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Future Proof and Real-World Ready: The Role of Live Project-Based Learning in Students’ Skill Development

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Abstract

The rapid pace of technological change taking place today makes it even more important for marketing educators to incorporate relevant technical and higher level meta-skills in their digital marketing courses. We review the pedagogical literature on skill development and project-based learning and detail two live course projects designed to help students develop technical skills related to digital marketing in addition to important meta-skills involving creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. We evaluate the impact of the projects through a direct and indirect assessment process. Findings suggest that live project–based learning can support the development of the technical and meta-skills necessary for students to adapt to uncertainty and ambiguity and become future proof and real-world ready as they enter the workforce. We discuss the benefits and challenges associated with moving digital marketing education from conceptual to real-life projects and highlight pedagogical recommendations for educators who want to integrate live project-based learning into their courses.
Future Proof and Real-World Ready:
The Role of Live Project-Based Learning in Students’ Skill Development
Profs Andrew Rohm & Matt Stefl, Noriko Sato-Ward
March 2021
The past 20 years represent a significant and disruptive shift in marketing practice, fueled
by the growth of digital pioneers, such as: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple; the
development of cloud computing; the emergence of powerful smartphones as the primary
marketing mechanism available to companies and brands with which to reach consumers; and
direct-to-consumer business models. The extent of change taking place has made it difficult for
practitioners to stay current. Industry experts have argued that companies that do not embrace
these new and disruptive digital elements face the risk of no longer being relevant and even
going out of business (Constellation Research, 2018). This pace of change makes it even more
difficult for marketing educators to stay current and effectively prepare students for future
careers.
In tandem with the changes taking place in marketing practice (e.g., search and social
media advertising, over-the-top media services, influencer marketing, retailing, retargeting,
sophisticated analytics), marketing educators and their curricula struggle as well to keep pace
with innovations and developments in technology, particularly as they seek to develop work-
ready graduates (Greenacre et al., 2017). Crittenden and Crittenden (2015) argue that marketing
practice is in a continual state of reinvention and disruption and so must marketing education.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB, 2020) highlights the role
of business curricula and educators in helping businesses respond to the profound changes taking
place today. In the service of our students, educators are forced to continue to reimagine and
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redesign their marketing courses and content to keep them fresh and current in today’s era of
digital disruption (Crittenden and Peterson, 2019). This includes the development of technical
and meta skills as well as the realization that learning how to use technology and the related tools
is insufficient in itself.
In this paper, we highlight the role of project-based learning (PBL) in students’
development of technical as well as meta skills—specifically, creativity, critical thinking,
collaboration, and communication, or what we refer to as the 4Cs— that are critical to their
learning as they enter the workforce after graduation (Dahl, Peltier & Schibrowski, 2018;
McCale, 2008; Razzouk, Seitz & Rizkallah, 2015; Ye et al., 2017). We contribute to the growing
body of marketing education literature examining curricula and skill development among
students in three ways. First, we discuss the importance of technical and meta skill development
among marketing students and how the nature of these skills is evolving as the digital marketing
ecosystem becomes more complex. We illustrate the central role of live PBL in helping students
develop these skills as they prepare for careers after graduation. Second, we describe the direct
and indirect assessment process that connects skills-based learning objectives to a core
assessment rubric. Third, we highlight several recommendations for marketing educators,
including the benefits of building ambiguity into course projects, adding elements of marketing
reality by seeking real clients to participate in these projects as well as developing funds for
actual project activation, and balancing the needs of key stakeholders including students,
industry partners and the local business community at large.
In the next section, we discuss the role of skill development in helping students become
ready for post-graduation careers. We then describe the role of PBL involving live, real-life
projects in promoting technical as well as meta skill development. We present examples of live
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PBL and an in-depth assessment process by which we seek to understand the extent of students’
skill development and levels of preparation for post-graduation careers. We conclude with a
discussion of the implications and lessons learned for marketing educators.
Skill Development and Career Readiness
Marketing educators have long identified the need for students to develop the essential
skills, including the technical skills as well as higher-level meta skills, that will effectively
prepare them for future careers in marketing (e.g., Clark, King & Jurn, 2012; Dahl, Peltier &
Schibrowski, 2018; Finch, Nadeau & O’Reilly, 2012; McDermott, 2012; Schibrowski, Peltier &
Boyt, 2002; Schlee & Harich, 2010; Walker et al., 2009; Ye et al., 2017). Inherent in the “digital
challenge” facing educators today (Crittenden & Crittenden, 2015, p. 71) is that these skills,
particularly the technical skills needed to stay current in the marketing field, will most certainly
change as technology and consumer behavior continues to change. Technical “how to” skills
such as being able to navigate paid search (e.g., Google Ads) and paid social media (e.g.,
Facebook Ads) platforms evolve and change so rapidly that it is not sufficient to merely teach
these skills out of a digital marketing textbook or through conceptual class projects.
