How Barriers to Equity Continue Online

Athena Tian | 8/21/22

In-person speech and debate tournaments are famous for the opportunity and experience that they provide. Not only do students get to travel to cities and view postsecondary institutions as a part of their competitive experience, but they are also granted the opportunity to engage with students who share similar interests and struggles from across the country. Together, speech and debate tournaments provide them a chance to build lasting memories, endure the nerves of waiting together for breaks or awards ceremonies, and compete against some of the elite debaters - who also happen to have the means of covering the extensive costs of travel to such tournaments. The costs of the aforementioned adventures include but are not limited to plane tickets, long drives, hotel stays, purchase of food, hefty competition entry fees, on-site transportation, as well as accounting for dependent family members, jobs, and schoolwork that they may be leaving in their town of residence.

For these reasons, online tournaments in speech and debate that were initially meant to mitigate the risk of transmission from COVID-19 have outlasted the lifting of major pandemic-related restrictions in the United States. While drawbacks and limitations undeniably exist while replicating the previously vast and phenomenal experiences through a computer screen, the availability of online tournaments has reaped accessibility, exposure, experiences, and accolades for those who had circumstances preventing frequent travel to in-person tournaments.

However, despite the relatively heightened accessibility of debate competitions, camps, and knowledge seminars in the post-COVID virtual setting, speech and debate as an activity remains elitist and continues to filter out competitors that could otherwise bring valuable stories and competitiveness to local, statewide, and national tournaments. Competitors who rely on internet-based debate and online servers and group chats to invigorate the experience of speech and debate have benefited from the change induced by COVID-19 as a result of the expanded frequency of convenient and accessible online experiences. In spite of the positives, COVID-19 has prompted another change that fails to aid the diversity and accessibility of the forensics community: further emphasize what is commonly known as the “digital divide.”

The disparity has always existed. Tournaments require “prep” that is accomplished in the form of online research. Schematics and communications have long been conveniently delivered via internet-based platforms such as Speechwire. Ranks and ballots containing valuable feedback were sent to students via internet-based email accounts. Connecting with other members of the forensics community and receiving insider pointers required connection to social platforms such as Messenger, Discord and various online blogs - including Equality in Forensics. Cutting interp scripts and speeches required a wide scan of literature on the internet. Debaters who were able to adapt to their competitors' arguments by briskly updating their own arguments in round on their own devices were always more efficient and organized than their counterparts who relied on legal pads and handwritten notes.

In spite of the adversity faced by competitors lacking broadband, a path to engaging in teh activity remained. Going to school daily and having regular access to public libraries and internet cafe’s provided students with stable internet access - with varying degrees of quality and time, but broadband access nonetheless. Coaches who could not access online meeting platforms were still able to maintain some form of communication and rehearsal time with students and utilize public connection to register their teams for competitions.

Amidst COVID-19, the previously discussed lifelines disappeared. Students who had stable broadband access in their quarantine shelter known as “home” continued to exist in the world of forensics, while those who could not access the internet vanished from virtual school as well as from forensics. Commuting and spending hours at public locations with internet access was no longer an option. As the pandemic dragged on with no end in sight, speech and debate was forced to surrender to the new reality of increasing its reliance on online platforms. Meanwhile, less fortunate students were forced to surrender to a new reality of their own: being distanced from the speech and debate community indefinitely. 

America’s social scene has practically returned to its pre-pandemic state, with the exception of an occasional mask or building capacity requirement. Schools, libraries, internet cafes, and the other public spaces which provided many underprivileged students, especially in rural areas, with internet access previously have reopened. However, speech and debate has not returned to its pre-pandemic state, and likely never will due to the significant benefits and convenience of sharing information and competitive opportunities online. Those who were isolated from this community during the pandemic were initially distanced only temporarily, but now find themselves facing a long-term crisis. 

As of 2021, 27.6 million, or nearly one in four households in the United States lacked stable access to the internet, while another 265 thousand rely on low-quality and faulty dial-up internet service due to the cost and inaccessibility of more reliable broadband services. For context, the number of households that are unable to connect to search engines to conduct research for tournaments, receive virtual instruction, and attend online competitive events is greater than the combined number of households in the least populated 13 states (McNally). Broadband with a speed of 800 mbps costs families approximately $80 per month (Bowman). But the financial predicament doesn’t end there - while laptops have become the essence of all work done in forensics, even the newest models are only estimated by experts to last 3-5 years before the software becomes unbearably prone to malfunction (Walter). For the purpose of online debate tournaments rely upon crystal-clear audio, bandwidth fast enough to accommodate the cameras of dozens of people in one call, rapid switching between tabs, and faultless communication, the requirements for the quality of the laptop and high-speed broadband are even more stringent than an average household. The cost of replacing a device as crucial to participation in forensics as a laptop starts at $300 for even the cheapest and least durable, possibly renewed models (Walter).

