Who’s Studying Your Text?

I went to Kenyon College and graduated in 1983 with a B.A. in economics. I took only one English class. I got a "gentleman’s C," so it’s an odd thing that I should end up writing magazine columns, a blog, and some books. Go figure.

At Kenyon, the professors’ ideas were clearly important to the education process. Reading and independent study outside of the classroom environment was also a valuable aspect of learning. (Although in my case, I was more interested in the finer points of partying as well as debating the relative merits of punk, ska, reggae, and new wave bands. Frankly, I didn’t do all that much studying.) Considering Kenyon is a small liberal arts college that uses the seminar approach for advanced classes, fellow students were also a significant part of the learning experience.

However, in my 4 years of college, I don’t ever recall giving the authors of the books we were reading for class any thought. I vaguely recall Milton Somebody wrote my Economics 101 text, but I don’t recall any other authors’ names. I never met any authors of the textbooks I used, and they were not a part of my learning experience whatsoever.

There is a new model for learning today, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Forward-thinking schools have started involving authors of the books used in class by including them in a virtual social media classroom. Web-based collaboration tools and social networking allow an author to provide input to the learning process (from the comfort of their own offices), and smart professors understand this.

I’ve been asked to participate in virtual classroom discussions a number of times by marketing and communications professors who use my book, The New Rules of Marketing & PR, for their classes. I really enjoy volunteering a bit of my time. I read students’ blogs and see that they find the experience helpful too.

Robert French, who teaches public relations at Auburn University, offered me my first exposure to virtual guest lectures. I spoke to his class via Skype, and after "meeting" students, I have taken a look at some their blogs (students are given the assignment of creating a blog for class). It’s a new world to be sure, having the professor and the author of the text used in class looking over your virtual shoulder to get you thinking about that blog assignment. How utterly different this learning experience is for students compared to what I recall of sitting in a drab library carrel pouring over some dull textbook. I’ve also done virtual presentations for students at Rider University and at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had has been with Stephen Quigley’s New Media and PR class at Boston University. Each term, the class has a (closed/invitation only) Facebook group. In the past two terms, the students invited me to be a member. Last term the Facebook group was called "New Media Rocks my PR World" (love the name), and this term the Facebook group is called "Media Socialites" (love this name even more). Here is the Media Socialites’ group description: "Professor Quigley’s new batch of student social media sponges, eager to soak up as much information about New Media and PR in a semester as is humanly possible ... and, in proper social networking fashion, making important connections along the way."

The Facebook group facilitates easy sharing of ideas, and on several occasions, students have pulled me into virtual discussions. I enjoyed the online interaction with the students so much that I also chose to join the class in person for a live conversation with students.

Consider what these anecdotes mean for our entire industry: There are new crops of really smart and social media-savvy people entering the work force every year. These technology-fluent people are totally comfortable with the tools of online collaboration such as Skype and Facebook. They don’t hesitate to draw people in for discussions and interactions as part of the virtual communities they themselves create and moderate.

University classrooms are being transformed by social media. The people in these classrooms will be your customers. Are your products and services built with these people in mind? Are you prepared to engage people the way that they are comfortable being engaged—online and virtually? How about your business? Is it transforming too? Take a lesson from these forward-thinking educators and become a part of the discussion or risk being a social—and economic—pariah.