Tag Archives: Online Learning

PRSSA During COVID-19: Examining the Challenges and Best Practices of Student Organization Management in an Online World

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted October 2, 2020. Revisions submitted April 12, 2021 & July 7, 2021. Accepted July 20, 2021. Published December 2021.


Amanda J. Weed, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Digital and Emerging Media 
School of Communication & Media
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA
Email: aweed2@kennesaw.edu

Adrienne A. Wallace, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Communications
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, MI,
Email: wallacad@gvsu.edu

Madison Griffin
Graduate Student
School of Communication & Media
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA
Email: mgrif133@students.kennesaw.edu

Karen Freberg

Karen Freberg, Ph.D.
Professor, Strategic Communication
Department of Communication
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY
Email: karen.freberg@louisville.edu


In the spring of 2020, much of the U.S. implemented a nationwide shutdown in response to the global pandemic COVID-19 that had a ripple effect on universities to close campuses. In the hard shift to online learning, many student organizations were left with little input about how to make their own transition to the digital realm. Through the lens of Self-Determination Theory, the following study surveyed current and recent PRSSA executive board members (n = 208) to gain insights about online chapter programming practices in the spring and fall terms of 2020, key concerns about online chapter management, and what online program training and resources are needed. Research-based best practices for online chapter management offer practical guidance for PRSSA chapters and support organizations to improve chapter leaders’ confidence and proficiency in producing online programming during COVID-19 and beyond.

Keywords: online organization, student organizations, zoom, online learning, self-determination theory, covid-19, PRSSA, Public Relations Student Society of America


In the spring of 2020, much of the United States (U.S). implemented a nationwide shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such drastic nationwide actions had not been taken since the Spanish Flu outbreak more than 100 years ago. As U.S. states issued stay-at-home orders, that had a ripple effect on universities to close campuses and send students home, often with little notice to students, faculty, and staff. While classes remained in session through online modalities, the robust campus life experience waned. In the hard shift to online learning, many student organizations were left with little input about how to make their own transition to the digital realm.

This study examined how one such student organization, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), fared with online programming during COVID-19 in the spring and fall terms of 2020. A nationwide questionnaire was distributed to PRSSA executive board (e-board) members to determine what programming strategies and communication tools were used by chapters, which individuals and organizations provided guidance with online programming planning, key concerns of e-board members, and what types of training they desired to effectively manage their chapters in the online environment. This research is the third paper in a trio of PRSSA and pedagogical-related papers that uses Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as a basis for study to serve as a practical guide for PRSSA chapters and support organizations in developing innovative chapter management solutions and collaborative partnerships that will build a thriving community during COVID-19 and beyond.

Literature Review

PRSSA in a Pre-COVID World
To study the effects of the pandemic on student organizations, the pre-pandemic structure of student organizations has to be established. Todd’s (2009) study of PRSSA, in particular, uncovered that professional advisers felt the organization would best serve students by acting as a bridge toward the professional world. That connection included having current PR practitioners assess student capstone projects, focusing on essential writing and web design skills. A look at the difference between universities with and without a PRSSA chapter illuminated the benefits of the organization even further. Previous research noted that faculty advisers considered PRSSA a “critical component” to the undergraduate experience and felt the organization had a responsibility to facilitate leadership development, provide aid in finding internships, and emulate real work practice before entering the field (Weed et al., 2020; Rogers, 2014). Apart from the applicability of the organization’s activities, students also joined and stayed in student organizations through self-determined motivations that stemmed from their needs being met (Filak & Pritchard, 2007). That implies students join PRSSA not only for the professional connections, but to build upon their personal goals as well.

Organization Issues in an Online World During COVID-19
In spring of 2020 universities were tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, driving PRSSA chapters to navigate a disrupted world in an attempt to #FlattenTheCurve (Merritt, 2020). Graduations were canceled. Classes were rushed into an online modality. Businesses also learned to navigate a 100% virtual work environment forcing students to “make the most of a summer without a traditional internship” (Charron, 2020, para. 1). Likewise, university extracurricular activities were also in unfamiliar territory. In April 2020, the PRSSA National Leadership Assembly was relegated to a virtual town hall with officer elections moved online (PRSA, 2020), Star Chapter requirements were reduced and amended to remove the high school outreach component, and for the first time in PRSSA history, the international conference took place online (PRSSA, 2020). PRSSA members and faculty advisers were attempting to navigate change and preparing for a “new normal” during a tumultuous time on campuses across the nation. This subsequently presented new challenges and opportunities to organizations run by volunteer students and faculty. 

Higher Education Issues
Very little was known pre-COVID-19 regarding how students, required to move to an online learning environment from an in-class learning environment, might react during a widespread emergency. Post COVID-19 the literature is starting to emerge concerning general online teaching and learning perspectives during COVID-19 suggesting lessons learned in updating online pedagogy to meet the needs of students (Coman et al., 2020; Hofer et al., 2021; Pokhrel & Chhetri, 2021; Rippé et al., 2021). Luckily, much attention has been paid in recent years toward student and faculty use of technology in the public relations classroom, in building community (Curtin & Witherspoon, 2000; Fraustino et al., 2015; Janoske et al., 2019; Kinsky et al., 2016; Kruger-Ross & Waters, 2013; McKeever, 2019; Moore, 2014; Tatone et al., 2017; Weed et al., 2018;) and to online teaching and learning in general (Martin, Stamper et al., 2020     ; Martin, Sun et al., 2020; Nilson & Goodson, 2018) to supplement as the body of knowledge continues to grow post-COVID-19; however, the literature does more to point out the flaws in the online learning system than the solutions (Albrahim, 2020; Morreale et al., 2021; Richardson et al., 2020). The teaching of faculty on how to transition online seems to be one of those missteps as sometimes faculty are left to figure out how to teach online completely on their own (Callo & Yazon, 2020; Lowenthal et al., 2019; Paul & Jefferson, 2019). 

Organizational Issues
COVID-19 presented numerous communication challenges to organizations as the traditional in-person workplace moved to remote work. In times of crises, subordinates turn to leaders for information, which heightens demands for effective communication of critical decisions (van der Meer et al., 2017; van Zoonen & van der Meer, 2015) much like PRSSA advisers and members might look to PRSSA National for solutions. Organizational issues pre-COVID-19 are only exacerbated during COVID-19. Thus, engaging now in thoughtful deconstruction of pre-COVID-19 practices can create deliberate and practical organizational improvement, even whilst forced through severe ecological conditions which present as “crisis” or misfortune. There may be hope that these online tools can contribute to organizational engagement in times of uncertainty. When looking at natural disasters that result in a shift to online learning, one study showed that a university became more resilient in its online education after a crisis event (Ayebi-Arthur, 2017). However, proper tools including bandwidth, internet equity, and access to digital devices are key components in guaranteeing that students do not miss educational opportunities during such a crisis (Dhawan, 2020). Ensuring proper equity toward online learning can be important for not only the students involved but the health of the overall learning organization. According to Coombs and Holladay (1996), effectively communicating to an organization’s public is crucial to the reputational and financial health of any organization, regardless of industry. In this instance, ensuring that effective communication is maintained between all educational participants is crucial in sustaining an online learning environment. 

