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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?

September 16, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Final thoughts on teaching, and taking, a MOOC

Matt McGarrity’s free online class on public speaking, offered through the University of Washington and Coursera, ended earlier this month. I wrote about it for last weekend’s paper, but McGarrity had so many other things to say that I’m going to finish up the blog by wrapping up with these observations:

On classroom civility: We’ve all seen how open threads on websites can turn nasty in a hurry when participants are anonymous, and McGarrity was especially worried that this might happen during the peer review process, when students reviewed each other’s speeches. But as far as he knows, everyone remained civil, and students tried to be helpful and constructive. “No one was mean,” he said. “Out of thousands of people around the globe, no one was mean. That’s a major global breakthrough right there.” He doesn’t know why people were on such good behavior, but perhaps it’s because everyone was in the same situation: You couldn’t peer-review somebody else’s speech unless you had submitted one of your own.

His other worry: That people would consider the class a waste of time. That didn’t happen, either. Many students wrote him to express their gratitude for being able to take the class for free.

The class’s composition: While the class had a very international flavor, it was still dominated by U.S. students, who made up 21 percent of all participants. There was a smattering of students from all over the globe — 6 percent from India, 4 percent from Brazil, 4 percent from Australia, 2 percent from Germany, 5 percent from the UK, and on and on. Interestingly, 50 percent of the class already held a master’s degree or doctorate. “A lot of people were using this as professional development.”

What he would change: The class will be offered again for free starting Jan. 3, 2014, and McGarrity is going to redo the first few weeks of lectures — he thinks they could be better. He’s also going to suggest that students who are worried about privacy, but want to submit a speech for review, should simply cover the camera, or record only audio.

Who was impressed: McGarrity got a call from a group of climate scientists who have invited him to the University of Bergen, in Norway, to do some public speaking training. “Here’s another opportunity — a group facing real public speaking challenges. The more I expose myself as a teacher to these varied situations, the more people I’m helping, the more I’m learning.”

What he’ll do with his material: With hours and hours of recorded lectures, McGarrity can now change the very nature of his physical classroom. He can “flip” it, or have his students watch his lectures outside of class and then make the class more practice-oriented. And McGarrity now has a wealth of examples. “So much about good teaching is having lots of examples. Well, my storehouse of examples has exploded.” There’s also talk of putting the lectures on edX, another online MOOC platform.

More on why MOOCs should not substitute for the classroom experience: In the story that ran in Sunday’s Seattle Times, I wrote that McGarrity didn’t think MOOCs would ever replace class time because of the thorny issue of cheating. But there was another reason that was a little too complicated for my limited print space, and it has to do with how universities decide whether credit should transfer for a course taken at another university. McGarrity said those decisions are usually made at the departmental level; for example, if a student took a public speaking class at another college, the Department of Communication will look at the outline of that course and perhaps even call the professor before deciding to grant credit. At some schools now,  college presidents are making those decisions about which MOOCs might earn a student credit, and “when you’ve got presidents signing deals, you’ve totally changed who’s making the decision about what counts, and what substitutes for what.”

My experience: No, I didn’t watch every lecture, and I didn’t submit all four assignments; I just did three of them. I never watched week 6, and ran out of time to finish week 10 (although apparently they are still available, and I may finish up later this week). But McGarrity was reassuring on that score. He said that he designed the course to be modular, so that students could watch whatever part of the course most interested them. He couldn’t get away with that for a math or science course, but it worked for speech.

Only one of The Seattle Times readers who participated in our MOOC-blogging experiment responded to my last email, and he didn’t finish either. He blamed it on the glorious summer weather we had this year — who wants to watch a computer screen in Seattle when the sun is shining and the mountain is out?

But I really did enjoy the experience, and I’m looking forward to practicing what I learned. I also just started another MOOC — on Beethoven’s piano sonatas, presented by the Curtis Institute of Music on Coursera.

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