In 2019, we interviewed Dr. Michael Weigold, who was the Director of Distance Education for the College of Journalism and Communications (CJC) at the University of Florida, about UF’s online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program. Dr. Weigold, who is currently the Undergraduate Program Director for CJC Online, is no longer the director for the online graduate program. Therefore, this interview has been archived for historical purposes. Students interested in learning more about the online MA in Mass Communication program should read our interview with Dr. Evan Kropp, who is the current graduate program director for the online MA in Mass Communication program.
About Michael Weigold, Ph.D.: Michael F. Weigold is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs and Enrollment Management for the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, where he also serves as Director of Distance Education. As Associate Dean, Dr. Weigold advises students within the College, and as Director he leads the direction of the College’s online master’s program and helps to establish the frameworks for evaluating and developing the graduate program curriculum. Under his management, the Online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program has grown both in terms of its offered specializations and its student enrollment. As a Professor in the Department of Advertising, Dr. Weigold also teaches classes in advertising principles and strategies, and conducts research on health and science communication, as well as strategic communication. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Florida’s Online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does it prepare students for a wide variety of careers in strategic communication, multimedia storytelling, media management, and more?
[Dr. Weigold] The philosophy of our program is professional transformation. Through each of our specializations, we aim to provide students with a strong skillset that will help them to increase their efficacy and assume greater leadership roles in their current job, and/or to find better or more meaningful jobs that align with their interests.
One of our first priorities in the curriculum is to teach our students how to exercise a leadership role in every important area of communication, and how to integrate the latest communication technologies into the design and execution of impactful communication strategies. With digital technology, the landscape is so different now, and with this continuing evolution comes many exciting opportunities to adapt and expand our program to prepare students for the next frontier in mass communication. We currently have eight master’s specializations.
Audience Analytics is about telling stories from data. One of the really important things for any organization right now is to be able to understand what their consumers are doing, where they are shopping, and what kinds of content interest them on the Internet. The Audience Analytics specialization has programming courses as a part of the curriculum.
Digital Strategy is about lead generation and engaging with audiences, whether your audience members are new prospects, existing prospects, or current customers. In this concentration, we teach students about effective use of email, how to write great copy, and the other steps you need to complete to effectively connect with audiences in the digital space.
Global Strategic Communication is about global problem-solving, which means using communication to solve international problems, be they the status of women or migrants, global education, stopping sex trafficking, or advancing other forms of social justice. One of our instructors for this concentration actually teaches and lives in Rwanda. This concentration attracts students who are passionate about international social issues, and who want to exercise a leadership role in the global arena to address these problems.
Political Communication is about all of the changes that have taken place in today’s society in the areas of political parties, political campaigns, and candidates, and how to be an effective lobbyist and political writer. We have someone who has done extensive work for U.S. senators and governors who leads this program.
Public Relations delves deeply into modern public relations. The way that is practiced today is often very different from what many programs teach. This specialization is led by someone who works for the second largest public relations firm in the United States, APCO. We also have professional partnerships with the APCO public relations firm, where we invite some of their professionals to teach as instructors and guest lecturers. Students have the opportunity to do APCO internships. So we have a very close and productive relationship there.
Public Interest Communications is about understanding how to use communication for social good. We have a professor here at the University of Florida named Ann Christiano, who is a national figure in public interest communications. She puts on an annual conference called the Frank Conference here in Gainesville that attracts people nationwide, and her students benefit both from her professional network and the insights she has gained during her many years in this space.
Social Media is founded on the idea that smart organizations of any size, from small businesses to multinational corporations, need an effective and engaging social media program in order to connect effectively with stakeholders. We teach them the creative tools, as well as the metrics for understanding whether and how their social media content is affecting their bottom line.
Web Design and Online Communications is our oldest and largest specialization, and it is about training students to become effective front-end web developers, as well as cogent and impactful communicators. The classes for this specialization are a mixture of deep dive creative content classes, and coding experiences that students need to be a front-end developer for just about any company or organization.
In addition to these master’s-level specializations, we have five graduate certificates in Global Strategic Communication, Media Sales, Social Media, and Web Design. We also have a new certificate in User Experience, which is about making sure user experiences are optimized across various platforms. The graduate certificate programs are four classes each, and are essentially comprised of the concentration coursework of our specializations.
The certificate programs are ideal for students who want a short course of study that will give them a directly applicable set of skills that can help them immediately in their job. Additionally, students who complete their certificate and then decide that they want to earn their master’s degree can apply to our master’s program, and if they are admitted, they can apply the coursework from their certificate to their master’s degree.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A lot of the concentrations offered through the University of Florida’s Master of Arts in Mass Communication program are highly interdisciplinary. Do students take classes outside of the College of Journalism and Communication, or are all classes housed in the College?
[Dr. Weigold] We offer all of the classes for the specializations through the College of Journalism and Communication, and we are able to do so because we work with instructors who are also professionals in their field of instruction. We identify professionals in the industries relevant to our specializations and certificates. We find that this accomplishes a number of good things. First, it ensures that our curriculum is as current as it needs to be. If you are not current, particularly in the field of communication, you are wasting people’s time. Secondly, it introduces students to the technologies and tools that they need to be successful in their careers. We have about 40-50 different instructors who are also active professionals, and we offer classes throughout the year.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What online technologies does the University of Florida’s online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program use to facilitate student engagement with course faculty and peers?
