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The Massive Classroom

University of Washington senior lecturer Matt McGarrity is teaching an online course on public speaking to tens of thousands of people around the world this summer. How’s he doing?

July 1, 2013 at 4:34 PM

Week 1: What is a MOOC?

Matt McGarrity during the filming of the MOOC (photo by Ken Lambert)

Matt McGarrity during the filming of the MOOC (photo by Ken Lambert)

Earlier this week, a national survey of public attitudes about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) found that only 22 percent of respondents knew what MOOCs were.

This blog is about a taking a MOOC, Introduction to Public Speaking, that’s being offered by the University of Washington this summer.  I’m going to give a very general description of how this free, video-based course operates, for all the people who have no idea what a free online course offered by a major university is all about.

This is my third MOOC, and while it bears many similarities to the two other MOOCs I completed, it has one significant difference, as you’ll see.

I signed up for the MOOC (and yes, everybody hates that acronym) on the web-based platform Coursera a few weeks ago. It’s free, and requires you to give your email address and create a password. The course went “live” on June 24, and the first week’s videos – nine in all, plus an introductory video – became available to watch online that day.

Each video is between six and  10 minutes long, for a total of about 70 minutes this week. The video opens on my screen and plays smoothly – the quality is pretty sharp and the audio sounds good.

Senior UW lecturer Matt McGarrity is teaching this course, and the first nine videos show him in front of a blank white screen. As he explains what the course is about, the space to the right of him often fills with written words — outline-like summaries of what he’s saying. On occasion, the video will stop and I’ll be asked to fill out a simple multiple-choice question. It’s a way to keep me on my toes. I take notes during MOOCs – I couldn’t have gotten through introductory physics without ‘em! At the end of the week, there’s a quiz.

And then there are the forums, a kind of free-wheeling space where, at least for this introductory week, my fellow students are telling a little about themselves and explaining why they’re taking the course. It’s striking how many of the students are tuning  in from overseas — talk about a global campus. McGarrity took a survey before class started, and told me that only about 23 percent of the students signed up for this course are from the U.S.

Based on what they’re saying in the forums, many of the overseas students are using this class to practice their English skills, not just to learn how to deliver a good speech. I wonder if that’s unexpected.

Because it’s a speech class, McGarrity is encouraging (but not requiring) students to videotape short speeches and submit them for peer grading – that is, other students grade your work. And this is very different from the other two MOOCs I took, which did not involve submitting work for peer review.

For about 10 minutes last week, I practiced a one-minute speech introducing myself, then hit the “capture” button on my Mac and recorded away. I was surprised how nerve-racking that little exercise was; this is why I need a speech class!

A dozen Seattle Times readers are helping me write about what it’s like to take Introduction to Public Speaking. Later this week, I’ll tell you how the first week of class went for them.

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