About Rachelle Biderman: Rachelle Biderman is the Director of the Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication at The University of Iowa. As Director, Ms. Biderman advises students, plans the program’s curriculum, and supervises adjunct faculty. She also conducts course evaluations, works with students on externships, and teaches several courses in the program. Prior to her role at The University of Iowa, Ms. Biderman taught communication at Hawkeye Community College, specializing in intercommunication, mass media, diversity in media, and public speaking. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies and her Master of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Northern Iowa.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of The University of Iowa’s online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Rachelle Biderman] The Master’s in Strategic Communication is an ideal program for working communication professionals who want to expand their skills and progress from executing on communication strategies to planning and building communication strategies. Students take four core courses that give them the foundational skills in strategic communication writing, research, and planning. These courses are Foundations of Strategic Communication, Strategic Communication Writing, Strategic Communications Research, and Digital Strategic Communication.
The Foundations of Strategic Communication course is really a survey course that exposes students to the many different avenues they can pursue through their electives. We talk about strategic communication campaigns in health care contexts, political communication contexts, corporate communications and mass media, and social media, for example. Students learn about the different types of strategic communication, from press releases to social media posts and organizational communication plans. The Strategic Communication Writing course focuses on the principles and methods of persuasive communication, such as the persuasive essay, opinion pieces, public relations announcements, and blog posts/social media content.
For the Strategic Communications Research course, the goal is to train students to design research studies, analyze their target audience, and then use their findings to implement or influence strategies. This course emphasizes using evidence to identify ideal tactics for a particular situation or goal. Students also learn how to assess strategic communications for efficacy using various research methods. The Digital Strategic Communication course focuses on the role that digital strategy should play in one’s overall communication goals for an organization.
After these core courses, students have the flexibility to take 15 credits of electives in any areas that interest them within our department. We have courses that focus specifically on copywriting, risk communication, health care communication, media management, political communication, and communication leadership. Students can also take an externship for course credit. We also allow students to take courses outside of our department, which is a great benefit. For example, students interested in political campaigns could take classes from the Political Science Department. We have a lot of students who focus on internal strategic communications, and we also have a fair number of students who focus in health or political communication as we have robust offerings in those areas. We seek to make the program as customizable as possible to accommodate the diverse interests of our student body.
The final requirement of the program is a capstone project, and students take the Capstone Project in Strategic Communication course that gives them the opportunity to work on their projects under the guidance of a faculty member. The capstone course is also an opportunity for students to workshop their project amongst their peers, and to reflect on where they started in the program and where they are now. During their capstone, students look back on their academic experience with a critical eye and evaluate what they have learned.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have more details on how The University of Iowa uses online instruction technologies to deliver course content and facilitate discussions between faculty and students?
[Rachelle Biderman] One of the things that makes our program stand out is that it is a synchronous online program, by which I mean students meet with their instructor in real-time every week for classes. We use a really great platform that allows for face-to-face instruction, and even allows us to create breakout “rooms” for discussion groups. Students do real-time presentations, and develop really strong friendships because of this synchronous element. They also receive direct mentorship from our faculty members.
In a given class, faculty might spend 10-20 percent of the synchronous session on lecturing, and then students discuss a case study they have read and complete an interactive activity. Throughout the courses we prioritize hands-on learning and encourage students to integrate what they have experienced and achieved in their jobs into their discussions and assignments. Most of our students have at least five years’ experience in the communication field, so what they are learning in our program they can directly apply to their responsibilities. Our coursework and their job go hand in hand, and we designed them to be complementary. In addition to receiving instructor feedback and guidance, students also benefit from a lot of peer review as a result of the real-time nature of the discussions. Each assignment that students have is typically reviewed by the other people in the class, so there is a lot of interaction and peer-to-peer support.
In between synchronous class meetings, students complete assignments and conduct readings asynchronously. We also try to integrate opportunities for students to meet and network face-to-face at least several times during their enrollment. For example, we invite all students to attend the annual graduation celebration, and we also hold an event in Des Moines every fall as a lot of our students are from this region.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on the Capstone Project requirement for students of this program? What are the required deliverables for this project, and what steps must students take to complete them?
