Going Paperless: Can High School Programs Effectively Make The Transition?

Whitman’s nationally recognized debate team fundamentally changed what debating looks like this semester by ditching their 40 pound plastic tubs and thousands of pages of evidence for sleek dell laptops. Whitman’s team is the first college to fully transition to paperless debate.

— Gary Wang, The Pioneer

While the University of Denver was the first team to go paperless way back in 2006, Whitman College’s decision to make the switch during the 2008-2009 college season has once again brought the issue of paperless debating to the attention of programs throughout the nation. Thus far, the bulk of the conversation has centered around the needs and concerns of college squads that compete in NDT and CEDA tournaments; the unique needs and concerns of the high school policy debate community have remained largely unaddressed. This article is an attempt to remedy this shortcoming.

What is Paperless Debating?

Most high school policy debate teams now produce their evidence and files electronically using word processing programs like Microsoft Word. These files are then printed, stored in folders and accordion files, and packed into 14-gallon Rubbermaid storage tubs. Most two-person teams require at least two and as many as five or six of these tubs to store their evidence, which is then packed into vans or checked in at airports and carted around at tournaments. While experienced debaters and coaches have found ways to make this dreadful experience more tolerable, almost everyone would prefer not to deal with the hassles involved with the transportation of tubs.

Enter paperless debating. As Aaron Hardy explains in his Paperless Debate Manual (pdf), laptops and flash drives can enable debaters to prepare, deliver, and share their speeches (including their evidence) without the need to print.

All files are produced electronically using the same Word template, which incorporates both the normal formatting/organizing functions of a debate template, and a few added features specifically for paperless. Files are kept centrally organized in a digital “tub” comprised of folders, sub-folders, and individual files.

Each team carries three laptops. The debaters will each use a laptop to prepare speeches with, placing all cards that will be read for the upcoming speech into one Word document. This is accomplished rapidly by using a set of simple Word macros which facilitate both transferring blocks and cards between open documents, and organizing them into speech order.

Immediately prior to speaking, the debater will place their entire upcoming speech on a USB jump drive. This is first given to their partner, who copies it to their laptop to ensure a backup is available in the event of a tech failure.

It is then given to the opposing team. If the other team has their own laptop(s), they’re welcome to use them to view the file. If not, the paperless team uses their third backup laptop as a “viewing” computer for the other teams use for the whole debate. If for some reason the other team needs a second “viewing” computer, the paperless team can let the other team use one of their other laptops during their prep time.

The same will repeat for each speech (at least, those with cards). After the debate, the judge is obviously free to use either their own laptop or one of the paperless team’s to look at the evidence.

Thanks to the innovative work of Jim Hanson, Aaron Hardy, and the rest of the Whitman team, any interested coach or debater can access a plethora of helpful information about making the transition. In addition to Aaron Hardy’s Paperless Debate Manual (pdf)—the most essential resource available for those contemplating the adoption of paperless debating—the Whitman website provides a helpful “how-to guide” and a Word template with all of the macros required for the system to function.

Already, several of college debate’s most prominent squads have decided to transition to paperless debating. The list of teams making either a full or partial transition includes (but is not limited to):

  • Arizona State University
  • Gonzaga University
  • James Madison University
  • Trinity University
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Central Oklahoma
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Nevada-Las Vegas
  • Wake Forest University
  • Whitman College

At the high school level, Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart (Miami, FL) was the first to make the transition and many others are planning to follow their lead including the Westminster Schools (Atlanta, GA), last year’s winner of the Tournament of Champions and the National Debate Coaches’ Association’s Baker Award.

The Benefits of Paperless Debating

In addition to the obvious—no longer needing to endure the nightmares associated with traveling with tubs—there are a number of benefits outlined by the supporters of paperless debating. First and foremost, as Aaron Hardy explains in his Paperless Debate Manual (pdf), is cost.

Probably the number one factor informing our decision to switch at Whitman. Obviously, it saves all the money spent on paper, printing, copying, expandos, and other tub-related supplies. It also saves all the costs associated with checked baggage on airlines – with escalating fee structures, not an insignificant amount. Somewhat less obviously, it also saves money on the size of rental vehicles needed for to transport the average team. While obviously offset to a degree by the increased costs of the requisite technology (laptops, etc…), the net cost savings to our team just in the first year easily reach into the multiple thousands of dollars. In a time when many budgets across the country are at significant risk of being cut, paperless may soon become a necessity.

