COVID-19 and Local Circuits: Part I, Transition to Virtual Debating

Datum: May 6th, 2020
Category: International, Mittwochs-Feature

This article will profile the experiences of organizers, coaches, and debaters in different parts of the world. It does not attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the competitive debate scene in that region, nor to provide recommendations / criticisms of different policies and responses.

The second part of this series will review strategies for virtual recruitment and outreach. If you would like to share projects on your local circuit or have comments please feel free to email me at spruced [at] tuta [dot] io

Organizing & Institutional Experiences with Virtual Debate

The Participants:

Vishal – “I’ve been involved with debating and judging for the University of Malaysia and have been running engagements in Malaysia through the Malaysian Institute for Debate and Public Speaking, my university, and my own accord, [such as] workshops, competitions, forums, public engagement on policy making, and systems development.”

Rob Ruiz“I’m the Director of Debate at the University of La Verne,” in California, USA

Alia Gilbrecht“I work for An Najah National University which is located in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I teach semester long debate trainings and classes and run debate events including international tournaments, workshops, and public debates.”

How have practices been adapted to the COVID-19 and related shutdowns?

Judge break announcement in Zoom at the AEDC 2020

Judge break announcement in Zoom at the AEDC 2020

Vishal and Rob are both continuing to coordinate practices and events. Rob describes his team’s transition as somewhat fluid – “my students already built their private debate hall in Minecraft and were having online practices over Discord. They now practice with me in Zoom as well.” Alia describes a similar experience: “part of our training program always utilized technology for weekly trainings with debate experts[..], so we basically just moved the in-person practices to Zoom.”

Vishal, meanwhile, points to challenges with hosting classes for 300 students online – parents and students struggle to adapt to the new platforms and with the stress of sitting for so long. As a result, he says, he has switched to hosting lighter and shorter classes.

While Rob describes an initial move to discuss (and then avoid) COVID-19 topics, Alia indicates that the pandemic has prompted her team to focus on “different government systems” and the viability of restrictions of freedom and consolidations of power in emergency response.

Coordinating online practices has meant changes in participation for both Rob and Vishal. Rob points to the unique context of his program hosted in a Hispanic Serving Institution – “my debaters are now babysitter […] or at home without their own space to utilize.” This makes coordinating a time everyone can get online to practice difficult, he says. Vishal describes many less involved debaters as being uninterested in online sessions “especially when they are not getting funding from their schools or universities.”

Meanwhile, Alia says that since the lockdown, her program has expanded, initiating “novice debate training with Al-Azhar University in Gaza.”

Participation in Events (& Upcoming Events!)

Vishal and Rob both welcome increased cross-institutional participation – having more international presence at events, and being able to participate in practices of other institutions, or have them join in. Alia points to the benefits of joining practices and receiving high level feedback from teams in Europe and Asia. However, Vishal points to significantly reduced local participation as a trend others in his circuit have noticed.

Alia is anticipating NNUDS hosting public debates with Arabic language teams in Lebanon and Tunisia, and continuing to participate in the (now much more accessible) virtual tournaments, having registered for five in Europe in North America.  

Both Rob and Vishal are hosting upcoming tournaments. Rob held the LaVerne Pop Culture tournament (the first United States BP tournament post-lockdown) with a “relaxed and fun” atmosphere and topics. Vishal describes the events he has run online so far (including the MIND workshop and Asia E-Debate Challenge) as having had great responses, and looks forward to the Asia Pro Ams and World Debate Open he will be hosting this May.

Virtual Debates – the Good & Bad 

Everyone has acknowledged challenges with connection for participants and difficulty coordinating time differences and reaching missing participants. Significantly, Vishal points to difficulty in ensuring that everyone in a a debate understands what is going on, exacerbated gaps in connection that compound misunderstandings.

In addition, platforms each have their own challenges and benefits for participants- some use Zoom, Discord, or Mixidea, and Rob says that Yaatly has been a good way to manage a system for POIs and round structure (although it can be pricey).

Zoom and Yaatly offer video for participants, while Mixidea and Discord do not. Zoom does not require an account, while Yaatly and Discord require an email signup, and Mixidea requires a twitter/facebook signup.

Mixidea is also run through Google Analytics software, which makes it inaccessible for many debaters and institutions in China.