[Rachelle Biderman] For the Capstone course, as with all of our other courses, students meet with the instructor and their peers every week. During each class session, they examine a different case study, and take turns leading a class discussion about it. Students also work on their projects in this class, and we ask them to think critically about how these case studies apply to their research projects. We encourage students to use the capstone project as an opportunity to explore an issue that really interests them, or to work on something they want to have in their portfolio. For example, I have a student who worked in education, and he is doing a case study of how a local school responded to an alleged harassment and molestation charge. He developed his own case study analyzing the communication dynamics and effects of this situation, and presented it at the end of the semester.
In addition to their capstone project, we require students to develop an e-portfolio of artifacts that represent their fulfillment of their learning outcomes. When students start the program, I talk with them about their objectives. One of the first assignments that students have in the program is creating their own Learning Path, which is a map that helps them determine the electives that align with their personal and professional goals. We want them to navigate their tenure in the program with a lot of intention, and guide them in asking themselves questions such as, “What do I want my learning outcomes to be?” Students then identify five or so outcomes and try to fulfill these outcomes and represent them in their online portfolio.
We use a rubric to guide them in what they should generally include, but students can be very creative about it. The e-portfolio is in itself an educational tool because it helps students formulate their game plan from the beginning. We provide a lot of structure for them in their development of the portfolio.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The University of Iowa’s online MA in Strategic Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?
[Rachelle Biderman] Throughout their enrollment in the program, I am students’ main advisor. I meet with students at the start of the program to talk about their goals, and help them navigate their courses. Students also receive mentorship and support from their faculty through the face-to-face courses and online office hours. Our faculty are very hands-on and students benefit a great deal from the direct conversations they have with them.
Another unique aspect of our program that is also a great mentorship opportunity is our externship course. For this course, students work with me to identify organizations that would be a good fit, and then we reach out to these organizations to help them secure a temporary position. While I work with each student to help them, many of our students have actually already identified an organization and have connections that they want to leverage for the externship. The externship is good in that students benefit from an outside mentor in industry, and also check in regularly with me throughout the course. We are also working on partnering with the Iowa Research Center for Nonprofit Organizations to expand students’ options for the externship. While this feature is still a work in progress, the concept here is that students would have a portal on our website where non-profits would also list out opportunities within their organization. And students can filter for positions that align with their skills and interests.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for The University of Iowa’s online Master’s in Strategic Communication program?
[Rachelle Biderman] I strongly recommend that students have some professional experience prior to applying. Though it is not required, I feel that the students who get the most out of our program have some professional experience that gives them a context for the advanced concepts and strategies they learn. By which I mean the students who can take a class concept or a case study and apply it directly to their work make connections that students just coming out of their undergraduate degree cannot make as easily.
We are looking for applicants who have a good understanding of the field of communication, and what they want to do within that field. Students need to be able to articulate that clearly in their personal statements. This program is very industry focused—we do not generally train students to go on to a Ph.D. program. We therefore look for students who are interested in honing their writing craft for communications that are predominantly very clear, concise, and to the point.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes The University of Iowa’s online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Rachelle Biderman] I think our emphasis on strategic communication makes us unique, as we strike a very good balance between concrete tactical communication methods and zooming out to see the larger picture. I think that, a lot of the time, we can get overwhelmed at work or in our careers, and we live at the tactical level, firefighting every day just to get things done. And strategy takes a backseat. And this is what our program encourages students to resist—we give them the tools and the insight to understand their target audiences, and figure out how they will craft optimal messages that will resonate with their audience. The strategies students learn stand the test of time—even as technology continues to change, the core strategies remain the same. We focus on giving students a flexible set of skills that enable them to stay current in a rapidly changing field, and to be able to change and grow with it.
The synchronous nature of our program also makes us unique amongst many online programs that use more asynchronous instruction, which may be more flexible but does not allow for the kind of mentorship and connections that our face-to-face classes offer. Many asynchronous programs can be a bit of a static experience, whereas we really work to make our program dynamic, interactive, and rich with learning and mentorship opportunities. A lot of our students are going back to school after being out of school for a very long time, and they miss being in the classroom, joining in on discussions, and being part of intellectual conversations around topical issues. So our students really enjoy the synchronous element of our program.
And the final thing I would say is The University of Iowa is a very respected institution with a reputation for excellent undergraduate and graduate programs in writing and communication. Students receive the credibility of our institution, the flexibility of our online interface, and the individualized attention and mentorship that our committed faculty bring to the table. We are also highly responsive to student feedback. As the Graduate Coordinator, I solicit feedback from current and graduating students that we then incorporate into our plans to make our program better.
Thank you, Rachelle Biderman, for your excellent insight into The University of Iowa’s online Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication program!