Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Teaching and learning speech and advocacy: Is online as good?

The National Communication Association met in downtown Baltimore, Md.
(All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.)
UMass Law offers oral advocacy online. I was on the curriculum committee that approved a colleague's proposal for the offering. I was surprised. Oral skills online? Is nothing sacred?

I've used Zoom quite a bit: for class guests and snow make-ups. I took the university training to teach online courses in toto; I was uninspired by the shaky infrastructure and unproved methods, especially relative to the worthy rigors of legal education. At the same time, I like teaching the occasional online one-off, and online might work well for a seminar. The early miseries of teleconferencing (still the norm in the ABA) feel nothing like the real-time interactive experience offered by contemporary tools.

Anyway, I would not vote against a colleague’s well intentioned proposal. That would be unprofessional.

Well, when you don’t know, ask an expert. At the National Communication Association annual meeting in Baltimore on Saturday, experts in public speaking debated whether the communication discipline’s most popular basic course, Public Speaking, should be taught online.

Keohane and Broeckelman-Post
In the yes camp were Melissa Broeckelman-Post, George Mason University, and Jennifer A. Keohane, University of Baltimore. They structured their argument on three points: (1) we must teach for the 21st century; (2) public speaking can be taught online effectively; and (3) online classwork enhances access to higher education.

On the first score, they cited research showing that in 2018, the number of online first job interviews doubled, and more than half of professionals telecommute at least half the week. Hillary Clinton was the first candidate to announce for the Presidency online. And globalization is pushing demand for long-distance teamwork, having to surmount communication hurdles from the technical to the cultural.

Huddy and Morreale
On the second score, Broeckelman-Post and Keohane argued that speaking competencies can be achieved through online learning, as measured in student reports of positive experience, diminished anxiety, and increased confidence. The no side referenced research showing contrary results on anxiety and confidence. On rebuttal, the yes side said that the most recent research shows at least equal efficacy by these measures, and maybe somewhat better anxiety reduction with online.

On the third score, Broeckelman-Post and Keohane argued that educators' responsibility to ensure access to education demands online teaching. They cited research counting 74% of college students as “nontraditional,” including military, parents, disabled persons, commuters, and others who are financially independent. Also, dual enrollment in college coursework is on the rise, including more than 1.2 million high schoolers.

In the no camp—though in truth, this was in large measure devil’s advocacy—were Sherwyn P. Morreale, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and William P. Huddy, Metropolitan State University of Denver. They appealed more to qualitative than quantitative sources.

Morreale
Morreale cited three components of student communication competence (Spitzberg 2000), motivation, knowledge, and skills. Motivation is fueled by anxiety diminution and confidence enhancement, which (at least earlier) research showed were better achieved in the live company of a supportive community and instructor. Higher order learning is accomplished through discussion and reflection, which Morreale argued are accomplished more readily in the live presence of an instructor. And as to skills, Morreale posited that conventional public speaking skills are adaptable to online communication, but not necessarily vice versa. In later discussion, Morreale conceded that the no side made an apt point on the value of students’ acquisition of tech skills, such as speaking into a mic and looking into a camera, if besides conventional skills.

Morreale pointed also to the six core components of instructional communication competence (Beebe & Mottet 2009), immediacy, affinity-seeking, relational power, credibility, clarity and humor. Live communication epitomizes immediacy and better allows a speaker to exercise relational power, she argued. Credibility and clarity are achieved best without the intermediation of mics and speakers, and humor is more readily generated in person.

Huddy
Huddy made a compelling personal appeal. His work history includes ten years as a television anchor, and he described his process of video-recording and watching himself to study and enhance his communication looking into a camera lens—thereby to manage the camera’s limitations, becoming accustomed to missing what can only be achieved in person. “Eye contact is not just gestural or theatrical,” he said. “It’s my number one opportunity to see if what I am saying is getting across to you. There’s a young lady in the back there that is kind of smiling,” he observed, telling him that what he was saying was resonating with her.

Huddy described the cruciality of de-centering in public speaking (I missed the attribution), meaning putting yourself mentally in your audience's thinking, and evolving on the fly the main points that the audience wants to hear. Learning to do that with live visual cues has no equal of experience, he argued. Effective public speaking requires richness, authenticity, and warmth, he explained, and warmth only communicates in person. An audience member in the Q&A offered some pushback, observing that she experiences a kind of warmth with students online incidentally by seeing them in their home contexts—with nagging siblings, dogs, and other home pandemonium unfolding on screens' edges.

Thorpe, Keohane, Morreale, Huddy, and Broeckelman-Post
The audience voted in the end for who won the debate and, separately, whether to offer public speaking online. Yes took both honors, which probably says a lot about the future of higher education, communication and other fields. In truth, as indicated above, Morreale and Huddy took the hard no position for sake of debate and critical analysis. Morreale in fact eagerly teaches public speaking online. All agreed that the key is not whether to teach online, but how to do it well. I imagine that should be our take-away for legal education, too.

The session was moderated by Janice Thorpe, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Susan Ward, Delaware County Community College, offered insightful responsive commentary.

1 comment:

  1. Hi colleagues with an interest in online teaching and learning i higher education!
    Professor Peltz provides an excellent synthesis of our debate at the NCA 2019 convention. He correctly points to the affirmative argument as quantitative and our negative argument as qualitative; he also is correct that objective research won the day. In other writings, Professor Thorpe and I have encouraged scholar/teachers in all disciplines to embrace online education as an instructional context that is "here to stay" and that provides its own unique opportunities to enhance student learning. Our discipline, communication,is well situated to support those efforts across the curriculum.
    With appreciation to the other panelist/debaters and to the audience,
    Sherwyn Peltz MOrreale,
    Professor of Communication
    University of Colorado Colorado Springs

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