Innovation in Online Public Speaking: A Case Study with Strategies Useful Across Institutions and Disciplines

Concurrent Session 6
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Brief Abstract

Presenters address problems with most online public speaking courses, describe an innovative course design to address those problems, and share research. New technologies and multiple opportunities for interaction among groups resulted in increased demand and enhanced student learning, involvement and satisfaction. Strategies for integrating technology are relevant across disciplines.


Marlene M. Preston, associate professor of communication in the Department of Communication at Virginia Tech, serves as Assistant Department Head and Director of Undergraduate Programs. Preston’s research has focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning, including curriculum development and assessment. She has created numerous innovative courses, including the department’s Communication Skills course for freshmen, the flipped version of Public Speaking, her department’s annual study abroad program, and online Interpersonal Communication. She was co-creator of Virtual Public Speaking, which earned Virginia Tech’s XCaliber Award for exceptional, high-caliber contributions to technology-enriched teaching and learning. Preston established CommLab, a speaking center for students across disciplines housed in university library. She has been active with the National Association of Communication Centers and the National Communication Association (NCA). Recently, the department received the Program of Excellence Award from the Basic Courses Division of NCA, based on the implementation of two courses and one program that Preston designed. She also worked for ten years as a faculty development professional with the university’s teaching center. Preston has earned Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for Teaching Excellence for her leadership in curriculum development, mentoring to faculty and graduate students, and scholarship on pedagogy.
Brandi Quesenberry, an Advanced Instructor for the Department of Communication, serves as the Director of Public Speaking and the Associate Director of the Virginia Tech CommLab. Quesenberry has served on the faculty at Virginia Tech since 2003. Her research focuses on public speaking pedagogy and technology-enhanced learning design. Quesenberry received a Bachelor of Science degree from Radford University in Speech Communication, and a Master of Science degree from Radford University in Corporate and Professional Communication.

Extended Abstract

Content and Audience Engagement 
      This case study reveals the development of a successful online public speaking course over a three-year period. Designers reviewed current approaches to online Public Speaking and considered the challenges identified across institutions and those specific to this university. In order to meet student and faculty needs, this model--Virtual Public Speaking with a Professional Focus (VPS)--includes traditional principles of public speaking, while capitalizing on current technology commonly used in the workplace to deliver the course online and to teach online professional presentation strategies for synchronous and asynchronous delivery. Presenters will describe the course design, including the learning outcomes, the nature of specific assignments, and opportunities for student interaction. The logistics for implementation, especially technology training, will also be discussed. Finally, data from research are provided, including pre- and post-survey results. Findings highlight students' positive perceptions of growth regarding their expanded skills with public speaking and the use of technology. Although the challenges seemed great, the new model maintains rigor while providing a highly relevant course to students who learn development and delivery strategies not only for this class, but also for their future oral presentations in college and careers.
    The presentation will include screen shots, handouts, discussion, and Q&A as presenters engage the audience in consideration of potential use of strategies in their own courses and institutions.
    Participants will . . .
* discuss challenges to implementing comparable courses that include significant oral communication
* develop an understanding of the VPS course design and implementation strategies, including training of new faculty
* review research/assessment approaches 
* consider application in various contexts

1. Innovation
      Many models of online Public Speaking require students to privately record speeches, which are later submitted to an instructor for review. The VPS model, however, puts the “public” back in Public Speaking. This course maintains the rigor and core components of a traditional speech course by requiring students to present synchronous speeches in small groups via a premier online conferencing program such as Cisco WebEx. The live audience of peers and instructor creates a more realistic online presentation experience while also utilizing various technologies that students will likely encounter again. 
      As mediated communication becomes more prevalent, employers are capitalizing on the technology, and online interviews are often a student’s first step in securing internships or full-time employment. The VPS course provides students with opportunities to hone new presentation skills by conducting professional speech assignments, such as an online interview speech and an interactive progress report meeting. The synchronous assignments teach students how to interact professionally with colleagues or potential employers. 

2. Replicability 
      The components discussed in this case study are easily replicated across institutions. First, the course itself is common to community colleges and four-year institutions of every type. Public Speaking is often part of general education requirements for students. Not every institution offers the course online, but the course could be offered online in most of these circumstances. 
      Second, the course design used in this study could be easily adapted for these various institutions. While public speaking assignments vary widely, the focus for this course is on assignments that replicate the oral communication demands that students will find during the job search or in the workplace. Any instructor of public speaking could incorporate this focus. 
      Third, the technology could be replicated across institutions. WebEx is often available via institutional license, but it’s also available for free trial and for personal purchase by faculty and students. The technology shift to WebEx would be a large, but manageable change—moving most speeches from asynchronous to synchronous. 
      Finally, the use of student surveys is easily managed across courses and institutions. While the instructors in this study used Qualtrics, any survey tool could be used for pre and post considerations of student perception of competence. The qualitative feedback from students and instructors is also easily achieved. 