Aaron also describes several competitive benefits of paperless debating:

We have quickly found ourselves with a host of secondary benefits from the paperless transition. We have more prep time before rounds due to not moving tubs, we can more easily replicate standard work done in many different rounds, we get back to the hotel earlier because we don’t have to clean up, we can provide cite requests of every card read in a debate within minutes, it’s somewhat less likely my students lose their files…The list goes on.

While paperless debating remains in its infancy, its benefits have already become very clear to the early adopters.

The Barriers To Paperless Debating At The High School Level

Unfortunately, the transition to paperless debating at the high school level is not without significant hurdles.

First and foremost, the high school policy debate community is much larger and more fragmented than its college-level counterpart. Even on the “national circuit,” tournaments bring together schools from distinct geographic regions that hold widely varying philosophies about the activity. While it would be relatively easy for a coalition of the nation’s most elite national circuit programs to come to an agreement about paperless best practices, attempts to expand this consensus to include a broad cross-section of the nation’s debate teams would be substantially more difficult (if not impossible) over the short term.

Indeed, many state organizations explicitly disallow the use of computers during contest rounds. The following are a few of the states whose rules and regulations would prevent paperless debating.

  • Kansas: “The use of computers, cell phones, PDA, and/or other electronic retrieval devices will not be permitted in competition rounds at regional or state debate tournaments.” (KSHSAA Debate Announcements

  • Minnesota: “The use by contestants of any electronic retrieval system (recording or information retrieval system) now known or to be invented is prohibited during any rounds at the tournament. Electric or electronic devices may be used for the sole purpose of keeping time. Judges may use a computer to take notes while judging during competition.” (MSHSL Debate Rules)

  • Missouri: “The use of electronic retrieval devices shall be prohibited during the rounds.” (MSHSAA Speech & Debate Manual)

  • Texas: “Any evidence used in a round must still be available in a hard-copy format for either the opposing team or the judge to view on request.” (TFA Constitution & Bylaws)

  • Wisconsin: “All evidence read must be available in hardcopy to both teams and the judge at the time of presentation. If a team cannot produce a hardcopy of the evidence read in the round, that piece of evidence is forfeited and dropped from the round.” (WDCA Standing Rules)

This list is by no means exhaustive. Even the national organizations are a bit behind the paperless curve. While the National Forensic League has adopted a paperless-friendly policy regarding the use of computers, the policy applies only to the National Tournament—each individual district is allowed to set its own rules regarding electronic retrieval.

High school programs that travel to tournaments that do not sanction paperless debating will have immense difficulty making the transition. Even if the vast majority of the tournaments on a team’s schedule allow debaters to use computers to access and share evidence, students will be forced to print and file paper copies for use at the paperless-unfriendly competitions. While adopting a part-time paperless model is possible, doing so moots many of the advantages associated with the paperless transition. Debate is hard enough without forcing students to become experts at both the traditional paper and the paperless methods of preparing and delivering speeches.

Even when tournaments themselves do not frown upon paperless debating, at least a few judges will consider it their prerogative to discourage it on their own. At regional and local tournaments in many parts of the country, the use of laptops even for flowing is considered inappropriate by a sizable portion of the judging pool. Many of the same judges that take issue with “circuit-style” practices—open cross-examination, prompting, spreading, and casual dress, for example—and arguments will fight tooth-and-nail to prevent students from debating exclusively with computers. Anyone that has attended a state debate association meeting where technology usage was discussed knows how contentious of an issue it has become. Even when a consensus in favor of paperless debating develops, a subsection of coaches and judges will remain vocal critics of the practice—students who have made the paperless transition will certainly not look forward to seeing these individuals in the back of the room.

