A Firsthand Look At How Social Media Is (Not) Being Taught In Our Classrooms

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Kris Allen was an April '10 graduate

I am an April 2010 public relations graduate from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has the only four-year PR degree program in Canada. However, while I really did get a lot of value from my education and enjoyed the process,  please don’t take the next few paragraphs as bashing my school because that certainly isn’t my intent. I just want to demonstrate from my own personal experience what I see as the lack of practical social media training in communication and public relations degrees.

Over the past four years, my professors continually reinforced that social media and web communication would be the wave of the future. However, I believe the future is now! You would think that being the only school offering a four-year PR degree in the country it would be on the cutting edge of technology and be the leading the way on social media instruction. That just wasn’t the case. You couldn’t even access the Internet in the classrooms!

Although my degree highlighted the importance of using social media as a method of communication, not one of my professors knew how to use Twitter, foursquare or any other tool except for Facebook. It wasn’t until just last year that they introduced a social media course as an elective. It was essentially a 13-week course on how to build a wiki, which to me does not constitute a ‘social media course’. Granted, they did explain hashtags, but that was the extent of it. Now, I have to admit that I myself did not take this elective because of the introductory nature of the course, but I have very close friends who did, and I haven’t heard anything positive about it.

In my opinion, there really needs to be more emphasis put on actually demonstrating the functionality and value of social media, rather than just telling students how important these tools are. We know they are vital to deliver our messages, but how do we use them to our advantage? If our educational institutions are training the leaders of tomorrow, why are they themselves five years behind? They’re certainly on the path to tomorrow, but at the moment … tomorrow isn’t soon enough.

Are you a recent graduate or current undergrad who has similar or different experiences? Please provide your comments to this post!

Kris Allen (@krisallenpr) currently lives and works in the non-profit sector in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His PR experience includes lottery and gaming, economic development, oil and gas, and hospitality. He’s also a self-described social media ‘junkie’, Apple user, BBQ aficionado, thrill-seeker, traveler, proud Canadian, and a hockey fanatic!


13 comments on “A Firsthand Look At How Social Media Is (Not) Being Taught In Our Classrooms

  1. Fabulous article, Kris! I agree with you that the future is now, and that we perhaps weren’t all prepared for it as much as we should have been.

    The great news: the Social Media Seminar that was available to us during the summer semester will be made mandatory for new students.

    The bad news: there is no possible way one semester can cover what we ought to know about communicating via social media.

    I think it’s safe to say that most of us have stepped into several organizations over our work terms, and now as graduates, and have seen a major loophole missing in how they are using social media: RESEARCH!

    I hope that with the next generation of PR professionals, social media will be better harnessed and treated as a communication tool that is just as important as any newsletter, annual report or telephone conversation could ever be.

  2. Agreed! I attended the same university, and in fact, was in many of Kris’ classes. I believe social media could and should be an aspect of every course taught, not just a “social media” course. I strongly believe social media could be of use with regards to event coordination, certainly media relations, and even crisis communication (get the message out there – why not use FB and Twitter?… let’s not forget what happened with TIFF and the perceived bed bug outbreak).

    We simply can’t ignore the digital age that is now the present, no longer the future. Today’s graduates understand how important knowledge in social media is in today’s business world, and they’ll start looking at universities that teach skills in this area. It’s time for post-secondary institutions to catch up! We’re sick of waiting…

  3. You make some great points Kris. Knowing how to use social media strategically is indeed a prerequisite for the present and future public relations practitioner. I really believe that you can learn a lot about tools and applications within the classroom and it’s a great way to get your feet wet. However, as we all know there is no better way to learn than hopping into the proverbial deep end.

    Nice work.

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more; even though I was not in the PR program, but in the marketing program. I am now finding out that in order to get a job in marketing that I need all this practical experience like Adobe software, developing creatives, working with clients, etc. I would like to see universities take a more active role in helping students prepare for jobs and start teaching useful practical information, techniques, IT, and processes that companies in today’s world require and demand. Don’t get me wrong, the theory part is needed, but why learn about theory in marketing about retail, international, direct, sales, advertising, (the list goes on), when this can be taught at a beginners course (teach the basics of each) and then let them develop the angle they want to and start developing the skills for say advertising (learn about white sheets, creatives, meeting with clients, advertising processes, literally develop campaigns, etc.)

