A veteran of the college lecture hall, Matt McGarrity is so enthusiastic about his subject — the art of public speaking — that he almost seems to bounce out of his shoes with every word he delivers.
But one day last month, he wasn’t giving voice to that energy in front of his usual audience of 200-plus students. He was lecturing to a nearly empty classroom at the University of Washington.
Empty — except for a handful of people and the unblinking eyes of two compact video cameras mounted on heavy-duty tripods.
It’s through the images captured by those cameras that tens of thousands of people around the globe will be able to take McGarrity’s 10-week course on public speaking, available for free through the online platform Coursera starting June 24. More than 40,000 people have already signed up.
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Or, as McGarrity enjoys saying, theatrically: “I’m preparing to teach the single largest public-speaking course in the world — in the history of the world.”
Online courses are not a new phenomenon. The UW, Washington State University and several other state schools and community colleges offer some classes — and even some degrees — entirely online.
But as the technology needed to deliver them has improved, and as education leaders have sought ways to cut the cost of college, the emergence of free online courses offered by top-notch universities has become one of the most talked-about recent developments in higher education.
The free courses are called Massive Open Online Courses — MOOCs for short — and some see them as a disruptive force for good that could transform higher education, driving down cost and improving efficiency. But others worry they could become a threat to academic freedom if colleges use them to replace faculty members with online lecture videos, turning professors into glorified teaching assistants.
Nationally, a few deals have been struck that hint at a future where online MOOCs taught at one university could be used for some form of college credit at another.
The UW is the only school in Washington to join two of the dominant online course platforms, Coursera and edX. It’s getting a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for McGarrity to adapt his popular public-speaking course for a global audience.
Through the for-profit Coursera, the UW offers 14 classes, including McGarrity’s. Through edX, created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it intends to offer five other courses next year. The free versions of the courses do not offer credit.
Most of the UW’s course offerings to date have appealed to a narrow, technically advanced audience — “Computational methods for data analysis,” for example, or “Designing and executing information security strategies.”
McGarrity’s class is the UW’s first free course offering with broad appeal.
Oral “is such a valuable skill to have,” said Karen Dowdall Sandford, senior director of online programs for the UW, who wrote the grant for the course. ”I thought it would be an intriguing topic in a MOOC.”
And, she said, “Matt is a particularly dynamic lecturer.”
McGarrity, 40, a native of Colorado who once performed in a comedy troupe in college, has a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
One minute he’s mocking his own prematurely bald head; the next he’s switched to the importance of developing a global pedagogy for public speaking.
“I am motivated by my content more than I am motivated by it being a MOOC,” said McGarrity, who also leads the UW’s Speaking Center and is director of debate. “I’m not here to argue for or against the platform — but, the platform is a huge opportunity for me to do what I think is a great way of speaking, and I know people like these skills.”
As for teaching a MOOC: “Why did I want to do it? Heck, what an opportunity. I mean, it’s awesome!”
At the UW, more than 200 students take McGarrity’s “COM 220 — Introduction to Public Speaking” every quarter, and just as many are turned away because the class is full. It’s considered a gateway course, with students from many different majors — medicine, engineering, business — taking it.
“He’s incredibly prepared — he’s got the recipe for how to teach public speaking,” said David Domke, chairman of the Department of Communication at the UW.
Domke said McGarrity was hired nine years ago from Indiana University, where he won a national award for excellence in teaching public speaking, to revamp the UW program and turn it into a lecture class with twice-a-week speaking practice aided by teaching assistants.
McGarrity “turned out to be incredible” as a lecturer and a teacher, Domke said.
You might think that since McGarrity has already perfected a popular course, all he would need to do is repeat the lectures in front of a camera and upload.
“Nooooo. Not at all,” McGarrity said. “It is sooo much work. It’s such a crazy amount of work. … this is a very successful class, gets very high eval marks. A lot of it I can’t use.”
Because MOOCs attract a huge international audience — by one estimate, only about 30 percent of online course-takers live in the United States — McGarrity has had to rethink much of the course so it will make sense to students overseas.
And his jokes? McGarrity is a funny guy. He uses humor to move the class along. Chances are, some of those jokes are going to flop in Beijing or Belarus.
On the other hand, the course offers tremendous freedom. “Here, there is no grading,” he said. “You (the students) do what is beneficial to you.”
McGarrity expects some small fraction of students to record speeches and upload them for peer review, a kind of grading system done by others online. But he thinks even those who don’t submit speeches will still benefit from his teaching.
The UW expects to use McGarrity’s course in other ways. It’s developing online courses for a proposed undergraduate completion degree, allowing adults who never finished their degrees to finish up online, Dowdall-Sandford said. The course could also be offered as a hybrid online/in-person course for enrolled students.
McGarrity believes public speaking can be taught online — even without the practice, and attendant butterflies, of speaking before a live audience — because the skills involve more than just tips and tricks for getting through
Public speaking “is not just dressing up something you’ve written, it’s crafting something that can be delivered well,” McGarrity said. “If everyone was trained to pursue critically defensible forms of rhetoric, we would have better discussions, better politics — better everything.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.