Public Speaking Class Online?

To many people I speak to, this sounds like an utter absurdity.  But the conversations we’ve been having this week have helped me think more broadly about the opportunities a hybrid course can offer.

The main opportunity that I see in teaching a hybrid version of COM 1010, Intro to Speech Communication, is that students could spend more course-related time out in the world, observing and taking part in public speaking situations outside of the classroom. I often feel that while the classroom is a safe space for getting comfortable with public speaking skills, the assignments we do in class always have an inherently contrived element. I don’t necessarily think this is bad, because I think school should be a place to develop skills and test out ideas in an environment that provides structure and safety. But we also want to maximize connections between theoretical concepts/guidelines and experiences in the messy world outside of the classroom. A hybrid COM 1010 course could involve students exploring “real life” public communication situations on their own, developing their thinking about these experiences in low-stakes writing assignments shared online, and gathering in class to digest these experiences and maximize class time for practicing the relevant skills.

Secondly, a hybrid COM 1010 course could free students from the necessity of watching all of their classmates’ presentations. In a class where twenty-four students each give three or four substantial speeches in a semester, a huge amount of time is spent watching presentations. While some of this is instructive (and you can learn a lot even from watching poor presentations), I’m interested in reducing the amount of required “audience” time.

I do see several potential risks associated with teaching COM 1010 as a hybrid course. Less class time means fewer opportunities for various kinds of face-to-face oral communication, including individual presentation, and dyadic, small group, and large group discussion. For a course specifically designed to improve students’ oral communication skills in front of audiences, limiting the amount of time available to practice this seems like exactly the wrong direction to pursue. Spoken conversation can be facilitated through various web media, but I don’t know a way to use web media to practice speaking to a large audience in a simultaneous, real-time way.

Lastly, public speaking class elicits a lot of anxiety in many students. I think that a hybrid course would risk limiting the capacity to develop feelings of comfort and authentic connection between students and teachers, and among students. The development of a community of comfort and trust in a COM 1010 class is critical to the success of many students.

7 thoughts on “Public Speaking Class Online?”

  1. Reading your post, and since I watched the Veep episode the other day in which the Veep gets a soapbox to stand on that is supposed to make her look more like a woman of the people (spoiler: it backfires!) I’m imagining a set of assignments where you send your students out in groups of 3 or 4 to stand up on a bench somewhere in a park and actually start speaking. The other students can be there for moral support (the idea of doing this is terrifying!) and to videotape, and then the video of the soapbox speech can be examined and annotated by others on VOCAT. This could be lowstakes — even though it’s scary, it’s just an experiment in actually giving a public speech and the students should feel empowered to play a little, getting into the role of the kind of person who would get up on a soapbox…

    Sending students in groups to local political meetings could also be awesome. You could give them the assignment that they have to ask a question of the speaker at the Q&A, and you could discuss in advance the basic forms that questions take (clarification on a point; but have you considered X; Person Y has said the opposite, can you elaborate on your disagreements; etc.).

    Anyway, I love the idea of sending them out to make or watch speeches, and respond to the experience. And bringing VOCAT into the mix, especially when they are giving public speeches, would be really amazing.

    1. Meechal,

      I, too, have thought about sending my students out into public parks, etc., to make speeches to the PUBLIC. It sure sounds terrifying, though. And I don’t feel certain it’s really an ok thing to do, because it really asks students to step outside of a pretty basic social norm. But maybe there’s some way to do it.

      I LOVE the idea of having students attend local political meetings or meetings associated with some sort of civic organization, and requiring that they ask questions. I guess you can’t really have them videotape this kind of thing, because there are other people involved. But I think it’s so important to practice asking informed and engaged questions, and this kind of assignment would really reinforce that this kind of oral communication is truly a significant focus of the course.

  2. Yes! I’m eager to think through how we could bring COM 1010 out into the world. I’m wondering if there could be both a task to go and see/participate in a communication event and a task to do public communicating, like Meechal describes. I think there’s great opportunity to explore how public speaking functions in society, in a democracy, etc. One thing my classes keep finding when we start looking at “real life” speaking examples is that so many speeches don’t fit neatly into “informative” or “persuasive” or other boxes that most intro textbooks use to organize them (this might be some of the artificiality that you speak of). Real life requires that we be able to recognize and move in between the textbook structures. Maybe we can start to work out how to meld this idea in a hybrid way with the goals of mastering specific types of speaking that the course requires.

    1. These sound like exciting possibilities! Some things to consider: how would you envision the student groups using their time to get together (as homework, as hybrid class time, how would you negotiate the inevitable conflicts in schedules?), how might you organize the groups (if you used groups), and what type of deliverable might accompany this assignment (for individuals or groups)? Once the organizational and logistical kinks are worked out, I think these types of assignments offer unique learning opportunities.
      And, Julia, you wrote “Spoken conversation can be facilitated through various web media, but I don’t know a way to use web media to practice speaking to a large audience in a simultaneous, real-time way.” Can you explain a bit more what you’d want, ideally, to do here, with the software, with the assignment, etc? Maybe it’s something the CTL could help you with.

    2. Debra, I completely agree about “real life” speeches exploding a clear distinction between informative and persuasive speaking. I’d love to find more strategic ways for exploring this dynamic with students in ways that don’t delegitimize the process of learning the (sometimes simplistic) structures and genres that we use in the course.

      1. Julia,
        I wanted to just chime in. I love what Meechal recommended. I was the typical college shy student and I was helped through a free improv class on campus to have a little fun in speaking. I feel like I’ve been the dancing clown and always advocating fun on this forum but here is something fun for one night — a free improv class in the city as an option:

        They offer these regularly and it is a lot of fun but still contained. I have to say giving a speech to no one listening to you and then maybe having someone record it would be a daring project as well. I just wanted to pass on that resource in case public speaking students wanted to have improv on their list as well.

        1. Wow! I’ve had my speech students perform theatrical monologues, because I think it’s a great way to develop a sense of purpose in relation to a particular audience, and also to develop a presentational style, and it’s always been interesting and a lot of fun. I also do physicality games in class, where students mold each other into statues of different emotions, to get students thinking about what is communicated by body language. But I’ve never thought of having my speech students take an improv class. Maybe this is because even though I have an acting background, I’m pretty scared of improv myself! But this is a fantastic idea. Thank you!

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