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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 26, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Why it’s easy to let things slide in an online class

One of the criticisms often leveled at MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, is that people who sign up for them often have no staying power. By one count, as many as 90 percent of those who sign up for a free online university class never finish it.

Several weeks ago, we asked Seattle Times readers planning to take the University of Washington online course “Introduction to Public Speaking” if they were interested in giving us their feedback. More than 80 people expressed an interest. We picked 20 who seemed especially committed.

This week, we had only two active participants.

What to make of this? Perhaps the stakes are so low for signing up that it’s easy to drop the class. Maybe after five weeks of videos, participants decide they have learned enough. Perhaps it dawns on people that after  hours and hours of work and study, no credential will come of it.

But on to the week’s work. We’re nearly halfway through the class, and I asked our participants how taking the course online might differ from taking it in person. Often, UW senior lecturer Matt McGarrity tells us to do a quick little practice of a speech – an introduction, for example – while sitting at our computers. If we were in an actual classroom, our failure to participate would be obvious. Not so online.

I’m taking most of the course at work, so I can’t start rehearsing at my desk. Ching Yee Wong, a communications professional with Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, admitted she too, doesn’t practice often – and certainly not when she’s catching up on viewing assignments in a public setting, as she often does.

James Ehrmann, a higher-education professional from Bellevue, also rarely practices in response to McGarrity’s prompts. “I’ve talked about my participation in the course with my wife on multiple occasions, but always find myself alone when I’m actually going through tutorials.  If, perhaps, I were completing online sessions with others in the room, I might be more likely to practice with the promise of immediate feedback from peers.”

Our second speech assignment was to do an impromptu speech and upload to YouTube. If we were taking the class at the UW, we’d be doing our speeches in front of small groups of 15 students, led by a graduate student.

Wong didn’t upload a speech to YouTube. She wrote: “While the presentations improve my understanding of the theoretical structure for different public speaking approaches, it is easy to let things slide in a distant-learning class and avoid ‘homework’ aka applying this new knowledge to the practical sessions. Also I do wish to receive feedback for my practice videos from a credible source instead of a peer who may not be well-versed in the nuances of public speaking.”

Ehrmann finished and recorded his speech, but didn’t upload it because he missed the deadline. Still, he was generally pleased with the way the performance went. “The examples (in the video lectures) were helpful and I found his lectures to be valuable – I took quite a few notes that I will likely reference in the future.”

Wong wrote: “I definitely think as a student enrolled in a proper ‘live’ class, I’ll be absolutely more focused and diligent with the practice sessions and the course as a whole, But from the perspective of a working professional-mother where time is of essence, I signed up for the MOOC because it offers a flexible learning environment.”

And Ehrmann noted that while the online forum is perhaps a more comfortable platform for introverts, “it provides a false sense of security, in my opinion. Nothing can replicate human contact and immediate feedback from peers (even if in-person peers are dishonest in their verbal feedback, you’re still able to glean their facial expressions and physical reactions to your speeches) and I think that’s why ‘live’ classes are more rigorous and certainly, by extension, more valuable.”

Comments | Topics: Coursera, University of Washington


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