Self-Determination Theory and Organization Management
When broken down to its basic ideology, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) looks at the psychological pull of an individual toward personal growth and the effect external forces have on the motivation toward that growth (Deci, 1975; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Motivation is important to examine as it is the catalyst to get work done (Ryan & Deci, 2000). SDT considers motivation based on a person’s motivation at any given time, as opposed to adopting motivation as a unitary concept in people (Deci, 1975). As PRSSA is a student-run organization, organizational leaders do not have the common motivating factor of financial-based compensation for their work and must find their intrinsic motivations for participation. Filak and Pritchard (2007) established the application of SDT in the context of PRSSA in a study of chapter advisers and members, and found that when the needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness were met through support from the faculty adviser, student members will more positively rate their chapter and adviser, and experience greater self-motivation to participate in the organization.  

White (1959) and deCharms (1968) proposed that motivating behavior is based on competence and autonomy. That the link between the basic needs of people and their motivations is based on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (Pritchard et al., 1977). Findings from Jang (2008) show the role that externally-provided rationales can play in helping students generate the motivation they need to engage in, and learn from, uninteresting but personally important material. That is critical to teaching and professional development in order to promote student motivation by promoting the value of the task, discover the experience’s hidden value, and communicate why it is personally useful to the participant. “Simply put, motivation is tantamount to a student’s ability to engage with the course information” (Ewing et al., 2019, p. 105). SDT research has been applied in pedagogy research to examine how needs are satisfied in face-to-face teaching and learning in relation to student motivation (Ahn et al., 2021; Davidson & Beck, 2019; Goldman et al., 2017; Lietaert et al., 2015; Pritchard et al., 1977; Roorda et al., 2011). 

Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness
Ryan and Deci (2000) proposed three psychological needs that are required for individual psychological health and well-being: a) competence (seek to control the outcome of a task and experience task mastery), b) autonomy (the desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self), and c) relatedness (the will to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring) (Deci, 1975). If competence is defined as self-efficacy, then the basic need for competence is the need of feeling knowledgeable about the environment in which one exists (White, 1959). In a structured organization, the need for competence is fostered by offering constructive feedback and showing organized progress through activities or projects (Martin et al., 2018). Autonomy can be viewed as the psychological need to experience the ownership of one’s actions (Chirkov, 2009). Therefore, true autonomy exists only when there is no control over individual actions in a given environment. Although true autonomy is not often possible in academic or work settings, autonomy support was shown more conducive to continued learning and personal success (Vansteenkiste et al., 2005), as well as self-determined motivation (Filak & Pritchard, 2007). Meaning, the more control that is put upon an individual in an environment, the less the need for autonomy is being met. When translated to an educational environment, autonomy can be supported through a self-paced environment with limited reward contingencies for participating (Martin et al., 2018). Relatedness directly corresponds with the need to feel like a part of one’s environment which relates to the innate human need for survival with others (van den Broeck et al., 2016). However, that need of relatedness does not require others to be physically present to be fulfilled and support motivation (Martin et al., 2018). Encouragement to participate or acknowledgement of involvement, even after the fact, can fulfill the need of relatedness.

The lack of fulfillment of those three basic psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness—will result in a decrease in the overall well-being of the individual (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and reduce the likelihood of further participation in the organization (Filak & Pritchard, 2007; Fisher et al., 2020). Alternatively, when an organization aids in fulfillment of these basic needs, participants tend to see an increase in well-being that is then reflected in increased motivations to succeed and continue personal growth (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Ryan & Deci (2000) found that conditions which enhanced perceptions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness positively affected self-determined motivation and sense of competence (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Deci et al., 1994). That is of significance for individuals who seek to motivate others in a way that gives way to vested interest, commitment, effort, and high-quality performance, much like pre-professional organizations would do (Deci et al., 2017). SDT argues that needs are innate but can be developed in a social context, much in the way student organizations integrate peer mentoring in a social context (Fisher et al., 2020).

Some people develop stronger needs than others, creating individual differences (Ryan & Deci, 2000). However, individual differences within the theory focus on concepts resulting from the degree to which needs have been satisfied or not satisfied (Pritchard et al., 1977). When participants experience growth, so does the organization. When the needs of the participants are fulfilled, the organization can then consider its own needs. Finally, of chief concern to SDT is the well-being of the individuals within the systems in which they participate. If the context in which participants are engaged in/with are responsive to those needs and provide the appropriate organizational structure in which participants can ascend without excessive control. Motivation and enhanced performance are what SDT would predict as participant engagement that can be sustained as a result (Kohn, 1990; Ryan & Deci, 2000). 

While the body of knowledge in public relations pedagogy addresses unique challenges and innovations in online learning, that research does not address the complexity of a student organization such as PRSSA. PRSSA is more than a supplement to classroom learning. It is an experiential learning lab that provides student leaders with valuable organizational management skills at the university, regional, and international levels. This study adds to the existing literature by exploring issues of online organization management, through the lens of SDT, by exploring the following questions:

RQ1: What were the common chapter management practices of PRSSA chapters during COVID-19?

RQ2a: How do the common concerns of PRSSA e-board members regarding online programming affect perceptions of competency in chapter management?

RQ2b: What resources or tools are desired by PRSSA e-board members to facilitate perceptions of autonomy in chapter management? 

RQ2c: What resources or tools are desired by PRSSA e-board members to foster relatedness with other organizations?

This study used an online questionnaire distributed to PRSSA executive board members who served in the spring semester of the 2019-2020 and Fall semester of the 2020-2021 academic years. Surveys have been previously used to study the perceptions of PRSSA members in realms of public relations curricula (Sparks & Conwell, 1998; Todd, 2009) and self-efficacy in public relations practice (Ranta et al., 2020). The timeline of this study began in the last half of August and ended in late September of 2020. Questions were asked in a way to capture data from respondents’ actual and anticipated policies regarding online classes and management of PRSSA chapters. The questionnaire was developed using Qualtrics software and distributed via a) emails to PRSSA faculty advisers and chapter presidents, b) private Facebook groups where faculty advisers were likely to be members, and c) social media posts that were directed to faculty advisers and PRSSA e-board members. Questionnaire protocols were approved by the respective institutional review boards of the authors. 

Study Population
The authors initially made a request with the PRSSA national office for a contact list of current PRSSA board members, but the request was denied due to proprietary rights. Next, the authors reviewed the PRSSA national chapter directory, which is publicly available through the PRSSA national website. Individual chapters are responsible for maintaining their directory listing, though it was unknown whether the contact information was current and accurate as no information was included with the chapter listing that indicated when it was last updated. While the PRSSA National Chapter Handbook (PRSSA, 2019) recommends a minimum of six executive board positions — president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, public relations director, and historian — the individual listing for PRSSA chapters from the national chapter directory often did not include contact information for all students who held those roles. In addition, it is unknown whether all PRSSA chapter e-boards included all positions recommended by the PRSSA national chapter handbook or if individual chapters had more e-board positions than were recommended.