At the same time, it is important for marketing educators to develop in our students those
higher-level meta skills that can help prepare them for the myriad career paths they may
encounter after graduation. Meta skills involve more generalizable skills such as analytical
thinking, creative problem solving, interpersonal relations, and teamwork and communication
skills that can magnify and activate other essential technical and practical skills. Skills such as
these become even more critical to future student success as they enter the workforce. Bacon
(2017) argues that the increasing types of marketing careers and pathways available to students
today make it even more difficult to teach students those specific skills required for specific
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career paths. From employers’ perspectives, generalizable skills such as problem solving,
communication skills and interpersonal skills are as beneficial to career success as are specific
technical or discipline-specific skills (Bacon, 2017). To provide further guidance, the AACSB
(AACSB, 2020) has established the importance of higher-level skill development among
accredited business schools.
The challenge that marketing educators face is how to expose students to the technical
skills that will help them become stronger job candidates upon graduation and at the same time
balance the need for them to develop the higher-level meta skills to add depth to their training
and career readiness. As we highlighted previously, a wide array of studies and authors have
identified the need for graduates to develop the essential skills, both technical skills as well as
meta skills, to help prepare them for future careers (Aoun, 2017; Bacon, 2017; Clark, King &
Jurn, 2012; Dahl, Peltier & Schibrowski, 2018; Finch, Nadeau & O’Reilly, 2012; Greenacre et
al., 2017; Hopkins, Raymond & Carlson, 2011; McCale, 2008; McDermott, 2012; Schibrowski,
Peltier & Boyt, 2002; Strauss, 2011; Walker et al., 2009; Ye et al., 2017).
The prominence of digitization, including search and social media advertising, is
similarly reflected in industry hiring trends. Today, some of the most in-demand marketing jobs
for recent graduates include digital marketing, social media marketing and marketing analytics
positions. Even so, companies and hiring managers are often challenged to find the right talent to
fill these positions, in part because of the shortage of entry-level talent with the necessary
skillsets. Industry research also highlights the gap between industry needs and skill development
among college and university graduates. A recent survey of advertising industry hiring managers
indicated that intern and entry-level candidates consistently fell short of the required experience
and understanding of the industry and its current challenges (Ad Industry Talent Study, 2016).
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The study noted that strategy, digital media and analytics were among the most difficult
positions to fill with qualified candidates.
To address this opportunity and more effectively teach and assess skill development
among marketing students, we highlight the application of live PBL to help students develop
technical and meta skills and so help them become future proof and real-world ready. Through a
thematic analysis and assessment of student learning, we illustrate how live PBL can help
students develop the foundational skills that will lead to resilience and the ability to adapt to
today’s fast-changing marketing environment. We contribute to the marketing education
literature by highlighting the role and structure of course projects in students’ skill development
as well as the process by which we assess the key learning outcomes aligned with their skill
development.
Technical Skills
Although the number of potential technical skills necessary for students to learn are too
numerous to detail in this article, we focus on specific technical skills related to today’s digital
and adaptive media environment, including digital platforms such as Google Ads and Facebook
Ads that enable advertisers to measure, adapt, and optimize digital advertising in real-time.
Exposing students to adaptive media skills addresses a significant issue facing both industry
practitioners and marketing academics: how to immerse students in the process of creating and
managing paid search (using Google Ads) and paid social media (using Facebook and Instagram
Ads) campaigns. These skills also include using A/B testing for campaign optimization,
optimizing websites for search, and measuring campaign performance over time. Indicative of
the relevance and importance of these technical skills, global digital advertising spending is
forecast to reach $380 billion in 2021 and account for over half of worldwide advertising
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spending (E-Marketer, 2020). Of this growth, search (or pay-per-click) and social media
advertising (e.g., Google, Facebook, Instagram) represent a significant portion of total spending.
Moreover, search and social media advertising taken together represent a major portion of
companies’ and brands’ advertising budgets. We argue that the importance of developing these
technical skills related to digital advertising and marketing will become even more prominent in
years to come.
Meta Skills
Beyond technical skills, Bacon (2017) and Walker et al. (2009) highlight the numerous
challenges facing new marketing graduates as they begin full-time work. These challenges
include the ability to contribute immediately with little or no on the job training, the need to
develop more sophisticated content- or discipline-specific communication skills, and the
opportunity to hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In addition, Ye et al.
(2017) highlight the role of adaptability and collaboration in helping to prepare work-ready
graduates. Even today, new workplace norms brought on by the current global coronavirus
pandemic, combined with millions of people working from home and communicating and
collaborating through web-based platforms, will continue to magnify the importance of
adaptability and meta skill development as educators seek to prepare students for the new
“normal” workforce (Leonhardt, 2020).
Based on a survey of marketing practitioners, Finch, Nadeau, and O’Reilly (2012) argue
that marketing programs and curricula, in addition to strengthening students’ familiarity with
technical concepts, should prioritize the development of students’ meta skills. These meta skills
include their ability to apply both creativity and critical thinking to identifying, analyzing and
solving problems, communicating and defending those solutions, and establishing priorities.
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Taken together, it becomes clear that the development of these essential meta skills, summarized
in Table 1, plays an important role in today’s marketing curriculum in preparing students for
their future.