Beyond the organization and ideological barriers to paperless adoption, the major motivation for the transition—reducing travel costs—does not resonate nearly as much with most high school programs. While attendance at the major national circuit tournaments often requires air travel, the vast majority of teams in the country never set foot in an airplane—or if they do, it is only for the season-ending CFL or NFL Nationals. If the bulk of a squad’s tournament schedule involves only ground transportation in busses or vans, the economic advantages of paperless debating are not nearly as compelling. While the cost of paper and toner certainly adds up over the course of a season, so too does the cost of acquiring laptops (including a third, “viewing” laptop) for each of a squad’s teams.

And while the “laptops are too expensive” argument is often a red herring, it does pose a challenge to advocates of paperless debating when the school considering the transition travels mostly to local and regional tournaments. If both members of a team do not own their own laptops, the cost of providing them with one can be prohibitive—especially when paper and toner usage are considered “off the books” by school administrators who will see the request for laptop purchases as excessively expensive.

Even if computers are available for all students on a squad, most high school students’ possess less sophisticated computer skills than do the majority of college students. While most college debate programs focus on students with previous experience in debate, every high school program is built on the foundation of its novices. This poses an additional challenge: not only must coaches instruct their experienced students in the art of paperless debating, but they must also train their novice students not only in the basics of the activity but also in the use of relatively sophisticated technology. By no means is this impossible; in fact, training students to debate paperlessly may prove to be easier than the traditional paper-and-tubs approach. But the importance of teaching novice students makes the paperless transition a uniquely more challenging task for high school programs considering the move.

The Outlook For Paperless Debating In High School

Lest one get the wrong impression, the author is a strong advocate of paperless debating and has considered making the transition with his own program. But given the concerns discussed previously, such a move may prove impractical—especially because of state organization rules that prevent paperless debating.

This issue is not an easy one for directors of high school debate programs. Should teams move to a paperless system? If so, how can they accommodate attending tournaments that disallow the use of computers for the preparation and delivery of speeches or the sharing of evidence? There is—at least in this author’s opinion—no easy answer.

Over time, the paperless transition is almost certainly inevitable. In the short-term, it poses difficult challenges. Please use the comments to share your thoughts. Is your squad transitioning to paperless? What lessons have you learned from your transition that would be helpful for others considering the move? How have other teams in your local or regional circuit reacted? What can coaches do to expedite the transition to paperless debating in their regions? Or is paperless debating even worth pursuing? The perspectives of debaters and especially coaches from across the country will be greatly appreciated—please join the conversation!

20 thoughts on “Going Paperless: Can High School Programs Effectively Make The Transition?

  1. poneill

    For the record, the minnesota rule only applies at the sections tournaments and then the state tournament. There are no rules against laptops at most minnesota tournaments(the MSHSL lets the debate community regulate itself outside of those tournaments).

  2. Bill Batterman Post author

    I believe that’s the case with Kansas as well (and probably other states), Phelan. For the most part, it seems like invitational tournaments pretty much play by their own rules, but there are exceptions… in Wisconsin, for example, the Wisconsin Debate Coaches’ Association theoretically has the authority to “de-sanction” a tournament that does not follow its guidelines for sanctioned tournaments (including the rule regarding electronic retrieval).

    My point in providing these examples, though, is simply that most high school teams have in the past and will in the future attend tournaments that do not allow paperless debating. Given that reality, the decision to make the transition is very difficult; in Minnesota, for example, it would be all kinds of awful to debate paperless from September through December and then have to go back to paper-and-tubs for sections and state.

    Thanks for the comment… I’m very interested to hear others’ thoughts regarding these issues!

  3. poneill

    I think the laptop rule is still up for review (at least I think I remember hearing that sometime between this last season’s state and next season it’d be reviewed) in MN. It would be a pretty big nuisance, but one solution is to do a practice round or two between the last tournament before winter break and sections with paper. This is of course not a desirable, but it has the potential to fix some of the problems.

    Long term, the solution is probably for more debaters to go paperless. At least in Minnesota, the MSHSL has been fairly responsive to changes in community norms (for instance, in LD, the community has transitioned to 4 or 5 mins of prep instead of 3 over the past few years, and the state high school league switched the rule once the MDTA suggested this change as part of staying current with the norms). It’s obviously a difficult method of trying to make the full transition possible, but it’s a way of changing the norms so the state leagues will update the rules.

