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Innovative courses help students prepare for real-world challenges

Innovative courses help students prepare for real-world challenges

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Innovative courses help students prepare for real-world challenges

Changing business models. The collapse of newspapers. The rise of the citizen journalist. The increasingly mobile news and information consumer. With the powerful impact of these significant trends, what will a career in media and communications look like in the next decade? In this new era of information consumption, the one thing that is constant is change. In response to the ongoing media maelstrom, the SJMC offered some twists on its traditional curriculum during the 2008-09 academic year.

by Jen Keavy

During fall semester, the SJMC partnered with MinnPost.com to offer the Gopher "Skunkworks" practicum--a special section of Jour 5990, Special Topics in Mass Communication. The course took the time-tested concept of having students work for a professional publication, but the "skunkworks" part of the course involved integrating a multimedia approach to delivering content to MinnPost.com, specifically for their online-only daily publication.

Taught by MinnPost reporter and nationally renowned journalist, G.R. Anderson Jr., the course allowed eight students to work as professional journalists, creating audio, video and slideshow components to accompany traditional text stories. "The breadth and scope delivered was impressive," Anderson says. "And it helped MinnPost, barely a year old at the outset of the practicum, achieve its status as the most-read online-only media outlet in Minnesota."

Anderson says that each student was assigned the role of managing editor for one of eight projects--ranging from a look at the foreclosure crisis to an expansive view of transit systems in the Twin Cities--and then assigned contributor roles for the other projects. Thanks to the SJMC's Cox Innovation Fund, the students were paid for their work. Created in 2001 by David Cox, retired CEO of Cowles Media Company, the Cox Innovation Fund supports innovative, field-based courses that contribute to the production of a publication.

"The system worked, and MinnPost is still publishing some projects as time of the year dictates," Anderson says. "The main point of the class was to take highly skilled students and get them in the mindset of producing reported content for any facet of the ever-changing world of digital and print journalism. And to that end, the practicum worked."

This coming fall, Cox Innovation funds will again be tapped for a collaborative special topics course: Jour 4990, Covering the Arts: Dance Writing Demystified. Three top-notch instructors--Judith Brin Ingber, Camille LeFevre and Dan Sullivan--will teach students how to critique and describe a dance performance in words plain enough for the average reader to understand, yet resonate with informed ones. Ingber was assistant to the editor of Dance Magazine in the 1960s, co-founded Israel's first dance magazine and taught in the dance program at the University of Minnesota. LeFevre has been practicing arts journalism for more than two decades and is a highly respected dance scholar. Sullivan was a theater critic for the Los Angeles Times for 20 years, following stints as a theater and music reviewer for The New York Times and the Minneapolis Tribune. He has taught in the SJMC for several years. The course, which has drawn much interest from dance students and journalism students alike, will include interactive lectures, conversations with guest artists, movement workshops, screenings of dance films, research and reading projects, and writing.

Students in the strategic communication program had the opportunity to learn how to harness the power of social media in a special section of Jour 4263, Strategic Communication Campaigns, offered during spring semester. David Krejci, senior vice president of digital communications at Weber Shandwick, taught the course, which focused on how to integrate social media into an overall strategic communication campaign. Since joining Weber Shandwick in 1998, Krejci has emerged as a leader in digital strategy and social media tactics for clients in the financial services, health care, defense, consumer products, corporate and public affairs, and technology industries.

"You don't have to look far to see that the way people consume their news and media isn't what it was 10 years ago, let alone three years ago," Krejci says. "It's no longer just about traditional media. ... Social media has to be as much of the campaign as traditional media."

Students in the course faced real-world tasks, such as responding to a client RFP and presenting a campaign proposal. For the midterm, Krejci pulled an RFP for the McCormick Foundation from the Internet and students were asked to respond to it. "The students were generally unfamiliar with the concept of an RFP and how it works," Krejci says. "I tried to make it clear to them that this is as 'real world' as it gets--usually RFPs are not specific or clear--and it's up to you, the strategic communicator, to determine what you need to write to get your point across."

For the final project, Krejci wrote a mock RFP for the Mars corporation, which asked for an integrated strategic communication campaign that included social media tools. Students presented their ideas to the class, as if they were presenting to the client. Krejci says that the students were up for the challenge and appreciated the realism of the exercise. "Some were upset that there weren't specific instructions, but in the end they understood that's the reality in the workplace," he says. "You have to use your own creativity and savvy--completely independent of your public relations knowledge."

Krejci says that the meteoric rise of Twitter over the course of the semester provided fruitful discussion of just how quickly social media tools evolve and how important it is not to get caught up with the tool itself. "Twitter isn't the invention of the lightbulb," Krejci says. "It is a useful tool, but don't exaggerate its importance and get caught up in the media hype of the tool." He emphasized to the class that Twitter, like any social media tool, should be used as a tactic to achieve a larger goal and that there should be a purpose behind the use of any social media tool. "It doesn't do any good to just have a Twitter feed or Facebook page," he adds. "You need to have a strategy and know who your audience will be."

Krejci says it is important for people to remember that social media isn't a new concept. "One of my mantras is that social media didn't just pop out of nowhere. ... It's been around for as long as human beings have been interacting with one another," he says. "There is no doubt that technology has profoundly changed the way that humans interact, and now more than ever before, we have tools that make it easy to talk to a larger number of people and record, track, archive and search those conversations."

08/01/09