Licensing yes, licensing no. A first rationalization of an online teaching experience which is now half way through.


Tomorrow Monday July 16 I will be having my fourth (out of seven) online two hour session with some 14 executive masters students from New York University’s Master of Science in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.
So, I am now half way through and I believe I can begin to rationalise this experience from two perspectives, both of which I hope will be interesting for you.
The first has to do with my actual learning experience on how to teach on line and what benefits and constraints this method has for the instructor.
The second has to do with the overall quality and intellectual stimuli I am receiving from my students vis-a-vis the preceding face-to-face teaching experiences I have had over the last ten years.
A few quick facts:
°the course is Global Relations and Intercultural Communication;
°the sessions are two hours each and they are synchronous;
°I accompany my lecture with power points and web navigations;
°students may raise their hands when they wish, and I give them the mike so that they may either ask questions or comment and criticise;
°students can playback each session as many times as they like during the length of the course;
°every session has specific reading assignments;
°for every session each student is requested to send me a 1 to 1.5 page critical analysis integrating reading materials as well as session contents;
°for every session each student is requested to enrol in at least one of three conversation groups on as many questions derived from the session content which ends up with a one-two page synopsis agreed by the group and sent to me a day before the following session;
°finally, the day before the final session each student is required to send me a 5-10 page dissertation on one of three issues I will explain to them tomorrow i.e. during the fourth session.
The sessions are:
°a satellite view of the global public relations community;
°towards a new framework for global public relations along the generic principles and specific applications paradigm;
°public relations in asia;
°in africa;
° in europe;
°in the americas;
°five horizontal major issues for global public relations.

Ok. Now lets address the first issue.
As much as I may be confident with a portable pc, it is a dire challenge to be multitasking for two straight hours governing power points, my voice, their hands raised and various other technical paraphernalia.
Not easy and mistakes happen, unfortunately.
Having said this, and underlying that I very much miss the possibility of looking at my students in the face when we talk and discuss (but this would easily be solved if, as I hope, NYU will be modifying its online platform to include video of instructors as well as individual participants) , there are many benefits.
One, the possibility for students to play back any session they either missed or if they wish to check some points which are not perfectly clear or a concept which they did not understand.
Two, and even more importantly, my possibility of following (in true voyeurship style… even to the point of some embarrassment…) student on line group conversations so to receive impressive ‘participatory observation’ clues on the different nuances of a specific student’s mind and how it functions in dialogue.
This is truly priceless.
Obviously, all this requires a lot of time on my part (plus correcting written assignments, grading et alia) and here is a second relevant constraint.

And now to the second issue.
Overall I am very fortunate because I have an excellent class and, compared to the preceding face-to-face class where I had almost 30 students with which inevitably one ended up dialoguing either with the brightest or the ones that most need your assistance with the implication that you sort of lose out in the middle ground which is usually the majority, in this case I am instead able to dialogue with each individually even though we only do this online.
To be honest, we do not even do this so much as my observations of their group conversation fully satisfies my need to understand, and at least apparently also theirs.
The result of this is that while in the first mid term grades I had a significant number of b minuses, c pluses, c’s and c minuses, this time I have only a minuses, b pluses and b’s.

There are many things I would like to tell you about the quality and interest of the critical opinions they have thus far expressed in the first three sessions, but this would be way too long.
One point however I do wish to mention: practically the majority of the class has, one way or another, without me even mentioning the issue if not indirectly, expressed their support for some sort of licensing scheme for professionals on a global scale.
To be very adamant: I have never asked them to express their views on the issue.
If one considers that the United States probably holds the largest number of professionals in the world today, and that historically, American professionals and their associations have always strongly resisted any discourse on licensing, this is something to be well aware of.
I am in no way implying that my students are representative of the universe of American professionals, but they could be very well considered representative of new york’s younger professionals.
Maybe other colleagues and professional organizations should take good notice of this and possibly investigate further, before they are bypassed by this raising storm.
Which, of course, I very much would like to discuss in a follow up post in the next few days.


  1. Interesting stuff, Toni, and I look forward to the follow up post. Whether it’s indeed that younger US professionals are looking at this differently… or that a smaller percent of PR people are coming up through the ranks of journalism… or that they just haven’t had time to fully form their views on this yet… I guess we’ll know in time.

