Have graduate students outgrown the classroom?

 Frank Oppenheimer was right, “The best way to learn is to teach”. In this post I hope to share what three years of teachin...

18 Mar 2014 5118 Views

Frank Oppenheimer was right, “The best way to learn is to teach”. In this post I hope to share what three years of teaching master’s students has taught me. The project began in 2010 when Professor Veronika Tarnovskaya from The Lund University School of Economics and Management asked if I would help develop a Master’s-level course in strategic online marketing based on material I had been teaching in my guest lectures. As of this week, we have run the class three times. In this post I’ll provide some background on the project, share some results from this year’s class and some insights I’ve gained from our teaching approach.

Curriculum Focus

The course teaches marketers how to coordinate online activities in a strategic manner to build and engage an audience for their brands. We do this with a combination of classroom/video lectures, discussions and projects. Topics include:

  • An overview of how the development of Internet technology has fundamentally changed consumer behavior and what these changes mean for marketers and their brands. 
  • Core marketing principles to serve as a foundation as we clarify the jumble of concepts that make up today’s online marketing landscape like social media, content marketing, online networking, search and social advertising.  
  • A conceptual framework for monitoring and measuring online activities. 
  • A number of specialist lectures like the one we held on search engine optimization (SEO). 
  • The coordination and management of all these online elements into one coherent online platform for the brand. 

Teaching Method

Veronika and I try to practice what we preach as strategic marketers. So we surveyed students beforehand to identify target perceptions and needs. We performed desktop research to shape our tactics. We drew on our professional experience to pull it all together. What we wound up with was a hybrid teaching mash up of classroom lectures, video instruction, streaming lectures, specialist seminars, hands-on projects, peer-to-peer instruction and a heavy infusion of online technology.

Online Platform
One key feature of the course was the online platform we established for students. We branded the platform BrandBa.se and it consisted of the elements below:

  • Facebook is the center of our digital universe. We use it as a networking platform for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing related to class and assignments. We developed apps on our Facebook page for our blog directory, blog ranking, and badging programs. 
  • Twitter is our active reading list. The stream features timely curated content related to the topics being discussed in class that week. 
  • LinkedIn is intended to be our face to the outside world. At present we have a public and private group. The public group is intended to provide exposure and serve as a means of interaction between students and prospective employers. The private group is intended to be a closed networking group for all students and alumni of the course to continue helping each other with answers to questions and employment opportunities.  
  • The BrandBa.se Blog is intended as a student-publishing platform. Instead of a traditional term paper, students are asked to submit their paper in the form of a blog post. They are asked to maintain academic credibility but to write it in a way that marketers will actually want to read it. That means keeping it under 1,200 words total (or if they wish to go longer, breaking it into a series of posts), writing in a style that holds a reader, developing a headline that will attract clicks and including visuals. We also require them to optimize the post with on-page SEO. 
  • Instagram was added to capture images from the course. In that sense it serves more as a scrapbook than learning tool. 
  • Evernote was intended to provide a more in-depth further-reading list of evergreen articles for specific topics. This was intended to compliment the Twitter feed which was much more in the moment. 

The Blog Project
Every day during the course students apply classroom instruction in the real world with their blog project. On the first day of the course, the students were split into teams of four. Each team was given 72 hours to develop a concept, brand identity and content strategy for their blog, then design it and get it online. The objective of the Blog Project was for each team to develop the largest, most engaged audience for their brand in 47 days. They could choose any topic they pleased. At the end of the 47 days each team would make a presentation to the group of their results, analysis and conclusions.

We devised 12 optional tasks that the students could perform to win a badge. The tasks were chosen to encourage desired behaviors we could not otherwise compel students to perform, like filling out the class evaluation form or being first to answer a fellow student’s question on the Facebook wall. We also included badges for a number of activities that we could not cover in class but would make them a better marketer for having accomplished like creating an online instructional video. The bearing on their grade was negligible whether they participated or not. Badges were updated weekly and displayed on the Brand Base Facebook page.

We embraced transparency from day one in the course. Each student’s blog project was a work in progress out on the internet for anyone to see. The traffic for each blog project was posted as a ranking on the Facebook page and updated weekly. And term papers are published online as well with the author’s name.

Peer-to-Peer Learning
We encouraged peer-to-peer teaching and learning by having the students work on projects in groups of four. Moreover, the course Facebook page served as a communal bulletin board where students could ask questions. Veronika and I would monitor the questions but would not jump in and answer unless other students failed to do so. In most cases the students’ questions were answered correctly by their peers in a matter of hours.

Flipped Classroom
We were not aware of this term when we started to practice it, but found it quite effective. The idea is that we delivered a lecture on video. The 20-minute video addresses four main points. The students watch the video before class. In class, four random students are called upon to introduce one of the four topics and lead a discussion around it for 20 minutes.


Students remained engaged from start to finish and consistently demonstrated a fluent command of the material covered. Over 70% put in the extra hours to earn their badges. Their blog projects showed daily progress as they applied their lessons online. Most students set up and ran an average of four additional online assets to support their blog.

The leading student blog this year tallied up 32,749 unique visitors organically (without the aid of paid media) over a period of 47 days. Combined, the student blogs attracted a total of 201,554 unique visitors who racked up 475,337 page views over that same period. Not bad considering these blogs started from nothing and operated without a promotional budget. Moreover, accomplishing this on Tumblr is a feat in itself (like swimming the English Channel with your hands tied). Most teams met daily and posted several times a day. As impressive as the results was listening to the teams explain their analytics and describe what worked, what didn’t and what they learned in the process.

Overall, feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive. The course has a lot of moving parts and explaining them all clearly at the outset is important. This caused some confusion. Students suggested a new Facebook tab where everything was laid out in one place. They also suggested a number of other excellent ways to improve the Brand Base platform based on what they had learned over the semester (physician heal thyself).

What I Learned

  • Teaching does not guarantee learning. 
  • The flipped classroom taught me that students can often explain my ideas much more eloquently than I can. 
  • Peer-to-peer interaction taught me that my main role wasn’t so much to teach, but to facilitate interaction between students and then get out of their way so they can learn from each other. 
  • If the students are engaged they will give very little push back in terms of the amount of time you require from them. This course requires at least twice as much time and commitment as conventional courses. Yet, after three years, we’ve only received a few complaints regarding the amount of effort we require from students.
  • Don’t underestimate an engaged student. We set many of our goals for the students based on what we would expect from a professional marketer under similar circumstances. They left these benchmarks in the dust.
  • Learning by doing works. 
  • Measurement, transparency and competition provide unreal motivation. We saw a corresponding drop in performance in cases where we have reduced these accountability factors.   
  • A course like this that incorporates heavy social media interaction can generate millions of positive impressions for the institution running the course. We hope to develop this more moving forward.
  • Gamification works and motivated students tend to dedicate many extra hours to the course voluntarily.
  • The standard approach of lecturing to graduate students may not be completely broken, but for many courses it is certainly dysfunctional and needs to be re-examined and augmented with new thinking and approaches.    

There is still plenty of room for improvement in this course, but so far Veronika and I are very encouraged by the progress made by our students. I’d love to hear your feedback on the course or input from your own experiences as a teacher or student. 

Like this post? You'll find more marketing insights in my new book: International Brand Strategy: A guide to achieving global brand growth, now available from booksellers globally. Order your copy here.

Sean Duffy | @brandranter
Speaker, consultant & founder of Duffy Agency, the flipped digital agency that provides accelerated growth to aspiring international brands.