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Digital literacy + experiences deliver higher education impact

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How can you prepare business and media students for the future of work?

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by Stephen Marshall

POSTED ON 06-02-2021

Wanted: Executive experienced in data, digital, social, search, media, creative, PR, events, shopper marketing, programmatic, mobile, print, and outdoor. The ability to simultaneously and efficiently handle up to dozens of stakeholders (often with competing interests) a must. Successful candidate is skilled at managing up, managing down, and balancing a P&L. Old-school thinkers need not apply. — How Account Management Was Reborn - AdAge

This quote captures how challenging it is for colleges and universities to prepare students for an always changing, converged marketing/media landscape. Many have reported that the digital marketing skills gap continues to widen, both with current employees and in education preparation. At the same time, marketing technology that is driven by analytics and focused on personalization, social media, and, content strategy continues to accelerate business and make businesses more innovative. Digital technology sits in the middle of all this. As educators, our challenge is to bring this world to our students to not only prepare them for the jobs of today but also to give them a foundation for tomorrow. Put simply, the future of impactful work done by marketing and media students relies on them having digital and professional experiences.

This challenge comes at a time when the war on higher education’s value proposition is real. A study by Strada found that 37 percent of Americans expressed interest in skills training and 25 percent expressed an interest in non-degree credentials — and these are typically delivered outside of academe. With companies like Google and Salesforce offering certifications in lieu of a degree and with companies like Coursera creating relevant skill-building curricula, higher education must adapt. The National Education Association calls these approaches “micro-credentials” or “short, competency-based recognition.”

Innovative approaches such as ours at East Tennessee State University incorporate these trends into a traditional higher education experience. To do this, we have created partnerships with the likes of Adobe and the Digital Marketing Institute to bake these micro-credentials into our degree programs, allowing students to earn micro-credentials at no additional cost while completing their degrees. The university degree has been a signal of quality and expertise for decades, and while micro-credentials are a true threat, higher education can drive true workforce development outcomes by leveraging their popularity and value.

Soft skills are essential skills

The game-changer move for higher education is to focus on the development of essential or soft skills, and approaches involving digital literacy and experiential learning to deliver these skills. Further, both are foundational approaches that higher education can provide as they require time and student engagement as well as reflection. A workforce study by LinkedIn found training for soft skills is the #1 priority for all employers. In recent years, this has been confirmed by the likes of the World Economic Forum, Bloomberg and the Economist.

In 2019, a report done jointly by Edelman and Adobe examined 2 million job postings and 2 million resumes from 18 high-growth career fields (e.g., data science, healthcare, construction, marketing, and nursing) to understand gaps between what employers required and what job seekers were stating on their resumes. This research found communication (71 percent), creativity (50 percent), and collaboration (41 percent) were the most highly sought skills by employers. Sadly, creativity (24 percent), communication (22 percent), and collaboration (11 percent) were skills missing from resumes, and 3 in 4 resumes analyzed did not mention either creativity or communication. This is a huge gap, but also a value proposition only higher education can deliver by activating digital literacy and experiential learning efforts across a university ecosystem.

Digital literacy matters

In our digital world, nothing could be more foundational than digital literacy. Further, COVID-19 has accelerated many things but nothing more obvious than the importance of digital technology in our lives. Yet just because you have access to digital technology does not mean you are digitally literate, and even most digital natives are not digitally literate.

The American Library Association (ALA) defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” Put even more simply by the World Literacy Foundation, digital literacy = digital tools knowledge + critical thinking + social engagement. Digital literacy activates critical thinking, collaboration, and communication learning outcomes and gives students the evidence to fill the employment gap. Not only is digital literacy important to marketing and media students, but it is essential for every discipline.

If you are not familiar with Adobe’s commitment to digital literacy you should check out Adobe’s Creative Campus initiative. It involves nearly 50 universities — such as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, University of Utah, and Clemson University — that have committed resources across their campuses to activate digital literacy outcomes to meet workforce expectations for all disciplines. In addition, if you are looking for a fantastic resource to start building digital literacy into your curricula, look no further than the free resource created by Dr. Todd Taylor entitled, Adobe Creative Cloud Across the Curriculum: A Guide for Students and Teachers. You can always find fantastic resources on Adobe’s Education Exchange as well.

Experience matters

While digital literacy is foundational, experiential learning puts students at the top of Bloom’s learning outcomes taxonomy and provides the evidence for employers as signals of quality for hiring potential. Employers hire experience and need evidence — experiential learning provides opportunities for students to create evidence for portfolios, resumes, and more. For years, education research has reported real experiences drive real outcomes. In 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media researched employer perceptions regarding the role of higher education in career development and found “all industries and hiring levels place slightly more weight on student work or internship experiences than on academic credentials.” Many other researchers have found the same outcome, but nearly a decade later we are still not driving experience as a central higher education value proposition component for training marketing and media professionals.

AMEN: The Applied Media and Marketing Norm

To address this challenge, in 2019 Dr. Melanie Richards and I wrote a piece for the Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness entitled, Experiential Learning Theory in Digital Marketing Communication: Application and Outcomes of the Applied Marketing and Media Education Norm. On the foundation of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), our approach integrates theory-based marketing and media best practices with certifications and industry partnerships. Our academic model matches the employment needs of the digital marketing and media professions while creating a means for academic programs to remain current with technology. Industry needs drive our learning outcomes, and our industry partners provide experiential learning project opportunities to activate learning outcomes at the highest level as well as provide students evidence for employment. AMEN also offers unique advantages when it comes to bridging theory-based and skills-based education models through industry and software certifications — filling the micro-credential gap. In summary, evidence supports the fact that this approach produces positive outcomes for the students, faculty, department, university, and industry.



Industry-relevant certifications and micro-credentials are essential components of AMEN. As mentioned earlier, higher education is prime to meet workforce demands, and incorporating industry-recognized micro-credentials in the university degree program is a fantastic way to deliver skills-based experiences. Incorporating micro-credentials in our program communicates signals of industry quality for both the student and the program. Our students continue to exceed workforce demands and they share these micro-certifications on platforms like LinkedIn — thus amplifying our program to the industry. Certifications from the Digital Marketing Institute and Adobe are great examples of our approach.

Adobe Certified Associate

The Adobe Certified Associate credential is an industry-recognized credential that validates proficiency in Adobe Creative Cloud software such as Adobe PhotoshopInDesignAfter Effects, and Premiere Pro. Students must be proficient in their understanding and application of these tools as they are essential for any marketing or media professional. The process of completing these certifications unlocks foundational communication skills as well.

Industries will continue to change

Dell Technologies and the Institute for the Future predict 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet. While the future of work will constantly change, what will not change is all the evidence that supports the importance of digital literacy and experiential learning for media and marketing professionals. Incorporating both approaches unlocks the highest learning outcomes as well as the highest retention outcomes, and additional outcomes of these approaches help students have independence and communicate the lifelong-learning requirement for success. Most importantly, the outcomes delivered from these approaches are expected by business.

The game-changer move for higher education is to focus on digital literacy and experiential learning as well as embrace industry micro-credentials to both differentiate your university brand while driving the value of traditional higher education.

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