[Dr. Weigold] In all of our classes, we use the latest and most effective learning technologies. Almost all of our programs use a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and we encourage and reward online interaction through Zoom, which is a learning management system. Zoom offers a lot of capabilities, and all students need is a microphone and a webcam. We offer live experiences and try to make them as flexible as possible in terms of scheduling. It also allows us to bring advisory council members and guest lecturers from industry into classrooms to tell students what is happening in the industries and fields they are studying. One other great feature that Zoom has is its ability to record transcripts of everything that is said in a class, which means that our class modules are ADA compliant and compatible with students who cannot attend the live session due to their work or family obligations.
Zoom has capabilities where you can have a class of 50 students and have all of them engaged in the class or discussion at hand. Our Web Design and Online Communications Specialization in particular embraces live sessions because this specialization is highly creative, and creatives need to talk with each other and show each other their work. So in a Web design class, an instructor can use Zoom to display the work a student has done to the whole class, and can also arrange breakout rooms so students can have smaller group discussions before returning to the classroom and presenting what they have discussed.
We also work with an organization that provides experiential learning, and strongly encourage our instructors to work with real clients so that students are not just reading about class concepts in an abstract way, but rather learn how to apply the concepts they learn directly within the context of a team project working with real clients.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of the University of Florida’s Online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program must complete a Capstone Project as their final graduation requirement. Could you elaborate on this project, and what it entails?
[Dr. Weigold] All of our Capstone classes have a common theme in that they involve students working with a real client. The classes are led by faculty who are especially skilled at managing the relationships between students and clients. Students start by conducting a situation analysis for the client, and then they prepare a set of deliverables that the client can implement. The Capstone is also an opportunity to bring together students from different specializations. So this is an instance in which we will bring Digital Strategy, Social Media, Web Design, and other specializations together on one team so that the client gets expertise and potential solutions from students with a variety of backgrounds. Oftentimes, the client is so impressed with students’ work that they will hire students out of the class.
All of the Capstone projects are completed through group work, and this is by design, because all the members of our advisory council have reiterated the importance of people who know how to work optimally in teams. During their work on their project, students have the mentorship of the Capstone course instructor. In addition, each program specialization has a graduate director who meets with each student at least once a semester.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Florida’s Online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?
[Dr. Weigold] Faculty mentorship is core to how our program operates. We have a very good advising ratio of about one advisor per 70 students, so each student gets a lot of feedback and support from their course instructors and from their graduate director.
In addition, we also have a career and student success coach, who helps students with any non-academic matters, from their career goals to any personal challenges, such as family, work, or general stress. This coach works one-on-one with students to help them develop concrete plans for success. For our online students who are looking for jobs, our coach provides resume workshopping, interview preparation, and support in planning and navigating one’s career path. Finally, we have a Career Connection Center that is a university-wide service that connects students to jobs and supports them one-on-one in career matters.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in the University of Florida’s online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Weigold] Applicants should generally have a cumulative undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher, and currently we do require students to submit GRE scores, though we are considering waiving that requirement. We require letters of recommendation and a statement of purpose, and we scrutinize those aspects of the application. What we are looking for is a good match—we want students to explain to us who they are, what their goals are, and how the Master of Arts in Mass Communication will help them to achieve their goals. The most convincing statements of purpose are the ones that show us the student understands the degree and how it is going to help them, and which articulate the specific outcomes they are looking for.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Florida’s online Master of Arts in Mass Communication program unique, and particularly strong graduate degree options for students? How do these programs prepare students for advanced careers in communication leadership and strategy across a variety of fields?
[Dr. Weigold] We know who we are and what we want to do, by which I mean we are highly professionally focused. The students who benefit the most from our program have a very clear sense of professional life, and want a partner that will support them in both the short-term and the long-term as they earn their degree. In keeping with that goal, we provide all of our students with a lifelong learning program called Master Access, which allows students with their master’s degree to continue taking classes if they wish for the rest of their lives, for a very low price of $500 a year. This continuing education is our way of helping ensure our students’ professional development long after they graduate. We don’t see a master’s degree as something that, once you’re done with it, you have all the competencies you need. We like to think that we support students throughout their professional careers, and we’re determined to do so in any way we can.
The diversity of the program is also definitely a strength. Currently, we have close to 250 online students, and I would say that they are diverse in every sense of the word. Most of our students come from the state of Florida, but a third are from out of state and even overseas. We’ve had students who are in the military, who were deployed and couldn’t disclose what their location was. We’ve had students with over ten years of professional and leadership experience, and students who come in soon after their undergraduate with very little professional background. I think our youngest student so far has been in her early twenties, while our oldest student is 60. There is a great diversity of experiences.
What that means is you’re not just talking to somebody who reflects your own life experience when you’re in class–you’re talking to people who have a mixture of life experiences, skills, and values. We’ve been very successful in attracting students from underrepresented groups, which we love as it makes all students’ learning experience that much richer.
Thank you, Dr. Weigold, for your excellent insight into the University of Florida’s Master of Arts in Mass Communication program!