The correlation between access to high-quality broadband devices and opportunities available in speech and debate is unfortunately, nothing less than expected. The three states with highest rates of internet access, California, Utah, and Colorado (McNally), occupy 31 of the top 200, or 15.5% of schools in the NSDA Rankings as of August 2022. On the contrary, the three least connected states, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi (McNally), represent only 2 out of 200 - a jarring 1%. An even more unsettling reality lay in that Mississippi’s top high school ranks only at #384. Such empirical statistics authenticates a harsh representation of the students who are missing out on the life-changing experience that comes from participation in speech and debate.

During a competitive tournament, if a competitor loses connection or requires a technical accommodation, the tournament will, in most cases, make a gracious effort to harmonize with their technology-induced difficulties, but if the challenge persists, then the remainder of the tournament must go on. However, even for the competitors who do manage to remain connected for the duration of their competitive experience, other barriers and de facto considerations in virtual competition inherently discriminate against those that come from lesser means. Such perceptions and evidence of difficulties inevitably continues to fuel chronic elitism and filtering of students from diverse backgrounds in speech and debate.

While lack of high-speed broadband access is a barrier that disproportionately challenges students in rural areas of the nation (Fouriezos), urban students face their own predicament: sound pollution and peace, or lack thereof. While 219 million people nationwide reside in an urbanized area and 29 million live in a highly concentrated urban cluster (US Census 2020), noise pollution in such urban areas was named a top environmental and health threat by the United Nations in 2022 (Rachal). As it pertains to speech and debate, living in a place where the cities relentlessly bustle with noise beyond what can be eliminated through a “background noise” filter are unable to be properly evaluated or critiqued due to the inability of judges and competitors to accurately understand and respond to their presentations.

Furthermore, nearly one in eight, or roughly 39 million Americans nationwide rely on apartments as their home (National Apartment Association). Speech and debate students are not excluded from this group. While residents of apartments and urban neighborhoods live in more tightly packed housing, surrounding conditions and the needs of roommates, family, neighbors, and pets within a close proximity inflicts yet another constraint. For students in an activity such as speech and debate which heavily involves powerful oral presentation and verbal communication, the potential of students in such residencies is further limited by judges who often favor competitors who are able to exude the most confidence and volume in their voices.  

While virtual debate has admirably allowed countless students to become more engaged and competitive within the speech and debate community, it remains necessary to comprehensively address benefits, drawbacks, and areas in need of adaptation for this new reality. While acknowledging the significant advances and growth which the reliance on the internet has allowed within speech and debate, it is consequently necessary to acknowledge that decreasing the use of the internet would deprive the activity of a widespread community, an audience, organization, and communication.

What can organizations, competition hosts, competitive circuits, and students themselves do to further close the gap in accessibility and aid students who lack stable access to high-speed broadband and state-of-the-art devices?

Primarily, local tournaments should still be held in-person whenever circumstances allow. Apart from the other benefits and fun experiences that students can reap from attending live competitions and presenting live, local events do not require the financial or time commitment of statewide or national tournaments and can also ensure internet access to every competitor as well as the capability of running a competition in the event of an event of an unexpected malfunction from platforms such as Speechwire, Zoom or Tabroom.

Secondly, for tournaments that are held virtually, a local school or facility which can provide high-speed internet, a quiet setting, and appropriate background can offer for students to use their facilities or classrooms for competition. Such a scenario would secure multiple advantages for all parties involved. The student is able to access competition and speak more loudly and comfortably than they would be realistically permitted to in a home setting. Furthermore, their family, friends, roommates, and neighbors are able to continue with their tasks without on-and-off noise disturbances. Students are able to utilize more opportunities to compete and gain feedback virtually, while tournaments attract more competitors, more diversity, an increased network, and significantly decrease the amount of time wasted on attempting to resolve technical difficulties that may arise. Both the students without internet themselves as well as their competitors will benefit from a more peaceful experience with fewer distractions in the form of background noise, background visuals, disconnections, and low-quality audio and video.