[Insert Table 1 About Here]
The 4Cs. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning has identified several skills and
competencies necessary for future success in the workplace (Pearson, 2018). These higher-level
meta skills include creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication and form what
we refer to in our assessment process as the 4Cs. Addressing the need to better equip graduates
for their future careers, Aoun (2017, p. xviii) argues that “a robot-proof model of higher
education is not concerned with topping students off with high-octane facts. Rather, it refits their
mental engines, calibrating them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent,
discover or otherwise produce something society deems valuable….By incorporating and
assessing both technical and meta skills within a live PBL approach, we aim to prepare our
students for the complexity and challenges representative of the modern-day marketing
landscape and workplace. In short, through the 4Cs, we seek to prepare students to be robot
proof, future proof and real-world ready.
Of the 4Cs, creativity has been conceptualized as deriving or generating “solutions that
are novel and appropriate to the task at hand…” (Titus, 2000, p. 226) and is considered an
increasingly important skill in demand by the marketing industry (Bacon, 2017; Finch, Nadeau
& O’Reilly, 2012; Hopkins, Raymond & Carlson, 2011). On top of this, a recent study
highlighted creativity as one of the most highly rated skills demanded by recruiters in the
creative marketing (e.g., advertising, branding) industries (Ad Industry Talent Study, 2016). In
addition to creativity, critical thinking is conceptualized as students’ ability to interpret, analyze,
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evaluate, make inferences about, and explain data (Abrami et al., 2015; Dahl, Peltier &
Schibrowsky, 2018). Critical thinking is an important skill for student development given the
prominence of data and the growth of performance marketing (Aoun, 2017; Bacon, 2017; Dahl,
Peltier & Schibrowski, 2018; Finch, Nadeau & O’Reilly, 2012; Hopkins, Raymond & Carlson,
2011; McDermott, 2012; Strauss, 2011).
Drawing from the collaborative community literature, we view collaboration as
encouraging students to “continually apply their unique talents to group projects—and to become
motivated by a collective mission, not just personal gain or the intrinsic pleasures of autonomous
creativity.” (Adler, Heckscher & Prusak, 2011, p. 4). The ability to collaborate, work and
function effectively as part of a team has always been an important skill, especially in business
and particularly in marketing (e.g., Razzouk, Seitz & Rizkallah, 2015; Schlee & Karns, 2017;
Strauss, 2011). As the modern workplace evolves from physical spaces that invite direct
collaboration to those that involve remote, work from home settings, some argue that the ability
to work as a team becomes an even more critical skill (Spataro, 2020).
Fourth, numerous academic and industry studies have shown the importance of
communication as one of the most valued skills among entry-level marketing candidates (Ad
Industry Talent Study, 2016; Chad, 2012; Razzouk, Seitz & Rizkallah, 2015), where we broadly
conceptualize communication as involving students’ verbal and non-verbal communication
skills. These skills are even more relevant today as organizations move increasingly toward more
agile ways of thinking and executing (Rohm, Stefl & Saint Clair, 2019).
Live Project-Based Learning
Through our experience developing numerous digital marketing courses and direct
assessment of students’ skill development, we have discovered that designing and incorporating
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live projects with real clients and real project activations enables students to develop both the
technical as well as meta skills that can better prepare them for future jobs and careers. In reality,
marketing practitioners must deal with imperfect information, be able to adapt to uncertainty and
deal with ambiguity. For our students, we argue that live PBL helps students generate and
process primary and secondary data (the known knowns), fill gaps in the information they need
but do not have (the known unknowns), and deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity of what they
don’t know they even need to know (the unknown unknowns).
In terms of skill development, Walker et al. (2009) argue that general and specific
marketing skills progress across three stages of professional development: novice, advanced
beginner and competent. Undergraduate students generally begin their skill development as
novices and beginners. Through live projects, they strengthen their technical skills in areas such
as the use of earned, owned, and paid media, analytics, and A/B testing and campaign
optimization. They also develop the meta skills (including the 4Cs) that will benefit them as they
graduate and enter the real world (e.g., Dahl, Peltier & Schibrowski, 2018; McCale, 2008;
Razzouk, Seitz & Rizkallah, 2015; Ye et al., 2017). Ye et al. (2017) propose that meta skill
development among students helps them to become more competitive and successful in the
marketplace when compared with those who possess a more limited set of skills such as
marketing vocabulary, frameworks, and theory. Related to the challenges facing educators today,
Alim (2020) argues that, given the current challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,
business schools can no longer turn out graduates who lack the critical thinking and creativity
skills, plus the adaptability, required to address the related economic and social challenges.
Within the context of PBL, there is significant support for client-based and group projects
in the marketing literature. Dingus and Milovic (2018) argue that client-based projects help to
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integrate theory and practice and Strauss (2011) finds that client-based projects help prepare
students to deal with ambiguity and stimulate meta skill development. Others (e.g., Lange et el.,
2018; Razzouk, Seitz & Rizkallah, 2015; West, 2011) suggest that client-based and group
projects create learning settings that are more realistic and relevant and help prepare students for
real-world work, interactions and challenges. Course projects involving clients and real-world
applications can provide students with experience in managing real projects, real budgets and
real results, all the while keeping pace with widespread and ever-evolving industry technologies
and platforms such as Google Ads for search advertising and Facebook Ads for social media
advertising. Further, the development of meta skills and the 4Cs is particularly important in
fields such as marketing, where it is difficult for educators today to know which specific
technical skills our students will need to master tomorrow (Finch, Nadeau & O’Reilly, 2012;
Hopkins, Raymond & Carlson, 2011; McCale, 2008; McDermott, 2012; Strauss, 2011).