However, Mixidea allows participants to allocate themselves to rooms and has a host of debate specific features (POI options, automatic timing for prep and speeches, position allocation, judges’ rooms, announcement room). Yaatly also has debate specific features. Discord allows judges and debaters to self sort into rooms without having debate specific features. Zoom, meanwhile, requires tab to sort debaters and adjudicators into their breakout rooms for debates.

Less relevant to debates but important for the smooth organization of a virtual event, in general participation / announcements areas of the platforms, Zoom enables hosts to mute others, while Mixidea does not (although it has a default listener mode which mutes participants in some areas of the platform). Discord has separate voice and text channels for announcements and questions, which can be sorted by topic (eg: “tab,” “tech,” “ca questions,” “general.”) Some tournaments, including the early-on Berlin IV, have used Telegram for partnership break out rooms and communication. Many use multiple supplemental platforms for different elements of the tournament in concert (WhatsApp or Discord for announcements, Zoom or Mixidea for debate rounds, Tabbr or Tabbycat for draw).

Quarterfinals Info Slide is released in Mixidea for CEDO 2020

Quarterfinals Info Slide is released in Mixidea for CEDO 2020

Software experiences aside, not having to travel to events and tournaments is beneficial to accessibility for participants, and virtual events have much greater access to high quality materials and experienced contributors.

Alia also points to the ability to easily record debate sessions for those who miss a practice, or for participants to review and use to improve on. In addition, she describes many participants as feeling “less stressed” from public speaking when debating online – a common theme from debaters as well.

Post-Lockdown Impacts:

Vishal sees the benefits of maximising participation and debating by hosting physical tournaments with online briefings or an online Friday round in the future. He says that given the love and support for virtual events, he could host more debate activities online (internally and community wide) in the future.

Alia thinks that stress of public speaking will be more manageable going forward, and that the number of virtual events and trainings will remain higher than it was previously.

Rob, located in North America (which has not seen many online BP debate tournaments), is less convinced that these changes will be lasting in North America – if anything, “topics at tournaments might need help if this virus” continues to dominate our news.

Debaters & Virtual Debate

The Participants:

Molly Dewey, First Year, Undeclared, Lawrence Debate Union, University of Vermont
Zaina Hurani, Second Year, Physics, NNUDS, Al Najah University
Gwen Stearns, Third Year, Political Science, Bard Debate Union, Bard College
Sanaa Aslan, Graduate, NNUDS, Al Najah University
Abigail Robbins, Graduate, Political Science, Lawrence Debate Union, University of Vermont

Team / Society Response – Organizing and Structure:
Many debaters describe practices as remaining remarkably consistent in scheduling throughout the transition to virtual practices – keeping to their respective team routines of multiple practices a week. Some, however, say that they have cut back on the number of practices each week, or have more practices run by coaches. Molly says that the main change has been shorter exercises and lectures due to increased stress among participants.

Sanaa points to workshops bringing in outside debaters and coaches, already a fixture of NNUDS practices, being expanded. Zaina credits the availability of debaters “all around the globe” for online debating as an amazing opportunity and points to participation in weekly EUDC online debates and online tournaments, which are both cheaper and easier to coordinate. NNUDS has also reached out to debaters at Al Azhar in Gaza through meetings and trainings to share their debate knowledge, as well as recruitment of participants to an Arabic language debate team.
Zaina also says that “one other great advantage is that we have more time to expand our knowledge and read about different topics which is crucial in debating.”

Molly and Abigail say attendance has dropped, with previously frequent attendees less present. Zaina, meanwhile, says that debaters who couldn’t previously attend physical practices due to transportation or other reasons are now able to participate in sessions.

Debating Online

I. Bandwidth & Connectivity

This is a universal challenge among those interviewed. Gwen, at Bard, indicated that limited connection has impaired speech quality (eg, a missed sentence), it has not significantly hampered a round from progressing (eg, a missed argument or speech). Vermont debaters agree that not a round passes without problems with a mic or someone’s internet connection. However, Zaina and Sanaa, whose debate society has much less stable connectivity, describes the uncertainty of whether internet may suddenly stop working in Palestine, and frequent bad connections – especially when collaborating with debaters in Gaza. In one round, Zaina says, “my internet connection was cut right before I was about to present my speech. So, I called my partner and he connected his phone’s speaker to the headphone’s mic, thankfully we solved the problem.”