    Needless to say I agree with you, and that MSVU is not the only university that has this problem and although co-ops are beneficial to students, having structured inclass instruction on the processes of certain aspects of business and applying them would go miles beyond any current university. MSVU should pick up on this.

  5. I am currently a second year B. Ed. student at the Mount and I am having a similar experience in some instances. I elected to take a course in Critical Media Literacy this year, as media is something I really wish to incorporate into the classroom when I am teaching on my upcoming practicum, and in the career to follow. I was however very disappointed to find that the topics, concerns, and areas of focus for the course are the same as they could have been a decade ago: advertising (largely print) and newsmaking, as well as the corporate agenda within media. Now, these are certainly important topics, and most definitely have a place, but I don’t believe that place is in a course to train teachers who will be working with media immersed teenagers. I don’t understand why we’re not learning NEW and SOCIAL media and current trends that our students will engage with and relate to, and in turn be a springboard for innovation and creativity.
    I know this isn’t a problem that plagues only the Mount. It’s hard to stay current within the standing university structure, having professors with tenure who have been there for years and are great, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps a little out of touch with the existing world of what it is in which they’re supposed to be the experts.
    As for myself, I’ve been proactive in learning about social media and researching ways to use it in the classroom, but I’m only one person of many that are about to go into the school systems without having been required to think too much about new media and its value, uses, and significance in an educational setting, or at all, really.
    I do what I can to share these resources with colleagues though chatting and presentations but I totally agree with you. Can we really be confident that we’re guiding our students to success if we’re ignoring such an important element of living today?

  6. Pingback: Social Media – Why aren’t teachers and students learning it?? « The Theatre's Empty. Pick your seat.

  7. Great post! I actually had the exact opposite experience!

    I just completed my graduate degree at Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI) and ended up majoring in Digital Storytelling (they’re rolling out the program for undergrads this year).

    The professors are on the cutting edge of technology – taking part in it themselves, sometimes to the point of obsession – and introducing the latest social media techniques in classes while inviting local professionals into the classroom to talk about how they use social media in their jobs.

    Marquette is well-known locally for it’s use of social media in communicating with students and the Milwaukee community, and the College of Communication hosted several events during the school year that focused on social media, PR, collaboration, and the changing technological landscape.

    All I know about social media I generally learned by tinkering around in the programs on my own, but Marquette certainly led me to where I needed to be and offered a great think tank-like program for exploration and strategy development.

    I’m now a social media/PR professional in the nonprofit sector and use the knowledge I gained at Marquette in my work.

  8. Good stuff here, Kris!

    The technology wave has always been in issue in collegiate settings. Ten years ago, when I was in school, it was e-mail. I had PR professors who thought e-mail was horrible and had no place in the marketing-communications world! True story!

    It frustrates me as someone who’s hiring people now, that higher-level education is dragging behind in technology.

    However, the reasons are easy to see. College courses must have curriculums and syllabuses. How can you teach a class knowing the rules are going to change mid-way through the semester?

    A hot network in September may be on it’s last legs by finals.

    My best advice to students is to NOT concentrate on the “how-to” of social media and more on the “how-to” of communication. Facebook is going to die. Twitter is going to die. MySpace is kinda, sorta dead already, after it’s peak just a few years back.

    Solid communications skills will carry through, no matter what platform you are working on, print, radio, video or even a micro-blog.

    You can learn the functionality of the networks after class.

  9. Mike, you certainly make some valid points. Thank you, I appreciate your comments.

    I certainly agree with you with regards to focusing on the “how-to” of communication, however; there is also a huge need to demonstrate how to use social media for communication. I’m not talking specifics like Facebook or Twitter, because you’re correct that they will die. The point I was trying to articulate was that we need to know how to use all of these tools to our advantage. What approaches are different when using social media vs traditional media? That’s where education is lacking.