Live PBL involves projects where students either work with actual clients or initiate and
launch concepts that they have created themselves; however, both types of projects involve real-
world applications and real results. Through live PBL, we seek to incorporate the development of
technical as well as meta skills (framed by the 4Cs) within student projects. To develop the
creative skills necessary to prepare students for future marketing roles (e.g., Finch, Nadeau &
O’Reilly, 2012; Strauss, 2011), we incorporate project elements such as having students create
marketing content (for instance, Google search and Facebook and Instagram advertising copy
and visuals as well as video content). Project elements like these enable students to develop and
flex their creative muscles and learn by experimentation through iterative content creation and
optimization strategies designed to ensure the effectiveness of the content. In this way, students
begin to develop their creativity skills that help prepare them for internships and full-time
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positions after graduation.
Live PBL also helps engage students and develop their critical thinking skills (Finch,
Nadeau & O’Reilly, 2012; McCale, 2008; McDermott, 2012; Walker et al., 2009). As an
example, students can analyze and apply qualitative and quantitative research findings to the
development of creative content, develop and execute multi-channel communication campaigns,
analyze data from Google Analytics and Instagram and perform A/B testing to optimize paid
search and paid social media campaigns. They also learn to identify, frame and solve problems
and to prioritize their work in doing so. Live PBL enables students to interpret, design, create,
launch and learn. In the process, it is less about getting the right answer (moreover, where there
often is no “right answer”), and more about understanding how the variables inform or suggest a
host of possible answers.
Past research has shown the role of PBL in helping students develop collaboration and
teamwork skills (Strauss, 2011). Through live PBL, students learn how to effectively manage
complex group work and team dynamics, take on different roles, give and receive feedback,
work together to address challenges and solve problems, and be individually accountable for
their collective team roles and output. Further, students collaborating on multi-disciplinary teams
have been found to perceive greater degrees of career preparedness (Wickliff, 1997).
Live PBL also helps students develop crucial communication skills (Clark, King & Jurn,
2012; McCale, 2008; Walker et al., 2009). Through frequent small- and large-scale
presentations, students hone the written and verbal communications and presentation skills that
are critical to their future success. Students also learn the importance of managing client
communications, engaging an audience (faculty, peers, industry panelists or clients) and
defending their assumptions, opinions, and insights.
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Live PBL Design and Structure
In this section, we discuss the structure of two real-time project types (student-initiated
and student-led as well as client-based) designed to promote technical and meta skill
development: 1) the Marketing for Good project, in which student teams create and activate or
bring to market a social good initiative; and 2) the Adaptive Media project, in which student
teams work with an external client to create and execute paid search and paid social media
advertising campaigns. The underlying objectives for both projects are to 1) help students
develop and strengthen their technical as well as meta skills in a real-life setting and 2) help them
learn to adapt to uncertainty and manage the ambiguity inherent in real-life projects.
The first project, Marketing for Good, is sequenced early in students’ upper-level
marketing coursework (typically during the first semester of their junior year) to provide a broad
platform of skill development. The second project, Adaptive Media, blends continued 4C
development along with deeper level technical skills related to digital marketing, including paid
search and paid social media advertising, optimization techniques and campaign analytics. In
both projects, we seek to progressively build students’ skills in an iterative approach by
sequentially introducing new marketing concepts and tools such as design thinking, insight
generation, campaign creation, organic and paid search and social media advertising,
optimization strategies, and budgeting and ROI measurement.
We designed these projects to provide students with real-life experiences in working with
actual clients along with real budgets and real results. We based the design of these two projects
on the development of technical skills (e.g., Facebook and Google Ads, campaign performance
measurement and ROI, Simmons Market Research, A/B testing) as well as the 4Cs. Throughout
both projects, student outcomes and performance are assessed based on the 4Cs in addition to
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their ability to demonstrate a mastery of technical skills.
Marketing for Good Project
In the Marketing for Good Project, student teams create and execute ideas and campaigns
designed to apply marketing as a force for good and to effect positive change within their
community around themes of sustainability, quality of life and social justice. Students work
through a process guided by the human-centered design thinking process to identify a new
product or social cause that is focused on community betterment. Project teams then create
messaging and advertising content on Facebook and Instagram. Teams also create experiential
marketing events designed to promote their project causes and products. Examples from past
projects include increasing public awareness of food waste, developing toys to help relieve
separation anxiety in household pets, creating and delivering branded raincoats to the area
homeless during a recent El Niño rainy season, and helping lower-income women gain access to
hygiene products and health-related information.
Teams’ project executions are focused on promoting positive attitudinal and behavioral
change through campaigns run on digital media such as Facebook and Instagram and developing
and executing experiential marketing events. Project funding dedicated to driving engagement
with their respective Marketing for Good causes is supported with an industry outreach initiative
that enables student teams to spend real money (approximately $500 per team) and manage their
campaign activation and spending. In addition to the development of the 4Cs, technical skills
developed include conducting and synthesizing original and secondary research to generate
insights that help inform their Facebook and Instagram campaigns and creative work, targeting
specific audiences and optimizing advertising spending on Facebook and Instagram, and learning
to use sophisticated online social listening platforms.