Another shared dilemma is offering and taking POIs. Bard, Vermont, and NNUDS debaters describe fewer being present. Molly, a first year debater, offers an explanation that others may resonate with: “many debaters- including myself- feel much less comfortable offering POIs and interrupting a speech.”

III. Computer Interface in Speech Preparation

Flowing on a computer means being able to write faster, and thus have more detailed notes, Gwen says. However, Abigail describes the discomfort of having to watch oneself speak in real time, and lacking the nervousness and excitement of speaking in the presence of others.

III. In-Practice Interaction

Prepping with partners before and during rounds has changed – for better and for worse, respondents would say. While some debaters laud the ability to flow on computers and share speeches / notes with partners via platforms like Google Docs – as Gwen put it, “I’ve never felt as much on the same page with my partner” – others bemoan the lack of spontaneity that occurs with passing notes and whispering.

Zaina also points to a change in the socialization around debate practices for their society: “we usually go and get a coffee together before the trainings and maybe gather a bit earlier to chat, but it’s not the same when you’re doing it online.”

IV. Inter-Team Interaction

Despite seeing less of their teammates, debaters are seeing more of members of other teams on their circuits – Molly points to having other debaters at their practices, while Sanaa describes some of the competitive benefits in seeing how “people from different places have different approaches to topics, […] slight differences in structure, which helps us create our own styles.” Abigail agrees, saying that “after a while you get used to how your teammates debate, what kind of arguments they like to run, what their weaknesses are, etc.”

In addition, Zaina appreciates chatting about “the current situation in each other’s countries and random things like gaming or TV shows.” Abigail agrees that the opportunity to “meet new people and strengthen existing friendships” has been great.

However, North American debaters indicate frustration with a lack of tournament organization in the US, saying that there seems to be a belief in lack of debater interest or significant technological barrier to hosting virtual tournaments here, while other regions and US debate formats are organizing successfully online.

Debate in Times of Crisis: Support & Community

Debaters from all experience levels characterised debating online as a way to stay grounded, maintain connections to friends and forge new friendships, feel productive, fill free time, add structure to their lives, and reorient their thinking around global issues.

Molly, Gwen, and Abby describe how debate has maintained their connections to supporting communities, activities, and friends. Zaina and Gwen add that debate has been a way to focus their attention and grasp something that they can work toward, despite the sudden uncertainty and lack of structure that has confronted most of the community. Gwen writes that “being able to continue a process of self improvement has been very comforting and stabilizing.”

Saana agrees, adding that, as an essential healthcare worker, “I try to keep my connection with debate because it grounds me and keeps me focused. The amount of activities we are doing [has been] very helpful to me.”

For those debaters who are in quarantine rather than working on the ground, Zaina says, “one struggle is the feeling of uselessness. For us University students, no matter how much homework we do, it still feels as if we’re doing nothing. Debating is something that gives you both instant and long-term gratification.[…] Working with your teammates through practice or sharing information gives you that feeling of accomplishment.” Zaina describes eagerly seeking out as much news from as many perspectives as possible, and asking for updates on COVID-19 and how it is affecting each country when participating in online debates. Debate has, Zaina concludes, “made me more inclined to keep up with the news and given me better access to [it].”

Post-Lockdown Impacts

Debaters hoped that they would be able to use computers – without internet connection, of course – at tournaments in the future. Sanaa hopes that at least some of the new online events would continue to be organized for those that previously couldn’t participate, or participate as much. Molly suggests that virtual coordination for a team could enable practices during academic breaks – and perhaps even “virtual trivia socials” that they are hosting now. Abigail, Zaina, and others point to the benefits of mixed institution practices as something they hope will justify continuing them.

However, Abigail says, “I am confident that debating remotely will not fully replace physical practices and tournaments. I don’t get the same feelings of nervousness or excitement as I do leaving a packed GA after the motion is released. […]

The other portion of debate that cannot be easily replicated is the feeling of happiness felt by hugging friends from other institutions when you first arrive at a tournament. […] The atmosphere of tournaments, process of meeting new people, bonding over debate small talk or the tournament food, and eventually making new friends with those people is something that will be very hard to replace in a virtual tournament setting.”

The author has seen enough breakfast threads at virtual tournaments to confirm.

Mittwochs-Feature: The Mittwochs-Feature (Wednesday-Feature) features an idea, interview or book regarding debate – usually in German, sometimes in English, sometimes both. If you would like to start a debate please mail us your idea to team@ .

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