Archive for the ‘Instructional design’ Category

Media are merely vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition (Clark 1983).

 Take that, you teachers who use instructional technology in the classroom!

 For those of us who study the effective and efficient use of instructional technology, Clark’s words are startling. Is this true?

As an instructor in Mass Communication, PR Track, I see a parallel question with education’s use of media and media used in communication/PR.

 For trained communicators like me, one other name comes to mind — Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan is famous for saying, “the medium is the message.”  The focus is on the medium itself not so much the content of the message.

It’s Clark versus McLuhan in a steel cage grudge match.

If Clark is correct, then what matters in education? Perhaps it’s the teacher, the quality of instruction, the subject matter, what is presented, but not necessarily how it is presented. Clark argues that the media teachers use only conveys instruction without helping student achievement.

If McLuhan is correct, then the message content is less important than the medium conveying it. That seems to fit with today’s fascination with social media. The traditional media that communication/PR professionals have used for decades now seems to be foresaken for social media.

But are communication/PR professionals missing something? My best friend Communication Consultant Extraordinaire Robert J. Holland thinks so. Writing in his blog, Communication at Work, Robert says:

Communicators are still drooling over social media. We want to know everything about it — everything, it seems — and we want to figure it out fast so all our peers will be in awe of us. And before long, we’ll realize that social media are pretty much like all the other communication vehicles out there and we’ll move on to the next thing. For now, however, we’re still in the high hormone stage.

I think Robert nails it. The communication/PR profession’s fascination with social media as the newest and greatest may blind us to the importance of the message and to a proper media mix.

But what about Clark’s bold statement about media and instruction? For educators like me, especially Mass Communication instructors and anyone who wishes to use instructional technology effectively, is the media we use that unimportant?

I don’t think so. I think the media we use is important in helping students learn. But as Robert B. Kozma (2001) says, “whether or not a medium’s capabilities make a difference in learning depends on how they correspond to the particular learning situation — the tasks and learners involved — and the way the medium’s capabilities are used by the instructional design.”

Back to communication/PR, where the (social) media is the message. Holland says:

Too many of us have become obsessed with social media, treating them as if they’re the last cute girl (or guy) that will ever come our way. It’s clouding our judgment and we’re losing our grasp of the fundamentals. I get that social media have changed communication forever. I get that social media have caused a significant shift in how organizations engage and interact with their stakeholders. I get that it’s important for communicators to have a working knowledge of social media including some technical skill. I understand social media’s impact and importance. Last summer I told my public relations students that the change in communication brought about by social media was like that of the Gutenberg press.

To summarize, here is the situation:

  • In education, some argue that media merely conveys information without helping students learn.
  • In communication/PR, some argue that the media, especially social media, is all-important.

For a communication/PR instructor like me, I must find common ground. I think that common ground is captured in the following, which I will call “Lester’s Manifesto”:

I will use instructional technology that helps me create a two-way symmetrical dialogue with my students to help them learn. I will use all relevant media that helps me teach my students successfully. Media in all forms are a tool, whether used by an educator or a communication/PR practitioner. Each medium has its own characteristics. Each has a proper use. No one medium is better than all the rest. In fact, I firmly believe that a well-thought-out media mix is always better than heavy use of a single medium, whether the use is in education or communication/PR.


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Last week was the first week of fall semester. It’s a busy time for me, and every moment counts. There is so much to do to launch four classes and begin a new doctoral course.

Day two, my computer got a virus which shut it down completely. Being the first week of school, the help desk wizards were swamped. I went from Tuesday to late Thursday without a computer — no email, no blog, no Twitter, no Facebook, no student records, no Blackboard, no nothing. It was painful.

But it was also instructive. We are totally dependent on computer and internet technology to do anything anymore.

In reading today about the history of technology and learning, I was struck by the praise once heaped on a technology that would revolutionize education. This technological breakthrough was touted as the greatest system to contribute to learning and science ever invented.  The wording was from 1841, and the “system” was the blackboard. That’s the chalk blackboard, not the computer-based Blackboard.

