“What’s our growth strategy?”
Medill’s then Associate Dean and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) chair Tom Collinger’s question to the assembled Medill faculty stimulated a range of options. This was 2011. Having just launched IMC’s undergraduate certificate program, Medill leadership engaged faculty to consider options for the future.
“Where we landed is that it would be ideal to attract a more experienced student population—working professionals and people who’ve had substantial careers but maybe missed the digital shift,” Collinger says. “We landed on our audience first. But when we began to think about geographies, we quickly arrived at the online option.”
“I give the faculty all the credit,” says Collinger of the choice to take a risk and move online. “Medill’s Masters of Advertising program faculty did the same thing in 1988 in the face of having the most well-regarded advertising program in the country. When they didn’t think that advertising, alone, was the future of engaging customers with brands, they chose to abandon it and recreate IMC— a strategic data and customer-driven marketing communications program.”
The IMC Online program launched in 2012 with the primary goal of making the experience as close to an on premise experience as possible. However, that approach was quickly reconsidered as they learned that attempting to emulate an on premise experience online did not set the bar high enough.
"We found that there are learning outcomes and student learning experiences in an online program that are superior because of the type and quality and nature of engagement and peer-shared inputs," says Collinger, now Senior Director of Distance Learning at Medill. "If you have an on premise class, you know how difficult it is to get everybody actively engaged. But online, every single student is required to engage in ways that go beyond ‘I agree with her.’”
As they grew to understand this, the overall goal shifted to focus on making the best learning experience possible.
In an interview discussing his 'biggest surprise' of the program, IMC Online student Azad Abassi says, "The program is incredibly interactive. People seem to check into the Canvas [learning management] platform as often as they would for social media, and that keeps the discussions very rich and real-time. In fact, the discussions are able to get more in-depth than I would imagine some in-class discussion can be because of how much more time we have to participate.”
A great example of creating greater learning through technology is in the program’s use Blue Jeans, a videoconferencing tool for the occasional live “synch” sessions. “Students from all over the world can do presentations in a seamless way, online, in real time, for a sponsor. It’s the technology that follows, and the learning goal and pedagogy that precedes it,” notes Collinger. “How we accomplish it is through pedagogy supported by appropriate technology.”
IMC Online student Portia Young says the online program uses technology but does not lack human connections. "I was scared I wouldn't have that human connection that I need. But frankly, I've had great human connection with my professors and students. When I log into Canvas, I feel like I'm going to class."
As Medill faculty continue to develop IMC Online, they gathered great insights and made some surprising discoveries:
- Creating student engagement and activity is always a good strategy;
- IMC faculty found a correlation between student engagement and students’ own assessment of their learning;
- Courses that had more assignments were correlated with higher class and teacher ratings in student evaluations.
“It makes sense when you think about peer to peer as well as faculty to student engagement. You learn more. But it’s not something that we fully understood before we launched in ways faculty have now appreciated and leveraged,” says Collinger.
When reflecting on the growth of the IMC Online program, Collinger says he is most surprised about the fact that “you have more robust ways of generating deeper learning because everybody is participating. In IMC Online, it happens to be even more profound with the more experienced student population. The point is that, despite it looking like a big push for technology, our focus is creating greater learning.”
"The use of technology coupled with insightful IMC lectures taught me how to integrate data into all levels of marketing to make more informed consumer-centric decisions," IMC graduate Richard Ely says.
“When I talk to faculty outside of Medill, they ask, ‘How did we get this done?’ There are members of faculty on campus who find it to be ‘not for them.’ The how is: because we have a faculty who have been unafraid of taking bold moves into the future.”