3. Impact 
      Impact on institutions: Students want flexible course options, and universities look for ways to meet that demand without sacrificing the learning inherent in the classroom experience. In this case study, enrollments soared when the course was offered in summer and winter sessions. The VPS model allows universities to retain students by offering high-quality online communication courses. 
      Impact on students: Students in the Virtual Public Speaking course find the online speech assignments to be highly relevant and helpful to their futures as mediated communication becomes increasingly commonplace in the classroom and workforce. Even learning how to use WebEx in a professional manner is a skill that students can “sell” to potential employers.
      The use of synchronous speech assignments also facilitates peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher interactions, helping to avoid the isolation students often encounter in online courses. A live audience helps to establish a sense of social presence in the online classroom, increasing retention and resulting in higher levels of satisfaction and learning. The real-time speech assignments help students to better understand the complexities of presenting a polished and effective virtual presentation by addressing the nuances of online speaking, such as securing a professional and distraction-free environment, as well as the use of appropriate posture, movement and eye contact due to the use of a web camera. 
      Universities can better prepare students for the changing nature of communication in our global society by offering online courses and training students on how to adjust communication styles to fit the medium. 
      Impact on faculty and course designers: Even if students aren’t required to take Public Speaking, they are likely at an institution that requires some oral communication experience, maybe in a speaking-intensive course or a professional seminar in any discipline. Additionally, faculty and course designers help contribute to and shape best practices as new variations of technologies are utilized and assignments are edited to reflect current trends in the marketplace. 

4. Evidence 
      The designers carefully researched the efficacy of this course; the resulting data will be shared in the presentation. 
      Students completed pre and post surveys with questions pertaining to skill sets in both public speaking and with course-specific technology. Although students initially recognized a deficit of skills in both categories, most students entered the course with a higher perceived level of competence regarding presentation skills. For example, students ranked themselves as possessing a general understanding of how to construct, organize and deliver a speech. However, when asked about competence with specific technology, such as creating podcasts and using WebEx to conduct and record synchronous presentations, most students recognized a lack of exposure or formal training. 
      After completing the course, students reported statistically significant growth in all areas addressed in the VPS course, from preparing and delivering presentations to utilizing the various technologies. Some of the highest areas of reported presentation growth are related to managing speech anxiety, creating a speech outline and thesis, tailoring content for a designated audience and responding to audience questions, as well as developing valid arguments. Students also reported significant gains in utilizing technology related to podcasting and web-based videos, and reported that after the class they perceive themselves to have more technological skills as compared to their peers 
      Qualitative data was also collected at the end of the course. Many students expressed a preference for learning about online presentations versus a more traditional classroom format since they anticipated a higher demand for virtual communication in their future careers. Additionally, students stated how helpful the online Interview Speech was as they prepared for internship and job interviews. Overall, the vast majority of students were pleased with the coursework and the inclusion of synchronous assignments as they were able to build connections with classmates and the course instructor while learning to manage their speech apprehension that resulted from presenting to a live audience.  
5. Scope 
      While this case study was conducted in a public speaking course, it has broad implications for faculty across disciplines. Faculty recognize that students should have experience making oral presentations (as individuals or in groups) in their business, history, or biology classes, but faculty are hesitant to give up class time in order to provide that experience. Even if students aren’t required to take Public Speaking, they are likely at an institution that requires some oral communication experience, maybe in a speaking-intensive course or a professional seminar in any discipline.
      The use of WebEx allows collaborative learning, synchronous oral presentations, and recording for grading purposes – all of which can be accomplished outside of routine class time. Faculty could use one of the oral communication rubrics from the Association of American Colleges and Universities or the National Communication Association, and they would find that grading and feedback are not cumbersome or time-consuming at all.
      Some features of this course, such as exact assignments, could also be used in other courses across disciplines to prepare students for the oral communication demands of future employment. 
      Faculty may also find that this approach is highly useful for any assessment required by their institutions or accrediting bodies. Beyond the grading for a class, recorded presentations could be evaluated by review teams and scored for assessment purposes.