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Does Online Learning Work in Any Field? Researchers Tested Outcomes in an Online Public Speaking Course

By Henry Kronk
April 15, 2019

Ten years ago, many educators believed online courses would be as effective as face-to-face (FTF) courses. Those attitudes have melted and few people still believe that online learning is less effective than learning in a traditional classroom. But pockets of skepticism remain—especially in certain areas of study. One of these is public speaking. Many universities in the United States require students to complete a public speaking course over the course of their undergraduate studies. Some have argued that one simply can’t complete a public speaking course online. After all, the medium is the message. Recently, a group of researchers at George Mason University led by Professor Melissa A. Broeckelman-Post tested whether or not this was demonstrably true. The results of their study were surprising.

Broeckelman-Post et al Approached the Subject with a Good Deal of Skepticism

As a sample, Broeckelman-Post and colleagues investigated a public speaking course taught both online and FTF in an unidentified mid-Atlantic university. The study included 401 students, with 326 taking the FTF course and 75 taking the online version. 

As the authors write, “The public speaking course is taught in two formats: a fully face-to-face course that meets either once or twice per week and a fully online course that meets asynchronously and has weekly deadlines. Both FTF and online versions of the public speaking course are standardized and use the same syllabus, textbook, assignments, grading rubrics, online resources, and assessment protocol.”

The team set out to test numerous learning outcomes. These included student performance, and self-reported engagement, comprehension, and competence. 

The authors were highly skeptical at the start of their study. Many researchers have previously found online learning to be a bad fit for public speaking education. In 2016, Professor Susan Ward, published an aptly named article, “It’s not the same thing: Considering a path forward for teaching public speaking online.” At the time, Ward concluded, “the question is not can the course be offered online, but rather should it be offered online.” She also described how teaching public speaking is fundamentally different online and FTF. 

The George Mason University researchers expected that there would be a measurable difference in student performance, and self-reported engagement, comprehension, and competence between the online and FTF versions of the public speaking course they were investigating. As it turned out, they were wrong.

Online Learning vs. FTF

As the researchers summarize, “students in the online course had slightly higher levels of behavioral engagement and higher DFW [D/Fail/Withdrawal] rates. However, there was no difference between the two formats in public speaking performance, final exam performance, course grades, public speaking anxiety, communication competence, or interpersonal communication competence.”

As the authors mentioned above, DFW rates (students who received a D or F as a grade or who withdrew mid-class) were higher online than FTF. They recorded a DFW rate of 22% in this course, which is significantly lower than many other DFW rates observed in the online modality. As the authors continue, “there are ethical implications that must be considered when deciding whether to offer a large number of fully online courses, particularly since some groups of students are more likely to drop or fail an online course.”

“Although the lack of significant differences between the course formats suggests that both courses are helping students learn the process of developing and delivering presentations equally well, this does not necessarily mean that both courses are preparing students for the same types of presentations equally well since the FTF course is synchronous and the online course is asynchronous. Instructors should consider requiring both asynchronous and synchronous presentations in both FTF and online courses to prepare students for both speaking contexts since students might encounter both in the workplace.”

Read the full study here.

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