Academic competitions find new ways to run online

March 6, 2021 — by Nilay Mishra
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Photo by Nilay Mishra

The Caltech Harvey-Mudd tournament, which took place on January 23, utilized a system of using Slack for communications and releasing problems.

Opening his laptop, junior Dhruv Singh logged onto Discord at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23. Instead of using it to play video games or chat with friends, he went to the California Cup 3 Quiz Bowl Discord server, where he joined a voice channel to answer questions on topics ranging from science to literature. 

Quiz Bowl is among the competitive academic teams that have made major adjustments in the past few months — sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.

Quiz Bowl is a fast-paced game, with competitors trying to buzz in as fast as possible based on clues of decreasing difficulty. Singh played game after game for over four hours before his team made it to the afternoon playoff rounds with hopes of qualifying to the national championship. After three more playoff rounds and a finals match against Mira Loma, the team placed first at the competition among 15 teams.

Despite the thrill of this victory, Singh said the Discord tournament failed to deliver the same experience as in-person tournaments that typically occur on high school or college campuses.

“In-person tournaments are far more coordinated, while also providing you a chance to be alongside your team,” Singh said. ”The only advantage of online tournaments is playing at the convenience of your own desk.”

Typically, Quiz Bowl matches are played with a physical buzzer set and verbal communication between moderators and players. Although the structure and rules of the competition have largely stayed the same during the pandemic, the transition to Discord came with a few hiccups.  

Cheating is much easier with Google just a tab away, but tournament directors started requiring competitors to keep one hand in camera view at all times to prevent excessive typing. Bandwidth issues and network latency could often delay buzzes, prioritizing competitors with faster Internet when several competitors buzz in at the same time, and lead to problems hearing or answering questions.

Singh believes that the staff were highly supportive of any bandwidth, internet issues and outages that teams may be facing during the Quiz bowl competition.

“Moderators tended to have guidelines to prevent outages from interfering in the game-play,” Singh said. As an example, Singh mentioned that he had to resend a message due to connection issues and the moderator allowed it immediately. 

On the plus side, having participated in both Quiz Bowl and chess tournaments over Discord, Singh has found online collaboration tools, such as voice and text channels, quite useful and user-friendly since they allow users to communicate with each other via instant messaging as well as with audio and video functionality. While the other team answers bonus questions, Singh often discusses the questions with his own team members in a separate channel to test his knowledge, something that would not be possible in an in-person setting.

Many prestigious math tournaments have also found new ways to adapt to an online framework. Saratoga High participated in the Caltech-Harvey Mudd Math Competition (CHMMC) on Jan. 23, a tournament typically hosted in Southern California. 

The team typically has to drive several hours and stay in hotels for the weekend, but the online experience lets the contestants take the test from the comfort of their homes. The tournament was one of the several that have now shifted online.

The tournament used Slack — an instant messaging server similar to Discord typically used by companies and organizations — to post announcements and answer questions, while allowing teams to form their own Zoom meetings to communicate during the team round. At the beginning of each round, moderators posted a private Google form with the problems attached over slack then closed the form as soon as time ran out. 

Unlike Quiz Bowl, CHMMC decided to change up the structure of the competition by introducing a new group round, where teams of six contestants raced to prove six problems and solve 10 more, all within a span of 90 minutes. There was also an individual round consisting of 15 questions.

Junior Jeffrey Hu, one of the members of Saratoga’s CHMMC team, found the new online testing format to be engaging and creative.

“I liked the idea of combining group and proof into one round, since it allows the team to work to their strengths and requires new strategies,” Hu said.  

Because CHMMC was online this year, the tournament drew record numbers of participants, with around 700 competitors worldwide as opposed to the typical 200 from California, a trend seen in several other math competitions that had typically been open to only local teams like the Berkeley Math Tournament and the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament.

“Just like other recent online tournaments, there were a ton more people, so it’s much harder to win,” Hu said. “In my opinion, the prestige is far higher than in-person tournaments, regardless of any potential cheating.”

However, despite attempts of tournament coordinators to prevent cheating through encrypted PDFs and constant video proctoring, the threat is still there.

“I see the prestige of online tournaments as lower than that of in-person tournaments,” Singh said. “The possibility of cheating always remains, and, except in extenuating circumstances, should be factored in.”

Tournament organizers have been continually adapting to the new online situation, and have been building up on the past successes and failures of other similar competitions. Hu believes that the tournament organizers have been able to gradually improve the quality of their online tournaments.

“The organizers [of math tournaments] are improving a little bit and people are learning from each other’s experiences,” Hu said. “But the gap between offline and online is pretty big. It will take a while for organizers to find the best way to hold competitions online.”

Both Hu and Singh said that, despite the network and cheating issues of online competitions, they appreciate the opportunity to compete and showcase their knowledge.

“Even though in-person tournaments are a better experience, I am still very grateful to the organizers for organizing the contest,” Hu said. “I would 100 percent take an online competition over nothing at all.”