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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 2, 2013 at 5:35 PM

The advantages of the recorded classroom lecture

We’ve just finished the first week of classes in the University of Washington’s Introduction to Public Speaking MOOC, and the class is settling in nicely. The students have found their virtual desks, learned how to play the video lectures, and tackled their first weekly quiz and (optional) practice speech.

For the dozen or so Seattle Times readers who are taking the class with me, senior lecturer Matt McGarrity is earning solid marks at this point, with everyone enjoying his rhythm and delivery. And the ability to start and stop a lecture, or watch all of them in one sitting, has some distinct advantages over the traditional classroom.

“So far, so good!” wrote John Enger, a West Seattle resident who’s taking the class to prepare for a year as governor of the Rotary Club’s King County district. “I like the way I control the tempo and the timing of the lectures. For me to hear Matt, pause the presentation and write down what he’s posted on his PowerPoint, and then to continue playing the lecture is a terrific way for a person like me to learn. I see, I hear, I write and later read at my speed…wish college had been like that.”

Ching Yee Wong, a communications professional with Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, thought there were too many videos, but appreciated that they were cut up into short segments. “If it were a traditional straight 1-hour lecture, I would have fallen asleep on the couch,” she wrote.

And Jason Schumacher, who runs academic programs at a software company, was pleased that he could catch up to all the lectures after a busy week of traveling.

Several students said they enjoyed  McGarrity’s conversational, natural style. That  was one of the important points I took away from the first set of lectures – the difference between a communication orientation and a performance orientation. Adopting  a communication orientation means using a minimal outline, interacting with the audience and adapting to the situation. McGarrity says that if you practice and become comfortable with the method, it’s a much safer way of delivering a speech than trying to recite from memory. And it sounds more natural and conversational than reading a written speech.

“Too often, you come across a dull scripted, heavily edited and/or glossy presentation,” Wong wrote. “Matt practices what he teaches in an honest way and he explains why, because in a given public speaking situation, you will not be able to stop, rewind and restart. Even though he may ramble at times, endearingly so, his presentations are structured to optimize the intake of information, one digestible clip at a time.”

James Ehrmann of Bellevue, a higher education professional, had a similar reaction. “It is comforting that Matt frequently says ‘um’ or has moments where he loses his train of thought – it validates his assertion that public speaking should reflect the personalities of the speaker and puts participants at ease. If the professor isn’t perfect, how can we expect to be perfect?”

A few of us ventured into the discussion forums and were overwhelmed by the number of conversations going on. It was fascinating, but not very helpful.

“The discussion forum is way too chaotic to venture into with multiple threads on the same topic,” Wong said. “So far I’ve only been a passive reader – there’s a finite amount of time and I’m going to be selective with what I want to venture into.”

“Given the amount of students, I was overwhelmed as to where to start,” Ehrmann said. “There were hundreds of discussion threads detailing the intricacies of each speech and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to contribute anything to the conversation – much less get any useful feedback from peers. This confirmed an initial suspicion that I had about MOOCs: if there were 19 other students in this class, I’d likely participate. With thousands of students, the incentive for me to share my ideas is diminished.”

At the end of the first week of lectures, McGarrity invited us to post simple introductory speeches for peer review. Some of our readers recorded a video for review, but others haven’t. (“Just need to work up the courage,” one student said.)

Rene Stratton, who is taking the course to learn how to avoid hitting “choke moments” when doing public presentations, found that posting a video was unnerving. “Although we are not speaking in front of an audience,” she wrote, “hitting the submit button to post the video of your speech where it can be viewed over and over again requires a large shot of courage.”

Wong thinks the course is off to a promising start, and she believes you’ll only benefit if you put in the work – that is, “complete the practical tasks diligently without cringing during playback, develop a solid thick skin and post up your videos for all to view and critique. And then pray hard that your workmates or friends will not find your videos online and circulate them or play them at public events. Oh the irony.”

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