Due to the above limitations, the authors developed an internal contact database of faculty advisers and chapter presidents, which were commonly included in the national directory listings for individual chapters. When faculty adviser and/or chapter president information was not available in the PRSSA chapter directory, the authors searched PRSSA chapter websites, chapter social media channels, and direct phone calls were made to university schools/departments that hosted PRSSA chapters. In total, 381 faculty advisers and 302 chapter presidents were identified at 370 U.S. university PRSSA chapters. Participants were recruited for the questionnaire through four distinct recruitment tactics implemented in August and September of 2020. First, the researchers sent two rounds of email invitations to PRSSA faculty advisers to share with their Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 e-board members. Second, the researchers sent an email invitation to PRSSA chapter presidents to share with their e-boards. Third, questionnaire invitations were posted on private Facebook groups such as PRSA Educators Academy, Student-Run Agency Advisers, and Faculty Advisers for PRSSA Chapters. In addition, researchers used directed tweets to promote the survey using the hashtag #PRSSA and tags for the accounts of PRSSA National, PRSA Educators Academy, and the AEJMC Public Relations Division. Finally, an email invitation was sent by the PRSSA national office to chapter presidents, and study promotion tweets were shared by the @PRSSANational account.

A qualifying question at the beginning of the questionnaire asked participants if they were an e-board member of their local PRSSA chapter in Spring 2020 or Fall 2020. In total, 208 respondents indicated they were a PRSSA e-board member. Those board members represented at least 69 PRSSA chapters located in all U.S. districts of PRSSA, for a response rate of 18.6% within chapters. As the authors were unable to access information that could determine the actual size of e-boards for all 370 U.S. university PRSSA chapters, an accurate response rate for the total population of e-board members could not be calculated.

Questionnaire Design 
The questionnaire included 40 items that measured five categories of information: a) general chapter information, b) completed and anticipated chapter programming practices for Spring and Fall 2020, c) areas of concern for PRSSA online programming, and d) resources used or desired for effective management of PRSSA online programming. Questions were developed with input from PRSSA faculty advisers who shared chapter management challenges that developed after many university campuses went to an online-only format during the Spring 2020 semester. No identifying information was collected, though respondents could opt-in for a $50 Amazon gift card drawing through a separate link using their university email addresses.

Online PRSSA Programming During COVID-19
Multiple-choice questions covered topics related to PRSSA chapter programming for Spring and Fall 2020 terms including: a) the quantity of Spring 2020 programming compared to Fall 2019, b) types of PRSSA online programming completed in Spring 2020 and planned to produce for Fall 2020. In addition, a unique question was added for the Spring 2020 e-board members to reflect on their PRSSA chapter’s effectiveness of online programming by providing a letter grade assessment.

Areas of Concern for Online PRSSA Programming
Participants identified up to 10 chapter management areas in which the respondent would want more resources and/or training. Three Likert scale questions asked the respondent’s level of confidence in meeting common chapter goals. Eight open-ended questions gained further insights about the respondent’s perception of how online programming would impact various aspects of PRSSA chapter management. Open-ended questions were surveyed for recurring key terms that were ranked by frequency of use.

Desired Resources for PRSSA Online Programming
Five Likert-scale questions assessed respondents’ level of agreement with statements related to how specific individuals or organizations—faculty adviser, university offices, school or department offices, PRSSA national leadership, and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) sponsor chapter—understood what their PRSSA chapter needed to successfully implement online programs. Three open-ended questions asked what support services the respondent’s PRSSA chapter needed from a) their university, b) their faculty and professional advisers, and c) PRSSA national leadership. Open-ended questions were surveyed for recurring related key terms that were ranked by frequency of use. For example, the key term “Zoom burnout” also included “Zoom fatigue,” which was classified under the umbrella term of “Zoom burnout.” 


Respondent Demographics
The vast majority of the study population identified as female at 80.3% (n = 171), 8.0% (n = 17) identified as male, and the remaining 11.7% (n = 25) declined to answer. Of the respondents, 128 identified as e-board members in Spring 2020 and 156 in Fall 2020. Respondents represented Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 e-board positions which were noted as required in the PRSSA Chapter Handbook (PRSSA, 2020) including presidents at 33.8% (n = 96), vice presidents at 13.0% (n = 37), secretaries at 3.9% (n = 11), treasurers at 5.3% (n = 22), PR directors at 8.5% (n = 24), and one historian. The remaining respondents represented other board positions that were unique to individual chapters but included leadership roles related to membership, events, and communication. Twenty-three respondents declined to provide their e-board position for Spring 2020, and 42 respondents declined for Fall 2020. Respondents included recent graduates and e-board members whose roles might have changed from Spring to Fall of 2020.

At the chapter level, 184 respondents identified the size of their PRSSA chapter, with 22.8% (n = 42) representing micro-chapters of one to nine members, 48.4% (n = 89) for small chapters of 10 to 49 members, 15.8% (n = 29) for mid-size chapters of 50-99 members and the remaining 13.0% (n = 24) represented large chapters of more than 100 members. Respondents represented all ten (PRSA U.S. districts (PRSA, n.d.) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Respondents by PRSA District 

PRSSA Online Programming Trends During COVID-19

Adoption of Online Modality
Among PRSSA e-board members for Spring 2020 (n = 128), 92.2% (n = 11) indicated that their university moved to an online-only format, 7.8% (n = 10) remained with a face-to-face campus. Among PRSSA e-board members in Fall 2020 (n = 156), 39.8% (n = 62) indicated that their university classes were, or were scheduled to be, online-only for some of the fall term, while 30.2% (n = 47) would be face-to-face for all the fall term, and 23.7% (n = 37) would be online-only for all of the fall term. In a twist, 3.8% (n = 6) began the fall term as face-to-face but had to shift to online-only due to COVID surges in their geographic region after the term began. Fifty respondents (32.0%) declined to answer the question, which might be related to the uncertainty of campus openings at the time the survey was administered (see Figure 2).

The modality of university classes did not mirror an alignment with PRSSA chapter modality. While survey responses indicated a reduction of online-only campuses from Spring to Fall 2020, the quantity of respondents who indicated their PRSSA chapter would be online-only increased from 59.3% in spring to 70.0% in fall. Respondents who indicated their chapter would host only face-to-face meetings remained consistently small at less than 2.0% of responses. There was a dramatic increase in a combination of online and face-to-face programming from less than 1.0% in Spring 2020 to 23.7% in Fall 2020. 

