By Dr. James J. Barney
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In the past, critics of online education argued that it deprived students of interacting with their peers and professors outside of the classroom or competing against their peers in other institutions. While there may have been some truth to these criticisms more than 20 years ago, that does not address the current state of online education.
Over the past two decades, the line between online education and brick-and-mortar institutions has blurred, creating a hybrid educational landscape that has enriched the educational experience of online students. Most recently, the development of virtual conferences and virtual competitions, such as those in which the Model United Nations Club has participated, have provided online students with rich educational experiences that are likely to grow in popularity, even in the post-COVID era.
Our Model United Nations Club Had Great Success Despite COVID-19 Restrictions
Before the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 and its related closures, our school’s Model United Nations Club brought our online students together from all over the country and used technology to prepare them to compete at in-person Model United Nations competitions. The Model UN Club successfully competed at several in-person competitions in Washington D.C. and won awards for their individual and team efforts.
While COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of in-person conferences, the Model UN Club’s students were undeterred and spearheaded efforts to participate in a host of virtual competitions. Over the past three years, the Model UN Club has received numerous awards for its members’ hard work and professionalism, including the Chapter of the Year Award for 2021 issued by our school’s Office of Student and Alumni Affairs.
Participation in both in-person and virtual Model United Nations conferences have supplemented the educational experience of our school’s students. It has provided many people with valuable opportunities to interact with their peers and instructors outside of online classrooms and forge new relationships with University peers and mentors, as well as with individuals from other institutions.
Additionally, participation in these virtual competitions demonstrated that when online students – including many non-traditional students and students from underrepresented communities – were able to compete against their brick-and-mortar peers, they thrive and excel. This success has helped dispel some popular and unfair misconceptions about online education and its students.
The Esports Club: Furthering the Sense of Community
In recent years, esports, a popular term to describe professional gaming with organized competitions, has exploded. Every day, millions of people play electronic games in organized competitions or as professional players, while others act as spectators. Corporations, realizing the opportunity to reach a younger demographic, have entered this market, sponsoring teams and events and creating ads for players and esports spectators. Some commentators have argued that esports will morph into a multi-billion-dollar industry over the next 10 years with a media viewing public rivaling that of many in-person professional sports leagues.
While esports is already a big business, it also provides students with many opportunities. For instance, involvement in esports provides students with the chance to supplement their current educational experience by joining the online community of esports.
Many popular esports games currently focus on role playing, simulations of sporting activities and shooting games. Forming a school team to compete in esports like American football or one of the many other esports allows online students to bond with their peers outside of the classroom and test their abilities against their peers.
Our school’s students have taken the lead by forming an Esports Club open to current students and alumni who are in good standing and interested in gaming. Our school has also created an online bachelor of science in esports, where our students can study the esports industry or focus on esports player development and coaching.
Like participating in a Model UN virtual conference, esports level the playing field for students. Esports activities allow students to compete against their peers from schools across the U.S. without the need for travel or a large budget.
NACE and the Growth of Collegiate Esports
While professional esports have experienced explosive growth, collegiate esports are a growing subset of the esports universe. For example, the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was formed in 2016 to bring students and educational institutions interested in esports together into a formal organization.
With 170 institutional members and thousands of student members, NACE provides students with the chance to be recruited by schools that are institutional members and then compete as part of a collegiate team against students worldwide. In the future, institutional membership in this organization or other similar organizations will potentially allow our school and its students to shape the course of collegiate esports.
Esports Can Advance Collegiate Missions
Even though esports is a thriving industry with many benefits, educational institutions must ensure that esports and other competitive activities serve their school’s core educational mission. A recent article in The Sport Journal, “The Mission Value of Collegiate Esports,” written by educators from Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, persuasively argues that, if carefully crafted, esports can empower higher education students and advance an educational institution’s central missions. Consequently, educational institutions must play a key role in creating a collegiate esports team that enriches the educational experience of students of all backgrounds and interests while not glorifying violence, discrimination, or other antisocial behavior.
In the Future, There Could Also Be Other Collegiate-Level Virtual Competitions
The experience of our Model United Nations Club over the past three years has illustrated that virtual competitions can encompass many different genres, including knowledge-based simulations similar to Model United Nations conferences, debates, moot courts, and mock trial competitions.
There is no reason why college students should not be able to use technology to compete in other formalized, virtual competitions against their peers from around the world in games such as:
- Chess and other games of skill
- Trivia or game show type games
- Science competitions and other competitive activities that promote an educational institution’s core values
In the future, knowledge-based competitions like the Model United Nations will likely grow and supplement the sports and role-playing simulations currently in vogue in collegiate esports. But this outcome is only possible if educational institutions are heavily involved in the development of collegiate esports and its future direction.
Model UN, Esports and Other Virtual Competitions Are Here to Stay
Esports and other virtual competitions are not a fad. The virtual programs of the COVID-19 years will not disappear in the post-COVID era. Instead, these virtual competitions represent the future and provide students worldwide with a chance to interact in real time.
In the future, online universities and brick-and-mortar institutions will continue to use virtual competitions to build a sense of community, cement bonds between students, and apply the knowledge learned in classes to another setting. All of these benefits are possible through participating in virtual activities.
Perhaps one day, we will all be watching massive collegiate esports competitions of all varieties. When that day comes, I will be rooting for our school’s students.