Education has suffered through many such “breakthroughs” that were believed to be capable of transforming education. Among these are:

  • Audiovisuals using projectors, made less effective by expensive, high-maintenance equipment in the early days plus poor quality and variety of films.
  • Radio, which was simpler than film, but lack of equipment limited diffusion of the medium.
  • Television, loudly and fervently hailed as the greatest innovation to improve education, but didn’t.

When new technologies did not gain wide acceptance and live up to their hype, teachers were frequently blamed as being unwilling to adopt the technology or merely incompetent.

But computers are different. They work in education. Computers are by far the most effective teaching and learning machines ever to be tried in a classroom. But to be truly effective, computers must be used effectively by knowledgeable and dedicated teachers.

Add to that computers and computer systems with adequate virus prevention and correction.

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I’ve noticed that among my Millennial students, there is a disturbing lack of curiosity. I wonder if I am the only person who feels this way.

This concerns me because it has employment implications. A lack of curiosity may well hurt graduates’ hiring prospects. The Washington Post reported May 17, 2009, that after contacting eight to 10 area schools, about 35 to 40 percent of seniors are graduating without jobs or a predetermined plan in place. Typically, that number is 10 to 15 percent.

Given, this is the worst economy we’ve seen in a long time. Companies are hurting, and jobs are scarce. But that is all the more reason for graduates to pay attention to every detail that will help them secure a good job.

Why am I saying there is a lack of curiosity? This past spring semester, I had approximately 75 students in four classes. I interact with these students in class twice a week. I talk with them in the halls. They come to my office for things. They participate in our PR Group, the student professional association chapter. Yet in all of these interactions, only occasionally will someone ask a question of any substance. Few make observations that capture insightful interest in or understanding of things. Most never even comment on their surroundings. They seem oblivious to a deeper exploration of ideas and concepts, not only the abstract or obtuse, but the practical as well, like how to get and keep jobs in communication/PR/IMC.

In short, they seem to be devoid of curiosity. Some specific examples:

  • Students rarely if ever ask about the working world. I spent 35 years earning a living doing what I now teach. It seems to me that that might provoke some questions. College is a time of becoming exposed to many new and different ideas and concepts. Why then are there so few probing questions? Why so few substantive questions about careers and work?
  • Students don’t ask why things are the way they are. They seem to accept everything at face value.
  • This is a personal, nonscientific observation, but I think it tells us something; students don’t seem to notice things around them. A specific example of this is that students do not see things in my office. I have a small but nicely appointed office with a few carefully chosen decorations, like interesting photos and original art. I purposely designed my office to be an interesting and relaxing place to visit or work. But students don’t comment on photos, memorabilia, etc. They don’t even see these things.

It does not hurt my feelings that students who visit my office do not comment on my artwork. But it does bother me that they don’t even notice their surroundings. What if it was a job interview? The ability to converse easily, perhaps initiate a conversation about a unique photo or piece of art, is a plus for the job seeker. The abiity to build rapport and sell yourself with employers is critically important.

As a manager who hired, trained, and terminated many employees in my career, the ability and willingness to ask probing questions is a competitive advantage for job seekers. 

One of my more memorable supervisors got furious at employees who didn’t demonstrate curiosity. He blasted employees who “were not the least bit curious at why sales were flat, or why this project did not work, or that process cost so much, etc.” In general, he wanted curious employees who dug deep to find better ways of doing things. Those employees were favored. The employees with curiosity were trusted with more meaningful assignments. They got raises and promotions. But first, they got hired.

As May graduates try to enter the job market, I think a sense of curiosity is a big plus.

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In a comment to my previous post about 2008, Michael Clendenin sums up what we PR Types can do in 2009 — change things.

My friend Michael’s points, as usual, are wise and timely. In my current role as educator of future communication/PR/IMC professionals, I must make changes to my courses in order to help prepare students for the harsh realities of the job market. By all accounts for the foreseeable future, that job market is going to be an unwelcoming place.

Accordingly, I have been thinking about Michael’s suggestion. What must I change to reflect current market conditions and make my courses more valuable to students?

