[I recently received a request by a friend in Stoa to talk about my experience with running clubs virtually. Below is my response.]
Gone are the days of lugging storage boxes brimming with evidence, spare practice rooms in the church basement, and sitting with speech friends in the hallways. Times have changed – the new is upon us, the old is behind us, and now we can embrace our destiny as virtual argumentation machines.
Dystopian humor aside, I think we can all agree that the present situation is not ideal. With the virus lockdown measures in place and requirements to social distance, the familiar way that we’re used to running our clubs will change, at least for a while. Many clubs are wondering what their options are.
I’d like to share my experience with you. At the college level, I manage the NFA-LD team at Hillsdale College. I’ve also been involved with a large virtual club in CCA since spring break, and I’m in the process of launching our 2020 Ethos summer camp [you can check it out here]. While the virtual terrain of remote meetings can seem daunting, I’m here to tell you that it really isn’t. It’s actually quite easy if you have all of your bases covered. I want to give you some of the tips, tricks, principles, and technologies that I have used to make the remote club management process much easier to deal with.
Here’s what you need to do to keep your club functioning in the post-apocalypse.
1. Choose your technology.
This is the first step on the urgent action list, and you need to do it quickly. The kind of communication technology you use will determine how effective your remote meetings are. My suggestion is to download Discord and/or Zoom. You can even use both in tandem, which will increase your options, though you’ll likely need to pay for the professional version of Zoom if you’d like 45-minute+ video calls. I’ll explain how each works below.
This should be your first go-to. Discord is a free VoIP protocol service that exists to assist communities with communication. “VoIP” just means “Voice over Internet Protocol” – basically, it’s a free computer program where you can create voice channels and text channels and give lots of people access to those channels so that you can easily stay in touch. You can also install the app on your phone, which has the same functionality. It used to be what gamers used to communicate while playing videogames, but for the past few years Discord has marketed itself as just an app for communities to stay in touch. Honestly, it’s one of the easiest, fastest, and safest free communication software available. I’ll walk you through the setup process below (you should send this step-by-step process to your whole club).
STUDENT DOWNLOAD/SET UP:
i. Navigate to https://discord.com and click “Download for Windows”
ii. Once the program installs, open it and hit “Register” to create an account.
iii. Complete the fields to create your account. Do not create an alias for the username – put your real name. It will make it much easier to tell who is in your group.
CREATING A SERVER [FOR COACHES]:
i. Once you’re signed in, hit the “+” on the left side of the screen to create a new server channel.
ii. Once you fill out the fields, it will create a server for you, and it will give you a link to invite people.
iii. Send this link to the people in your club via email. Once they click it, it will ask them to download/register if they haven’t already, then they can join. Once joined, you have access to all text messages sent out, plus access to the voice channel.
iv. The server just comes with a pre-set “General” text chat and a Voice chat. You can add more easily, here’s a more complete guide for doing that. https://www.howtogeek.com/364075/how-to-create-set-up-and-manage-your-discord-server/
I recommend setting up practice room chats (both voice and text), parli prep chats, evidence rooms, and a general chat, plus one channel for announcements (that only you can post on).
Most of us are likely familiar with Zoom already. It’s a video telecommunication company often used by professionals to have group meetings. You can check out the website here: https://zoom.us/
You can get the Pro version for $15 per month, which allows you to have extended meeting times and gives you access to all Zoom functions. If you’re willing to invest a little, Zoom’s videocall is essential for giving lectures, watching speeches, doing critique rounds, etc. Discords doesn’t support video, so anything in which you need to see people’s faces will need to be done in Zoom. Additionally, the coach is the only one that needs to subscribe to the full version – as long as he/she is the host, others can join the call at no cost.
FOR REOCCURING MEETINGS
i. Once the coach has downloaded and signed up for Zoom, they can open the application and click “Schedule”
ii. Fill out the necessary information for your reoccurring meetings – time, day, name, etc.
iii. Go to Meetings > Upcoming > and hit Your Meeting. Look to the right and click “Copy Invitation” This is what you’ll send out to your debaters via email. Once they click the “Join Zoom” link, they can join the Zoom Call.
FOR ONE-TIME MEETINGS
i. “Click New Meeting”
ii. Once you’ve joined the server, toward the upper-left corner you’ll see a small “i”. Click it and it will show you the meeting link and the ID/password, either of which can be used to join the meeting.
Here’s what I recommend. Use Discord for direct communication throughout the week and regular practice rounds for debate – you’re mainly focusing on the logic and reasoning used, not necessarily presentation. Use Zoom for weekly meetings, speech coaching, and critique rounds before a tournament. What’s nice about Discord is that people can do practice rounds whenever they want, which means they don’t all need to be scheduled in a single evening.
2. Create the schedule.
Okay, so you have your technology down – now you need a meeting schedule. I’d say stick as much as possible with your old, in-person schedule since that’s the amount of time that people have portioned out for speech and debate already.
This schedule must be diligently observed. If people begin slacking on it or persistently missing lectures and rounds, that’s a sure sign that there’s trouble ahead. Be sure to communicate to your team how important it is that they continue to focus on debate even when they cannot be together. If they don’t, they will be unprepared for upcoming tournaments, and they’ll lose sight of the end goals. Give out homework and assignments to make kids feel involved. As long as everyone stays in it together, you’ll come out as a much stronger team.
Another tip: delegate responsibility for managing the Discord to your student leaders (if your team is large enough to have them). My high school club always had at least 3 student leaders; these individuals were hand-picked by the coach for their dedication to debate and hard work. Often, including younger people in the management of the technical aspects of things can speed things up dramatically, since many young people have a solid understanding of how these programs work already.
3. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
You don’t want any of your team members left behind! Be sure to make yourself accessible to every single person in the club. Also, be sure that any directions you give out are clear. Often it is difficult for people to keep up with online communication – perhaps they missed a critical email and forgot to do a required assignment. That will happen on occasion, but the goal is to ensure that there are multiple lines of communication that are established so that nobody slips through the cracks.
Send out guides for the above programs and applications to families in your club (like I did in the above explanation). This will allow members to diagnose technical difficulties a lot faster than without them. A quick google search shows a host of material that can easily be sent out to club participants.
4. Be patient with technical difficulties.
One of the main frustrations I have with online speech and debate is the sheer amount of delays we experience due to technological difficulties. It generally involves internet failure, microphones breaking, or sound issues. When this happens to you, as it inevitably will, don’t panic. People are generally pretty understanding when it comes to solving these problems. Indicate to everyone that either you or someone else is having trouble with their computer, and that everyone needs to patiently wait until it’s fixed.
One practice that will assist you in diagnosing technical difficulties with ease is learning as much as possible about the programs you’re using. Most of us get only as familiar as we have to with online applications, but in the present environment it is important that we learn how to use online communication software really well. I say this because remote work, school, and debate are all going to be a big part of our lives for the remainder of this year. As a coach, you need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to technology so that you can help your club members. Believe me, it will save you a lot of hassle later on to just take an hour or two to read up on the software you’re using.
5. Remember the goal.
As with every action we take, our minds should constantly focus on end goal, or what we’re trying to accomplish. I get it, setting up for remote debating feels like a chore. And it is. But the reason why we’re doing it is to improve our communication skills in order to provide a defense for what we believe in. I think that’s a worthy cause, and I’d certainly be willing to go through some technology-induced headaches for a chance to progress in that arena.
Lastly, remember to treat everyone in your community with love and patience during stressful times. You’d be surprised to know how far a kind word will go in preserving relationships within your group.