Figure 2

Modality of PRSSA Chapter Management between Spring and Fall 2020 Terms

Chapter Programming

Content. When comparing the frequency of meetings for chapters that moved online in Spring 2020 to the previous fall semester, 91.4% (n = 57) of respondents indicated the chapter had less programming, with 40.0% (n = 28) reporting significantly less programs in Spring 2020 over fall 2019. For respondents whose chapters produced online programs in Spring 2020, chapter updates were most frequent (n = 40), followed by industry guest speakers (n = 29), and member presentations (n = 25). In Fall 2020, respondents indicated their chapter was likely to produce a variety of programming including industry guest speakers (n = 129), chapter updates (n = 91), skills training (n = 88), networking events (n = 86), member-led presentations (n = 82), faculty guest speakers (n = 69), and social events (n = 68). Thirteen respondents (8.3%) indicated other types of programming including collaborative events with other PRSSA chapters (n = 4), podcasts (n = 2), fundraising events (n = 2), and client projects (n = 2). Ten respondents (6.4%) did not know what types of online programming their chapter was planning (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Comparison of PRSSA Online Programming Between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020

Communication applications. By far, the most common online application used for PRSSA online programming in both Spring and Fall 2020 was Zoom. In Fall 2020, responses indicated an increased use of other communication applications including GroupMe, Slack, Instagram video, and Twitter chats (see Figure 4).  

Figure 4

Online Communication Applications Used by PRSSA Chapters Between Spring and Fall 2020

Perceived Competency in PRSSA Online Chapter Management
Respondents whose chapters continued to meet after their university went to an online-only format in Spring 2020 (n = 72) were asked what letter grade they would give their chapter’s online programming. The greatest percentage of respondents gave their chapter a “C” (n = 26), followed by a “B” (n = 24). “A” (n = 18), “D,” (n = 4) and “F,” and 7.1% (n = 1) (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

What grade would you give your PRSSA chapter for its online programs in Spring 2020? 

Production of Online Programming
Moving to Fall 2020, respondents answered a Likert scale item that indicated their level of confidence (from 1 = very unconfident to 5 = very confident) in producing PRSSA online programming. Respondents expressed confidence (M = 4.21, SD = .963) in producing online programming, which was further supported by the reports that their PRSSA chapters were planning a wider variety of programs for the Fall 2020 than in the previous spring. Yet, responses to additional questions about Fall 2020 PRSSA chapter management revealed common concerns.

PRSSA e-board members in Fall 2020 expressed multiple concerns about online chapter management. Respondents (n = 148) were asked to rate their level of confidence (from 1 = very unconfident to 5 = very confident) in their chapter’s ability to renew existing dues-paid members and recruit new dues-paid members. Respondents expressed the least confidence in recruiting new PRSSA members in Fall 2020 (M = 3.33, SD = 1.227) but slightly increased confidence in renewing existing members (M = 3.54, SD = 1.128). A one-way ANOVA found no significant difference between the size of the respondent’s PRSSA chapter and level of confidence in recruiting new or renewing existing members. 

A small positive correlation was found between chapter size and the respondent’s confidence level in producing online programs, r(147) = .199, p < .05, as well as the ability to renew existing dues-paid members, r(147) = .175, p < .05. A large positive correlation was found between the respondent’s confidence in their chapter’s ability to produce online programs and recruiting new members, r(147) = .565, p < .001, and renewing existing members, r(147) = .599, p < .001 (see Table 1).

Table 1

Correlations between Chapter Size, Confidence in Producing Online Programming, and Ability to Recruit/Renew Members

** Correlation is significant at the .01 level

*   Correlation is significant at the .05 level

Perception of how Online Programming Helps or Hurts PRSSA Chapters
A series of open-ended questions asked respondents who were Fall 2020 PRSSA e-board members whether they felt online programming would only help, only hurt, or a combination of help and hurt, their chapter in: a) new member recruitment, b) member retention, c) chapter engagement, and d) scheduling of guest speakers.

Membership. Regarding recruiting new members, of the total respondents (n = 150) most (n = 84) felt that online programming would only hurt recruitment of new members. In terms of retaining existing PRSSA members, respondents (n = 116) were nearly split between those who felt that online programming would help membership retention (n = 52) and those who felt online programming would only hurt retention (n = 48). Convenience of attending online programming was the most identified benefit to help retention (n = 12) and “Zoom burnout” was the most identified limitation to hurt retention (n = 9). 

Dues Value. Of respondents (n = 134) who answered an open-ended question that addressed whether they believed online programming would affect the perception of dues value, more than two-thirds indicated a negative impact of the perceived value of the dues cost among PRSSA members, even though 12.7% (n = 17) of respondents noted their chapter members would receive a dues discount either for PRSSA national dues and/or local chapter dues. Common issues respondents noted that would negatively impact the perception of dues values were the lack of in-person programming (n = 31) and unique financial hardships students experienced due to COVID-19 (n = 5). 

Meeting Attendance. Respondents (n = 151) answered an open-ended question about whether they felt online programming would help or hurt meeting attendance. Of the total respondents (n = 151) to the open-ended question, the greatest number (n = 62) felt online programming would only help meeting attendance, but others (n = 45) only felt online programming would hurt. As with dues value, respondents most commonly noted convenience as a benefit for online meeting attendance (n = 34) along with the ability to record meetings for asynchronous viewing (n = 18). “Zoom burnout” was also repeated as a limitation that could hurt meeting attendance (n = 18). 

Scheduling Guest Speakers. Of the respondents (n = 145) who answered an open-ended question about whether online programming would help or hurt scheduling guest speakers, more than three-quarters of respondents (n = 111) felt it would help, with lack of travel requirements for speakers being the greatest benefit (n = 66). Only a handful of respondents (n = 9) indicated that online programming would hurt their chapter’s ability to schedule guest speakers (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

Perceptions of Whether Online Programming Helps or Hurts PRSSA Chapter Management

What Online Programming Resources Do PRSSA Chapters Need to Achieve Autonomy?
Respondents were asked to identify specific online programming training or resources they wanted. Respondents (n = 149) most commonly identified membership recruitment and retention resources (n = 110), followed by collaboration with other PRSSA chapters (n = 81), and fundraising (n = 70) (see Figure 7).

Figure 7

Online Training or Resources that PRSSA E-board Members Want

A one-way ANOVA found a significant difference between chapter size and the need for training or resources related to scheduling guest speakers [F(6,148) = 2.442, p = .029]. Among the various chapter sizes, 36.8% (n = 50) of respondents from chapters with less than 100 members (n = 138) indicated they desired that training, while only 10.5% (n = 2) of respondents from chapters with 100 or more members (n = 19) requested the same. It is important to note that respondents of chapters with 10-19 members (n = 30) expressed the greatest need for that training at 53.3% (n = 16). No significant difference was found between the board position respondents held and the type of online training or resources which were desired.

There was a moderate negative correlation between chapter size and the need for assistance in scheduling guest speakers, r(154) = -.183, p < .001. Further analysis was conducted to determine if receiving assistance from specific individuals or organizations correlated with a desire for specific types of training or resources. Positive correlations were found between the chapter receiving online programming assistance from the faculty adviser, r(148) = .197, p < .05, professional adviser, r(148) = .224, p < .001, and desire for more information about membership recruitment/retention. Assistance from PRSSA chapters at different universities was positively correlated with the desire for more information about membership recruitment/retention, r(148) = .186, p < .05, communication with chapter members, r(148) = .166, p < .05, and service projects, r(148) = .181, p < .05. Assistance from university offices was positively correlated with the desire for more information about collaborating with PRSSA chapters at different universities, r(148) = .169, p < .05.

