Interview with Andrew Selepak, Ph.D. - Program Coordinator for the Graduate Programs in Social Media Offered by the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida
About Andrew Selepak, Ph.D.: Dr. Andrew Selepak is the Program Coordinator for the online Master of Arts in Mass Communication (MAMC) program with a specialization in Social Media offered by the College of Journalism and Communications (CJC) at the University Florida (UF), and for the Graduate Certificate in Social Media that is also offered by the CJC. In addition to his role as Program Coordinator, Dr. Selepak teaches in the Department of Media Production, Management, and Technology at UF, and teaches courses on digital communication research methods, media ethics, multimedia sports reporting, social media, and entertainment storytelling.
Dr. Selepak earned his doctorate in Mass Communication at the University of Florida. In addition, he holds a Master of Arts (MA) in Communication from George Mason University (GMU), and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in American History from the University of Virginia (UVA).
[GraduateCertificates.com] How long have you been involved with the Graduate Certificate in Social Media offered by the University of Florida?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] The social media program started in the summer of 2013. We offered two classes that first semester: a research methods course and a theory course. I was teaching the research methods course, and about a month into the first semester, I was offered the opportunity to be the Program Coordinator. So, I have been involved from the very start.
[GraduateCertificates.com] What courses are currently part of the graduate certificate program, and what are the learning outcomes you are looking for with the program?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] Currently, the four classes we have in the certificate are Introduction to Social Media, Introduction to Multimedia Communications, Social Media Management, and Branding Using Social and Mobile Media. The learning outcomes for the graduate certificate are directly related to the skills and knowledge a person would need to work in social media.
The Introduction to Social Media course covers a little bit of everything. It covers the history of how we got to where we are right now with the Internet. It gets into the ethics of social media and of using social media. We also look at the impact of social media on other fields, like journalism, public relations, and advertising. It covers issues like data privacy. The course is designed to give the students a foundation of knowledge upon which to build.
It is important to realize that people are coming into the graduate certificate program with varying levels of experience in social media. The outcome we are looking for in the intro to social media course is to provide a baseline understanding of social media so that all of our students, regardless of their background or level of experience, are prepared for the program’s other courses. It is a way to create a common starting point for all our students.
We want our students to learn how to create social media content, including video and multimedia content for social media marketing. In the Introduction to Multimedia Communication course, students learn how to shoot videos, how to edit videos, and how to do video storytelling. The course also covers Photoshop and the use of visual images in social media. Students who complete the course should be proficient in social media content creation and know how to create content that resonates with an audience.
The Branding Using Social and Mobile Media course gets into the idea that social media does not exist in a vacuum; it encompasses a little bit of everything. Social media is the web, it’s the internet of things (IoT), it’s dating apps. With the branding course we are looking at the impact of social media across the board, and the relationship of social media to an organization’s website and to its larger brand. The course examines all of a brand’s touchpoints with the consumer and not only how a brand needs to stay consistent across all of its marketing collateral, but also why this is important.
The Social Media Management course reinforces the idea that every company, business, or brand needs a social media and online strategy. In the course, students learn how to apply best practices to a social media campaign and use data to create effective social media content. These skills allow students to learn how to create a social media strategy and pitch a campaign to a client or their boss. Another thing I really like about the course is that students are also creating real-world content where they explain best practices, social media management tools, and the effectiveness of social media marketing, which then also gives them a nice portfolio and helps showcase their social media knowledge and skills.
We know that our students are coming from everywhere with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests. We don’t have students who are just interested in social media marketing. We have journalists, people who work in e-commerce, and members of the military. They are all using social media to push traffic to a website to get people to do something: buy a product, donate money, sign up for a newsletter, or even build their personal brand. Working in social media requires understanding the overall brand, identifying what the brand is trying to accomplish, having a clear idea or conception of how social media content is linked to the brand’s overall web presence, and then being able to evaluate the success of your work in order to adjust and adapt.
[GraduateCertificates.com] Would it be accurate to say that the curriculum is designed to prepare students to go out and get a job handling the social media functions of a company or an organization?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] We have students who are currently working in social or digital media, and they are trying to advance in their career. We have students who are looking to move out of the industry in which they are currently working by adding social media to their skillset. We have students who are working in marketing and who might have studied marketing but who did not learn social media skills when they were in school. So, we get people from different backgrounds in terms of what they have and have not learned about social media. People who graduated from college before 2011 may have studied digital marketing, but social media probably wasn’t something they learned about. People who did not study communication in school probably don’t have a background in social media regardless of their major.
