Digital learning tool for public speaking class comes at the right time

Susan Burlingame
May 04, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Virtually every Penn State student takes some form of CAS 100 Effective Speech, a required public speaking course offered by the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) in the College of the Liberal Arts as part of students’ general education requirements.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused an almost immediate shift to remote learning in March 2020, dramatically changed the way CAS 100 was taught.

“As students, faculty and parents were all coming to grips with the fact that we were going to be remote, the one class they couldn’t fathom being remote was public speaking,” said Denise Solomon, head and Liberal Arts Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences.

Luckily for students, a novel idea had been taking shape long before the pandemic began. According to Solomon, it was time to accelerate.

CAS 100: Keywords, a digital learning tool designed to replace the class’s more traditional textbook, was initiated to create a more dynamic, fluid and nimble way for students to engage with content and for instructors to structure their classes.

“We began with a department-wide conversation about the aims of CAS 100. Through that process, we developed a table of contents that focused on key words and began the work of creating an electronic book organized around topical essays that contribute to the curriculum.” Solomon said.

Those dialogues were held by Michele Kennerly, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and classics and ancient Mediterranean studies. Michael Steudeman, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences, upon joining the faculty in fall of 2018 assumed the role of project leader.

The project was being piloted in spring 2020 and scheduled for a soft launch in fall 2020, but the sudden shift to remote learning spurred CAS faculty to complete and pilot the project much earlier. The content was used to support online teaching for the rest of the spring 2020 semester and summer 2020 classes. In fall of 2020, CAS 100 Keywords was fully launched.

Twenty-three members of the CAS faculty, including teaching faculty and graduate students, contributed essays, which were organized under five main headings: community, belief, policy, motivation, and oratory. Each main keyword reveals a deeper set of interconnected topics with associated essays, hyperlinks to articles and speeches, and interactive modules. Some essays are tutorial in nature, while others are concept oriented.

“We wanted to reflect the diversity of perspectives and academic approaches within the discipline and within our department,” Steudeman said. “We also wanted to create a living document that can be easily updated and that gives instructors flexibility in how they arrange the text. Students all end up doing the same assignments, but their instructors can arrange their lessons differently while achieving the same outcomes. We wanted to take away the sense that students are plodding through a textbook in a formulaic way.”

A priority in the volume, Steudeman noted, was including voices from diverse backgrounds and recent public speaking examples. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, for example, is referenced in the “Public Policy” essay written by Associate Teaching Professor Marcy Milhomme. Likewise, in an entry on “Speaking Powerfully,” Assistant Teaching Professor Kathy Kile showcased the verbal delivery skills of Bhavana Thota, a Penn State student who won the CAS Department’s biannual Civic Engagement Public Speaking Contest in Spring 2019.

“A lot of public speaking classes default to well-known speeches, such as those from former presidents,” Steudeman said. “We wanted to get away from that model by highlighting speeches that don’t typically appear in a traditional public speaking text.”

The digital text also allows for entries to be rapidly revised to incorporate relevant speaking examples, as when the pilot content was modified to showcase speeches about the COVID-19 pandemic.

An added benefit is related to cost, Steudeman noted. The previous CAS 100 textbook cost approximately $80; Keywords is $20.

“The financial part was a big motivation for us to go ahead and make the pivot. Saving students money, when so many are facing financial hardship because of the pandemic, has been particularly gratifying," said Steudeman.

The unexpected benefits of online public speaking

According to Solomon and Steudeman, students rose to the challenge of learning remotely and delivering speeches over Zoom.

“The students responded in a positive way, even though they didn’t have a live audience when they presented their speeches,” Steudeman said. “I think it was a happy coincidence that we were creating an online resource just as the pandemic flipped the classroom model.”

“CAS 100: Keywords was originally intended as an online textbook for an in-person public speaking class, but remote presentations are here to stay, and we will keep them as part of the in-person classes we will offer in the future,” Solomon said, praising her department for working together as a community to create an outstanding textbook. “There isn’t going to be a college graduate who won’t have to do a Zoom interview or pitch an idea in a virtual meeting.

“We were as disappointed as anyone to give up the energy of the classroom, but communicating virtually is a skill everyone needs to have going forward,” she concluded. “If we can help our students to be more effective and shine in this environment, they are going to excel in the job market and even more, in how they interact as citizens.”

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Last Updated May 25, 2021