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This piece contains edited excerpts from a chapter authored by Cogswell College’s Prof. Gyula Julius Dobos in On the Line: Business Education in the Digital Age, published by Springer International (2017, ISBN 978-3-319-62775-5). The original publication was edited by Anshuman Khare, Faculty of Business Athabasca University Edmonton, AB, Canada and Deborah Hurst, Faculty of Business Athabasca University Edmonton, AB, Canada.

In the past two decades, as online businesses became mainstream, the culture of business has changed across the board. One consequence has been that businesses expect fresh graduates to have gained practical experience during their college years. Graduates increase their chances of getting hired when they provide proof of such experience, along with professional references.

MediaWorks is Cogswell College’s answer to this trend, or rather, a challenge to traditional education. This interdisciplinary, collaborative, hands-on program, unique in higher education, aims at putting students through a real-life business experience during their junior and senior years. Within the educational framework, actual business is being conducted between fully involved parties: corporate clients and teams of undergraduate college students. MediaWorks goes beyond an internship or a one-off industry-academia collaborative project with an end date. It is a pioneering project that has been continuously running with great success for over 4 years and has been responsible for collaborations between Fortune 500 companies, international brands, and an increasing number of Cogswell students.

Each MediaWorks team consists of students from various disciplines, such as digital audio production, arts and animation, digital media management, and business administration. Two directors, who are also faculty members, lead the work. MediaWorks is a highly practical learning experience; students produce complex media projects for established companies and organizations with actual needs, working under the pressure of high client expectations and tight deadlines. The experience involves on-campus and online meetings, collaboration between individuals and teams, in-person and remote project planning and project management, and plenty of hands-on work. Recently the scope has expanded to embrace business development, analysis of service effectiveness, formulation of business strategies, and presentations. All of these tasks are carried out by students.

When a representative of Corning, Inc., a Fortune 300 MediaWorks client, was unexpectedly brought in to a class meeting a few years ago, the response by students showed just how impactful face-to-face interactions can be. The class had researched the Corning West Technology Center online but were not prepared for an in-person meeting and through that to discover the organization’s need to better communicate their uniqueness and how they fit across their global enterprise. One of the students commented after the meeting: “Professor, this was a really thrilling exercise… but, would you mind to let us know the next time we’ll have a meeting like this in advance? My legs were shaking while I was asking my questions.” This example should serve a reminder that for all of us there was a first time for everything! Students need to prepare themselves and to develop their comfort level in order to do their best in a given situation. In the case of Corning, the students produced a professional-quality piece of communications that has proven quite useful.

Online learning is often associated with prerecorded instruction videos, learn-at-your-pace convenience, and limited individual feedback to students. While these passive models might be cost-effective and convenient to students and institutions alike, they are less effective than active online learning using the tool now in businesses of all kinds. MediaWorks uses platforms for real-time discussion and idea sharing (i.e. Slack), video conferencing (Zoom), real-time written collaboration (Google apps), which are effective for building concepts and proposals, managing production issues, team communications, and faculty-student and student-client communications far beyond the basic functions of a standard portal of a learning management system (LMS).

In another example, during the research and client interview phases of the TEDxSanFrancisco audiovisual project, the MediaWorks Visual and Audio Team student members worked together to generate concepts and propose solutions to the client, led by the two faculty directors and a student project manager. The role of directors was that of facilitators, guiding the process of information exchange and concept development. The conversations and brainstorming took place on-site, with the project manager using Google Docs for documenting the process, and the directors using the Canvas LMS for defining expectations and for course management.

However, going into production, the team structure changed: the Visual Team enlisted concept artists and animators, led by the project manager, and the Audio Team was further broken down into several sub-teams, each containing a sound designer and a composer. The directors became creative leaders, reviewers, and “client representatives.” As the structure changed, so did the methods of communication: the Visual and Audio teams kept using Google Docs, but added Slack as their choice for real-time, two-way updates available outside of class meetings. File exchange took place over an FTP connection to a cloud server, where the various teams created their own file hierarchy, accessible at any time from anywhere. While seemingly complicated, this autonomy greatly enhanced individual involvement and team productivity. Directors were also able to manage their teams remotely between class meetings and make immediate decisions when critical updates occurred on weekends and late nights. The resulting work set the tone for a very successful event.

While online learning platforms hold great promise and can enable students to do more than ever, they don’t help them to obtain the human connections and experiences that are still the engines of businesses today – this is one of the roles of colleges, even in the fastest-paced, tech-loaded industries like audio and media production. A hybrid approach that includes a series of both classroom and online sessions per course or a mix of on-ground and online courses in a curriculum may be the most effective and practical approach today.