If someone has no experience with social media marketing, then taking the four courses that comprise the certificate program probably isn’t going to get that person hired to do social media marketing for Coca Cola. But if you are working in marketing, and you have some understanding of the principles of marketing, then this is going to give you the tools you need to add social media marketing to your skillset.
[GraduateCertificates.com] In terms of learning outcomes, what do you see as the major difference between the social media graduate certificate program and the Master of Arts in Mass Communication program?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] The certificate will provide students with a solid base in social media. Depending on what their career goals are, they may need more skill development and learning, and therefore would apply for the master’s degree. The certificate provides a strong foundation in social media marketing. So, if you’re working for a news organization, you may not need all the skills covered in the full master’s degree because you’re not trying to sell a product; you are just trying to drive traffic to your website. But if you’re selling subscriptions for a news organization, then you’re going to want to be able to do more than just drive traffic. You’re going to want to be able to track conversions, understand more about social media metrics, and develop full social media campaigns. That may require the additional training you get in the master’s program.
The MAMC builds on the skills learned in the certificate program and provides additional depth and background to add to the student’s understanding of social media. For example, in the MAMC, students take a social media theory course that shows how and why different forms of communication are effective based on empirical research. Understanding why individuals respond the way they do to messages helps create more effective messaging.
We also have a class called Social Media and Emerging Technologies. It focuses on the next technological innovations in digital: the internet of things (IoT), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR). Students finish the MAMC with a capstone project where they create a full social media campaign from start to finish, including evaluating an entire brand based on its strengths, weaknesses, and the opportunities to grow. The capstone project makes for a bookend of everything they have learned in the program and serves as a portfolio piece for potential employers.
[GraduateCertificates.com] Can you offer a snapshot of where you think we are right now in the field of social media in the context of the graduate certificate program and how has the program has adapted to address specific changes?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] Obviously, the industry and the field of social media are evolving every day, and we see that all the time. The program has to keep up with that. What we were teaching when the program started is not the same as what we are teaching today. That being said, we can’t focus exclusively on what is happening right now because we know that is likely to change tomorrow. So, the program evolves to meet those changes and the needs of the students. We draw on feedback from students, instructors, and from our advisory council to help make those adjustments.
What I think is really helpful for our students is that our instructors are all working professionals. They are working in social media every day and they see the changes as they occur because it impacts their work. They can then talk about these changes in the classroom in real time as they are happening. So, if Twitter or Instagram adds a new feature, or removes a feature, the instructors are on top of it because they have to be for their jobs. Then not only can they discuss these changes in the classroom, but they can also discuss the challenges caused by a platform adding or removing a feature and how that impacted a campaign or a promotion they were working on. It really brings everything full circle that social media is constantly changing and requires skills like adaptability and problem solving.
The need to be creative, adapt, and solve problems as they arise are all soft skills needed to work in social media, and students develop these skills in assignments while learning how to create effective content that increases brand awareness, earns higher engagement, and converts into sales. In the Introduction to Multimedia Communication course, students learn how to create video content that grabs the audience’s attention and then highlights and sells a brand. We know the importance of video on social media, and students learn the skills and techniques to create video content that tells a story and converts an audience into customers.
[GraduateCertificates.com] Are there other prerequisites for the certificate program or other characteristics you are looking for as part of the admissions process?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] You need to have a 3.0 GPA. That’s something you can see on the website and that everyone should know before applying. We look at recommendation letters. We look at applicants’ statements of purpose to get a sense of why they want to be in the program and what they want to achieve.
We are looking for candidates who are motivated. The applicants who are able to articulate a clear rationale for why they want to be in the program in their statement of purpose are conveying something about their determination to put in the work. Those are the students who have thought it through and come to the conclusion that they want to be in this program because it will help them with what they want to do next. When that comes through in an applicant’s statement of purpose, it can make a big difference.