Open-ended questions continued the explorations of what online training or resources respondents wanted. Three questions asked what support services respondents needed to successfully produce online chapter programming from a) their university, b) PRSSA national leadership, and c) their faculty and/or professional advisers. From the university, respondents (n = 132) most needed a) the promotion of their chapter and its events (n = 22), b) technical support such as accessing online meeting tools or “stronger wifi access” (n = 25), and c) general support such as communication student organization offices, how to collaborate with other organizations, and encouragement from faculty (n = 39). From PRSSA national leadership, respondents (n = 122) most needed a) meeting planning support such as a content library and national speakers directory (n = 13), b) training for online chapter management such as webinars and best practices from other chapters (n = 36), c) communication such as individual chapter check-ins, a calendar of upcoming national events, and general chapter information (n = 39). From faculty and/or professional advisers, respondents (n = 122) most commonly indicated that they were satisfied with their adviser’s support (n = 35), but others identified specific items such as general support like encouragement and advocating for the chapter (n = 31), assistance with scheduling guest speakers (n = 28), and tips for building member engagement in an online environment (n = 7).

Relatedness with Chapter Support Resources
When examining which organizations or individuals that respondents identified as a chapter resource for online programming in Spring (n = 137) and Fall 2020 (n = 141), faculty advisers were the most identified resource. While many chapters lacked guidance from other university resources such as university offices (student affairs, student government, or student organization offices) or school/department offices in Spring 2020, there were small improvements in those resources providing guidance to PRSSA chapters in Fall 2020. Organizational resources such as professional advisors, PRSSA national leadership, and PRSA sponsor chapters were identified by slightly more respondents for Fall 2020, but those remained unidentified by at least two-thirds of respondents. One organizational resource that gained a considerable increase in recognition was other PRSSA chapters, which grew from a resource identified by only 4.3% of respondents for Spring 2020, to 23.5% of respondents for Fall 2020 (see Figure 8). 

Figure 8

Comparison of Individuals/Organizations that Provided Online Program Guidance Between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020

Respondents were asked a series of Likert scale questions to indicate their level of agreement (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) with statements related to how specific individuals or organizations understood their chapter’s needs in developing online programming. Respondents most strongly agreed that their faculty adviser understood the chapter’s needs (M = 4.48, SD = 1.125), followed by PRSSA national leadership (M = 3.90, SD = 1.267), school or department offices (M = 3.72, SD = 1.262), PRSA sponsor chapters (M = 3.53, SD = 1.308), and university offices (M = 3.30, SD = 1.328). The large standard deviations indicated a mixed experience among respondents, which was further explored. A one-way MANOVA found no significant difference between the respondent’s chapter size and the level of agreement that specific individuals or organizations understood their chapter’s online programming needs. An additional one-way MANOVA found no significant difference between respondents’ Fall 2020 e-board position and the level of agreement that specific individuals or organizations understood their chapter’s online programming needs. There was a moderate correlation between respondents receiving assistance from their faculty adviser and their level of agreement that the adviser understood their chapter needs, r(148) = .395, p <. 001, but weaker correlations were found for university offices, r(148) = .257, p < .001, PRSSA national leadership, r(148) = .203, p < .05, and the PRSA sponsor chapter, r(148) = .178, p < .05. There was no correlation for the school/department. There were also moderate positive correlations between respondent’s level of agreement that their faculty adviser understood what their chapter needed to successfully implement online programming and other organizations understanding the same needs (see Table 2). 

Table 2

Correlations between Perceptions the Faculty Adviser and Other Resource Organizations Understood What the PRSSA Chapter Needs to Successfully Implement Online Programming

** Correlation is significant at the .01 level

A small positive correlation was found between chapter size and receiving online programming assistance from the school/department, r(147) = .302, p < .001, but no other correlations existed between chapter size and receiving assistance from other individuals or organizations.


Moving from Reactive to Proactive Online Programming Practices
The results of this study found that most PRSSA chapters were ill-equipped to handle the quick transition to an online-only modality. More than one-third of respondents noted their chapter did not meet after the university moved to an online-only modality. Of those chapters that did make a transition to online programming, more than 90% shared that they produced less programming in Spring 2020 in comparison to the previous Fall, and that programming was most often in the form of chapter news and updates rather than content related to the three pillars of PRSSA—enhancing education, building networks, and launching careers.

While the integration of online programming was initiated by most PRSSA chapters as a response to universities transitioning to online-only campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, these practices hold long-term value to create more inclusive programming and identify new strategies that enhance member recruitment. The traditional tactics of in-person PRSSA chapter programming and membership recruitment tactics limit outreach opportunities to students who fit a non-traditional mold such as online learners, continuing education students, commuters, and graduate students.

Through the application of Self-Determination Theory, which was previously applied to PRSSA management by Filak & Pritchard (2007), the authors identified how competence, autonomy, and relatedness are urgent needs that need to be addressed to support PRSSA e-board members through the uncharted territory of online program management. The following recommendations address the current needs of PRSSA chapters and provide a blueprint to elevate chapter practices that address the evolving nature of higher education and the public relations industry.

Enhance Competency
Respondents’ self-assessment of their chapter’s online programming for Spring 2020 revealed that more than two-thirds of respondents gave their chapter either a “C” (34.3%) or “B” (28.6%). Membership recruitment and retention were, by far, the most pressing concern of PRSSA e-board members. There was a concern regarding the recruitment of new members especially when student outreach opportunities, such as student fairs, were limited. Though slightly greater confidence was expressed in retaining existing members, qualitative responses indicated concerns about the lack of personal connection with members and fighting “Zoom fatigue.”  As a respondent shared,

I think that in general, online programs will hurt recruiting and retaining of chapter members for students to really learn with a human touch face-to-face. Coming from my own experience, being at the chapter’s events helped me network and talk with guest professionals to learn more of the secrets of the trade. I think with having online programs, the motivation from members won’t be as enthusiastic about, says a Microsoft Teams meeting with an industry professional to attend.

In addition, respondents were also concerned about the dues cost, even when considering a limited-time 25% discount on national dues and some chapters reducing or eliminating their local dues. Another respondent stated,

I think it’s great that Nationals dropped the price, however, $41 is still a lot of money for a college student. That could pay for two weeks of groceries. So, with programs being all online and most other clubs waiving fees, I think it will be much more difficult to convince members that they will get their money’s worth.

Concern was expressed that prospective members would not see the return on investment of their dues cost because many programs that were selling points of the organization—face-to-face networking, agency tours, attending national and/or regional events—were not an option for Fall 2020.

