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Apr 11, 2014
by Carrie Pack Chowske, '00

The Communication Department keeps up with media industry changes by creating new majors

It’s no secret the media landscape has undergone rapid changes, especially with the rapid growth of the Internet, mobile technology and social media.

Those changes have also posed challenges for mass communication programs around the country that have struggled to keep up and teach students new skills.

But this fall, Flagler’s Communication Department took major steps to adjust its curriculum to better meet the growing needs of an ever-evolving

Instead of one general communication major with separate tracks, the department now offers three distinct majors: journalism and documentary production, strategic communication, and media studies.

Department Chair Tracy Halcomb said the changes are designed to give students more ways to hone specific skills before they enter the workplace. Graduates have to be well-rounded and able to handle a variety of job duties in the new majors.

“The industry has evolved,” Halcomb said. “[Guest] speakers for the last two years said this is the way the industry is moving.”

The restructure mirrors a trend throughout higher education and the marketplace thanks to increasing technological advances and heightened connectivity, particularly in journalism and public relations.

Students majoring in strategic communication will now see a shift in focus from traditional public relations — press releases, media relations and crisis communications — to a more integrated approach where they will have the opportunity to practice their craft before entering the workplace.

“We have a totally new curriculum in strategic communication — reflecting the integration of PR and advertising, as well as the role of digital and social media,” said Jim Pickett, associate professor of communication and coordinator of the strategic communication major.

Each of the three new majors emphasizes skills that employers are asking candidates to have upon graduation, a lesson alumna Desi Pappas, ‘10, said she learned on the job.

Pappas now works as a digital marketing account strategist at BroadBased Communications in Jacksonville, Fla., where she interned while at Flagler. Originally her focus was in both public relations and marketing, but she said that changed quickly because the industry changed. So she took it upon herself to learn more of the marketing side of the business.

“I had to learn a lot of the marketing side right off the bat,” she said. “The things we learned in the strategy class were more beneficial than the standard PR writing, like press releases. I wasn’t talking to the media that much unless it was to keep contact.”

She said the change in public relations was driven by changes in the journalism industry, which are reflected in the Communication Department’s new curriculum.

Courses with more emphasis on practical applications have been added to all three majors, especially for journalism and documentary production majors, who will now take courses in both electronic and traditional print media. Not only will a journalism major take courses in newswriting and reporting, but they will also learn video production and additional storytelling skills.

Assistant Professor Mark Huelsbek said the journalism and documentary production major, which replaces both the journalism and production tracks, offers students a unique opportunity to focus on their nonfiction storytelling ability. He said it’s a skill that will easily transfer to fulfilling the needs of a wide variety of occupations and ambitions in the field.

“In today’s global economy of digital media, graduates with the ability to tell engaging visual stories are in high demand across all platforms and disciplines,” Huelsbeck said.

All students will now complete a core curriculum of three courses: media law, media ethics and media literacy. According to Associate Professor Helena Särkiö, these courses are designed to provide a strong basis for all three majors.

While the law and ethics courses have been offered for several years now, media literacy is a new course being offered in 2014. It’s a course specifically designed to meet the needs of students who have grown up in an environment of information overload, but may not fully understand the messages they’re receiving.

“Media literacy is really important because we have students who’ve grown up with a lot of multimedia,” Särkiö said. “One of the things we noticed is that no one has taught them to critically evaluate the content.”

Särkiö said this course should aid students in becoming both responsible producers of media content and critical, well-informed consumers.

Halcomb said she hopes the curriculum changes aren’t the only positive result graduates will see. She said even something as simple as having a specific major noted on a transcript can help alumni land jobs.

Pickett agrees, saying it better defines the knowledge and skills of the students, rather than a more generalized “communication” degree.

Pappas said she can see the benefits as well.

“That name [strategic communication] is going to hold a lot of weight because strategy is where the big brains are,” Pappas said. “The people who are the strategists are the ones who are higher up in companies.”

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