The time is right to consider this question. I have been preparing syllabi for my four spring semester classes. Three of the classes are on subjects I teach every semester — public relations writing (one section) and strategic communication planning and management (two sections). Also for this spring, I will be developing and teaching a new course in our Communication Leadership Master’s program, “The Practice of Public Relations and Organizational Communication.”

My professional experience includes training in continuous quality improvement, so I strive to improve my courses all along. I will be changing some things for spring semester, mainly, elevating the criteria for success. This is no time to tolerate student’s underachievement. Their prospective employers are going to be highly selective and terribly unforgiving about underachievement on the job. Only the best and the brightest have a chance at getting and keeping employment in today’s job market.

And it all begins here as an undergrad. Tough love? You bet. I won’t be helping anyone if I let them coast to an easy grade. If I give away good grades, then the students will graduate and the marketplace will kick them in the teeth. They’ll blame me.

That leads me to a question: I wonder if other Mass Communication/Public Relations departments are growing as rapidly as Towson’s? More and more undergrads want to major in Mass Comm/PR. My colleagues and I suspect that far too many of these individuals view the major as an easy one. If that is true, then it was mostly our fault.

But that was then, and this is now. We are steadily upgrading the qualifications for acceptance to the major. Among the steps we are taking is adding screening courses that require analytical thinking and the highest quality writing ability to pass. No passing grade, no acceptance to the major.

We restructured  “principles” class coursework along with all lower level classes to be much more difficult. We raised the GPA requirement for acceptance to the major.  But is it enough? We still get a boat load of folks who want to major in PR and be wedding planners.

There are PR programs worthy of emulation. My friend and excellent blogger/professor Bill Sledzik at Kent State University outlined his program in a hard-hitting post titled, “Let’s raise the bar for PR education, and let’s raise it really, really, really, really, really, really high.” I think what Bill wrote is priceless and should be read by everyone teaching PR.

The year 2009 is shaping up to be a tough one for us all. You know the saying: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Poll after poll shows that the American people hate the government bailouts because we Americans seek to reward achievement, not subsidize failure.

In preparing students for communication/PR/IMC careers, we can do no less than that.

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How many times a week does a teacher or employer hear this question?

My colleagues and I in the Advertising/Public Relations Track at Towson University are hearing this question from students with increasing frequency. More and more students want exact instructions, step by step, on how to do assignments. This is true across a variety of advertising and public relations classes and of all grade levels.

The conflict lies in the fact that we do provide exact instructions in syllabi, in rubrics, and in classroom discussions.

But students want more. They want special time devoted to step by step, point by point guidance on every aspect so that they may make the highest grade. I completely understand the desire to score high, but what I do not understand — and cannot accept — is this level of hand-holding that precludes a student from taking ownership and practicing decision-making, problem-solving skills.

From 30-plus years’ experience as a practitioner, I can tell students with certainty that employers are not going to provide this level of instruction. They pay you to solve problems. It is best to develop these skills now, because the honeymoon period for new employee to scrutinized, performance-appraised  employee is quite short.

I wonder if this phenomenon is a characteristic of the Millennial generation?

To be fair to students, I believe that they are entitled to clear and comprehensive instructions on any given assignment — to a point. That stops short of instructions that eliminate the need for problem-solving. Learning to solve problems, developing some analytical ability, is the heart of the university experience, in my opinion.

In one of the best corporate communication/PR/IMC positions I ever had, my Type-A, MBA boss would regularly call me in, give me an assignment that to him was of utmost importance, yet came with vague general guidance. He focused on the outcome he wanted. Early in our relationship, I would ask him for more detailed guidance. He would quickly lose patience and tell me to figure it out. If I gave him a puzzled look, he would frequently say, “Les, go make something happen.”

I learned so much from this great mentor. True, I worked many long hours figuring things out to achieve the outcomes he wanted, but once I accomplished such an assignment, the next one was a little easier. Plus, I always overachieved on my quarterly objectives that qualified me for a bonus, and he always gave me a higher-than-expected bonus.

