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Midyear Online Debate Survey Results

Author: Carly Watson

It’s a trope that it’s difficult to get debaters to agree about anything but once the community is on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic we’re going to have to decide what the future of debate competitions looks like. Whether through inertia, deliberation, collaboration, or a series of individual decisions, the debate community is going to shape the future of debate. We don’t have to decide today what that looks like but I wanted to create a survey that would take a broader look at perspectives and experiences with online debate. Maybe I’m still a chemistry major at heart but I wanted some data that would help me think about the issues as we make decisions.

I distributed a “Midyear Online Debate Survey” over seven days and gathered 176 responses. The survey asked respondents a variety of questions about their experiences with online debate before COVID-19, during COVID-19, and what they think debate tournaments should look like after COVID-19. The majority of respondents (76.9%) were primarily affiliated with policy debate.

Where We Are

The survey found strong support for the value of online debate. 87.9% of respondents selected “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” when asked if they felt that online debate competitions were valuable options for the debate community. There were certainly concerns with online debate identified by the survey (and surely more than I even thought to include) but as a guiding issue, it does seem to be worth having a conversation about how we include online debate competitions going forward. The vast majority of survey respondents see value in offering online debate competitions as an option.

The strongest support for online debate in the survey was based on online debate being beneficial for geographically isolated schools and schools with lower budgets. 83.7% of survey respondents said that they “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that online debate competitions are importation for geographically isolated schools. 80.7% of survey respondents said that they “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that online debate is important for schools with lower budgets. Neither of those results were shocking – eliminating the travel associated with attending tournaments is both more affordable and benefits geographically isolated schools.

One of the primary drivers in conversations about preserving online debate competitions I’ve seen on social media is the concern that programs will face budget cuts in the wake of COVID-19. This survey wasn’t meant to be an in-depth look into this phenomenon but it did ask a question about the concern. 5.2% of respondents said that they have direct knowledge that the program they’re affiliated with will face budget cuts, 36.0% said that they have heard of other programs at risk of budget cuts, and 59.4% said that they have concerns about their budgets but they don’t know yet what will happen.

In addition to affordability and reducing barriers to travel, there was also strong support for the broad statement that online debate competitions are important for creating access. 74.7% of respondents said that they “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that online debate competitions increase access. In particular, the survey found that 50.0% respondents “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that online debate competitions are important for Urban Debate League Schools (only 10.8% “Strongly Disagree” or “Somewhat Disagree” with that statement). Several respondents in the free field response areas of the survey point out that the benefits in access or for UDLs can only be actualized with community focus on bridging the digital divide.

The survey found that the largest concern with online debate competitions was a loss of community. 83.1% of respondents said that they “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that online debate competitions damage the community aspects of debate. If online debate competitions are here to stay, a conversation about preserving or creating community-building aspects seems important.

Now What

There is support from survey respondents for online debate competitions to continue after COVID-19. The survey asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement “Online debate competitions should be eliminated after travel restrictions are eased” and 59.4% selected “Strongly Disagree” or “Somewhat Disagree” with that statement (as opposed to 31.1% that “Somewhat Agree” or “Strongly Agree”). There’s also very little support for replacing all competitions with online tournaments.

There have been some proposals for using online tournament for either regional tournaments or larger tournaments (e.g. all regional tournaments are online and larger tournament are held in person). There was weak support for either of those proposals from survey respondents. There does seem to be consensus around a “mix” of tournaments being online in this survey. 52.7% of survey respondents selected “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that some regional tournaments and some larger tournaments should be held online and some should remain in person.

The survey also asked about some of the “hybrid” models that people have suggested (e.g. letting judges or competitors participate remotely at “in-person” tournaments). There was some support for both options. 52.7% of survey respondents said that they “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that judges should be able to participate at in-person tournaments online and 49.1% said that they “Strongly Agree” or “Somewhat Agree” that competitors should be able to compete at in-person tournaments online. This survey didn’t ask whether those competitors should be in a separate division, which would be worth investigating if we consider this option.

My goal in writing this summary isn’t to advance an agenda about online debate competitions. This survey is certainly not a simple answer to a complex problem. I’m even torn about the benefits of making these decisions using strict egalitarianism. So why do it? I do have a small agenda and it’s about process. We’re all going to be asked to make decisions about the future of debate whether we want to or not. We can avoid the problem and make a series of individualized decisions or we can deliberate, collaborate, and design the future of debate.

[Update – 5/15/21] The results of this survey were discussed at the 2021 NDCA Professional Development conference. The accompanying Power Point can be downloaded here.

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