    There’s also the short term solution of carrying basic shells in an expando and then printing specific frontlines if you know what the other team reads, but that assumes a culture of disclosure and can be fairly risky (ie if a team breaks a new disad or K, you could be stuck without answers).

  4. Pete Nikolai

    The MN rule has changed, but the MSHSL handbook has not kept up. MN has adopted a rule substantially similar to the NFL rule.

  5. kendall

    You are correct the Kansas rule is up to individual tournaments. However, many tournaments right now do not allow laptops still. If cost were brought up I’m sure they would find a way to change but it would have to be changed at the beginning and probably first on a national circuit level, before a spillover to Kansas occurred.

    I know reading evidence off a laptop was taboo for certain “old school” judges at NFL that even said after the round they were upset we still did, our reason was because we didn’t want to spend $100 to print off additional blocks at kinko’s after our school was closed. Tournaments after a transition though could make clear that costs are much easier that way and was required which would seem to get parents on board at more lay-friendly tournaments and old-school judges would probably recognize it helps.

    In Kansas, and I would think other states the cost associated could be a big motivator. A lot of schools have laptops that the debaters could use over a weekend and agree to check out and avoid damage for. In that case students without laptops could still have one to check back any risk of certain schools having them.

    Also I wonder what old school individuals felt about the transition to making blocks on a computer and reading cards that were done electronically and internet sources? Some of those changes seem like more traditional individuals would have opposed.

  6. poneill

    Thanks for the update pete. What about districts? Have the rules for districts changed in MN yet or is that still tbd?

    And does the rule change only apply to policy?

  7. LA Coach

    Louisiana currently allows paperless policy debating, but an issue was raised at the last (state) league meeting that may change things.

    I haven’t had any worries about paperless debating in the rounds I’ve judged, and would love to encourage it with my traditional LD debaters. Some of the other coaches, however, are concerned that electronic retrieval might turn into electronic communication. Aside from encouraging strong competitive ethics in our students, what can be done to address that concern?

  8. Reuben Lack

    I just have one big qualm about going to computers beyond the fact that I just personally prefer paper (it gives it a “real” feel):

    You do not want a computer crash or malfunction in the middle of a speech or before a speech, etc. You can try your best to make the computer area safe and keep it ‘healthy’, but there is NOTHING that ANYONE can do to take away the chance of an untimely crash. In my opinion, I would rather spend the money than lose in a round while giving a great speech – to have my labtop screen go black.

  9. Maggie Berthiaume

    RE: Computer Crash –

    Hardy has a good description of this in his handbook, but basically their version of paperless involves using three computers (one for each debater and one that is the “reading” laptop for the other team). The speech is up on all three at once, so although catastrophic tech breakdown is obviously still possible, it’s much less likely. Students who flow on computers now seem to be taking a much bigger risk as that is not backed up in any way.

  10. Reuben Lack

    @Computer Crash-
    While that seems like it resolves some issues, I don’t think this will work for all schools, even if it becomes the norm in a few years. Not all schools travel by plane to other tournaments, and even then you have to see whether buying 3 labtops per team is cheaper than just brining the tubs.

    All tournaments this past year were reachable by a bus ride for 2 to 4 hours. However the bigger events like Harvard and Berkeley are far from the Southern region and likely will be the tournaments the “paperless” process is tested at first. My mind is open to being swayed but I still hold to the belief (in regards to computer crashes) that “If anything bad can happen, it will happen”

  11. DMarks

    I think it’s important to take netbooks into account.

    1. Costs:
    Right now, $.99 for the laptop, + $60/mo for 3G (usually a 2 year contract). Yes, as in less than $1 for the laptop, plus the $60/mo for the internet.

    I predict (with no actual evidence to present) that these monthly internet costs to go down as data networks improve dramatically over the next 2 years.

    2. The Internets are Coming:

    These new netbooks will be connected to the internet without needing access to the tournament’s wireless. It makes USB’s and all that complicated file saving irrelevant.

    I just started looking into real-time collaborative editing of Word documents. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_real-time_editor#List_of_current_editors). Google Wave will soon introduce real-time editing as well, and even Microsoft already has a free Office add-on to allow online collaboration. And, Microsoft is about to announce their new online version of Office any day now. There’s also dropbox… which I universally recommend because it’s AWESOME (use my link! https://www.getdropbox.com/referrals/NTEyOTIyOTU5).

