Distance Learning


Speech and Individual Events

In an effort to retain as much of the schedule and structure of the UTNIF during a transition to distance learning – we are proposing breaking each day (out of a total of 2/3/6 weeks) into three separate time blocks: 

  • Morning – (Asynchronous) Pre-Recorded Video lectures and independent activities available through UTBox and Canvas. 
  • Afternoon – (Synchronous) Classroom Activities through Zoom, UTbox and Canvas 
  • Evening – (Hybrid) Practice speeches and debates through Zoom, UTBox and Canvas. 

This schedule allows us to have both asynchronous and synchronous events, which maximizes the flexibility of distance learning and preserves the social interaction, live action and instant direct feedback that speech and debate instruction requires. 

For an overview of the UTNIF Online’s pedagogy – check out the video below!

UTNIF Staff Testimonials for Online speech and debate

If you’re interested in learning more about our staff and their personal experience with online speech and debate this spring, click the links below to the UTNIF Blog:

Joe Uhler, Reflections on Online Public Forum debate competitions

SunHee Simon, Three reasons I’m excited for the UTNIF Online

Ian Beier, Reflections on Online Policy debate competitions

David Kilpatrick, The Social Aspects of Online Camp

Our approach to distance learning

The UTNIF is excited about hosting debate camp online this summer and committed to a cutting edge, innovative, and pedagogy-driven approach to online learning. Much of our learning process will be similar to previous years, but some practices will change as we adapt to an evolving learning environment. Our commitment to excellence in debate education has only been enhanced as we have designed our unique approach to online camp. 

We have compiled a list of best practices for online debate education, based on our own experiences teaching online and recent research, that will be implemented in our labs this summer.

Utilize a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

That means some sessions will pre-recorded lectures or independent research assignments that students complete at their pace and other sessions will require everyone to be present. The synchronous sessions will be engaging and student-centered.

Deliver advanced content effectively. 

Content will be challenging and foster critical thinking. To do so, traditional and non-traditional teaching methods will be deployed. Research suggests that students’ learn best with no more than 10-15 minutes of lecture followed by checks for comprehension and application. When possible, labs will be flipped, meaning debaters will have access to content to review ahead of lab so lab time can be used applying concepts and practicing skills.* Lectures that take longer will be broken up. Lectures will be recorded, as opposed to live-streamed, to prevent students’ from missing content due to technological issues.

Set clear norms and be consistent.

Setting norms might seem overly simplistic but they help create stability in a new learning environment. The following are examples of norms that might be implemented: mute your microphone when you are not speaking; avoid interruptions; be prepared to ask and answer questions; take notes on paper; be on time. Instructors will commit to starting and ending on time. 

Precise scheduling and communication.

The schedules will be specific so debaters can be as prepared as possible and any changes will be communicated directly. Debaters will not be sitting idly staring at a computer screen day after day. Our schedule and curriculum are designed to prevent that.

Build community.

Online camp is new and a little strange to us all, but we want you to know we are committed to making this an awesome experience. We value debater participation and hope to maximize it in synchronous sessions by setting clear expectations, assigning mini-presentations, holding Q & A sessions, fostering dialogue and debate at every opportunity, and, most importantly, creating a warm and welcoming community. Every debater at the UTNIF is valued and we are excited to get to know each of you and help you achieve your goals this summer.

Take appropriate breaks.

No one can sit for four hours and really comprehend all the information being tossed their way. We will take breaks and we encourage you to use them to do whatever you need to do to maintain energy and focus. For a lot of us that will involve getting some movement, hydrating, and/or getting a snack.


Student and instructor feedback will be sought and taken seriously. At this point, no one can claim to be an expert at designing an online debate camp. What we can promise is to constantly assess our work and make changes as necessary. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can students from all over the country participate?

Of course! Every summer we have students from all over the country join us in Austin and although we will be physically distant this year – we can still do what we always do, bring together the brightest minds in speech and debate from all over the country. Regardless of what US timezone the student resides, we believe our program and schedule will be able to accommodate their needs. We think that the ‘time zone’ problem can be resolved by making asynchronous morning content available 24-48 hours early for students and scheduling synchronous group activities in between 12:00 – 8:00pm CST to provide an acceptable buffer for students in other time zones. 

