• 21Jul

    I mentioned the other day on Google+ that I’d signed up for a class on gamification at Coursera.  I had two reasons: first and foremost, I include a section on gamification in my social media class, and it’s very popular. (It’s also one of my favorite topics to cover–badges and leader boards, what’s not to like, right?) I welcome the opportunity to take a six-week course focusing on the subject, taught by an expert, for free. The more I know and understand about the subject, the better I’ll be able to serve my students.

    Also, I’m curious about this burgeoning world of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs, a rather unfortunate acronym). One of my tasks this fall is to rework the social media class for delivery as an online class, and even though the format is quite different (not to mention the smaller class size–I hope!), I want to see what the experience is like nowadays. I’m hoping to learn a few pedagogical tricks that will help me do my job more effectively.

    Well, it looks as though I signed up for that class just in time for the requisite periodic debate about online education in the Chronicle.

    There are some viable points raised, in both the article and the comments, about assessment and scalability, as well as the need to exercise caution about using technology simply for the sake of novelty. And I agree that it’s worrisome that many institutions seem to be both rushing and flailing their way into online curricula, terrified they’ll miss the train, unsure of whether it will take them where they need to go, and with no idea how to finance the trip (or pay the conductor).

    Okay, enough with the train metaphor.

    But a lot of the discussion surrounding online education typically seems to be driven by knee-jerk reactions against perceived failings that don’t always reflect an understanding of reality. Some people assume that all online or other distance learning is inherently inferior to what takes place in a traditional classroom. The Internet becomes a specter representing the imminent demise of public education, a bogeyman of bits and bytes.

    Death, wielding its scythe on traditional higher ed

    Death image by Mirari Erdoiza

    Data point: I earned my master’s degree online. I was living in Italy, and the only options for an advanced degree in public relations/media were in the United States. I couldn’t relocate, since among other things I had my own business, and for the same reason couldn’t afford lengthy on-site residency sessions that some of the hybrid programs (such as Syracuse) offered at the time. The University of Memphis had one of the first fully-online programs [PDF] in the field, so that’s what I chose.

    We had synchronous classes, scheduled according to the US Central time zone of the university, which meant that I would attend three-hour seminars from, say, 1-4 or 2-5 am my time. Which is why it took me four years rather than the recommended two to complete the degree. Meanwhile, I was running my own business and contracting out as a partner to a local PR agency. To say I was busy would be putting it mildly, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

    Was it worth it? Absolutely. Not all of the instructors were adept at the synchronous online model — remember, this was more than a decade ago — (yikes!), so there was some variety in the level of effectiveness. (One in particular tried to take classroom lectures and deliver them in the chatroom-style format we used. I can tell you there is nothing more mind-numbing than sitting in front of a computer at 2 am, watching a 40-minute lecture appear on your screen, line by line, at 1- to 2-minute intervals.) But I find that’s true of all kinds of classes. Most of the professors I had at UMemphis understood the need for what we now call a “flipped classroom” in that setting, and we had some truly excellent discussions of the material with classmates from all over the world.

    I have never had any reason to doubt the quality of the education I received through that program. As far as I’m concerned I attended an AEJMC-accredited program at a respected university. The online platform was just a different mode of delivery. (An often buggy and unreliable mode of delivery at the time, too, but we rolled with the virtual punches.) I certainly didn’t feel underprepared compared to the other members of my PhD cohort who had attended traditional master’s programs, and my master’s thesis became the foundation for the book I later wrote with Priscilla Murphy.

    Like any other form of education, you get out what you put into it, and I put a lot into it. I’m satisfied. I’m sure many others can say the same.

    Things have come a long way since then, technologically. This advancement has opened up terrific new opportunities to offer high quality educational modules at low cost to a vast number of people. As someone all in favor of more education for everyone, however they can get it, I think this is a great thing. Meanwhile, we also now have well known for-profit institutions that are often conflated with online education in the collective imagination. The lack of accreditation of many of these institutions, and the controversial consumer model that many feel undermines the integrity of traditional higher education, raises doubts in many people’s minds about the value of online courses. Combined with the aching budgets of most public university systems, it’s no wonder people are suspicious that these new programs are just the big box stores of higher ed, designed to deliver the minimum value deemed acceptable by the largest number of consumers for the highest possible profit margin.

    I don’t think online classes are a panacea. For example, I think online PhDs are a terrible idea, because a large part of a doctoral education has to do with socialization into the academic profession through research and teaching assistantships and immersion in the environment. There are also clearly some subjects, such as those requiring a laboratory component, that don’t transfer well to the online format. And as I mentioned above, there are many legitimate hurdles to be dealt with regarding assessment and scale that still need to be worked out. From a faculty perspective, since (so far) these courses are designed and offered separately from the regular campus curriculum, I wonder how universities and/or the MOOC providers are handling compensation, and what sort of recognition (if any) participating faculty gain as a result of providing these courses on behalf of the institution.