    The gist: I wouldn’t recommend making a transition right now. I think it’ll be a LOT easier to do it when online tools for collaboration and netbooks have grown up a bit — a ton of new Web 2.0 products are coming out over the next year and you risk giving yourself a lot more work than necessary trying to force it now.

  12. DMarks

    I posted something before, but may have screwed it up.

    Gist: If you can, it’s probably a good idea to wait. New software (Chrome OS, Microsoft Web Office, Google Wave, etc.) and new hardware (a netbook is now available for $1 + $60/mo. internet) will be or already are here. Real-time collaborative editing or file-syncing (e.g. Google Wave, Google Docs, CoWord, DropBox, Live Office, or a host of other products) will eliminate much of the need for Whitman/Denver’s admirable, yet unnecessarily* complicated solutions.

    It’s probably a bad idea to make investment decisions on laptops or templates based on technology available the last few years (USB drives, for example) instead of what’s likely to come within the next year or two.

    *I sit in awe of what they’ve done with existing tech constraints. I only say it’s “unnecessarily complicated” in comparison to technology I expect to be available in the future, since that’s the important reference point when making these decisions now.

  13. Austin

    I am really excited about the paperless transition; however, I do have one concern. What are teams going to do to prevent opponents from taking the third computer, with the entire speech on it, and then scrolling down to the arguments they have to answer?

    For example

    1nc: T, 2 CPs, a DA, and a K
    2ac: puts the K on the bottom

    since the 2n wants to take the K for nine minutes, he/she scrolls down to the bottom of the 2ac and preps the K, thus saving tons of prep time.

  14. Kevin Hirn

    Austin – While your concern does make a lot of sense, I’d hope that basic academic integrity would prevent debaters from cheating. To quote from the lecture Jarrod Atchinson gives every year at the University of Michigan, debate is predicated around a close community of trust – most students can easily get away with activities like card clipping and evidence fabrication (the latter of which is also made far easier with advances in technology), but do not because of respect for the activity. I think the hope is for a consensus to build around the ethical ways of debating paperless. All of the paperless debating guides I have read (for example, Whitman’s guide they put out last year) invoked a similar appeal to basic ethics – just as you wouldn’t steal 2ac blocks from under the nose of the 2A during the speech, please don’t read ahead.

    Plus, most rounds likely require that you flow the majority of each speech if you’re exclusively taking a position in the next speech. Blocks and 2NRs generally, or at least half of the time, want a pretty good flow of the entire 2AC/1AR. While there are always going to be examples where a debater can get ahead by looking ahead, it would certainly not be advantageous in every single debate.

  15. richard

    To add to Kevin’s comment and answer Austin’s concern, page 25 of Hardy’s manual indicates

    “Public Relations
    In the very beginning of our paperless transition, Whitman proposed two “community norms” we thought would help facilitate fairness during paperless debates, as well as alleviate some of the concerns our debaters had. Neither norm was objected to by any of the people we debated over the course of the year, and they seem to have been reasonably accommodated by most if not all of our opponents. I list them again here as no more than an ongoing request – it’s certainly the case that practices will evolve along with the more widespread utilization of paperless debating, and these types of norms will likely take care of themselves, in time. More importantly, we feel it’s the burden of the team pushing a new practice (paperless) to bear the brunt of the responsibility for accommodation should anyone disagree.

    Nonetheless, we feel the following practices would be best for competitive equity:
    • The opposing team should, to as reasonable a degree as possible, minimize “looking ahead” in the speech document to try and gain a competitive advantage by figuring out what will be read later in the speech. This is especially applicable in rounds where something such as a new affirmative is being read. While obviously only so practicable, we feel that an honest attempt is still better than nothing.

    • Opposing teams or judges who opt to transfer the “speech” document to their personal computers should delete them at the conclusion of the debate. We feel that taking evidence wholesale is the equivalent of taking a paper file. We’d hope the majority of the community would agree that stealing files crosses the line, especially given the easy availability of cites.

