutions. That sense of community enriches the educational experience of our online students by providing our students with access to a wider world of external programs and new networking opportunities.
Virtual Programming and Conferences Break Down Barriers
While many people are growing tired of virtual conference calls and are impatiently waiting to return to in-person conferences and meetings, virtual programming is now more than simply a stopgap or a temporary replacement for in-person gatherings. The COVID-19 years have demonstrated that virtual conferences and other virtual events have many benefits. For instance, the use of video conferencing enables attendees to access conferences, lectures, and meetings with their professors and peers without the need for travel or taking time away from work.
The technology to produce high-quality, low-cost virtual programming has existed for over a generation. However, the necessity of using online rather than in-person communication, created by COVID lockdowns that sparked the mass adoption of video technology, represents a tipping point.
Since the early days of the 2020 lockdowns, millions of people have used video conferencing for the first time. Coupled with social media, video conferencing has the power to bring people together from all over the world to exchange ideas and develop relationships that were previously not possible. These video conferences have broken down the geographic and limited-time barriers created by in-person attendance at conferences and other similar events.
Virtual Conferences Will Likely Remain a Part of the Educational Landscape
Despite the moaning about videoconference fatigue, virtual programming popularized during COVID-19 will likely remain a part of the educational landscape because these programs provide access and opportunities to a broader segment of university students and enhances the educational experience overall. Virtual programming also benefits academic institutions, extending their reach beyond attendees’ geographic location and aiding in diversity and inclusiveness programs.
Admittedly, in-person conferences have many advantages that are hard to replicate during a virtual conference. In-person conferences provide attendees with an invaluable opportunity to socialize, network and form deeper bonds.
However, few people consider the exclusionary nature of in-person conferences. In-person conferences overtly or inadvertently create barriers that prevent many people from attending, reinforcing existing social hierarchies and strengthening the networks of privilege.
For example, attending an in-person Model UN conference is costly. In-person conferences require money for travel, hotels, and business attire, as well as time away from home and time off from work. Consequently, in-person attendance is out of reach for many participants.
In contrast to the prohibitive costs of in-person conferences, students and academic institutions can use virtual programming to break down barriers and do so very inexpensively. For example, in December 2021, students from the Model UN Club and our chapter of Sigma Iota Rho Honor Society, an international affairs honor society, participated in an informal meeting with Ecuadorian students. These students met through Politikum, a private academic corporation based in Quito, Ecuador.
During the December 2021 conference call, the American and Ecuadorian students exchanged ideas and perspectives on the debate over COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Despite being separated by thousands of miles, these students and faculty participants were able to exchange their views in a relaxed manner in real time, without the cost and burden of travel.
While these types of video conferences between our school’s students and those from Ecuador have become commonplace over the past two years, we should not underestimate the transformational nature of the widespread adoption of this technology. The increased use of videoconferencing and other technology will likely further blur the lines between in-person and online education, creating a global hybrid educational landscape unimaginable to most people a generation ago.
Virtual Conferences Benefit from the Presence of Diverse Voices
Over the past two years, students from the Model UN Club have also participated in several virtual conferences, interacting with their peers from academic institutions from across the United States and around the world. Admittedly, virtual conferences are still in their infancy, and virtual conferences have much room for improvement and growth.
However, virtual conferences address one of the common criticisms of Model United Nations conferences – that Model United Nations conferences are only meeting places for middle- and upper-class students with the resources to attend. The lower costs and more flexible scheduling of virtual conferences broaden the pool of attendees, bringing more diverse perspectives to the conferences. In this new reality, U.S. students from all sorts of diverse backgrounds can attend a conference and interact with peers from all over the U.S. and international locations without the inconvenience and cost of leaving home.
In February 2022, students from the Model UN Club will participate in a virtual conference hosted by the Osgood Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. This conference will bring together students from all across the United States and from various countries.
What Happens During a Model United Nations Conference?
During a Model United Nations conference, the participants engage in a type of role playing. They act as diplomats from a foreign country as they deal with complex issues of foreign diplomacy.
This role playing allows the participants to understand how a host of factors, including differing perspectives of national interest, shape each country’s foreign policy. The role playing also requires participants to move beyond their own perspectives and adopt the viewpoint of someone from a different country or who holds a perspective that they may not personally agree with. This exercise fosters dialogue between people because it helps conference participants to better understand the perspectives and lives of people in different countries.
The Model UN Club Experience Should Serve as a Role Model for Other Clubs and Institutions
The broader inclusion of people from differing backgrounds allowed by virtual conferences and other programs enriches the role-playing educational experience. With virtual conferences, many attendees can, for the first time, come from all parts of the world and a wider range of backgrounds.
Even though the COVID-19 era has made videoconferencing commonplace, geographic location or high barriers to entry or travel are no longer limitations for conference participants. The removal of such barriers will provide academic institutions and students alike with a range of opportunities.
For example, students can network with and develop relationships with their peers from other institutions as well as attend conferences and seminars from institutions across the world. Likewise, virtual programming allows academic institutions and academics to reach out to wider audiences in a low-cost manner.
In today’s incredibly challenging times, the embrace of virtual conferences and programs by our school’s Model UN Club has not only maintained this organization’s momentum, but also has provided a template for how academic institutions can use virtual programs and conferences to provide access and opportunity to students from varied backgrounds from all over the world. Moreover, the Model UN Club’s experience illustrates how technological innovations like video conferencing, coupled with social media platforms, are useful tools for creating educational environments that are more diverse and inclusive.