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The public relations management certificate program in the faculty of continuing education is breaking new ground in how it organizes its curriculum, and the effort is getting noticed. The PR folks have just received a grant from the Royal Bank Teaching and Learning Improvement Fund.
With two new courses and four new instructors, the program has a shiny new face for the 2003 academic year. The changes in the program have been the result of the energetic (and completely volunteer) efforts of the curriculum subcommittee, formed two years ago amid a minor crisis in the department.
"I guess the thing that clinched it for us was we lost two really good instructors just before the fall semester and we had to scramble for about a year. There was one term where four of us were teaching courses we had never taught before," explained program coordinator Elizabeth Hirst.
One instructor, whom Hirst said "got a lot of the bumps" in that rough year, finally said they couldn't continue as they had been, and the curriculum committee was born.
"When we put it together we resurrected something that had been called the core course committee that had only been called on occasions when we had a new course to develop. But two years ago we started doing things that we'd never done before," said Hirst.
One step was to speak to each other. That may sound flip, but the PR program is taught by professionals in the communications field, not academic colleagues with offices down the hall from each other. On the contrary, in the real world they are business competitors.
Pietro Martucci is Director of Career and Management Studies in which the PR program is nested. He explained that PR is an orphan discipline. Unlike say, the language courses or the Chartered Accountancy program which are associated with regular academic faculties, PR has no regular program to which it could turn for curriculum advice.
He said Career and Manage-ment Studies aims to prepare students for their chosen fields with skills their industry needs. In that sense, Martucci said the PR curriculum committee has done a good job in consulting with public relations professionals.
"PR is really a program that doesn't have a home in the faculty here in McGill. For [implementing] the change in the curriculum they got support from industry and from the PR associations here," said Martucci.
Meeting industry standards meant applying internal standards to the program, said Hirst.
"Often continuing education instructors don't get to talk to each other. And sometimes the programs are made up, as ours was for years, of a bit of this, a bit of that, someone from the Management Faculty, something from the Communications program. Students used to risk getting in there and finding out that some courses are more relevant than others and that they don't all connect," said Hirst.
The curriculum committee decided to make the program more coherent for the student, with common standards from course to course.
"The instructors meet regularly and we review what we're teaching in each of our courses, whose course is covering something completely (so the next course can cover it less), what we can expect students to know before they get to our course," said Hirst.
"We also regularly go over the standards over the of Canadian Public Relations Society for a program such as ours, check through all the courses, see where there are gaps in the information, see where there's duplication, and make sure we're being consistent in the terms that we're using so the students have a really coherent understanding of the material when they get through the program."
A comprehensive review process -- which they hope will be repeated every three years -- was completed this year. This involved in-class evaluation of instructors, curriculum, textbooks and course documents by students and fellow instructors.
The result of all this work will be an improved experience for the student. Hirst explained that one possible plan is for assignments to be transferable from course to course. For instance, a student who creates a media event for Hirst's class could use the press release they wrote for that assignment in another course.
Writing is the most important part of public relations. Marking writing is often a subjective process, but the committee standardized how it is evaluated with a program called 'Writing Across the Curriculum.' The intention is that no student leaves the program with sub-par writing abilities. With the help of the Royal Bank Grant, they are measuring the success of the Writing Across the Curriculum initiative.
In addition to all the extra hours put into the committee, the PR instructors are also working with CUTL to improve their teaching methods. Why put in all the effort, especially as their teaching duties are generally secondary to their regular jobs?
"We want to know that the best people are coming into the profession. We want to know that the program is totally up to scratch. What keeps us going is the people involved -- we have so many who are so enthusiastic," said Hirst.