  10. Hi Kris

    I wish to address some things you bring up regarding why I think Social is not taught much in College yet. It is still a young technology. If you are in Business School and you take any finance classes that look at large companies, social is like a blip. It might be used to improve communication inside the organization but for moving the sales needle it does not exist. In fact I actually view Social Media Technology as something that should reside in the IT department and that Marketing, Sales, Customer Service should be using it to help them compete better.

    For example Nabisco has 527,000 Fans on Facebook. Nabsico probably has conservatively 600mil cookie customers world wide. So 0.08% of their customers are Fans. And they average about 100-500 comments/likes on the Facebook fan Page. That means 0.09% of 0.08% of their customers are engaging them om Facebook. So its not moving any cookies for them.

    But if a Professor wanted to have a class on building small communities that reduce the cost of R&D, help groom Brand Ambassadors, Build Goodwill etc I can get with that. But right now Social Media is a Revolution in Interpersonal Communication which resides in the Depts of Sociology and Technology, not Marketing. At least not yet.

    Also until Social gets proven as a marketing tool on a large scale it won’t make it into the classroom much.

    That said for a small business that needs 1,000’s not millions of customers it is an incredible tool to add incremental sales that does move the needle!



  11. Howie:
    Because you work or own an agency, I was surprised to read that you think that social media doesn’t exist in the marking department. That’s the old way of thinking and doing business.
    Social is a free way to market your product, distribute news releases, link customers with pertinent information, and create a two-way model of communication.
    “Social Media is about enabling resources and energy. Giving your customer more power. You can enable Brand Champions and Ambassadors who spread their love of your product or business for you. But it takes effort to do this. It takes a great product and business as the building blocks. If you don’t put your customers first Social Media can be a dangerous place” – this is from your website… how does enabling brand champions and ambassadors who spread their love of your product or business not reside in the marketing department? Sure, if you have a crappy product, social media is going to rip you apart because of the feedback. But, social media has now made you aware that you have a crap product, thus, doing its job by communicating that to you.
    Social media may not be moving cookies for a company such as Nabisco, but that isn’t the point of my article. But, social media will help a new company enter the marketplace at minimal costs, and provide the company with valuable feedback.
    The point of the article was to demonstrate the lack of practical social media training in a communication, not a finance degree. Public relations and communication is about delivering a brand, messaging, and building relationships with your customers and the public.

  12. Pingback: Teaching Social Media in PR Programs « Being Oppen

  13. I really enjoyed this article, Kris. When I was looking into my own PR training, and I’m from the other Canadian coast, I considered Mount Saint Vincent. It was enticing because it is the only 4yr degree program in Canada, however, I’ve always had an issue with the copious amounts of theory Uni stresses over the practical skills. That, and a good friend of mine is from the Cape, and love NS from when I was there on a vacation.

    In the end I decided on Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s 2yr PR Diploma program based in Richmond, BC. I loved that it stressed the working skills for the industry and that all students left with a professional portfolio. The program only accepts 20 students a year, and we worked closely with the Journalism and Graphic Design departments on certain assignments. We had a wonderful class on Mass Media where we not only evaluated the impact of media corporations, grassroots media sources, and social media, but created our own strategies for clients in another class, and were able to implement.

    Kwantlen has something like a 80% hiring rate straight out of school for the PR group. If some of us chose to move onto a degree, just hop over the pond to Victoria for the 2yrs Bachelors of Communication program at Royal Roads University. Breaks it up, and you have practical experience.

    The faculty at Kwantlen is amazing. When I went through, there wasn’t such a big emphasis on Social Media, but the PR alumni are polled every year to find out how the program should be adjusted to better educate the new folks to the industry.

    My PR group tries to see each other at least once a year, and we all keep tabs on each other through Twitter, Facebook, etc. We share business ideas, and with each other the learning never stops.

    We’ve all gone in different directions since school, but primarily all within the realm of PR, Marketing and Social Media. Some are in agencies, others with corporations, non-profits, or health care. I’ve ended up in Internet Marketing for a luxury automotive dealership on Vancouver Island.

    I feel like I’m banging my head on the wall sometimes, because even though management at the dealership knows they want to be in Social Media, it is hard sometimes to make them prioritize it as such.

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this blog, and your post. Thank you for sharing your experience and providing this forum for others to share.


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