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Speaking Up for the Creditless MOOC

Last year I agreed to teach a public-speaking MOOC on the Coursera platform. I wasn’t a MOOC advocate, but I believe that the study of speech and rhetoric benefits individuals and society as a whole. I routinely offer speech workshops for civic and professional groups around Washington State. A MOOC on public speaking would allow me to run a speech workshop on a global scale.

I developed the course subsequent to the open letter sent by San Jose State’s philosophy department to Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosophy professor who teaches a MOOC on justice.  The San Jose professors rejected their university’s attempt to use Sandel’s course, JusticeX, because, in their words, “there is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves.” They saw the massive open online course as subverting their own efforts to teach their students.

I certainly didn’t want my MOOC to be regarded as similarly invasive. I wanted to design a course that might be a useful resource for other public-speaking teachers, without having to worry that my class was eliminating jobs. I decided that my course would not offer any credit or certificate of completion.

Instead of thinking of this MOOC as a class in which I had to grade students, I viewed it as educational broadcasting, akin to a PBS show with interactive elements and a sense of community. I structured it like my for-credit course, but in the MOOC the assignments were optional. If participants wanted feedback, they could record and upload videos of their speeches, and receive evaluations through Coursera’s peer-review system.

Most of the people who signed up for my course had no need for college credit or completion certificates anyway. Both pre- and post-course surveys showed that more than 70 percent of the participants already held college degrees, with around 50 percent having advanced or professional degrees. Moreover, while U.S. residents made up the largest group, they were only 24 percent of the total enrollment. The story of my MOOC wasn’t one of currently enrolled U.S. students turning to the online course to augment or replace college classes, but midcareer professionals from around the world looking to sharpen their intellectual and oratorical skills.

The benefits of this educational-broadcasting model quickly became apparent. I was able to provide structure to the assignments, but the content of the presentations (usually a matter of close concern in live speech classes) was open. Instead of trying to find topics that people from the 160 countries in my course could speak on comfortably, I was able to simply throw open the doors and ask people to adapt their individual interests to a universal audience. If certification had been a goal, such flexibility would have been a challenge rather than an opportunity, since the variety of speeches would have made it impossible to hold them to a single standard.

This is not to suggest that I simply dumped content online and walked away. Just as in a live course, I carefully plotted the student experience and monitored it through the online discussion forums.

I don’t know how many people completed the course. Of the 120,000 who signed up, about half actually started when the content was made available. By week three, we’d dropped to 20,000, and later to around 9,000. Yet the course remains open to those initial 120,000, and despite its “ending” in August, I still see new discussion-forum posts from students who are early in the course. In that sense, students didn’t drop out; some are simply taking a 10-week course on a 30-week (or longer) timeline.

Of the thousands of active participants, relatively few recorded and uploaded speeches. Were this a campus course, I would wring my hands about dropout rates and low participation. But viewed as an educational broadcast, the course was a success. People came to the material as they needed and wanted. Thousands returned week after week to learn about and discuss public speaking, but they never submitted a speech to the class. The gap in activity seems to show that the course material was useful regardless of whether individuals did the assignments.

As the discussion about MOOCs continues, I feel as though academics too often treat the term “MOOC” as meaning “online course that offers credit for U.S .students.” That is one model, but it is not the only model.

Matt McGarrity is a senior lecturer in the department of communication at the University of Washington.

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