[GraduateCertificates.com] How is the program formatted and what does taking graduate courses online look like for students who are in your program? For example, do you utilize synchronous instruction or is most or all of the coursework delivered via asynchronous instruction?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] When the program started, the courses were 100% asynchronous. The great benefit of asynchronous courses is that it allows students the opportunity to work at their own pace and watch lectures at any time, regardless of whether it’s two in the morning or two in the afternoon. This also makes it easier to accommodate a broad range of students living around the world in different time zones.
What we learned as the program evolved is that we let the instructor decide if they will include live sessions if they think it is advantageous for the students depending on the complexity of the topics. The advantage we have is that we can offer the opportunity for asynchronous and live learning. For example, if an instructor is teaching Photoshop, it works better in real-time because the instructor can show the class how to do something and then have individual students share their screens while they work through it. Offering real-time feedback is a definite advantage in situations like that.
What we have tried to do is to create a format where we acknowledge that it can be difficult for students who don’t live on the East Coast to log on for live classes, while also accounting for the advantages of teaching certain skills in real-time. As a result, most of our courses have a couple of live sessions each semester. Those sessions are recorded and made available asynchronously to students who are unable to participate in real-time. So, we combine asynchronous instruction with some synchronous instruction in order to get the benefits of both.
The goal with all of the things we are doing in the program is to prioritize what we believe the students should be learning and to teach those things as effectively as we can.
[GraduateCertificates.com] On the issue of value, how do you think an academic graduate certificate in social media compares to or is different from professional certificates and certifications offered by industry entities such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Hootsuite?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] I’ve taken certificates offered by Google, LinkedIn Learning, and Hootsuite. With those certificates, you are a passive consumer of content. You are just watching videos and there may be some quizzes you have to pass to get your certificate, but you are not interacting with anyone. The biggest difference between those certificates and what a student experiences in our program is feedback from instructors. The students in our program complete assignments, create social media campaigns, and put together projects, and there is always an instructor evaluating their work and giving feedback. Industry certifications don’t provide that personalized feedback or engagement.
There is also value in getting graduate credits, which industry certifications do not confer. The credits a student earns in our certificate program can be applied toward our master’s degree. There’s also value in having a certificate from a Top Five public university like the University of Florida. But the big benefit, in my opinion, is the individual feedback that you receive in a program like ours. In fact, our average class size is about 18 students which allows the instructor to have more hands-on interactions with students and the ability to provide detailed feedback on assignments.
That doesn’t happen in the large industry certificate programs because providing feedback isn’t practical on the scale that Google and LinkedIn Learning are operating. We don’t have classes with 10,000 students. Once you get to that size, everything has to be automated. You end up with lectures that were recorded a couple of years ago and multiple-choice quizzes that are easy enough for most people to pass.
Now, I can use the Google Analytics certificate for free and I can assign that to my students if I think it will be useful. We do incorporate some of those industry certificates into our classes. We are able to work with these companies and offer these certificates at a steep discount or even for free to our students as an additional benefit.
A Google Analytics or a Google AdWords certificate is great. But it only provides specific knowledge in one area. There is so much to learn when it comes to online and social media, and that is what students learn in a program like ours.
We are looking at the whole field of social media, at AR and VR, at websites, at the internet of things (IoT), at the ethics of social media and the growth of the various platforms. It’s a huge field and Google Analytics, to use one example, is just a tiny part of it.
[GraduateCertificates.com] Having benchmarks and providing students with feedback is certainly important. From what you have said about the courses in your program, it sounds like you also prioritize responding in a timely fashion to changes in the social media ecosphere. Is that fair to say?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] With social media, things can change pretty quickly. But our instructors stay on top of all the latest trends and changes in social media because they literally have to for their jobs. Our instructors all work in social media and teach in our program because they have a passion for teaching and want to give back. Their passion is not just in lecturing and teaching about social media but also in their interactions with students. Our instructors bring real time and real-world experience into the classroom, and the feedback they provide on assignments and the examples they discuss in lecture comes from working in the ever-evolving world of social media. Assignment feedback, class discussions, and live classes all give students and instructors the opportunity to engage with one another and learn from one another.