A negative perception of online programming was evident among respondents, especially in regard to new member recruitment and engagement. More than 56% of respondents felt that online programming would hurt new member recruitment, even though nearly 90% of respondents expressed confidence in their chapter’s ability to produce online programming. Martin, Sun, & Westine (2020) suggest that perception might be linked to existing attitudes related to participation in online courses or feelings of anxiety related to uncertainty working within a new communication modality (Hilliard et al., 2020). A respondent shared, 

Online programs, in my experience so far, split a group into attentive vs uninterested members. The members who didn’t pay as much attention or didn’t get as involved as others are dropping away and the members who were working hard are continuing to grow. I’d say that this online format is really showing who is serious about PRSSA and their profession.

PRSSA e-board members noted concern about limited opportunities to promote their chapters in an online environment. As opportunities for face-to-face connections—student organization fairs, “tabling,” in-class presentations, or casual conversations—were noted by respondents as being reduced, or eliminated, it is crucial that PRSSA chapters receive assistance from faculty and administration to advocate for the organization with prospective students. As the results of this study found that there was a negative correlation between chapter size and whether the chapter received assistance from its school or department, it is essential that smaller chapters receive outreach assistance to promote PRSSA, especially among underclassmen. These results were reflected in a respondent’s comment,

In order to successfully produce online programs for my PRSSA chapter, we will need support services such as technology services, faculty help, and help from our school to reach out to as many students as possible.

Based on the feedback provided by PRSSA e-board members in this study, the authors make two recommendations to build competence in online chapter management. First, enhanced training is needed to address unique issues identified by respondents including a) member recruitment, b) fundraising, and c) service projects. Training initiatives can be made available as live webinars to solicit real-time questions from chapter leaders, but also should be recorded for on-demand viewing as needed. Primarily, training sessions should be produced by PRSSA national leadership as they are in the best position to understand the unique challenges and needs of chapters. Initiatives should be produced with the assistance and guidance of PRSA to ensure comprehensive and best practices are disseminated to PRSSA chapter leaders.

Second, PRSSA national leadership should engage in strategic partnerships with organizations that offer specialized training in online communication to make those resources available to chapter leaders. Organizational programs such as the HubSpot Education Partner Program (HubSpot, n.d.), Hootsuite Student Program (Hootsuite, n.d.), and Facebook Educators Portal (Facebook, n.d.) already produce student-oriented training modules and/support services related to online communication. Those resources could be linked on the PRSSA national website and promoted through chapter communication. Access to the resources provided by those organizations will provide resources for chapters to effectively plan, implement, and evaluate diverse online communication tactics that follow best practice standards.

Empower Autonomy
Self-Determination Theory defines autonomy as the psychological need to experience the ownership of one’s actions (Chirkov, 2009). By providing access to additional tools and resources, PRSSA e-board members can take ownership of developing their own skills related to online program management, identifying relevant subject-matter experts in the field of public relations, and integrating pre-packaged content that best serves the members’ educational and professional development needs.

PRSSA e-board members recognized the benefits of online programming in regard to meeting attendance. Respondents noted that online programming could help meeting attendance by offering a level of convenience for members who could participate live from home or watch meetings on their own schedule when the meetings are recorded, as a respondent shared,

I hope that they increase the meeting attendance. Prior to going to an online format, I spoke to various members to find out what I can do to increase meeting attendance. A large majority of our dues paying members are commuter students who would not travel to school for the sole purpose of the meeting. I think the online programs will help with attendance along with the new format I plan to implement at meetings.

One concern was “Zoom fatigue” members might experience, especially when classes are taught solely in the online modality. This points to a greater need for training resources that will teach PRSSA board members about the best practices of online event planning that facilitate strong audience engagement.

Respondents were most enthusiastic about the opportunity to schedule guest speakers. Many noted the convenience for guests since they did not need to travel to campus and expressed optimism for improving their chapter’s ability to schedule speakers in comparison to in-person meetings. Respondents were especially excited at the prospect of scheduling guest speakers from across the U.S. instead of focusing on recruiting guests who were within physical proximity to their university campus.

We have had no problem scheduling speakers and have even had an easier time as we have been able to bring more speakers in from all over the industry as well as the country. The flexibility has increased speakers’ willingness to agree to speak as well as the ease of simply hopping onto a Zoom call rather than necessarily having to travel to the school.

A small number of respondents did express concern with scheduling guest speakers because they would be too busy. 

PRSSA national leadership should coordinate with PRSA to develop a nationwide PRSSA speakers directory that is available on a password-protected page of the PRSSA national website. Through collaboration with the PRSA national office, members may indicate their interest in new membership or renewal documentation as to whether they would like to be included in a PRSSA speakers directory. The directory can be a valuable resource for smaller PRSSA chapters, or chapters in rural locations, that might have difficulty with identifying appropriate guest speakers. If a PRSA member indicates interest in being added to a PRSSA speaker directory, a follow-up questionnaire can be distributed to collect additional information such as: a) what company the speaker works for, b) how long they have worked in the PR industry, c) what industry do they specialize in (i.e. healthcare, nonprofit, food/beverage), d) areas of expertise (i.e. crisis communication, media relations, diversity & inclusion), e) how the speaker would like to meet with chapters (i.e. online or in-person), and f) demographic questions to ensure a diverse representation of speakers. The speaker directory can be updated through an opt-in selection in the PRSA new member or membership renewal process.

In addition to assistance with scheduling guest speakers, PRSSA chapters, especially small chapters, need access to other programming content for member meetings. Pre-packaged content developed specifically for PRSSA members, such as interviews with industry professionals and skills training learning modules should be available on-demand in a digital library that is available on the PRSSA website. That will not only provide content for chapters that are struggling during COVID-19 but serve chapters well into the future to increase the perceived value of dues and, in turn, increase membership.     

Foster Relatedness
Faculty advisers were consistent sources of guidance to PRSSA e-board members, as identified by nearly 83% of respondents for Spring 2020. In contrast, other organizations were far less consistent in providing support services to guide chapter leadership in developing online programs. University offices were identified by 27% of respondents and PRSSA national leadership trailed far further at less than 13%. A respondent shared,

I’ve been in PRSSA for seven semesters now. I was also the National Committee Liaison. I felt in all of the roles I’ve been in a lack of support from PRSSA National. Other than the national conference, we don’t get opportunities to interact with National other than when we are constantly reaching out ourselves. I think the biggest way national can support us is getting in touch with us first and setting up monthly (if not weekly) check-ins.

This lack of organizational communication, from the university and PRSSA, likely limited access to valuable information and resources that would have allowed PRSSA chapter leaders to effectively and efficiently transition to an online format. PRSSA chapter e-board members also indicated a need for general support from their universities and PRSSA national leadership including: a) more information related to managing their chapter in an online format and b) regular check-ins by university faculty/staff and PRSSA national leadership to address any emerging needs and to provide much-needed encouragement.