    Based not on data but intuition only, I would cite three fundamental reasons why licensing is a non-starter among US professionals:
    1. Ingrained attitudes regarding free speech (with which licensing might interfere).
    2. Ingrained attitudes regarding free markets, including PR(with which licensing might interfere).
    3. And perhaps most of all — whether one considers oneself conservative or liberal in this country, there still seems to be agreement at some level that he who governs least governs best.

    But I may be way out of touch with a new generation of rising PR pros, and I look forward to hearing more.

  2. Toni, on my screen tonight, the magic word to get me in is “advertising”

    Seems to me there’s more and more overlap between PR and advertising, and I suggest that your students might want to look at licensing advertising people, too.

    LEt them try to define advertising, of course. Billboards and television commercials, but what about advertorial sections in Business Week?

    I’m doing some work with some former senior poilice officers, one of whom is studying leadership very seriously. (He’s got himself a doctorate from Canada’s lartgest university, so he’s no slouch.)

    He talks about young people as being naive and easily led, and that might apply in the case of your students.


  3. Toni,
    In terms of online learning and teaching- as you pointed out there are two perspectives- I can only imagine how nerve racking it would be. I am sure it will only get better with time.

    On licensing I am not suprised. Here is my take on it. If you consider that PR programs did not exists 50 years ago, we now have had four or five generations of students in public relations programs. Inevitably this is a subject that comes up in studies and discussions. My point is there are now more young people studying the profession and the absence of licensing is noted. My second observation is that it is quite natural to start with the opinion that we need licensing when you are studying and starting out your career. This is akin to one making a statement such as ” ..there ought to be a law…” about whatever is bothering us. The fact is when you consider the challenges of establishing licensing, in most democracies it is a real challenge. Frank mentions a few that are relevant to the US and I would dare to say some of these would be the same in Canada. It is an interesting conundrum.
    One the one hand I think the Associations and the GA should take a position similar to what Harold Burson stated in India- that we should study licensing and arrive at a credible defensible position. Personnaly, I would be on the pro side of the equation, but i think before we start advocating too much in favor of it, we need to address the concerns and challenges that we know are out there. All democracies would have to direct their request for licensing to governement at one point. We should watch our colleagues in Puerto Rico as they make their way through that process right now. I haven’t heard if they were sucesfull but we could learn a lot from them as they would be unless I am wrong the first democractic regime to agree to licensing of the profession. Other countries who have licensing as you will recall, have had thier beginning during totalitarian regimes.

  4. Do you know how many (if any) public relations associations make achievement of accreditation a requirement of membership, Toni? Wouldn’t it make more sense to move in that direction first, before tackling the licensing issue?

    I had the same thoughts as Jean, in that government bodies would definitely become involved if the public relations trade/industry associations morphed into being a regulatory profession. That’s the way it is with the Canadian accounting profession, anyhow. The professional associations are recognized by government statute to regulate qualification, performance and discipline standards. Generally accounting associations also have an advocacy arm to promote the use of professional expertise in the public interest.

    (Accounting licences are a separate area, relating strictly to the attest function, i.e., public audits. Requirements/granting, etc., vary, from province to province.)

    I’ve long believed that PR accreditation will only be truly valued and recognized by employers–plus the business world and general public–when there is a mandatory continuing professional development component in place to ensure currency of knowledge. I know that CPRS has had a maintenance program for several years (an excellent move), but I understand it is optional.

  5. Judy,
    None of the APR granting associations-there were eleven at last count- make it mandatory. Maintenance was abandonned by PRSA and very few ask for it although philosophicaly they would all agree it is desirable.
    The only countries where the PR industry is regulated are not necessarily examples to follow as they imposed it as for other political reasons ( Nigeria, Brasil come to mind) Brasil now regrets it but seem stuck to do anything about it.

  6. Over the past couple weeks, I have been re-reading 46 years’ worth of Institute Distinguished Lectures, as we put all of them up on the website. In doing so, I am coming across discussions of licensing from the 60s and 70s. I find myself wondering, if that had happened, which of the standard practices of the 60s and 70s would be welded in place through the power of regulation/licensing? In what ways would the profession circa 2007 be better off with 1960s-era practices, and in what ways would we be stuck in the past as the world passes us by?

  7. I promise to post on this issue over the weekend. I believe many of your comments are correct and will try to rationalize my somewhat different views in order to bridge a common understanding of the issue, at least amongst us.