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Adaptive Media Project
In the Adaptive Media Project, students choose from a portfolio of real-life clients
representing both internal and external partners, including for-profit and non-profit
organizations. Teams spend the semester creating and executing paid search and paid social
media campaigns using Google and Facebook advertising for their respective clients. Students
create search advertising copy in addition to social media copy and images (including static
images and videos) for Google search as well as Facebook and Instagram campaigns and analyze
their weekly campaign performance using Google Analytics. They also apply A/B testing and
optimization strategies to increase campaign performance over time. Student teams can choose to
work on a personal passion project (for instance, a custom T-shirt company that one of the team
members has launched), partner with a startup from the college’s entrepreneurship program (for
instance, a women’s swimwear brand), or choose to work with a local for-profit or nonprofit
organization (for instance, a startup vegan breakfast food brand or an organization helping
displaced families find places to live). Through the Adaptive Media Project, students learn
relevant technical skills such as digital marketing concepts (paid search, paid social media and
optimization techniques) and continue to develop their meta skills framed by the 4Cs. The “live”
nature of this project take place as students manage real budgets, initiatives and clients.
In summary, the project elements described here are purposefully tied to helping students
strengthen their technical and meta skills. Students learn to collaborate throughout both projects
as they work in teams, divide responsibilities and workloads, learn to be accountable for their
contributions, and meet strict deadlines. Through these projects, students also learn to deal with
the ambiguity inherent in live PBL.
Technical and Meta Skills Assessment
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Marketing educators highlight the role and importance of direct assessment of actual
student learning (e.g., Bacon, 2016; Lange et al., 2018). Drawing from Bacon (2016) and
reflecting the program-level assessment of learning outcomes detailed by Lange et al. (2018), we
evaluate the development of students’ technical and meta skills in a 360-degree assessment
process (see Figure 1). This process involves both direct and indirect assessment of skills-based
learning outcomes as well as the application of assessment learnings to help inform future course
revisions and development.
We begin with a direct assessment of technical and meta skill development associated
with predetermined learning outcomes. Between three and five industry and faculty panelists
attend the final presentations for both the Marketing for Good and Adaptive Media projects and
provide feedback related to students’ application of the related technical and meta skills using a
detailed rubric. We analyze the emergent themes from the panelists’ project comments to assess
students’ ability to apply these skills as they develop and execute their projects. Indirect
assessment includes pre- and post-project surveys related to perceived specific skill
development, a reflective writing assignment to capture students’ learning experiences
throughout the semester, and student and panelist open-ended comments related to the projects
and outcomes. We then apply the results from both the direct and indirect assessment to help
inform and revise course content in future semesters.
[Insert Figure 1 About Here]
Learning Outcomes
Learning outcomes for assessing students’ specific technical and meta skill development
are shown in Table 2. Technical skill development includes developing research skills, gaining a
working knowledge of paid search platforms (Google Ads) and paid social media (Facebook
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Ads), optimization (e.g., A/B testing) techniques and how to track and measure campaign
performance over time. For instance, through the Adaptive Media Project, students undergo
Google Ads certification and learn how to create paid search ads, including keyword choice,
bidding, ad copy, and week-to-week search campaign optimization. In the project, students also
learn to navigate the Facebook ad platform, including audience selection and targeting
techniques, selecting campaign objectives (e.g., awareness or conversions), campaign budgeting
over time, learning how to apply A/B testing techniques to optimize performance, and analyzing
performance with Facebook’s analytics dashboard.
Learning outcomes applied to meta skill development involve the 4Cs. Outcomes related
to creativity include the design of visual brand elements and content creation (in the Marketing
for Good Project) as well as creating Facebook and Instagram ads and visual elements (images,
GIFs, video content), writing ad copy and deciding on ad format (static images, carousel ads,
video). In the Adaptive Media Project, learning outcomes include creating search and social
media advertising copy and visual elements. Outcomes related to critical thinking include
applying team research findings and insights to developing campaign concepts in the Marketing
for Good Project and analyzing weekly campaign performance and optimization strategies in the
Adaptive Media Project. Learning outcomes involving collaboration include assigning team
roles and accountability (both projects). Finally, learning outcomes related to communication
include developing and delivering effective and persuasive final team campaign presentations
(both projects).
[Insert Table 2 About Here]
Direct Skills Assessment
Based on the specific learning outcomes shown in Table 2, direct assessment of project
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outcomes is based on a detailed assessment rubric (see Table 3) that objectively scores student
performance on a battery of metrics tied to learning outcomes that are classified as either
technical or meta skills. At the beginning of the semester, student teams are introduced to the
assessment rubric so that they know what is expected of them and how their projects will be
evaluated. At the end of the semester, final team project presentations (in-person or conducted
remotely online) are assessed and evaluated with the assessment rubric by a panel of marketing
faculty and select marketing managers and executives from industry. Course co-instructors
evaluate student performance related to the rubric and skills-based learning outcomes. In this
way, a student’s performance is assessed through the lens of how well she is able to apply the
technical and meta skills tied to the respective learning outcomes.
