Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Learning Assessment and PR Education

A few weeks ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about colleges offering post-graduation assessment tests. Apparently, some employers (the article makes it sound like all of them) don't trust college GPAs as an indicator of a job candidate's potential work success.

This comes in the context of criticism of higher education generally of offering esoteric topics that are irrelevant in the "real world" of work. I even hear this from adjuncts, and potential adjuncts, who think a college exists only to teach students skills to do specific jobs.

In my opinion, and that of most faculty colleagues and administrators, that's a part of the result, but that's not the only or even primary function of colleges. Adjuncts and others in society who criticize colleges mistake training for education, they fail to see the bigger picture (something a real college education makes easier) that employees need more than skills. They need to know how to think so they can adapt to unforeseen changes in the workplace and society.

So the WSJ article was interesting, because at the same time it casts doubt on the value of college GPAs it affirms what colleges are actually teaching. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (or CLA+) the article features, actually does NOT measure mere job skill ability. It measures what many colleges teach  under the rubric of general education, liberal education, and major-specific courses that go beyond mere professional skills to integrate theory and practice.

Here's how the article describes the CLA+: "Instead of measuring subject-area knowledge, it assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication."

Indeed. It may be that some college faculty are guilty of grade inflation, making the GPA less valuable. But that has not been my experience. And if critics of higher education object to what we are teaching, this new College Learning Assessment test measures what we have been measuring at my institution in our own assessment--not just individual grades, but program-level assessment of learning outcomes--for years.

While the critical thinking and other components of the CLA+ are useful in all fields, they are especially vital in public relations. Sure, we should teach how to write media relations tools and how to manage social media campaigns and other specific skills. But if you consider how media relations, social media, and corporate communications has changed in the time it takes a freshman to become a senior, we also need to teach these other things so that new PR employees can adapt to and maybe even create the changes yet to come.

So this recent article, and other criticism of higher education, strikes me as strange. Watch this video about general education at Grand Valley State University and you'll be struck by how much it looks like what the CLA+ advocates.  Or, to be more specific about PR education, look at what is advocated for PR majors and master's degrees by the Commission on Public Relations Education.

I also know from reading student and their employer internship evaluations that basic job skills are only part of what matters--all talk about things like teamwork, cultural understanding, innovation and initiative as well. Much of that talk is positive, in the sense that students are gaining these skills in college.

Perhaps we need less criticism of higher education generally, and PR education in particular, and more understanding of what we teach, and why.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

'Wrecking Ball" PR

On a rare occasion that my university, Grand Valley State University, makes news in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is for this--students swinging naked on a moving sculpture outside the science building to parody the Miley Cyrus video "Wrecking Ball." The large ball on a cable swings over sandy ground and illustrates various principles of physics.

This followed local coverage in places like MLive.com.

The university had to take down the sculpture because it had become a little too popular with students. The university acted in response to the viral popularity, and then the news media responded to the university's actions.

I taught my media relations class in the science building yesterday (because it's a writing class, and there are limited computer labs in the building where my office is). Students had to do a writing drill and give media analysis reports yesterday, so we didn't have time to talk about this wrecking ball story. But they sure wanted to. Maybe on Monday.

I may ask them to consider why this made the news--local, national, international and the higher education trade publication. I mean, why a story about students swinging naked on a large sculpture and not, say, the academic achievements of students and faculty?

Well, I could tell them, consider the discussion earlier this semester about what news is. This is unusual. There is also a celebrity element, involving Miley Cyrus, albeit indirectly. Also, in our modern era, the social element drives news. Traditional media companies are not always in the public service, reporting on government or higher education issues that affect citizens and taxpayers yadda yadda. Yeah, they do that. But media outlets are businesses. They need to attract audience. And naked students on swinging balls does that better than a story about some student-faculty research that yielded an innovative new idea or understanding of everyday life.

I was proud of my students for staying on task and focused on serious subjects of the classroom yesterday. But now may be the time for a little levity about this as well. So, from a PR perspective, here's how to position the university in the midst of this odd publicity:

This story shows that Grand Valley State University is an exemplary model of liberal arts education. The 'wrecking ball' story illustrates physics, art, video production, communications, cultural awareness, innovation, teamwork, and possibly criminal justice.

OK. I tried. I doubt that will be the message that remains when this flurry of attention wanes. So maybe we can just hope that ArtPrize launching this week in Grand Rapids will divert attention from the university. At least until we make the news for something more significant.