Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Virtual reality software improving public speaking in LSUS classes 

by BIZ Magazine

SHREVEPORT — LSU Shreveport student Alexander Bowden steps up to the podium and looks out into the crowd of professionally-dressed people. 

He delivers a speech about protecting personal information online and defending against a cyberattack. 

But instead of stepping off a stage after his speech, he takes off his virtual reality headset. 

Bowden is a student in an LSUS public speaking class, which is using virtual reality to practice speeches before actually delivering the speech to a classroom of their peers. 

“The crowd looks 2D, kind of like animated cardboard cutouts, but it does give you a sense of depth, and it still feels like you’re in front of a large crowd,” said Bowden, a freshman digital arts major. “It’s a cool tool, and it does its job.” 

The spring semester is the first full-fledged use of the software VirtualSpeech, which creates virtual environments like the TEDx Theater and records different metrics like voice volume, speech speed and eye contact. 

Professor Trey Gibson said practicing with virtual reality has improved the quality of speeches students are giving in class. 

“I truly believe that this is making a difference in the class,” said Gibson, who has taught public speaking for 25 years. “It’s reinvigorated my passion for teaching public speaking, and I want to learn more. I’m not a tech guru, but our IT team has been great along with other members of our team.” 

Students practice with the VR headsets one week before the graded speech. The software was initially purchased through a grant from the Louisiana Economic Development group to measure the effectiveness of virtual reality in public speaking classes. The headsets are managed by the LSUS Cyber Collaboratory, which allows students to use cutting-edge technology. 

Bowden looks at his speech metrics – listenability (an 11-year old could understand the speech based on vocabulary and sentence complexity), eye contact (Alexander looked left 33 percent of the time, 67 percent to the right) and speech speed (Alexander plans to speak faster after the VR practice) just to name a few. 

While software can provide specific metrics for students in areas a typical speech professor may point out, there’s no substitution for human input. 

Bowden gave his practice speech in a room with two other classmates, who also offered feedback. 

Computer science sophomore Samantha Bordelon informs Bowden that his speech may better fit the persuasive category instead of conforming to the assigned informative speech. 

“The virtual reality software was most effective for me toward the beginning of the semester … but it’s also great to have classmate feedback,” said Bordelon, who also practiced her speech on a computer science topic. “All the raw data it gives you, especially the eye contact, helps when you’re actually giving a speech in class. 

“One of the criticisms I received from a previous speech was that I focused too much on the fringes of the audience. The software measures whether you’re looking left or right, but it’d also help to have a center category as well.” 

Biochemistry sophomore Dania Alqam said she’s improved as a speaker throughout the first three months of the semester. 

“It helps with my (speaking) pace, eye contact and how loud to speak,” Alqam said. “For me personally, when I’m speaking in front of a large group of people I’m not familiar with, I start talking really fast. 

“It helps you put it into perspective – how slow or fast to speak. And you don’t want to sound boring, so it can measure your tone as well. I like that this system is incorporated into the curriculum.” 

Practicing with virtual reality during class time also forces students to prepare their speeches earlier, which leaves more wiggle room to tweak. 

“It helps with anxiety because you’re in front of a virtual crowd,” said psychology sophomore Cooper Johnson, who’s also a member of the LSUS debate team. “Just practicing your speech one time helps calm your nerves, and you can make more corrections and improvements to your speech.” 

Professor A.J. Edwards, who teaches speech in a night class, said the technology is engaging to his students. 

“We are meeting them in an arena that they find fun and entertaining versus the old arena of regular academic rigor and criticism,” said Edwards, who is the LSUS debate coach. “It gets them more excited and takes away some of the stress. 

“It’s not altered how the basics of public speaking are taught. However, it allows us to bring in new elements of practice than what we’re able to do otherwise. It gives them immediate feedback that they can see.” 

VirtualSpeech has various speaking environments like lecture halls, meeting rooms and theaters. 

Using Chat GPT artificial intelligence, there’s even an option to debate with a virtual person or role play for situations like job interviews. 

While Gibson has overcome numerous initial hurdles, he believes virtual reality can be an effective tool in the classroom. 

“The feedback has been pretty good … and we’re writing a technology grant to get more virtual reality headsets,” Gibson said. 

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