[Insert Table 3 About Here]
In addition to the direct assessment of project outcomes, and to provide a more holistic
360-degree view of skill development, we incorporate the three indirect assessment techniques
that include 1) pre-project and post-project tests of perceived student development and growth
linked to specific learning outcomes, 2) a reflective learning assignment involving a written
project reflection blog to capture students’ weekly experiences, and 3) student and industry
partner qualitative open-ended comments (see Tables 4a and 4b) that help illustrate their unique
perspectives related overall learning and skill development.
[Insert Tables 4a and 4b About Here]
Taken together, the direct and indirect assessment process evaluates performance
on skills-based attributes at the student- as well as at the project level. Even though we do not
have a “test group” (for instance, students in similar yet purely conceptual projects) with which
to compare findings, the assessment results over the past three years suggest that students
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consistently perform strongly (“outstanding” to “good”) on technical and meta skill
development.
Lessons for Marketing Educators
By incorporating live PBL and through the direct and indirect assessment of skills-based
learning outcomes, we sought to develop an effective approach to teaching to help students
develop technical and meta skills and learn to adapt to uncertainty. As noted by numerous
marketing educators (e.g., Crittenden & Crittenden, 2015), a key challenge for educators in the
future will be to continue to develop and evolve course (and project) content so that it keeps pace
with frequent industry, technological, and even socioeconomic developments. This is particularly
relevant when developing and teaching courses containing digital marketing content, particularly
as industry leaders such as Google and Facebook continue to update their advertising platforms
and models. In the marketing field, live PBL approaches can help educators introduce new
content geared toward advancing both technical skills and meta skill development among
students, ensuring that their courses and content stay relevant given industry developments and
shifts in consumer behavior. Similarly, live PBL offers students unplanned learning opportunities
involving ambiguity and uncertainty—for instance, when a client does not provide clear
feedback, what to do when a user gets locked out of a social media account, or when a social
media platform algorithm rejects an ad for unknown reasons. Here, we close by offering several
lessons for other marketing educators seeking to bolster and assess student skill development.
First, build in ambiguity. We often find that students struggle with the uncertainty
associated with live projects. Beyond knowing what they already know, through live projects
students must also dig for and uncover information or data that they need—the known
unknown—as well as deal with the ambiguity inherent in simply not knowing what they need to
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know. Rather than providing students with a strict list of specific boxes to check in order to
receive an “A,” we structure the projects around higher-level milestones such as problem
identification, research and insights generation, proposed solutions, product development where
applicable, campaign and messaging creative, and measurement. This provides some necessary
structure and direction, yet it also requires the student to fill in the blanks and apply the tools and
skills taught in the course to address the unknowns and complete the project. Compared to
conceptual projects, ambiguity is also embedded in the “live” nature of the projects themselves,
where real-life and client-based work is often characterized by imperfect data, communications
and outcomes. Thus, we believe that students’ skills evolve more fully in a real life “test-and-
learn” environment rather than in a “here’s how it would work in a perfect world” conceptual
project context.
Second, keep it real. A prominent challenge outlined in the marketing education literature
related to PBL is the complexity involved with client-based projects (e.g., Clark, King & Jurn,
2012; Parsons & Lepkowska-White, 2009). However, clients can also add a dimension of reality
that theoretical approaches do not. Based on our experience, having real clients participate in live
projects adds the important dimensions of direct industry experience and actual results. Client-
based projects also require students to manage the client relationship, which alone can be a
significant learning outcome. Live projects that receive funding (either from external
participating partners or internal budgets) force students to be scrappy and strategic with their
spending, to engage more fully in the product development process (including sourcing and
negotiating), and to strengthen their knowledge of media planning as they manage budgets and
spending. In this way, they learn about actual advertising rates and costs. In terms of client
selection, we recommend that educators and administrators develop a source for project “clients”
20
from a pool of local small businesses and startups, some that even may have been started by
current or past undergraduate and graduate students.
Third, make projects a three-sided win. Studies suggest that, despite the added
complexity and time demands associated with live projects, client-based projects can be
beneficial for multiple stakeholders, including the local business community, the students, as
well as the client him- or herself (Shanahan, Palmer & Salas, 2019). Lange et al. (2018) highlight
the different interests and motivations for both students and industry project partners that need to
be considered in project design. Student interests involve gaining practical and relevant skills and
forging important industry connections. Industry partners may be extrinsically motivated by the
opportunity to connect with prospective employees and intrinsically motivated by the
opportunity to simply “give back” and help students in the same way that others had helped them
during their education. Moreover, the local business community at large can benefit from a wider
pool of future-proof and real-world ready entry-level talent.
Finally, be proactive in working with local businesses and with university or college
development teams for project funding opportunities. With college and department budgets
stressed resulting from the global pandemic, funding projects so that students gain the experience
of working with live clients and managing real executions and budgets presents a challenge.
Donors, however, may be motivated to fund initiatives such as live industry-based projects that
provide students much needed practical experience. One approach is to develop a project funding
budget through ongoing college development initiatives or solicit industry sponsors from
companies or agencies that may have a vested interest in the project theme. For example, with
our Marketing for Good Project, we worked closely with local consumer product brands whose
21
missions aligned with social good and social justice to help fund the project and help students not
only create but actually execute and bring their ideas to life.