  8. I’ve been watching Ben Bernanke (chairman of the US Federal Researve Bank) testifying before Congress (yes, my life is wierd). Yesterday and today, he talked about the possibility of federal licensing of mortgage brokers, to get them to behave better. Which raises an interesting question: If public relations people were licensed, would we be viewed more like doctors or mortgage brokers?

    Put another way (and I suspect everyone will agree with this), licensing and accreditation have little meaning unless and until we get the underlying substance right.

    Toni, we’re ready for your next entry! This has surely been a stimulating topic.

  9. Sorry Toni to barge into this issue as well. I suspect that your students are demonstrating the idealism of youth (yes I can barely remember those days too). And in this they should be encouraged. But age and experience will make them realise – as I think the majority of us oldies do – that licensing is no guarantee of integrity in any field. Particularly one such as ours which is not a closed profession. What happens if the licence is revoked? In the “professions” it means that the individual can no longer practice … in public relations where the majority of practitioners have little or no training, belong to no professional association and have nothing to fear from the notoriety which public exposure might bring, inclusion in a club which licencing implies is neither an incentive nor blackballing a handicap. Lets encourage their idealism by all means. They are afterall the future torch bearers of the ideals that motivated the founders of our professional associations half a century and more ago. But lets also admit that most of them saw little progress in their lifetimes.

  10. Sorry Toni to barge in on this subject too. Your students clearly demonstrate the optimism of youth .. and thats to be encouraged. They will be the future torchbearers for our profession. Experience and the university of hard knocks will inevitably dim that enthusiasm – it has for most of us, admit it. But licencing? Since when has it guaranteed integrity? Withdrawal of a licence has some meaning only when you belong to the club .. as doctors, lawyers etc do .. but since most of our fellow practitioners don’t and won’t and even those that do have little to fear from exposure. What is needed is a little bit more muscular enforcement of the codes of practice that are already in place.

  11. Toni

    Thanks for sharing your online teaching experience. If you have time, I would love to hear more. (E.g. your reading list for PR in Africa. Maybe you can email it to me, since it might not be of interest here). Also your students’ impressions and discussions of ‘PR in Africa’.

    Last year I was invited to address a master’s class in the UK online. There were some technical problems with the platform, so in the end I couldn’t see the students nor did we have interactive audio. This means they couldn’t interrupt with questions, which were limited to the end of the session. I truly didn’t enjoy a single minute of it! To understand what I went through, imagine doing a presentation of one and half hours with your eyes closed, or in a room without lights! Never before did I realise how much energy I obtained from seeing and interacting with my audience. It was like presenting deep down in a dark well. The only comparable experience I have ever had was when I attended a masked ball many years ago in New York. After trying to talk to a few people, I just stopped it. Because one couldn’t see their faces, one had no idea whether they were listening, sleeping or looking somewhere else!

    Fortunately we have a law here in South Africa that prohibits 100% online tertiary education for ‘normal’ universities (unless the mission of the institution is restricted to distance education). We therefore must have a face-to-face component in any web-based masters, which translates to foreign (and out of town) students having to fly in for the contact sessions. But the students would be the first to tell you that the contact sessions are where the most learning takes place. They are continuously asking for more contact (than the 2 days per subject they have now).

    However, on the positive side I do find that the online environment is highly efficient in making sources available (especially in Africa where books are very expensive and postal services unreliable) and also for submitting and correcting assignments, and administering the course (which includes tracking individual students, as you mentioned). Timewise, however, it does take a toll on the lecturer. (One day I still have to calculate the hundreds of hours it takes to supervise master’s research 100% electronically).

    I do concur with my students that nothing can substitute for face-to-face contact. On the other hand, I have to admit that around 80% of my students are not from Cape Town but from other cities in SA, other African countries and even the odd one from Europe or N-America. So how can we restrict education to face-to-face contact only, because that would advantage urban centers and greatly discriminate against the rest. So yes, Tony, us (older) lecturers just have to learn to cope. It sure is tough. But what a privilege to be part of the ways of the ‘new generation’.

  12. Benita, I will send you a synopsis of the Africa session and of the follow up assignments asap. Be sure.
    Friends, on the licensing issue and all the very intetersting comments in this post, please refer to the most recent new post. thank you and let’s continue the discussion.


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