January 19, 2022
As we continue to face the newest COVID-19 variant, families and teams are once again considering the long-term outlook for school activities. Since Speech & Debate heavily relies on our ability to hold tournaments, everyone I’ve spoken with is thinking about what the future of our activity looks like given the new normal. Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon, so we need to consider the future of Speech & Debate.
Almost universally, students, coaches, and parents would love to return to in-person tournaments. Our activity is best when students can compete against each other face-to-face, and the benefits to students interacting with new people from different schools are extraordinary. I really miss seeing my friends from across the country at tournaments and I’m sure that students are missing out on the ability to make new friends in our extended network.
Given that a full return to in-person tournaments isn’t reasonable, we need to take a look at online tournaments, consider the pros and cons, and work to make improvements that might add to the experience for everyone involved.
While in person debate is preferred by most people, some debate is better than no debate and online competition has allowed us to continue competing for the last two years. Though it may have its shortcomings, online debate certainly brought some positives.
First, online debate is much more accessible. Removing travel costs from competition has significantly lowered barriers to entry. Speech and debate should be accessible to all students because it is such a transformative activity that helps students learn life skills and improve their trajectories. Reducing these barriers and giving more students the opportunity to compete is the biggest positive I can see.
Additionally, as some schools have opened their doors to allow their students to compete from their classrooms with school supplied technology, the barrier of adequate tech resources has also decreased. Some students have used this as a way to compete every weekend, but for others it is an opportunity to attend some larger tournaments when they otherwise would have never had that chance.
Online debate has also increased competitive options. Historically, we have been limited by time, money, and various other resources that make traveling to tournaments on the other side of the country difficult if not impossible. Thanks to online debate, however, competitors can pick most any tournament anywhere they want. Traditionally east or west coast tournaments now have rosters full of students from all over the country and now even Taiwan and Canada. While working around time zones can certainly be a hassle, having the ability to see competition from all over the world from the comfort of your home or classroom is certainly a benefit of online debate. The wider diversity of competitions can only be a benefit towards the educational goals of this activity.
Some pros certainly exist in the online world, but they have also been accompanied by their fair share of drawbacks.
First, one of the most important parts of speech and debate as an activity are the friendships and experiences we have along the way. A lack of in-person tournaments has made team bonding much more difficult, as are recruiting and retention when the sales pitch for competition is “we get to come to the school on a Saturday and talk to our computers” instead of “we get to visit other schools, and sometimes other states!” Competing from home can certainly be less fun.
Second, though strides have been made to resolve equity issues, they still certainly exist in the online format. Some students may be uncomfortable competing from home for a variety of reasons or lack the technological resources to compete online. These are certainly important questions to discuss as we work to make speech and debate more equitable and more accessible.
Third, online interp events are difficult to compete in. Seeing audience reactions is important and when you’re talking to a room of black squares a lot of that connection is lost. I believe this is why we are seeing interp numbers at national tournaments around the country decrease while debate, oratory, and extemp remain high.
Finally, due to inevitable technology issues a lot of debate rounds are becoming essay contests rather than debates. Because we know mics cut out or WIFI is spotty, we have seen an increase in reliance on speech docs in debate rather than slowing down to make sure that we can hear things while speaking. This is not a trend I want to see continue.
Online tournaments are here to stay, so we should collectively work to improve them and continue to create opportunities for students. Although there are a long list of actions that can be taken, I want to highlight just three ideas that I think would be beneficial:
1) Find ways to improve access to technology. Most households have access to some level of technology, but not all students have easy access to laptops and a reliable, high-speed internet connection. Schools should make an effort to resolve these issues by either providing technology to take home, opening their doors to allow students to use technology after-school and on weekends, and/or working on solutions for faster internet. I’ve seen some school districts loan out both computers and high-speed internet hotspots. Other districts have actually worked with internet providers to ensure students can get at-home high speed internet for free (primarily to access online classrooms but this solves issues for debate too!). Regardless of how we do it, we need to close any remaining digital divide.
2) Offer better education for both coaches and students about handling online tournaments. Every single teacher across the country worked to adjust during the online classroom era and they continue to handle a variety of challenges. We should offer free programs to help teachers and coaches handle these problems and offer strategies for students preparing for online tournaments. Some aspects of online competition are intuitive, others aren’t. Let’s work together to ensure no one gets left behind during the transition.
3) Find ways to improve speech competition. As I mentioned, debate has flourished much more easily than speech events because of the need for audience interaction. There are certainly ways around this, and I hope that we make adjustments to the standard online formats to ensure speech students don’t get bored with this activity. I think there are also brand new speech events that can be created that might be better for online formats while providing the same quality of education and experience to students. We need to think outside of the box on this one.
Overall, there are certainly pros and cons to online tournaments, but the reality is that we need to accept them as part of the new normal. Once we do, we can start looking forward and appreciate the ways that Speech & Debate can create opportunities for students everywhere.