For students in Alaska, Hawaii and/or outside the mainland United States – please reach out directly to program coordinator Eric Lanning to make alternative arrangements.

What are the technology requirements for online UTNIF?

Students should be expected to have access to a computer with steady connection to the internet. The computer needs to be able to download and view multiple word documents and allow multiple tabs of a web browser open for research. We recommend at least a Windows 8 computer with 8 GB of ram and a 120 GB hard drive for storage or most 2014+ models of apple computers. Headphones and a microphone are also required so students can give speeches for practice debates, but a web camera is NOT required though highly recommended in order to help build social ties while working exclusively online. We recommend students get headsets that include a headphone and microphone combination which you can easily find on amazon or your local electronics store. 

How will the UTNIF facilitate one-on-one learning while keeping interactions safe?

Students will be able to directly communicate with instructors during our daily synchronous sessions. Students will break out and work individually on assignments like block writing or research but will still have direct feedback on any questions because the instructors will be on standby. Though, to ensure the safety of our students and employees, multiple adults are always a buffer between the student and instructors communications.  For more information about student safety, click here.

What if you don’t have space for camp?

We feel that any student can and should be able to participate even with severely restricted space. Students should expect similar spatial requirements as online schooling – i.e. a desk or table to support the computer or laptop and some room to write. Periodically, students will be expected to give speeches and have debates during the camp which may require a quiet place or good noise cancelling headphones. 

What online programs or websites will the UTNIF use for distance learning?

The UTNIF will be using canvas as our primary assignment and announcement program which several of our staff are familiar using due prior implementation in universities. The UTNIF will use UT Box as its file sharing program and UT Zoom as our video conferencing program for synchronous sessions. Finally, the UTNIF will be using a talk to text program that allows direct communication between student and instructor while ensuring enough security oversight and protection. Its important to note that because the UTNIF is directly affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin all of our programs will have access to UT learning resources, including the platforms mentioned above as well as the full UT library and campus resources. All UTNIF participants will be assigned a “UT EID”, which gives them the same access to the UT network as current students, staff and faculty. MANY online camps lack this institutional affiliation and will be using less secure publicly available resources like DropBox and Zoom – ALL of our resources have been specifically designed for the University of Texas and include improved user interface, upgraded features and enhanced security measures.

How will students collaborate?

Students will constantly be researching, debating, and communicating with their fellow campers throughout the UTNIF experience. We are committed to maintaining as much student collaborations as previous UTNIFs. Using breakout rooms and individual chats, students will build arguments and learn together during camp hours. The Canvas platform offers a safe and reliable means for students to communicate and collaborate with each other. Likewise our UT Talk to Text tools will allow direct communication and collaboration between participants (with adult supervision and record keeping for oversight) without exchanging personal information such as phone numbers or email addresses.

How will instructors track their student’s progress for asynchronous learning activities?

One major benefit of using Canvas is the existing tools for instructors and students to ‘keep each other in the loop’. Some of these features include the ability of Instructors to see if, when and how long students are spending viewing pre-recorded lectures and completing individual assignments. The purpose is not to ‘spy’ on students, but rather replicate the same positive student-teacher interactions that happen with in person instruction. If students are struggling with an assignment, there are multiple methods and metrics to track this, which will allow instructors to take pro-active action to check-in and offer assistance as necessary. Likewise, students will have a chance to post their questions and issues in real time, even during asynchronous activities. Our schedule is designed to always include a synchronous follow-up session to any asynchronous activity to answer any questions and assess progress on specific learning objectives and assignments.

What if unforeseen events and unscheduled interruptions result in a student or instructor missing part or all of a day of instruction?

While some disruption is to be expected and cannot be avoided, we believe it is possible to design redundancy and resiliency into the system in advance and have a specific plan of action for students (and instructors) who may need to miss some or all of the online UTNIF for health or family related issues. This plan of action would include building into the schedule “make up lessons” every few days and weeks to ensure that students and instructors have planned time in the schedule to catch up on any missed assignments or activities. Likewise, we have a plan to build redundancy into the system of instruction to make sure we have coverage ready in the event of technical disruptions, or health and personal reasons. Also, we anticipate communicating the minimum technical standards necessary well before camp to minimize technical disruptions. Finally, the use of both UT Zoom and Canvas builds in redundancy for technical issues and delays and allows us to switch to a reliable alternative in the event of disruption.