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7 Questions on Experiential Learning at Indiana U

Advertising students at the Indiana University School of Media have the opportunity to work on real-world projects for big-name clients such as Adobe and Microsoft, honing their skills as they solve complex marketing problems and craft messages for a target audience. And in a recent project for learning platform Spaces Learning, their creative efforts converged with an exploration of education innovation and the digital space of a university. We spoke with Professor of Practice Bill Schwab about the importance of experiential learning in higher education, the impact of AI on digital skills, and more.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Campus Technology: How do you incorporate experiential learning into your courses?

Bill Schwab: I come from many years in the advertising industry and gradually transitioned into teaching. And one of the things that I faced when making that transition is: I can't believe I actually know so much about this particular subject. How in the world will I ever break it down effectively to a group of students? I started with reading a lot of books about advertising and how it works and all that stuff, but as I taught more and more, I gradually realized that the best thing is to just have the students do some advertising. That allowed me to not have to figure out in advance how I'm going to teach every single thing, but rather make corrections or adjustments as we go along. If you're a good teacher, you can pay attention to what people need, at what time they need it, and go into it and help them. So experiential learning is a big part of how I teach.

I'm always looking for projects that have some meat and gravitas to them. We mix in some fun little projects that tend to be easier, but I find that those work best after students have taken on something that's more complex — something that an advertising person would get involved in, in the real world. So over the years I've brought in different clients: We did a great project for Adobe; we've done some projects for Microsoft; and then we had this Spaces Learning project. I guess a good way to say it is that we have word of mouth. The students have been successful developing work for clients, those clients say, "Hey, this classroom of students did some great work for me," and other projects come about from those client references.

CT: How do you choose what companies are a good fit to work with? Are there certain criteria that make something a good real-world project for students?

Schwab: A lot of times, students will be given an assignment and the work is fun, it looks compelling, but it has very little to do with the challenges of advertising and marketing. It doesn't have a relationship to what you actually need to understand and execute when you're doing advertising. So I try to close that gap a little bit and choose something that students can relate to, where there's some connection between the brand and their life experience, and then see if they can express a marketing goal based on that connection and the resources they have to work with. And it doesn't hurt to have a great brand name in their portfolio.

CT: Can you walk through the project specifically with Spaces Learning — what were they looking for and what did the students do?

Schwab: Spaces Learning is essentially a learning management system. It has an interesting story in that it was developed by a professor at Clemson University to tackle a challenge that lots of professors are faced with when they are teaching a high-level course in a university: There's only one professor who has special knowledge in that area, and it makes it difficult for all the students who want that knowledge to get into that course. So that Clemson professor developed a learning system that allows a much larger number of students to participate and be educated effectively in the course. It's not by any means a shortcut to getting the knowledge; it's a way to deliver an enormous amount of knowledge to more students.

My students and I had to wrap our heads around what that means, and then select our advertising target. Who are we talking to? At the end of the day, this is an LMS that you want universities to adopt. Who do you speak to about this? You could talk to professors and say, "Hey, this will allow you to take the knowledge that you have and train students more effectively." That's one possible target. You could talk to students and say, "Hey, if your university adopted this system, you would have a better shot at getting into this advanced course and getting the knowledge you want." But what we settled on was the person who's in charge of education innovation, and particularly in the digital space of a university. This is the person who's most likely going to be interested in adopting a system like this.

Being advertising people, we have to look for the pain point. What is the thing that might keep the digital innovation officer awake at night? It became clear to us that they would be most interested in keeping their university on the cutting edge of educational technology. They would be most interested in offering the best courses their university has, not only to the best students, but to the widest range of students. Once we had that figured out, we talked to people who were in that role at some universities so we had a sense of how they might want to be spoken to.

One of the interesting parts about what we do in our program is that it comes from a student point of view. The students very much understand this frustration of not getting into the programs that they want, or not the getting the degrees faster. They want in-depth knowledge — they just don't want to wait six years to get it. If they could get it in three years at another university, they're going to go there. The students were able to articulate of that, and also because they were talking to people who were in this role, they were able to articulate their concerns and possibly even fears about keeping their university competitive.

CT: Students had the opportunity to do some real-world advertising work, but then also to think about innovative new educational models. What would you say they got most excited about?

Schwab: We were interested in both of those aspects. First of all, the students were thrilled to do advertising, rather than talk about advertising or see examples of advertising. They enjoyed speaking to clients who have real marketing problems that they're trying to solve. The reality of coming face-to-face with that and getting a sense of how people speak when they're solving these problems — the students found that very compelling. It's an opportunity to engage and feel like you're solving something and getting feedback. Students certainly get feedback from me in the classroom, but I'm the professor — at certain point, I assume this role that's different from a client. When students do presentations with the clients, there's a whole different energy. As a teacher, it always makes me smile to see how differently they comport themselves, speak, dress, and react with clients — it's a great thing to see it happen.

CT: What kinds of digital skills are students developing in the process of doing these advertising campaigns? Are emerging technologies like generative AI impacting what students are going to need to be prepared for this kind of real-world work?

Schwab: The term "digital skills" gets bandied around a lot. I think we need to remove the word "digital" from it — and talk about skills. Because in advertising, there's a craft to it all, to understanding the process, and nothing takes the place of a wonderful idea. No technology is ever going to get rid of the importance of that. But it's very true that students have to learn what can be a daunting range of skills. If students don't enter an undergraduate program being skilled in Adobe Creative Suite, they're not going to be competitive. Nobody is going to hire anyone who isn't highly skilled in those things.

The same thing will apply to how we utilize powerful tools like AI in developing our work and analyzing information. One of the key things that AI will offer us is analyzing the information that we have, compartmentalizing it, making it useful. It's like we're in an enormous vault underground somewhere and we have 4,000 tons of information. How do we make use of it? That's a tremendous thing that AI can contribute to what we'll do in the future.

I suspect, however, that one of the charming things about creativity is its idiosyncratic nature. People talk about AI painting Van Gogh paintings: AI can analyze a number of Van Gogh paintings and determine he used green next to alizarin crimson and he didn't allow it to mix together to make brown, and he did that in 500 paintings. But one day, if he'd lived long enough, Van Gogh might have gotten up and said, "You know what? I hate alizarin crimson. Now I'm going to use ultramarine, violet, and orange." That's the idiosyncratic nature of a human intelligence.

Ultimately, students need to be well grounded in the fundamentals of what creates powerful advertising. And at the same time, they need to learn some of the technologies to execute it. But it can't get to the point where the technology becomes more important than understanding what it is we're trying to do.

CT: Have there been any challenges or surprises that came up along the way when you're working with students on experiential learning projects?

Schwab: Well, it's often surprising to me that it all comes together at the end. I'm always saying, "Oh my God, we have a presentation in two days and they've got nothing and it's all going to blow up. It's not going to work." And you know, they always surprise me. They come through; they have great ideas. I don't know why I'm always surprised — I guess I'm just a worrier. It's incredible how much students can learn and how fast if they're truly committed to learning.

CT: Any final advice?

Schwab: What I've learned about myself a teacher is that I have to come back to what I know really well, and what I know really well is something that I did for a long time before I went to teaching: I persuaded consumers to consider products. And I don't mean it to sound weird or impersonal, but I think about my students as brands or products that are going out into this vast marketplace where they're going to be competitive against other students who are basically other brands. If you think about going down a supermarket aisle, there might be 400 brands of cereal. How do you choose one over the other? I try to design experiences for students that are going to make them stand out when they're interviewing for a job or they're showing people their portfolios. So my advice would be to think about what you can do with your students that will make them more successful in the field once they leave school.

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