Tapping the power of virtual reality to enhance public speaking

Candace BertottiCandace Bertotti, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, teaches The Arts of Communication, a class focusing on public speaking. To help students overcome their fear of speaking in front of others, Candace incorporates virtual reality (VR) into her classroom. Students put on VR goggles and are instantly transported to the front of a large virtual crowd awaiting their speech. Students experience a range of audiences and audience reactions. It's realistic—and feels safe.

The benefits

The VR module appeals to a wide range of students. For some, it increases their confidence by allowing them to practice in a realistic, yet “private,” space before speaking in front of their intended audience. For others, such as students who love video games, it amplifies engagement and “creates fun energy” in the classroom. In addition to the benefits for the students, there are benefits for the practitioner as well. Having students practice in front of class is time intensive—only one student gets to practice at a time. Using VR to create experiences allows for as many students as possible to get practice in front of a ‘real’ audience at the same time. This form of simultaneous interaction was highlighted in the Report of the Harvard Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force (III.A, p. 6).

“When students practice public speaking in isolation, they aren’t exposed to challenges that their intended audience can present: distractions, hostility and skepticism, apathy, and more. All of that can lead to greater anxiety.”

The challenges

Implementing VR modules is logistically challenging. Transporting and storing the goggles and programming each set of goggles with the intended videos takes time and coordination. Additionally, there can be technical glitches with Wi-Fi and password access, creating situations where only a subset of students can use the goggles at a time. Being aware of potential challenges and having real-time tech support are key to ensuring a positive experience for students. 

Takeaways and best practices

  • Tap into resources.
    The Cabot Science Library offers classroom sets of VR goggles for checkout. You can also hold class at the Cabot library to reduce logistical challenges and ensure onsite support. Given the time involved for preparation and implementation, instructors should consult with media services about currently available resources.  
  • Assess when it’s best to use VR.
    VR has tremendous classroom potential, especially when used with a specific outcome in mind. Bertotti notes that if you “have a particular module that needs some extra novelty that's grounded in academic outcome or pedagogical results, this can be a great partner.” 

Bottom line

Virtual reality (VR) is often touted as a technology that enhances educational experiences, but meaningful use cases can be difficult to identify. This issue of Into Practice discusses how VR can provide novel opportunities for students to develop confidence practicing new skills in realistic and safe spaces.