Skills courses are those where students learn a specific, tangible thing – a “how to” – that can be applied immediately: How to use a software program, how to write promotional copy, how to conduct a survey, how to shoot video, etc. Theory courses are those where learning takes place, but the application of that knowledge is less specific, more situational, and requires critical and strategic thinking. Examples are ethics courses, branding courses, sales courses, and so on.
Both skills and theory are important, and both are taught here in our program at Ole Miss. But the question becomes, what is the right mix? When students graduate, what should be in their toolbox?
Chances are, students will land their first job after graduation because of a skill. They’ll go to work for a marketing department, a PR department, an ad agency, a newspaper, a magazine, or a TV station or some other business. There they will write, report, edit, take pictures, create websites, handle social media, conduct surveys, do a newsletter or whatever.
A recent graduate who now works at an ad agency in Atlanta told me he stood out from other new hires because he knew how to use Adobe Creative Suite 6 (a design software program).
But while a skill gets students their first job, it’s the ability to think critically, be strategic and understand the big picture that will lead to their advancement.
The trick is to make sure students are prepared for an immediate job, yet have knowledge that will last a lifetime.
And skills become obsolete. If we focus too much on making sure students know how to create mobile apps today, how is that helpful in five years (or less) when the technology changes?
But yet it is. In college, I took a Fortran class. Fortran is a computer programming language that isn’t used much anymore, at least in my field. I was good at it, but how important has that technical skill been in my career? Well, I never once used it – haven’t done a thing with Fortran since I graduated. However, surprisingly, the foundational knowledge it gave me about computer programming has been very helpful throughout the years. I have worked with many companies to build marketing databases, and my ability to understand the process that the techies use – even though I couldn’t do it myself – has been invaluable.
The point is, the debate over skills versus theory isn’t all or nothing. I’m not very musically inclined, but my hunch is someone who learns how to play the piano has an easier time learning another instrument because they already know how to read a music note. In that way, specific skills do impart lasting knowledge.
There’s no magic answer as to what’s the right balance, at least in the marketing communication and journalism fields. It’s more a matter of monitoring what’s going on in the marketplace, staying in touch with employers, and tweaking curriculum as needed.