Going virtual has its pluses ... yet

Posted 3/18/21

Paula Pratt was a judge on Sunday, March 7. She wasn't wearing robes or in a courthouse. She was sitting at home, or at least that's what it looked to be. Paula was one of more than 25 volunteers serving as judges for the 38th annual Rhode Island

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Going virtual has its pluses ... yet


Paula Pratt was a judge on Sunday, March 7.

She wasn’t wearing robes or in a courthouse. She was sitting at home, or at least that’s what it looked to be.

Paula was one of more than 25 volunteers serving as judges for the 38th annual Rhode Island Academic Decathlon. The former manager of the Citizens branch bank at Hoxsie Four Corners who moved on to manage Warwick BankRI branches, Paula has served on the Decathlon board for decades.

In any other year she could be found on the sixth floor of the CCRI Knight Campus superstructure in a room overlooking the library. It’s command center.

Indeed, there are other critical locations. The registration desk is a hub of activity, especially first thing in the morning when upwards of 200 sleepy-eyed students have a hundred questions from “Where is my team?” and “Where’s the bathroom?” to “Do I need a pencil?” The surge of students is followed by as many as 60 volunteers – and that’s just the morning crowd – whose most asked question is, “Where can I find the coffee?”

By late morning, lunch is on the minds of most students and volunteers. As sandwiches, wraps, chips, cookies and fruit are spread on tables in the great hall, finding it is no challenge. Then by late afternoon, the focus shifts to the competition finale – the super quiz followed by the awards ceremony.

Yet the brain to the competition is on the sixth floor.

For years, Paula has coordinated the distribution of tests and dealt with questions over lost forms to miscoded answer sheets. Jonathan Reed has been at the reins of scoring and programming so that by the end of the day there’s not only a winning team but a rundown of gold, silver and bronze medallists in each of the events for all three divisions of students based on their grade point averages – in other words, a mountain of data and a lot of medals.

Last year, the Decathlon was held the week before the COVID-19 shutdown. This year, it went virtual.

RIAD director Frank Lenox and assistant Jen Randall were at the helm. They had it down, from the scheduling of the objective tests to the speech and interview segments of the event.

“Zoom” no longer is reserved for the quick “get up and go” when the traffic light goes green. It’s become the way to meet – and, as it turned out, how to conduct interviews and judge live speeches.

As the morning got underway, judges joined a Zoom meeting where Frank and Jen reviewed the training session from the day before – also done on Zoom. They went over how to file scores and what timers would do. The judges disappeared from the screen as they went to their respective virtual chambers.

Students’ faces and names popped up next. They were instructed to keep their first name but change their last name to their RIAD identification number. I would have been lost at this point, but not the students. They’re fluent Zoomers.

With a few clicks, the numbers appeared. Then it was a short wait before students disappeared from the screen to reappear in one of the judging rooms.

Had this been in person, a volunteer would have fetched the student from a homeroom and escorted them to another room with a panel of judges. It zoomed.

Many of the students were comfortably at home. A cat even made an appearance as one student lost his train of thought and froze before the judges.

Paula was impressed with how easily everything flowed. She questioned if some students were reading their speeches as their eyes moved back and forth. She dinged them for that. Other students used Zoom to their advantage, ensuring the camera caught their gestures and expressions.

The virtual competition lacked the team camaraderie; the chance for volunteers to interact with students; and the excitement as the day draws to a close with the super quiz and the awards ceremony. Yet going virtual also opened doors. There wasn’t all the paper of tests and score sheets and the logistics of homerooms and rooms for speeches and interviews. For Paula, it was leaving command central and, for once, being a judge.

One aspect of the competition has yet to play out – the awards ceremony.

That’s planned for Wednesday. It will be virtual, of course. Channel 12 news anchor Kim Kalunian will host the event, which will include the naming of student medallists and conclude with the announcement of the winning school.

Want to watch it, including a winning student speech?

It’s as simple as going to the RIAD website – www.acdec.net -and clicking on the video link.

And next year?

Paula and others in the decathlon would just as soon not Zoom through a competition.


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