Innovation in 21st Century Graduate Education Blends Professional and Academic Expertise

Talk about a wake-up call! A recent report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recommends a dramatic shift in journalism education. It advocates for professional, digital-first academic startups that deliver skills-based learning to communications undergraduates.

Little more than half a decade ago, the top journalism programs produced new graduates who lacked even one class in digital communication, social media or web design. Newly minted journalists, advertising professionals and public relations practitioners earned degrees that instilled the fundamentals of traditional mass media practice but ignored new media.

Why has higher education failed to move quickly to prepare students for 21st century jobs? One possible reason is that the reward structure of education and practice differ enormously. The academy rewards the teaching of fundamental principles and building national visibility through scholarship. By contrast, industry professionals are continuously challenged to learn new skill sets and new ways to engage audiences to remain in business.

In times of relative stability and calm, the academy and industry can be in total alignment. But in the face of technological disruption their paths diverge; professionals quickly engage with the new while academics focus on the tried and true.

At the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, we’ve moved quickly to shift curriculum to address emerging technologies and communication platforms. We embrace the best of both worlds, professional and academic. For us, the question is not “which is more valuable,” but rather “how can we leverage the best of each to create transformative opportunities for our students?”

While national attention has focused on undergraduate education, here at UF we believe the same philosophy should inform quality graduate education. Professional graduate degrees should help to create tomorrow’s industry leaders. And doing so will require the same kind of strategic alliance between industry and education.

Embracing Professional Expertise

To borrow a phrase from my students, it’s time for some real talk. Historically, academics have done a poor job determining how well we are preparing graduates for the workforce. Only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that graduates have the necessary skills to succeed in the workforce. And while nearly 80 percent of those who earn a master’s degree in mass communication find a job[1], there is a still a clear gap between the academic and professional realms.

For graduate education to remain relevant and valuable to students, we need to blend the professional and the academic. We need to give business leaders and skilled practitioners a voice in graduate education. This requires the courage to explore new teaching platforms and paradigms.

Mass communication is an ideal field for this exploration. No industry has been more affected by the rise of digital than communications. To thrive in the workforce, today’s graduate students need the academic foundations of mass communication: research, theory and ethics. But they also need modern communication courses like digital branding, web design and coding, international advertising or social media analytics.

Perhaps most importantly, they need to understand that digital media really are different. The knowledge required for crafting messages in traditional media is not enough for creating engaging content on social, web, or mobile platforms.

The world has changed, and so must graduate higher education.

Why focus on graduate education? Quite simply, there are tens of thousands of skilled, hardworking professionals who are extraordinarily talented in a traditional media context. We know because we’ve educated many of them. But now many are finding the skill set that has served them well for many years is not enough for the digital age.

Disruptions can be opportunities. The talented professional looking for a career in new media can now count on cutting edge graduate programs that will give them digital age knowledge and skills. At UF, we launched three Master of Arts in Mass Communication programs designed specifically for working professionals who want to take their careers to the next level. Each program features a blend of academic faculty and working professional adjuncts:

· Global Strategic Communication MAMC

· Social Media MAMC

· Web Design and Online Communication MAMC

Embracing New Platforms

Each of those programs is delivered 100 percent online, with many courses featuring live interaction between students and instructors. Online degree programs are nothing new, of course, but this represents a dramatic shift in graduate education.

Though higher education has intrinsic ties to physical campuses, brick-and-mortar buildings should not be barriers to the reach of master’s degree programs. Online education offers an efficient, accessible way to scale graduate education, delivering a master’s degree with the same qualifications and credentials earned on the UF campus in Gainesville, Fla.

Just as we have a responsibility to embrace the digital era through our instructors and curriculum, we have an obligation to explore new means of delivering graduate education. Industry practices and platforms change so quickly that many professionals simply cannot afford to leave work for two years to earn a graduate degree.

We endeavor to serve these professionals with master’s degree specializations designed specifically for them — programs with the flexibility to change with the industry, taught by academics and professionals at the top of their games.

Of course, that means capitalizing upon the possibilities of online education. It means delivering a graduate specialization that fits into the lives of busy professionals. It means embracing technology and professional expertise to craft curriculum that master’s students can apply in their jobs the very next day.

At UF we have a little saying we’re proud of: “The University of Florida is in Gainesville. The Gator Nation is everywhere.”

Building graduate programs that can be taken anywhere in Gator Nation is an important step forward for us and our students.

Degrees Built for Digital

It’s a challenge for any institution of higher learning to keep pace with digital media, which is why we’ve integrated professional faculty and advisors so tightly into our online master’s specializations.

An advisory board comprised of digital startup and business leaders guides the strategy for our Web Design and Online Communication specialization. The curriculum for our Social Media master’s program adapts to reflect new technologies like wearables and virtual worlds to ensure students are immersed in modern strategic thinking.

Faculty members who are deeply rooted in their professions deliver unique value to our graduate students, who are working professionals themselves. They allow us to balance our deep academic knowledge with the flexibility and agility of real-world expertise.

It’s difficult to find room for innovation in higher education, but at the University of Florida we’ve found it through a broader family of highly qualified faculty and a forward-thinking view of distance education.

Michael Weigold, Ph.D., is the Director of Distance Education and the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

[1] Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates, p. 35