We also expect instructors to provide feedback on assignments within a week of them being submitted. Timely feedback is important because often assignments and lectures build off one another. So, getting detailed feedback in a timely manner helps the students know if they are on track and if the work they are doing is of the quality expected in a graduate program at the University of Florida. Because of our smaller class sizes, our instructors can give timely detailed feedback on assignments, which isn’t possible in those industry certification programs.
[GraduateCertificates.com] What role does instructor mentorship play in the graduate certificate program? In addition to faculty advising and feedback, are there any additional academic support systems in place for students of the graduate certificate program?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] Our students receive support from a team of graduate student advisors, a student success coach, and of course from our instructors. Our advisors help students plan their course schedule, send out reminders about registration and graduation, and offer the general assistance that any on-campus student would receive. They are also available during the application process for potential students to answer questions and provide assistance.
We recognize the importance of providing our online students with the same experience and resources as our on-campus students, and they have access to all of the same university resources. For example, the College of Journalism and Communications has a dedicated librarian that all of our students can contact for assistance with research or to find resources for their studies. We also have a Director of Careers and Corporate Partnerships in our College that works with companies looking to recruit top talent and seek out our graduates for those students looking to start a new career or change careers.
Then of course there are our instructors. As I have already mentioned, our instructors are all working professionals with connections to various industries. Due to the close relationships that our instructors develop with students because we have smaller classes, students have the opportunity to network with their instructors, guest speakers, and one another. We really encourage student interaction because we understand that networking isn’t just a vertical process, but it is horizontal as well, and connecting with student peers in our classes is a great way to learn about new opportunities.
[GraduateCertificates.com] The social media graduate certificate program is one of four graduate certificate programs offered through the CJC, with the others being Audience Analytics, Global Strategic Communication, and Web Design. Is it your sense that graduate certificate programs are a particularly good fit for highly specialized areas within a larger field like communication?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] A graduate certificate is a great way to quickly upskill and demonstrate expertise to an employer or gain important skills that can be incorporated into someone’s current job. Our graduate certificate focuses on the major key areas and skills that someone would need for the growing number of tech jobs that are so in demand for many companies.
What we have seen is that the certificate is a great opportunity for a variety of students. Some students already have an advanced degree in another area and don’t want to pursue a full master’s degree but need the skills they learn in our certificate program. Others may have finished their undergraduate degree and taken a job, but find themselves in need of skills and knowhow that were not covered in their undergraduate degree. Some want a graduate certificate to set themselves apart from other job candidates who may only have a bachelor’s degree.
There are also those who just don’t want to be left behind. Maybe they finished college years ago before social media was so prominent and didn’t learn about it when they were in school, and they want the education and expertise that they don’t have. We also have people who want to be part of the University of Florida. The University of Florida is not only a Top Five public university, but it is also a beloved institution and brand, and people want to be part of the Gator Nation.
[GraduateCertificates.com] Is there anything you’d like to add about the social media graduate certificate program?
[Dr. Andrew Selepak] We place a lot of stress on keeping the social media program current. That comes from suggestions that are made by students, instructors in the program, and our advisory council, who are continually in touch with trends in the field. That makes it easier for us to respond to changes in the real world of social media, which is a tremendous advantage in social media and any other field where things are constantly and rapidly evolving.
I think what is important to remember is that our program is not about teaching students how to use platforms. This is not a certificate in Facebook. We are teaching them how to use social media. Social media is about content creation, building a brand, understanding audiences, and crafting effective messages to reach those target audiences. We teach students how to measure the success of their efforts and make adjustments to succeed with their advertising, public relations, marketing, and media messages.
Our program is really about understanding this new way of communicating where the consumer is not a passive audience being bombarded with messages. They are active and engaged and participating in the discussion like never before. So, our classes cover areas like social listening and social monitoring, learning how to engage in conversations and not just sales messages, community building, and presenting your brand as a solution.
We do all of this through active learning. Students are not only learning best practices and learning them from people who are actively employing them in their careers, but they are also creating their own content and campaigns with feedback from instructors. Social media is a whole new world compared to how communication was understood and taught just a decade ago, and our goal is to prepare students for this world.
At the end of the day, we know that our success is dependent on the success of our students, and we want to give them the skills and training to achieve that success in their current or future careers.
Thank you, Dr. Andrew Selepak, for taking the time to provide such valuable insights on the College of Journalism and Communications’ online graduate programs in social media.
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