A Brief History of Online Summer Debate Institutes (They’re Older Than You Thought)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced summer debate institutes to shift from in-person to online instruction for the summer of 2020. In the coming months, more high school students will participate in programs providing online debate training than ever before.

As administrators, teachers, and students prepare to make this transition, I was curious about the history of online debate institutes. It turns out that they are much older than I had expected.

I think others might find this history surprising. With that in mind, this article briefly documents what I’ve learned. This is unlikely to be authoritative, but I think it’s still quite interesting.

As far as I was able to uncover, the first online debate institute was offered in the summer of 1996 by Loyola Marymount University. The program was advertised in Rostrum, the magazine published by the National Speech and Debate Association (then known as the National Forensic League).

The advertisement encourages readers to “Get On the Information Superhighway” by “Join[ing] the First-Ever Electronic Institute Sponsored by Loyola Marymount University.” The program was quite long (May 15th through August 3rd), but it was otherwise described in a similar way to 2020 online camps:

The LMU DebateNet Distant Learning Project’s key features are:

* Topic and theory lectures by nationally-recognized debate teachers electronically transmitted on the DebateNet

* “Cyberlabs” will be conducted at various times during the day to accommodate debaters’ work schedules in various time zones

* Electronic debates conducted in real time or lagged time through the Internet

* Evidence briefs, cases, and critiques distributed electronically to participants

* Coordinated student research projects with electronic pooling of all research products

* Opportunity to earn 3 units of advanced placement college credit

*Students or schools can join at any time and receive full access to lectures and research

The advertisement for LMU’s in-person camp also mentioned that “all traditional institute students will have access to our Electronic institute, an Internet source of chat rooms, research, lectures and labs, from May 15 to August 3 at no additional charge.”

The program’s director, Professor Jay Busse, passed away last November. He and his wife, Barbara, published an article in the May 1996 issue of Rostrum called “Internet Debate.” In it, they made the case for their online debate camp and for online debate more broadly. The article provides a fascinating snapshot of how the Internet was perceived in the mid-1990s.

I was unable to confirm whether anyone registered for the LMU online program or whether it actually took place. It was not advertised in Rostrum for future summers.

In 1997, Emporia State University (under the direction of Professor Glenn Strickland) advertised an Online Debate Workshop offered in conjunction with their university’s Continuing Education Program. It was to be held from April 1st to May 15th and seemed quite similar to the LMU camp. Enrolling students needed “access to an internet connection,” “an active email address,” and “access to a fax machine.”

The website for the ESU online debate camp is still accessible through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. A few additional details are included; the cost per student, for example, was $225.

Like with the LMU camp, I was unable to confirm that the ESU online camp actually took place and I did not find any advertisements about the program in subsequent issues of Rostrum.

The next online debate institute that I uncovered — and this one I remembered — was SummerDebate.com. The program was founded by Alex Inman, then the Director of Debate at Marquette University. It was first advertised in Rostrum for the summer of 2001 and was branded “America’s Online Debate Institute.”

Its website is also still accessible thanks to the Wayback Machine; it billed itself as “America’s first full-scale on-line debate institute for high school students and coaches.”

“The Basic Premise” of the program is described on the “How It Works” page:

SummerDebate.com is a self-paced online course offered on the most popular platform among colleges and universities, Blackboard.com. Although online courses currently offer a less than adequate forum for real-time competitive debate, they offer a tremendous forum for topic and theory information in a dynamic, interactive environment. Online courses have repeatedly been shown to offer more successful learning environments for information like this due to the reflective communication involved with asynchronous learning.

Each course is divided into curricular units. Each curricular unit is comprised of an interactive, full-text lecture, a reinforcing exercise, and a quiz. Each lecture is broken into easy to read sections and supported with examples and on-line resources, where available. The exercise is a small project each participant should be capable of completing on their own. The quiz is immediately graded and will provide feedback to the participant as soon as the quiz is completed. Each unit will be updated bi-weekly to reflect the continued research of our faculty throughout the summer. To see a sample site with the course curriculum, follow the directions for the appropriate program on the SummerDebate Programs page.

For the summer of 2001, SummerDebate.com included a policy program and a Lincoln-Douglas program. For $250, students had access to the site from June 1st to August 30th. It was marketed as a standalone option for students who could not attend an in-person camp, as a supplement for students who were attending an in-person camp, and as a way for schools to run their own end-of-summer private workshops.

I was unable to confirm how many students attended the inaugural program in 2001, but the site suggests that “over 70 debaters and coaches from 16 states” took part in the program in 2002. When advertising its 2004 program, the site claims that “since the summer of 2001, over 200 debaters and coaches from 21 states have taken advantage of this incredible opportunity.”

Digging through the Wayback Machine’s archive for SummerDebate.com reveals many interesting historical artifacts including sample lessons and a during-the-school-year version of the program.

SummerDebate.com continued to advertise in Rostrum through the summer of 2004. After that summer’s program, the site was replaced with this announcement: “After several wonderful years, SummerDebate.com has closed. We are no longer accepting applications. We thank those of you who have supported us in the past and wish the best to all involved in the great activity of competitive debate!”

After SummerDebate.com’s run ended, the next online debate institute I am aware of is the Digital Debate Institute (sponsored at times by the University of Georgia’s debate team). It was founded by Steven Murray in 2010 and continued to be held each summer until at least 2018.

Like SummerDebate.com, it offered students access to asynchronous and synchronous instruction over a long period of time (in 2018, June 1st to August 1st) for a much lower price than an in-person camp ($400).

The Digital Debate Institute website is still available, but it is unclear whether the program remains active.

There are probably other online debate institutes that I missed, but these four — Loyola Marymount, Emporia State, SummerDebate.com, and the Digital Debate Institute — seem to have been the most significant programs to date. Many other summer debate institutes will join them in 2020 as summer debate instruction universally moves online.

While this transition won’t be easy, it is comforting to know that the process was already underway 24 years ago — whether most of us noticed or not.