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Speech and Debate Continues with Virtual Tournaments

By Greg Malis on May 10, 2021 hst Print

Among the many challenges that educators have faced since the spring of 2020, high school activity programs have been affected in unique ways. While schools closed their campuses and shifted to virtual learning for the remainder of the year, many athletics and theater programs simply ended their seasons – no more games and no more performances.

However, one activity that adapted relatively quickly to the virtual environment was speech and debate. Other than paired speech events (e.g., Duo Interp and Duet Acting), it doesn’t require physical interaction. Policy and Public Forum Debate partners can engage while in different spaces. Speech and debate competitors can compete with an internet-enabled computer or phone.

Just a few weeks after many campuses closed last March, virtual tournaments were up and running and coaches continued to practice with their students. While many tournaments were cancelled, the activity as a whole was not. Virtual tournaments included state championships for Wyoming and Massachusetts, the National Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky, the National Tournament for the National Speech and Debate Association (which included nearly 5,000 high school students from all across the United States). Additionally, summer speech and debate camps continued with online lectures, group work, practice sessions and competitions.

By August 2020, the speech and debate community developed some answers on how the activity could continue and even thrive in this environment. New tools provided the video and audio platforms students and judges need, supplementing web-based registration systems that have existed for approximately 20 years.

Commonly used video/audio services tailored to speech and debate include Classrooms. cloud, Yaatly and NSDA Campus. Their developers worked with the teams at Tabroom.com and Speechwire. com to integrate tournament registration with online competition. Some synchronous tournaments use the same video platforms for competition as they use to teach hybrid or remote classes (e.g., Zoom or Google Meets). Asynchronous options, where students record their speeches prior to the tournament, are available as well.

In order to hold a successful virtual event, tournament organizers need to identify the platform that best fits the size of their team, budget and event. Students from the host school traditionally do not participate in their own tournament. In a physical tournament, hosting students often distribute ballots to judges or work in the concession stand. In a virtual tournament, those same students pop in virtual competition rooms to confirm that all students and judges have arrived. A tabulation staff during the tournament is still needed.

Pre-tournament tasks such as monitoring entries, hiring/recruiting judges, and communicating with coaches and guests continue. Instead of communicating parking instructions, directors disseminate technology guides (often provided by the software developers to share with guests). Some developers provide near immediate customer service for attendees both before and during the competition.

Tournament schedules may need to be adjusted to meet needs of a virtual event. Directors should factor in varying time zones in which guests may be living, screen fatigue after a long week of remote learning, and the inevitable wifi issues that still occur. Communicating with tournament staff during the tournament takes place via email, video conferencing, and/or group chatting services such as Slack.

Despite having technical solutions to enable competition, speech and debate faces enormous challenges. Recruiting and retaining students is harder. Scott Wunn, executive director of the National Speech and Debate Association, recently noted that the number of new student members is well below the typical levels this year. The National Catholic Forensic League increased the number of qualifiers each local league gets to the Grand National Tournament in May to account for reduced number of school memberships.

Performances and speeches in front of a camera with no audience does not have the same feeling as being in front of a room full of competitors and judges. Routine activities like team dinners and spending time in a cafeteria between rounds of competition, both of which are critical to building a championship culture, cannot take place to the same degree as they did prior to the pandemic.

Competing synchronously creates its own unique challenges, including quality wifi connections, spaces in students’ homes where they can remain without interruption for an extended period of time, and access to the required hardware (laptop, earphones, microphones). Equitable access has been a longstanding problem in speech and debate. Virtual tournaments solve some of the problems such as travel costs to tournaments, but expose others such as varying home life environments.

As campuses are able to open more, teams should be able to compete at school and more tournaments can shift from asynchronous to synchronous. Schools in hybrid mode should open up their doors on Friday afternoons and Saturdays for their team to compete at school. The students can be distanced in classrooms, and they can remove their masks when they are the only ones in the room.

Between rounds, students can enjoy a socially distanced meal break with teammates. Students with unreliable wifi or difficult home environments can compete more successfully on their own school campuses. If a school can open for a fraction of its student body on Mondays through Fridays, it can remain open for the entire speech and debate team on Fridays and Saturdays.

Speech and debate competitions have taken place almost every weekend this entire school year. State championships are taking place. National championships are taking place. Coaches and tournament hosts are adapting, and many students are gaining the tremendous benefits that speech and debate provides. We have more work to do, but students are making the best of the situation and are growing as a result.