Conclusion
It has become increasingly difficult for marketing educators and their course content to
keep pace with the rapid changes and developments taking place in marketing and digital
technology (e.g., e-commerce, online search, targeting and retargeting practices, privacy
regulations, mobile and social media marketing). In response to this challenge, we detail two
projects—the Marketing for Good Project and the Adaptive Media Project—that aim to help
students develop not only the technical skills necessary for their future development, but
important meta skills as well.
Through live PBL, we highlight how well-crafted projects can lead to the development of
what we have defined as the 4Cs as well as numerous technical skills. As technology continues
to advance, students will need to continue to adapt to social and economic changes. It therefore
becomes even more important for educators to help students develop higher-level meta skills
such as creativity, critical thinking and analysis, collaboration and communication in addition to
the technical skills they learn. Research has shown that higher-level skill development among
students can help them adjust to industry shifts and adopt new technology and tools (Ye et al.,
2017). Students who develop both meta skills and technical skills have an advantage over those
who possess a more limited set of skills (Ye et al., 2017). Our recent experience in teaching
through the global pandemic shows us that this broader scope of skill development can be even
more important in helping students cope with and adapt to change. In this way, live PBL serves
as an important component to students’ learning, engaging students in both technical skill and
meta skill development and helping them learn to adapt to future and unknown challenges.
22
Although developing live projects that involve either real clients or real budgets, or both,
can be more complex and costly, we believe the depth and relevance of student learning that
takes place in the context of live PBL will help prepare students for future employment and
careers—in other words, to become future proof and real-world ready. It is our hope that our
experiences and the lessons learned from the projects and the assessment practices detailed here
will help inform and inspire the development of even more innovative and progressive marketing
curricula, courses and pedagogy in the service of our students and industry.
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Table 1 4Cs Meta skill development in marketing education
4Cs Meta skills
Support in Marketing Practice
and Education
Creativity
Coming up with solutions that are unique and novel and
useful and appropriate to addressing the challenge or
opportunity (Titus, 2000).
Ad Industry Talent Study, 2016;
Bacon, 2017; Finch, Nadeau &
O’Reilly, 2012; Titus, 2000
Critical Thinking
Developing students’ ability to interpret, analyze, evaluate,
infer and explain (Abrami et al., 2015; Dahl, Peltier &
Schibrowsky, 2018).
Ad Industry Talent Study, 2016;
Bacon, 2017; Dahl, Peltier &
Schibrowsky, 2018; Finch,
Nadeau & O’Reilly, 2012;
Hopkins, 2011; McDermott,
2012; Strauss, 2011
Collaboration
Encouraging students to apply their unique talents to group
project, motivated by a collective goal or mission (Adler,
Heckscher and Prusak, 2011).
Ad Industry Talent Study, 2016;
Razzouk et al., 2015; Schlee and
Karns, 2017; Strauss, 2011
Communication
Developing students’ verbal and non-verbal
communication such as presentation skills and other forms
of interpersonal communication (e.g., emails, phone calls,
written reports).
Ad Industry Talent Study, 2016;
Chad, 2012; McArthur et al.,
2017; Razzouk et al., 2015
28
Figure 1 360-Degree Skill-Based Assessment Process
Table 2 Assessment of project learning outcomes (LO)
Skills-Based Learning Outcomes
Technical and Meta Skills
Technical Skills
LO1 Working knowledge of paid search platforms (Google Ads)
LO2 Working knowledge of paid social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram Ads)
LO3 Apply human-centered design thinking and methodology to frame problem and potential
solutions
LO4 Conduct primary research and evaluate, apply secondary research and identify potential
target audiences using Google and Facebook audience development platforms
LO5 Create search and social media advertising copy and visuals
LO6 Prepare comprehensive campaign performance reports identifying KPIs, apply
optimization strategies and track campaign performance
Meta Skills
LO7 Develop distinctive visual brand identity (Creativity)
LO8 Create communication elements (video, websites, social media, presentation content)
(Creativity)
LO9 Synthesize primary and secondary research to generate insights (Critical Thinking)
LO10 Analyze weekly campaign performance (Critical Thinking)
LO11 Develop teamwork and collaboration skills (Collaboration)
Direct Assessment
Assessment of skill development
associated with LOs:
Thematic analysis of industry panelist
comments and feedback
Indirect Assessment
Pre-project and post-project surveys
related to perceived skill development
throughout the semester.
Reflective writing assignment involving a
project reflection blog to capture
students’ weekly experiences and
learning throughout the semester.
Student and industry panelist open-ended
comments related to projects.
Course Redesign
End of semester assessment of course
learning objectives and outcomes. Course
refinement or redesign where needed.
29
LO12 Develop project management skills (Collaboration)
LO13 Develop oral and written presentation skills (Communication)
LO14 Develop clear and persuasive weekly campaign reports and effectively incorporate
weekly campaign data (Communication)
Table 3 Skill Development Rubric
Skill Type
Paid Media
LO1 Conceptualize and launch search keyword strategies
consisting of branded and non-branded terms on Google Ads.
