Having struggled with the abrupt switch to online learning last semester, colleges will need to pivot quickly to provide the meaningful engagement students crave while simultaneously preparing them for the professional success parents expect after such a sizable financial investment.
Marketing as an academic discipline and career path presents an interesting case study on how colleges can do both. By adjusting coursework to focus on and find workable answers to real problems, institutions can increase student engagement and motivation to learn in a virtual environment while simultaneously preparing them for the professional world ahead.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth in the marketing field will remain robust as organizations continue to invest in their capabilities to understand their customers and competitors. However, research has consistently surfaced a gap between what is taught in the classroom and the preparation needed for success in the workforce. Survey respondents have reported being overprepared in their conceptual understanding of marketing, but under equipped in technical, quantitative, and communication skills. In other words, the theory-practice gap in most marketing courses has left graduates ill-prepared to translate what they have learned in the classroom into practice.
While not a new problem, the Covid-19 crisis has increased urgency in addressing it. Vanishing internships and historic unemployment numbers have elevated the necessity of creating opportunities within the classroom for students to wrestle with real world problems, engage outside stakeholders, and apply the concepts they are learning in contexts that have meaning and impact. Moving beyond the crisp ideological consistency of marketing theories to the unpredictability of its application with customers and competitors is pivotal to increasing active learning in remote contexts and the development of critical thinking skills.
Bridging this gap will not be easy. Faculty bandwidth, rapid industry change and the risks inherent in student/external client projects all point to the difficulty of the challenge and the necessity for solutions to be iterative, hypothesis driven and tailored to the unique constraints of your environment.
Below are a two approaches colleges can implement to get started.
Community collaboration of course content
First, we need to radically reimagine the entire course development process. From planning and design, development and implementation, to delivery and management, we must implement a co-creation approach with trusted stakeholders such as alumni and industry partners that elevates them from process participants to contributors.
Such a participatory process with key stakeholders increases our capacity to identify/confront big challenges, devising actionable ways to improve outcomes and accelerate student success. It effectively enables us to scale our efforts while improving our agility to pivot as the need arises.
It’s a very different approach to the tightly controlled, rigid, hierarchical, way things are currently done, but is more appropriate to a marketing education landscape that is continually being reshaped by new ideas, trends and technologies.
Self-directed project work
Student motivation and engagement were key challenges for faculty forced into remote teaching. While partly due to inexperience with the use of digital learning tools and techniques, it also reflects a shift in student expectations around learning. They are increasingly thinking about problems they want to solve, not subjects they want to study—and want to acquire the tools they need to address them.
Marketing programs can harness this shift by helping students re-contextualize the analytics, research techniques and general marketing knowledge taught in class to areas students are passionate about. Faculty must still develop clear learning criteria and ensure students understand them, but rather than apply them to contrived problem sets, they could facilitate partnerships with organizations or causes where student work has consequence and meaning.
The current paradigm of remote learning enables broader geographic collaborations with partners across the globe and offers the possibility of richer student experiences working with diverse colleagues, making decisions with imperfect information and reflecting on their contributions honestly.
Challenging students and stretching the boundaries of the classroom beyond campus borders in this way will result in enhanced student motivation, a deeper understanding of the course material, and better professional preparation.
The current crisis demands more creativity on the part of colleges than porting our Blackboard lectures to Zoom. In this moment of collective powerlessness, we must reimagine our approach to marketing education in a way that empowers students to apply the knowledge they have acquired to make a difference for external organizations and communities. Doing this will increase the value we provide students and close the theory practice gap in marketing education.