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!