I do not know what is driving this “tell me exactly what you want” phenomenon, but it concerns me. Students and employees alike must step up, own an assignment, and make something happen. Anything less will result in lower grades and lower performance reviews.

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I have been giving much thought lately to writing. Metacognition does not, a priori, lead to frequent blog posts.

Cognition, or awareness or thought, is necessary for writing. When you add the prefix “meta” which means “about,” you are really saying “thinking about thinking” or “thinking about knowing.” You have to think about what you know on any given subject to write effectively about it.

However, thinking about writing does not put words in a post or on a page.

Driving this in large part is my Qualitative Research Methods in Education doctoral class. In it, we talk about writing, then we write, and then we talk about what we wrote, and then we write some more. It is an effective cycle of study and practice, of theory and application.

As an instructor of public relations writing, I engage in the same cycle in my classes.

In my previous post, I explored what I am learning about writing qualitative research from my reading about qualitative research writing, then compared that to writing for public relations.

But, if we are going to write really well, what do we need to study? Make that, to read?

Studying the work of Harry F. Wolcott and John W. Creswell is helping me learn to write qualitative research. Thomas H. Bivens’ wonderful textbook, Public Relations Writing, is the book I use to teach my PR Track students how to write.

Every week, I train PR Track students to write succinctly. And every week, I am learning the importance of “thick description” in writing qualitative research.

Possible joke: What is the difference between a PR person and a qualitative researcher? Answer: the length of their sentences.

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It seems that every time I turn on the TV to watch the Olympics, beach volleyball is on. I had never before seen this event. But I have become a fan of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. I want them to win gold medals.

In essence, I want them to succeed, like I always wanted my employees to succeed, and now, my students.

Watching the Olympics, the point driven home to me with all the force of a Misty or Kerri shot is this: The Olympics is a metaphor for life, especially work/careers. There are winners, and there are losers. Students must get used to it, for as anyone working today knows, that is the way it is in the workplace.

 In the Olympics, the best get either first, second, or third place. Everyone wants the gold, but there can be only one gold medalist.

On the job, I believe that most employees want to record good performance doing meaningful work in jobs that matter. Study after study proves this. My own 30-plus years of experience in Corporate America as both a manager and later as a consultant have shown this to be true.

Yet, I am seeing a disturbing trend among my Millennial students. Many have an unreal set of expectations about course performance that I fear will hurt their ability to make it in the workplace. In every class, an alarming number of students appear to believe that they should make only “As” no matter what. It appears that some simply feel entitled to As.

News flash — you earn “As” just like you earn job offers, promotions, and bonuses in the workplace. I have no problem with awarding high grades to students who earn them. I never had a problem with rewarding my employees when they deserved it either.

What disturbs me is the attitude when a student gets less than the coveted “A”: “But I worked so hard in this course! I tried so hard. It’s not fair!”

This is a meaningless argument. We are all supposed to try hard all the time. Life requires our strenuous efforts just to make it. It is not a question of fair or unfair. It just is what it is.

What if you heard a silver or bronze medalist whining, “But I tried so hard!” He or she probably did, and all the world saw it. We expect no less in the Olympics. Trying hard is a given; but there will be winners and losers.

Truth is, instructors and employers expect no less of students and employees, respectively. And there will be winners and losers in the classroom and workplace, too.

The individual has the power to affect outcomes in the classroom and the workplace. Just as Olympic athletes prepare themselves for competition, students and employees must prepare themselves to compete as well. That means training, discipline, and mental toughness.

The best prepared will succeed, and many times that includes those who work and try the hardest. These select individuals will “win the gold” whether that gold is an A grade or a job offer, promotion, or bonus. Others will not.

When we enter the classroom or the workplace, we are not automatically entitled to the “gold” just by being there. We all must prove ourselves worthy. There is an old expression heard frequently in business: “What have you done for me lately?” It means that we must continually prove our worth.

Unfair, you say? Perhaps, but it’s the truth. But the good news for both student and employee is that in both settings, there can be more than one gold medalists — more than one student can earn an “A”, and more than one employee can earn a job offer, promotion, or bonus. All it takes is the right attitude, a strong work ethic, and discipline.

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