OPINION PIECE

The Challenges Facing Digital Marketing Educators

01 March 2021

Cindy Cragg, a member of The Global Academic Council

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Consider this. In a recent McKinsey article probing senior marketing managers on what capabilities were necessary for a “modern marketer” the following was listed: Strategy and insights, creative and content, media and channel activation, customer experience and personalization, measurement and marketing ROI, product and pricing.

As an educator and higher education administrator, it is no small task to develop a digital marketing curriculum that is going to prepare an individual for all those things, while also being adaptive to industry changes, technology updates, and disruptive innovations. Yet, in programs worldwide, educators take on the challenge of teaching digital marketing through explosive industry change and, at times, in academic systems that are working against them.

In this article, I have highlighted three key areas for digital marketing educators around the world to consider:

  • The challenges to relevancy of content and the importance of collaboration between industry and academia
  • The importance of reflection and e-portfolios for students learning and career development
  • Providing students with as much real-world exposure to create connections between course concepts and industry application

Industry and academic collaboration maintains the relevancy of course content

A 2018 study­ looking at the myriad curricular challenges for digital marketing programs points to the importance of industry and academia working together to find solutions. Often the conceptual learning that happens in the classroom does not directly translate to on-the-job application. In many cases, the map is simply not the same as the territory. Similarly, in this competitive and noisy field, employers need to be able to assess the true competency of skills learned; what skills have reached the point of mastery and what skills still need to be developed beyond superficial exposure to a tool. While some educators might argue that isn’t our problem, if we truly have the students’ future at heart and we want them to be successful, then I would argue that we need to consider it part of our charge.

Many institutions have lengthy and complicated academic processes stunting their ability to make course-level and programmatic changes as the industry warrants them. At University College, the college of continuing and professional studies at the University of Denver, where I work as both a program administrator and faculty, we have the luxury of having an in-house team of instructional designers who work with industry professionals, often the instructors who teach the courses, to perform tune-ups to our courses on a regular basis. This symbiotic relationship between industry professionals, curriculum builders, and program managers is a game-changer. Recognizing our approach might be the exception rather than the norm, as an educator there are often opportunities to increase the relevancy of the course content through updated resources and timely examples based on current events that are pertinent to what’s happening in the world around us. Don’t ever pass on the opportunity to bring more relevance to the course you are teaching.

Reflection and e-portfolios cement student learning

The culminating course for the graduate program I direct is a Portfolio Capstone course. The Portfolio Capstone was adopted in lieu of a thesis after extensive research on the benefits of the e-portfolio process for master’s level students, particularly in applied programs. This course guides students through deep reflection on all their work in the program which helps them identify their most marketable areas of strength as well as the areas that are opportunities for growth. The research into the value of e-portfolios for students is widely available but even if this isn’t the focus of the program you teach in, it is worthwhile to consider the power of reflective work for digital marketing students who are tasked with learning a laundry list of concepts, tools, and best practices each term.  As Miller and Morgaine note in their article highlighting the benefits of reflection in e-portfolios, reflection “proved to be critical to making valuable learning conscious and more likely to be used in the future.” Reflection can be as easy as a 5-minute impromptu writing exercise at the beginning of class or as part of a major assignment to look at how growth and learnings over the course might be applied. Regardless of how you do it, reflection has been proven to help cement learning and boost confidence which allows students to better showcase skills and competencies in the future3. As digital marketers are increasingly asked to wear many hats and pivot quickly between responsibilities, anything that helps course concepts and application of those concepts to be further solidified should be considered critical.

Experiential learning creates work-ready students

The culminating course for the graduate program I direct is a Portfolio Capstone course. The Portfolio Capstone was adopted in lieu of a thesis after extensive research on the benefits of the e-portfolio process for master’s level students, particularly in applied programs. This course guides students through deep reflection on all their work in the program which helps them identify their most marketable areas of strength as well as the areas that are opportunities for growth. The research into the value of e-portfolios for students is widely available but even if this isn’t the focus of the program you teach in, it is worthwhile to consider the power of reflective work for digital marketing students who are tasked with learning a laundry list of concepts, tools, and best practices each term.  As Miller and Morgaine note in their article highlighting the benefits of reflection in e-portfolios, reflection “proved to be critical to making valuable learning conscious and more likely to be used in the future.” Reflection can be as easy as a 5-minute impromptu writing exercise at the beginning of class or as part of a major assignment to look at how growth and learnings over the course might be applied. Regardless of how you do it, reflection has been proven to help cement learning and boost confidence which allows students to better showcase skills and competencies in the future. As digital marketers are increasingly asked to wear many hats and pivot quickly between responsibilities, anything that helps course concepts and application of those concepts to be further solidified should be considered critical.

Finally, there’s nothing like real-life projects to encourage concept retention, cross-functional dexterity, and use-case application. Many programs, like mine, are increasingly offering experiential learning opportunities for students. Through these innovative learning experiences, students gain exposure to working in teams, hands-on experience with different digital marketing applications and platforms, and get to see the outcomes of their decisions in a way that just cannot happen in the classroom. Industry partners can also take the form of digital marketing tool development start-ups that might be looking for more users and therefore willing to give your student enterprise access for the term. Getting access to “play” with a tool through the paid interface or business platform is also an invaluable learning lesson for students. 

Relevant examples from current events, group work that simulates agile teamwork common in industry, and reflection that increases metacognition and self-assessment are all within any educator’s skill set. Think of ways that these things can more actively be incorporated into your courses. Students and the companies that hire them will thank you!

As someone who has been both a student and a teacher of digital marketing, I’m intimately aware of how difficult both roles can be. There is a tremendous amount to digest and the competition to demonstrate competency in multiple areas is fierce. By adopting practices that increase course relevancy, foster connections between course content and real-life experiences, and encourage reflection, educators can have a real impact on digital marketing students’ ability to retain and apply learnings in the moment and into the future.

Cindy-Cragg-Global-Academic-Council-The-DMAT

Cindy Cragg

Head of The Global Academic Council

Cindy Cragg currently serves as Academic Director and Teaching Assistant Professor in the Communication Management program at the University of Denver. Cindy is a true scholar-practitioner having come to academia with more than 20 years of industry experience consulting and working with SMBs, start-ups, and non-profits in an agency environment as a digital marketing strategist and analyst. Cindy is passionate about online learning and exploring innovative pathways to increase access to education.

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