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In Defense of Using Zoom to Host Online Debate Tournaments

Author: Carly Watson

We’re now several tournaments into the 2020 season of debate. In the past three weekends, I’ve participated in tournaments using three of the main platforms available for hosting online tournaments – Classrooms.CloudNSDA Campus, and the Zoom Room Method (ZRM). For the latter two, I was involved in assisting on the administrative side of things. For all three, I’ve experienced the tournament from the user side. It’s time to consider using Zoom to host more tournaments.

From the start of the transition to online debate, we’ve been stressing the importance of rethinking how tournaments are spending their money. I’ve been in meetings with leaders in both high school and college debate as they consider the implications that coronavirus will have on their budgets. Schools are tightening their belts but families are also struggling. This is the time to crater the costs of participating in tournaments to any extent possible.

One of the primary advantages of online debate is reducing participation costs to increase access. When tournaments choose to use a paid platform, they are choosing to pass those costs on to the participants. Having tournament fees that are the same (or somehow higher?) for online tournaments does a disservice to the opportunities of online debate and is insensitive to the moment that we find ourselves in.

How can we crater the costs of hosting a tournament? Use. Zoom.

An advanced Zoom account allows the tournament host to set up breakout rooms for each of the rounds on the pairings. Tournament participants simply join the Zoom call and then join the breakout room that is for their specific debate. The Zoom host can clearly see who has entered rooms, who’s still missing, and see if anyone drops off the call.

There are some user-end benefits of ZRM’ing too. On other platforms, participants have to fully leave one room in order to join another. Using this method, the participant could easily switch between breakout rooms on the same Zoom call.

It works. We’ve been doing it. All of the Spartan Debate Institute tournaments and practices used the ZRM method. Following some technical glitches on a different platform, the Marist Ivy Street Invitation used ZRMs. Why are we still acting as if this is an unproven and makeshift approach to hosting tournaments?

Some of the issues I’ve heard raised from people about using ZRMs:

Security – Clearly, this is a very important part of hosting online – especially at high school tournaments where youth safety should be the paramount goal. ZRM’ing allows the host to set up a waiting room – ensuring access-control to the tournament in general. The meeting can also be password protected providing an additional layer of security. Zoom also makes it incredibly easy to see who is inside any breakout room. If there was an instance of someone inappropriately joining, they would be easily identified and removed.

Human Resources – Running a tournament is never easy – it’s all thanks to the work of tons of people behind the scenes. When we initially suggested using ZRMs, people were aghast and suggested you would need one ZRM for every three debates. I’m not sure where that number came from but that’s not been our experience. At all. The Marist tournament used four Zoom managers for over 100 debates. There’s no way tournaments of comparable size hosted on other platforms have had fewer than four people assisting in monitoring the platform.

In some ways, Zoom reduces the human resources involved. Because the debates all occur in a single Zoom room, you can easily see who is coming and going from the breakout rooms. You can also easily broadcast messages to all the breakout rooms simultaneously (e.g. warnings about start times).

The new Zoom update also makes hosting on Zoom easier than ever. Instead of having to manually sort debaters, judges, coaches etc. into breakout rooms, participants can now self-select breakout rooms to enter. The host only has to name the breakout rooms whatever room naming convention the pairing uses and then participants can join the correct room.

Tech Support – As a subset to the concern about human resources, there’s the argument that the other platforms provide tech support. To be honest, they both do and they don’t. The pay-for platforms can help people get into the rooms or if they’re having issues with Zoom but, as our aptitude for online debate quickly skyrockets, that will be a diminishing number of the tech issues. We’re quickly reaching a point where joining a Zoom call and troubleshooting issues in Zoom will be second nature to debaters and coaches alike. The trickier tech issues – hardware malfunctions, participant internet – are bound to be the more plaguing tech issues and no platform tech support is helping with those.

Single Point of Failure – This is one I’ve worried about too – if one person is hosting a Zoom room for the whole tournament, and they lose internet, does the whole tournament implode? Nope. If the host assigns a co-host, there’s a back-up option that will stop the meeting from crashing. There also tons of potential for pay-for platforms to crash (and they have).

Zoom Costs Money – OK, you got me there. If you don’t have an advanced Zoom account through your affiliated institution, you’d have to pay for access. A few things. First, many, many, many, many people have fancy Zoom accounts through their institutions. Most colleges and many high schools provide advanced Zoom accounts to their students and employees. Second, the cost of paying for Zoom is still less than most of the pay-for platforms available and there are special offers for educational use.

If people were being honest, I think the biggest reason they aren’t using Zoom is because if feels like it might be harder. I promise, it’s not. Please consider giving a cost-free platform a chance when you’re hosting your next tournament. Reduce your entry fees and pass those cost savings on to the teams and families that need it.

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