LO2 Launch, test and optimize paid social campaigns on
Facebook and Instagram.
Research and Audience Development
LO3 Design and implement design thinking methodology to
inform brand positioning.
LO4 Develop and analyze primary secondary research and apply
Google and Facebook tools to uncover insights and inform
campaign and media concepts.
Campaign Development and Tracking
LO5 Craft a clear and concise creative brief and create search and
social media advertising copy and visuals.
LO6 Identify and analyze KPIs such as search and social media
engagement metrics, apply optimization strategies and track
campaign performance.
.
Creativity
LO7 Generate original strategic and brand content ideas that are
distinctive and address client objectives.
LO8 Create unique communication elements (video, websites,
social media, presentation content).
Critical Thinking
30
LO9 Analyze large amounts of information and extract insights
that inform brand and creative strategy.
LO10 Apply data to analyze campaign performance over time.
Collaboration
LO11Ability to work in multidisciplinary teams on fast-paced and
complex real-world projects.
LO12 Demonstrate effective project management skills.
Communication
LO13 Present and defend strategic and creative ideas orally and in
well-designed presentation decks.
LO14 Illustrate campaign performance over time by incorporating
weekly campaign data.
Table 4a Representative Student Project Comments
Respondent
Comments
Student, junior
Developing an actual product helped make the project real.
Student, junior
It gave me exposure to real life marketing and advertising.
Student, junior
Super applicable to real life.
Student, junior
Real life experience, felt like an internship.
Student, junior
It combined all parts of business and we were given enough creative control
to become very passionate about marketing.
Student, senior
Hands-on learning. Managing + controlling our campaigns. Lots of
responsibility!
Student, senior
Being able to use money to actually run the campaigns. There was added
pressure to perform since more was at stake.
Student, senior
This is the most effective, relevant and fascinating course I’ve taken.
Student, senior
Being able to run ads/optimize campaigns in real life vs. just learning from
lectures.
Student, senior
I’ve learned so much by working with a real brand running ads with real
money.
Student, senior
Having so much contact with the ‘outside world’ makes the class feel very
real and quite valuable. Industry is so baked into nearly every class that it’s
hard to forget that we’re learning things that are so prevalent in the
31
professional setting we’ll be entering upon graduation.
Table 4b Representative Industry Partner Comments
Respondent
Panelist Feedback
CEO,
Advertising
Agency
Over several years, [agency name] has had the privilege of collaborating
with a number of [your] students who personify what it means to be real-
world ready. I was impressed with the students’ ability to create a visual
identity and communicate how they brought their Marketing for Good
projects to market!
Senior
Manager,
Digital Media
Agency
This program bridges the gap between industry need and entry level
readiness like nothing I have witnessed before. Students are learning ever
changing real-world skills from industry leaders and entering the workforce
prepared for success. I can personally attest to the value put on candidates
coming out of the program. They meet and beat expectation every time, and
that's rewarded.
Founder, Start-
up Accelerator
I was so incredibly impressed by everything the teams accomplished in the
Marketing for Good projects. They all did a terrific job and you should be
proud…I sure am. So, thanks for letting me be a part of the journey.
Executive
Director,
Consortium of
Advertising
Professionals
By working directly with industry experts and, not only studying, but
creating real world marketing solutions, the students step into the world
confident, experienced and ready to take on the industry.
Chief Strategy
Officer,
Advertising
Agency
The ambition of the [projects] is not to develop book-smart students who
not only have an appreciation for the accepted rules of marketing, but real-
world ready students.
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Driverless cars are hitting the road, powered by artificial intelligence. Robots can climb stairs, open doors, win Jeopardy, analyze stocks, work in factories, find parking spaces, advise oncologists. In the past, automation was considered a threat to low-skilled labor. Now, many high-skilled functions, including interpreting medical images, doing legal research, and analyzing data, are within the skill sets of machines. How can higher education prepare students for their professional lives when professions themselves are disappearing? In Robot-Proof, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun proposes a way to educate the next generation of college students to invent, to create, and to discover -- to fill needs in society that even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence agent cannot.A “robot-proof” education, Aoun argues, is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it calibrates them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or create something valuable to society -- a scientific proof, a hip-hop recording, a web comic, a cure for cancer. Aoun lays out the framework for a new discipline, humanics, which builds on our innate strengths and prepares students to compete in a labor market in which smart machines work alongside human professionals. The new literacies of Aoun’s humanics are data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy. Students will need data literacy to manage the flow of big data, and technological literacy to know how their machines work, but human literacy -- the humanities, communication, and design -- to function as a human being. Life-long learning opportunities will support their ability to adapt to change.The only certainty about the future is change. Higher education based on the new literacies of humanics can equip students for living and working through change. © 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.
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As the marketplace becomes more competitive, there is a growing demand for business educators to prepare graduates to adapt to the challenges of the marketplace. However, concerns regarding the pedagogical challenges of balancing conceptual knowledge and practical skills are accumulating in the academic literature. In this article, we make the case for an online project-based competency education model by describing the pedagogical framework and strategies that our institution has adopted and successfully implemented. We highlight some key takeaways addressing specific features of our program that create added value for students and ultimately help them become more competitive in the workplace. We conclude with implications, challenges, and directions for future research.