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How the University of Oregon is Teaching Media Students to Use Big Data

The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (UO SOJC) last year founded its Insights and Analytics Lab, providing undergraduate students access to real-world big data to help them gain in-demand analytics skills for their future careers in media.

Many businesses expect to add more jobs that require data analysis skills in the next five years, according a national survey from the American Statistical Association. UO SOJC partnered with analytics companies Alteryx, comScore and Shareablee to open up more workforce opportunities for students, says Heather Shoenberger, an assistant professor who founded, directs and teaches “Brand Insights with Data” at the Insights and Analytics Lab.

Campus Technology spoke with Schoenberger for more details on the partnerships and why it is important for media programs to teach analytics and big data skills.  

Campus Technology: Can you talk about the class you teach at the Insights and Analytics Lab and what students learn?

Shoenberger: There’s a lot of moving parts [to the class]. The “insights” portion we’re still building, but the “analytics” side comes from the partnerships. The class we have now has included access to some of the data from comScore’s live TV ratings. We have access also to Alteryx because that’s what comScore TV professionals were using as their TV analysis tool at the time that we began the partnership. Finally, we have access to Shareablee, which offers social media data. Last term was the first time we ever had Shareablee.

The whole class started around January of last year, so it’s still very new. I’ve mentioned to many of the partners that if they have any ideas for how to make this a better class, I’m all ears because there’s no guidebook. I’m trying to figure out things that [are necessary to learn] for a digital media planning world. Many students are actually getting interviewed in positions as a result of that access [to industry software programs], but I know that we can always improve their instruction.

We present students hypothetical scenarios and questions for them to answer. I’ve talked to the comScore reps about everything [that happens in the class] every term and I’ve shown them some of the [student] projects. A rep said they look exactly like how they would present to a client. With live TV ratings, for example, what we’re trying to do is [get students to] say, “Ok, this is the entire television landscape, from a program that’s watched by a handful of people to programs that are watched by a large amount of people. Even though ratings are declining rapidly due to streaming services, there’s still a lot of ad dollars being spent on cable TV shows.” With the comScore data, students are able to make a much more educated guess as to what times of day to air the ad, and make other decisions.

CT: What careers are students in your class interested in pursuing?

Shoenberger: Right now, we’ve allocated priority access to advertising students, and we’ve had a couple of MBA students. The reason for that is there’s a limited amount of space to actually use the software — since the programs usually run on PCs and there aren’t too many PCs within the SOJC.

CT: Data analytics was named a top trend for all of higher education in 2017. Why is it important for media students in particular to do hands-on analytics research?

Shoenberger: There are not many “creatives” who are going to take this class. But for the people who are deciding whether to go out as media planners or industry strategists, one of the things they have to decide is where they’re going to advertise. And there’s a lot of analysis that goes into deciding that — especially in a digital landscape now. There’s so much information that can be available to make the best bang for your buck, as far as what website or television show they should put their advertisement on, etc. Many of those decisions now are made with data from companies like comScore.

The social data is really important for many things, whether it’s to determine the success of a show or an ad campaign or brand, sort of tracking success. There’s a lot of uses and we’re only just scratching the surface in our 10-week class.

CT: Are there any opportunities for internships through the partnerships?

Shoenberger: Yes. The other interesting thing about these partnerships is that when I started, I originally had a contract with Rentrak, which merged with comScore in January. It was kind of a hiring freeze for a while since the two companies were getting to know each other, but now, this summer is the first one where [students] will have internships. A group of students go to New York every year, and comScore and Shareablee are two of those visits available. Students who took the class and are interested will visit and a handful will even submit resumes and be interviewed by some of our contacts out there for summer internships. And comScore is huge — they have an office here in Portland, New York, Virginia and some other places.

CT: In a video you mentioned that the partnerships are part of a plan to integrate a higher level of strategy into the School of Journalism and Communication. You said it has mostly been experimental so far — can you elaborate? What are some important things you’ve learned along the way?

Shoenberger: There are many, many currencies of data, so picking one that has the ability to [meet your needs] is important. Companies often have an education component that will offer a cheaper license or, depending on your contracts, pretty close to free license. It’s just a matter of talking to people. If you can get a company that is close to you geographically, then it’s easier for their reps to come and talk to the students. It’s great for students to hear from me, but they really like to hear about what’s happening on the ground.

It’s important to pay close attention to what your students are getting and what the job market is like. I do experimental design for the most part in my own research — not data analytics. When I first got here, I had a meeting with the ad area in the group [to find out] what area we really need to complement to make this the best ad program in the country. We are really strong and creative already, but one area that we needed to improve and advance upon was any of the quantitative research methods and data analytics, because we noticed that there were jobs in those areas that we weren’t necessarily qualified for at that point.

I kind of lucked out and I had a contact. We started talking about putting this program together and it fell perfectly into place, but it was all based around trying to look forward into the future and thinking about what kind of education we can give these students that prepares them for what’s happening now and what’s happening down the pipeline.

It’s scary and a lot of learning structuring a class. I hadn’t used comScore’s database either, so I was just a weekend ahead of students every week the first time I taught the class. And all the databases are new and software was new to me as well. You have to be nimble as a professor and be honest with your students. Mine were really good about understanding that and figuring out things on their own during my first term.

CT: What else can we expect to see come from the partnership?

Shoenberger: I’m hoping — though I’m sure you’re aware the precarious nature of academia with of all the budget cuts and whatnot — if students are still on track, to start training undergraduates in experiments and research studies in the “insights” part of the lab, where they’ll be able to look at the future beyond self-support. So, that would involve having people fill out surveys or creating a model for a survey to measure some implicit responses to media in addition to the self-service, which will dramatically increase their numeracy. On the “analytics” side, [my goal is to] sort of just hone that class so that when students leave they can hit the ground running as media planners and strategists.

We also want them to realize that data isn’t everything. I always teach that anything with data has errors and hopefully they leave understanding that, too.

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