    Two other issues bear mentioning in relation to paperless teams interacting with the nonpaperless
    world, especially judges.

    • Prep Time – Some judges have expressed concern that the process of jumping files, setting up computers, etc…takes too much time. In particular, they seem to be frustrated that it appears as if the paperless team is “stealing prep” while waiting for something such as a Word document to open on the viewing computer. While a legitimate concern, I think it is misplaced, for several reasons. First, after a season of debating with seven paperless teams, I can say that I’ve noticed zero difference in the average length of time it takes to conclude our debates vs. rounds involving only paper. Secondly, I would say that paperless more frequently saves time, by eliminating the “stolen prep” involved in giving each teams evidence back to each other, searching under desks for piles of misplaced 2NC cards, or looking for the lost CP text. My hunch is that this time is significantly greater in the world of paper, but judges are used to it taking place, while they are not used to the time involved in jumping files.

  16. john smith

    I feel that it is more difficult to read cards off a computer/scroll down after each card-The ability to see a look down upon a card is in my mind much more compelling than having to look up to a computer screen. Also-what happens if you want to jump down a couple pages, for whatever reason-with printed cards you just take out the middle ones, but you would have to keep scrolling on a computer. Also, things like the 1AC, commonly read 1NCs, should never be read off a computer. It is also I think easier to highlight files by hand than it is to highlight on the computer. Does ease outweigh thousands of dollars? I don’t know.

  17. Alex Gulakov

    re: peeking

    1. Either connect both the viewing laptop and the main laptop to the internet or, if there is no internet connection available, connect using an ad-hoc wireless network:
    Windows: http://www.addictivetips.com/windows-tips/create-a-quick-ad-hoc-wireless-network-connection-between-two-computers-in-windows-vista/
    Mac: http://www.macworld.com/article/46658/2005/09/octmobilemac.html

    2. With Skype installed on both laptops, start a Skype chat between the laptops, then on the main laptop go to Share > Share Screen.

    re: stealing speeches

    When saving your speech file, there is a “Tools” drop-down box in the Save As window, close to the Save button. Under “General Options” in Word 2007 or “Security Options” in Word 2003, you can set a password for editing and opening the document. The other team will only be able to view the file if you enter the password on their computer.

    You can also disable the cut & copy functions within that document: ALT F11, then, in the project explorer on the left, right-click on Project(Speech) – or whatever the file name is, just NOT Project(Normal) – and Insert > Module. Then insert the following code
    Sub EditCopy(): End Sub
    Sub EditCut(): End Sub

    re: difficult to scroll

    Go to View > Reading Layout in Word 2003 or Full Screen Reading in Word 2007, then you only need to tap the right arrow key to flip through the document – no need to scroll.

    re: crashes

    Go to that Orb in the upper-left corner > Word Options in Word 2007 or Tools > Options in Word 2003, then under the Save tab set AutoRecover to “every 1 minute.”

    re: steals prep

    No need for USB transfers – set up an adhoc network, then on the main laptop right click on some folder and select “Sharing and Security” (or Properties > Share) then select “Share this folder on the network” with “Everyone.” Drop your speech file into this folder, then anyone connected to your ad-hoc network (either your opponents or the viewing laptop) can view that folder by clicking the “Network” icon from their desktop or start menu.

  18. Karen

    I have been a PTA membership coordinator for the last few years. Ever since our school has tried to go paperless, I have been using using the online forms I found on


    to recruit PTA members and sign up our class parents for our Halloween Harvest, teacher appreication week, fun run in the sun, our book fair, dances and other volunteer needs.

    Last night I presented it to our PTA board at our first general assembly meeting. It was very well received and I believe our Room Mom coordinator is going to recommend that all of her class moms use the program to help improve parental involvment in the classrooms.

    I just thought this could be something that you may want to look into further for your next event.

  19. pavja2

    Our High school is paperless this year and it works great…
    Prep time use is MUCH more efficient (CTRL-F)
    We use 3 computers (one as a “viewing computer”) which gets around the “Hard Copy” rules fairly well, and as of now no one has complained.

    In all honesty paperless is great, ends up saving the team money, and helps you win rounds.

    We also use Dropbox, which lets us share files instantly as soon as they are updated.

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