PRSSA e-board members noted concern about limited opportunities to promote their chapters to the campus community in an online environment. During COVID-19, respondents commonly noted traditional means of new member outreach — student organization fairs, “tabling,” in-class presentations, or casual conversations — as being reduced, or eliminated. As the results of this study found that there was a negative correlation between chapter size and whether the chapter received online programming assistance from its school or department, it is essential that smaller chapters receive online outreach assistance, especially among nontraditional or commuter students who might not be able to attend in-person events. That type of assistance holds potential to not only benefit increased membership in PRSSA, but to recruit prospective majors to the school or department.

Since more than 95% of respondents indicated their PRSSA chapter would continue with online programming in Fall 2020, it is critical that chapters receive consistent and comprehensive training resources to guide their program planning. Small improvements have been made by university offices and the PRSSA organization to enhance communication and training related to online programming for Fall 2020, but research results point to a continued need for stronger efforts from both organizations. At the time of this survey in the early part of the Fall 2020 term, only 43% of respondents stated they were receiving guidance from university offices, and PRSSA national leadership lagged further behind by only providing guidance to less than 30% of respondents. At the same time, the number of respondents who received guidance from other PRSSA chapters grew dramatically from 4.3% in Spring to 23.5% in Fall 2020, suggesting that chapter leaders were turning to each other as peer support for information and solutions when communication lacked from university and organization resources.

More than 50% of respondents indicated a desire to collaborate with PRSSA chapters at other universities, and nearly 25% had already reached out to other chapters during the Fall 2020 semester. Those respondents indicate a growing desire for inter-chapter networking and/or cross-chapter collaborations. Such initiatives build a productive network to share the load of programming and create a greater sense of community. Examples of those collaborations include PRSSA Reimagined, a partnership of six PRSSA chapters across the U.S. Each chapter committed to producing one event during Fall 2020 that was open to all PRSSA members. The Georgia PRSSA E-board Meetup, hosted by Kennesaw State University, invited chapter leaders to network and collaborate on finding solutions to common chapter issues related to online programming. Other PRSSA chapters, such as Ohio University, West Virginia University, and SUNY Oswego, opened guest speaker events to all PRSSA members. To further facilitate inter-chapter collaborations, PRSSA national leadership needs to ensure that the PRSSA chapter directory, available on the PRSSA national website, is up to date with current leaders and chapter contact information. As part of this study, the authors attempted to access PRSSA chapter e-board leaders through the chapter directory and discovered more than 30% of chapter listings were either outdated or incomplete. By educating chapter leaders and faculty advisers on how to update their chapter’s directory listing, they can ensure their chapter information is current, correct, and complete. PRSSA chapters could indicate in their chapter directory listing whether they would like to collaborate with other PRSSA chapters.

Limitations and Directions for Future Study
This study provides a detailed snapshot of current PRSSA chapter management issues during COVID-19, but the situation remains in a state of flux and the long-term effects are yet to be known. While the authors were able to examine actual practices of online programs for the Spring 2020 term, only anticipated programming practices were collected for Fall 2020. In addition, there was a large percentage of female participants in this study. No demographic information could be found about the ratio of male, female, or nonbinary PRSSA executive board members to determine if the study sample was representative of the total population, though gender representation does appear to be reflective of the public relations industry (Dubrowski et al., 2019). To provide a broader picture of study results, future research will pursue a longitudinal perspective by conducting follow-up surveys of PRSSA e-board members as COVID-19 continues to impact universities to determine if current findings remain stable over time.

While the vision of a more collaborative PRSSA is aspirational, it is by no means impractical. The new strategies and tactics related to online programming that result from this study hold promise to strengthen the technological business aptitude of students, allow for increased networking and mentorship access to professionals from across the globe, and improve chapter recruitment and retention outcomes through diverse communication modalities and strategies.

During times of uncertainty, organizational management practices are put to the test. The cracks and flaws that have gone unnoticed in times of smooth sailing can no longer be ignored when navigating stormy seas. The research findings provide evidence that PRSSA national leadership, the PRSA organization, and university departments can seize the opportunities to address organizational challenges highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic response to pursue new training and support initiatives for PRSSA chapters. By embracing innovations, PRSSA chapters will emerge from the storm stronger and more resilient.     


Ahn, I., Chiu, M. & Patrick, H. (2021). Connecting teacher and student motivation: Student-perceived teacher need-supportive practices and student need satisfaction. Contemporary Educational Psychology, (63)2021. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2021.101950 

Albrahim, F. A. (2020). Online teaching skills and competencies. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology-TOJET, 19(1), 9-20. http://www.tojet.net/volumes/v19i1.pdf      

Ayebi-Arthur, K. (2017). E-learning, resilience and change in higher education: Helping a university cope after a natural disaster. E-Learning and Digital Media, 14(5), 259-274. https://doi.org/10.1177/2042753017751712

Callo, E. C., & Yazon, A. D. (2020). Exploring the factors influencing the readiness of faculty and students on online teaching and learning as an alternative delivery mode for the new normal. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 8(8), 3509-3518. https://www.doi.org/10.13189/ujer.2020.080826 

Charron, A. (2020, September 16). Making the most of a summer without a traditional internship. Scripps PRSSA. https://scrippsprssa.org/2020/09/16/making-the-most-of-a-summer-without-a-traditional-internship/ 

Chirkov, V. I. (2009). A cross-cultural analysis of autonomy in education: A self-determination theory perspective. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 253–262. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878509104330

Coman, C., Țîru, L. G., Meseșan-Schmitz, L., Stanciu, C., & Bularca, M. C. (2020). Online teaching and learning in higher education during the coronavirus pandemic: students’ perspective. Sustainability, 12(24), 10367. https://doi.org/10.3390/su122410367 

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (1996). Communication and attributions in a crisis: An experimental study in crisis communication. Journal of Public Relations Research, 8(4), 279-295. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532754xjprr0804_04

Curtin, P., & Witherspoon, E. (2000). Computer skills integration in public relations curricula. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 54(1), 23-34. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769589905400103 

Davidson, W., & Beck, H. P. (2019). Analyzing the commitment of college students using a brief, contextualized measure of need satisfaction from the perspective of Self-Determination Theory. Psychological Reports, 122(3), 1145–1166. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033294118769452

deCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation: The internal affective determinants of behavior. Academic Press.

Deci, E.L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. Springer.