    These are all matters that need to be worked out before everyone rushes out to embraceIn any case, I’m keeping an open mind, and looking forward to learning a lot about gamification in a few weeks.

  • 15Jul
    Categories: Conferences Comments: 0

    Last week, I had the honor of delivering a keynote address at the American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketing Conference in Washington, DC. My topic was crisis communication, and as a focal example for my talk I used the incident earlier this year with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood.

    Reputational crises are especially insidious for nonprofits, especially in a time when many people are hard-pressed to scrounge up discretionary cash for charitable giving. Not only is a nonprofit organization wholly dependent on its reputation when appealing to supporters, but those who donate typically do so because of some deeply held values they believe are reflected in the organization. When you play a role in someone’s construction of self, you are particularly vulnerable when something happens that changes their perception of you. And when you are as large and encompassing as the Komen Foundation, with such a capillary structure, any highly visible policy change is likely to displease some number of stakeholders.

    In Komen’s case, the way they handled the media storm provoked when Associated Press first announced the decision on January 31st—no initial response, a couple of brief press releases simply stating that the decision was not politically motivated, as many claimed, and then a reversal of the decision (followed shortly by the resignation of their chief policy officer) a mere three days later—served to alienate stakeholders on all sides of the issue, and inadvertently gave weight to their detractors’ claims.

    Zombie photo by Rodolpho Reis on Flickr

    I mentioned in my talk that high-profile crises are like zombies: they never really die, but once they’re “over” they continue to lurk around the Internet and the mainstream media in an undead state. Search culture ensures that coverage of the crisis will remain just a Google away, influencing perceptions of the organization indefinitely. What’s more, whenever the organization finds itself at the center of another controversy, or a situation arises that shares some points of comparison, they are resuscitated in sidebars and backgrounders, moving into the public conversation once more.

    In the shorter term, the Foundation appears to be suffering some lingering negative effects from the crisis, nearly six months later. Participation in the Race for the Cure is down by as much as 30% in many areas. In March, The Daily Beast reported that the organization was forced to cancel its annual National Lobby Day, a major event that brought activists and survivors to Washington to advocate for stronger national programs to support breast cancer education, prevention, and treatment.

    Komen affiliates are working hard to reassure their local supporters that funds raised remain in the area and are not sent to the Foundation’s main headquarters. Many of these affiliates are struggling to continue to provide services, caught as they are between diminishing grant funds at the national level and hesitant local donors.

    In my address to the AMA nonprofits, I emphasized the importance of taking a big-picture view when planning communication strategy. Komen appeared to have been caught off guard by the firestorm, which is surprising. I suspect the Foundation was lulled into complacency when there was no immediate reaction to their decision in late 2011. Even so, had they been paying attention to the larger cultural context, they might have been prepared for controversy and developed appropriate communication strategies. A few key trends that probably influenced public reactions to the decision:

    • the fact that the US is in the middle of a highly polarized presidential campaign season, so that people are more prone than usual to look for and ascribe partisan political motives to actions that run counter to their beliefs;
    • the fact that healthcare issues are at the forefront of public discourse and debate, in particular questions of access by less privileged segments of the population to preventive care;
    • the ongoing economic recession, which has heightened tensions regarding the aforementioned access to healthcare, as well as contributed to a sense of “class warfare” in the United States and elsewhere (evidenced by, among other things, the Occupy movement);
    • media discourse alternately condemning and denying the existence of a politically motivated “war on women”;
    • growing backlash against the “pink movement” and accusations of “pinkwashing,” leading to a sense of  fatigue and increasingly public criticism of the breast cancer movement in some quarters.

    Crises don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s easy for organizations to get caught up in a narrow view of their own goals and objectives, but forgetting the broader landscape can lead to serious consequences. All of these factors should have been taken into consideration by Komen when strategizing about how to communicate their decision to the public. Which, actually, they never did—the left the news to be “uncovered” by the media, without taking the opportunity to clearly explain to stakeholders why the decision was made and how it fit into the nonprofit’s larger mission. This oversight suggests that the Foundation’s leadership didn’t expect a controversial reaction to their change in policy, a position that seems surprisingly naive for such a sophisticated organization.

    I love working with nonprofit organizations in general, and I think crisis communication is an area particularly ripe for discussion. Based on the great conversations I had with attendees during and after my session, it seems a lot of people working in nonprofits agree. Aside from my own contribution to the proceedings, I thought the AMA Nonprofit Marketing Conference was a terrific event, and wish I’d been able to attend more of the sessions. Talking to professionals in the field serves as a good reminder that academic research in applied communication has potentially important practical ramifications, and motivates me to seek out more opportunities for collaboration.