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Originally published September 7, 2013 at 3:04 PM | Page modified September 7, 2013 at 4:06 PM

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UW public-speaking course reaches thousands online

University of Washington senior lecturer Matt McGarrity reached tens of thousands of people around the world this summer with his free online course on public speaking.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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For 10 weeks this summer, tens of thousands of students from Bremerton to Bangalore turned on their computers each week to learn, for free, the secrets of public speaking skills from Matt McGarrity.

The senior lecturer at the University of Washington counted among his students a 16-year-old girl in Pakistan who spoke passionately about the need for eloquent speech in a vibrant democracy, and a group of students in India who took the course at work and helped each other practice speeches.

But perhaps he was most moved by a man in England, a quadriplegic who could not have taken the class any way except online. He reached out to McGarrity by email, telling him how much the course had meant toward boosting his self-confidence.

“I’ve taught for many years, I’ve had thousands of students, but that made an impact on me because that told me that it had a tangible impact on somebody’s life,” McGarrity said.

After 10 weeks teaching the UW’s most popular Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, McGarrity has gained new insights into the fast-growing form of teaching for the masses. But although he thinks the free courses are a great way for universities to provide a public service to the community, they can’t replace a live class.

And because it’s so easy to cheat online, he doesn’t think they should be used to earn college credit.

“This is structured like a class,” McGarrity said. “It could be taken like a class. But, it is not a class.”

“Educational broadcasting”

Universities have been teaching courses online, to small groups of students who pay for the privilege and receive college credit, for years. But the MOOC is different, because it is massive in size and open — meaning free — to anyone who wants to participate.

Because of that openness, it’s perhaps not surprising that only about 10 percent of the 100,000 students who started McGarrity’s course on the online platform Coursera finished all 10 weeks of lectures. In fact, that’s pretty typical of the completion rate.

McGarrity designed his course lectures to stand on their own — discrete treatments of specific topics — and frequently encouraged his students to dip in and out of lectures and take away what they found useful.

He prefers to think of MOOCs as “educational broadcasting” — and he thinks that divorcing the content from any sort of credential, such as a certificate of completion or a grade, makes the course much more interesting and useful to a global audience.

His attitude was: “Here’s some information, do whatever you want with it.”

It’s still unclear how MOOCs may evolve in the coming years, and whether they’ll ever come to be seen as a way to change higher education.

Policymakers in this country have seized upon the idea of using free online courses to drive down the cost of tuition, and in late August, President Obama suggested that MOOCs are one way to shake up the higher-education landscape and promote innovation and competition.

Practicing in privacy

McGarrity’s course attracted a unique audience.

Not only were they global, but many professed to being terrified of speaking in public. The online platform offered them a unique opportunity to practice in privacy — and many did, McGarrity said.

About 32 percent of students in McGarrity’s course rated themselves as comfortable with public speaking before they took the class. When the class ended, 73 percent said they were comfortable.

In the online forums, students posted heartfelt thank-yous to McGarrity; one even wrote a song, and several others recorded thank-you speeches.

“Shortly after the class began, I began to notice a difference in my presentations at work,” one student wrote. “This course has taught me how to organize my thoughts and present a structured speech and not just random information thrown at the boards.”

Students were also delighted by McGarrity’s self-deprecating sense of humor. In his lectures, he occasionally switched to serious voice and formal style of speaking, mocking the tones of a pompous professor.

“It was me just being goofy,” said McGarrity, who performed in a comedy troupe in college. “I’ll sacrifice respect for a cheap laugh.”

Teaching the teacher

The course was funded through a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The videotaped lectures remain the property of the university, and McGarrity will be able to use them in his class. The free course will also be presented online again, through Coursera, starting Jan. 3.

McGarrity thinks some of the biggest beneficiaries will be his students at the UW.

“I’ve had to work harder with this material than I’ve done in 10 years,” he said. “When my class of 165 undergrads meets in a few weeks’ time, I’m going to be a much better public-speaking teacher, just because I’ve been thinking harder about this. I’ve had to stretch in very different ways.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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