Deci, E., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B., & Leone, D. (1994). Facilitating Internalization: The Self-Determination Theory Perspective. Personality 62(1), 119-142. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00797.x 

Deci, E., Olafsen, A., Ryan, R., (2017). Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State of a Science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19-43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108 

Dhawan, S. (2020). Online learning: A panacea in the time of COVID-19 crisis. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 49(1), 5-22. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047239520934018

Dubrowski, M., McCorkindale, T., & Rickert, R. (2019). Minding the gap: Women’s leadership in public relations. Institute for Public Relations. https://instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/IPR.KPMG-WIL-Study-FINAL041219-compressed-1.pdf      

Ewing, M. E., Remund, D. L., & Dargay, L. (2019). Developing a new generation of public relations leaders: Best practices of public relations undergraduate programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(1), 31-69. https://journalofpreducation.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/7855b-jpre-5.1-final-full-issue.pdf#page=35 

Facebook. (n.d.     ). Welcome to the Facebook Blueprint educators portal. https://educator.facebookblueprint.com/student/catalog 

Filak, V. F., & Pritchard, R. S. (2007). The effects of self-determined motivation and autonomy support on advisers and members of a journalism student organization. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 62(1), 62–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769580706200106 

Fisher, M. H., Athamanah, L. S., Sung, C., & Josol, C. K. (2020). Applying the self‐determination theory to develop a school‐to‐work peer mentoring programme to promote social inclusion. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 33(2), 296–309. https://doi.org/10.1111/jar.12673

Fraustino, J. D., Briones, R., & Janoske, M. (2015). Can every class be a Twitter chat?: Cross-institutional collaboration and experiential learning in the social media classroom. Journal of Public Relations Education, 1(1), 1-18. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2015/08/04/can-every-class-be-a-twitter-chat-cross-institutional-collaboration-and-experiential-learning-in-the-social-media-classroom-journal-of-public-relations-education/      

Goldman, Z. W., Goodboy, A. K., & Weber, K. (2017). College students’ psychological needs and intrinsic motivation to learn: An examination of self-determination theory. Communication Quarterly, 65(2), 167–191. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2016.1215338

Hilliard, J., Kear, K. Donelan, H., & Heaney, C. (2020). Students’ experiences of anxiety in an assessed, online, collaborative project. Computers & Education, 143, 103675. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103675

Hofer, S. I., Nistor, N., & Scheibenzuber, C. (2021). Online teaching and learning in higher education: Lessons learned in crisis situations. Computers in Human Behavior, 121, 106789. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2021.106789 

Hootsuite. (n.d.). About Hootsuite’s student program. Retrieved October 1, 2020 from https://hootsuite.com/pages/landing/student-program 

HubSpot. (n.d.). About the education partner program. Retrieved October 1, 2020 from https://academy.hubspot.com/education-partner-program 

Jang, H. (2008). Supporting students’ motivation, engagement, and learning during an uninteresting activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(4), 798–811. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012841

Janoske, M., Byrd, R., & Madden, R. (2019). One Liners and Catchy Hashtags: Building a Graduate Student Community Through Twitter Chats. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(1), 70-100. https://journalofpreducation.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/fbb61-jpre-5.1-january-2019-janoske-byrd-madden.pdf 

Kinsky, E. S., Freberg, K., Kim, C., Kushin, M., & Ward, W. (2016). Hootsuite University: Equipping academics and future PR professionals for social media success. Journal of Public Relations Education, 2(1), 1-18. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2016/02/15/hootsuite-university-equipping-academics-and-future-pr-professionals-for-social-media-success/ 

Kohn, J. (1990). Thinking/acting. Social Research, 57(1), 105-134.

Kruger-Ross, M. J., & Waters, R. D. (2013). Predicting online learning success: Applying the situational theory of publics to the virtual classroom. Computers & Education, 61, 176-184. https://www.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.09.015  

Lietaert, S., Roorda, D., Laevers, F., Verschueren, K., & De Fraine, B. (2015). The gender gap in student engagement: The role of teachers’ autonomy support, structure, and involvement. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4), 498-518. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12095

Lowenthal, P. R., Gooding, M., Shreaves, D., & Kepka, J. (2019). Learning to teach online: An exploration of how universities with large online programs train and develop faculty to teach online. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 20(3), 1–9. https://www.infoagepub.com/qrde-issue.html?i=p5e1a6f8fee223 

Martin, F., Stamper, B., & Flowers, C. (2020). Examining student perception of readiness for online learning: Importance and confidence. Online Learning Journal, 24(2), 38–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v24i2.2053      

Martin, F., Sun, T., & Westine, C. D. (2020). A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018. Computers & Education, 159, 104009. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2020.104009 

Martin, N. I., Kelly, N., & Terry, P. C. (2018). A framework for self-determination in massive open online courses: Design for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 34(2), 35–55. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.3722

McKeever, B. W. (2019). Different formats, equal outcomes? Comparing in-person and online education in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(2). https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/08/17/different-formats-equal-outcomes-comparing-in-person-and-online-education-in-public-relations/ 

Merritt, T. (2020, March 25). Growing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Progressions. https://progressions.prsa.org/index.php/2020/03/25/growing-during-covid-19/ 

Moore, J. (2014). Effects of online interaction and instructor presence on students’ satisfaction and success with online undergraduate public relations courses. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 69(3), 271-288. https://www.doi.org/10.1177/1077695814536398 

Morreale, S. P., Thorpe, J., & Westwick, J. N. (2021). Online teaching: challenge or opportunity for communication education scholars? Communication Education, 70(1), 117-119. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2020.1811360 

Nilson, L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018     ). Online teaching at its best: Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. John Wiley & Sons.

Paul, J., & Jefferson, F. (2019). A comparative analysis of student performance in an online vs. face-to-face environmental science course from 2009 to 2016. Frontiers in Computer Science, 1, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomp.2019.00007 

Pokhrel, S., & Chhetri, R. (2021). A literature review on impact of COVID-19 pandemic on teaching and learning. Higher Education for the Future 8(1). 133-141. https://doi.org/10.1177/2347631120983481

Pritchard, R.D., Campbell, K. M., & Campbell, D. J. (1977). Effects of extrinsic financial rewards on intrinsic motivations. Journal of Applied Psychology 62     (1), 9-15     . https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.62.1.9 

Public Relations Society of America     . (2020, April 29). PRSSA Announces 2020-2021 National Committee Following First-Ever Virtual Leadership Assembly [Press release]. https://www.prsa.org/news/2020/04/29/prssa-announces-2020-2021-national-committee-following-first-ever-virtual-leadership-assembly 

Public Relations Student Society of America. (2020, March). Updated Star Chapter Checklist. https://prssa.prsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Covid19-Updated-Star-Chapter-Check-List.pdf 

Public Relations Student Society of America. (2019). PRSSA chapter handbook 2019-2020.      

Ranta, J., Davis, D., & Bergstrom, A. (2020). Career confidence: Fostering profession self-efficacy through student-run agencies and integrative learning. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 75(2), 196-209. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695819884175

Richardson, J. W., Lingat, J. E. M., Hollis, E., & Pritchard, M. (2020). Shifting teaching and learning in online learning spaces: An investigation of a faculty online teaching and learning initiative. Online Learning, 24(1), 67-91. http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v24i1.1629      

Rippé, C. B., Weisfeld-Spolter, S., Yurova, Y., & Kemp, A. (2021). Pandemic pedagogy for the new normal: Fostering perceived control during COVID-19. Journal of Marketing Education, 43(2), 260–276. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0273475320987287 

Rogers, C. (2014). Leadership development: Where do PRSSA faculty advisors stand? Public Relations Journal, 8(1). https://prjournal.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014CathyRogers.pdf 

Roorda, D. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., Spilt, J. L., & Oort, F.J. (2011). The influence of affective teacher-student relationships on students’ school engagement and achievement: A meta-analytic approach. Review of Educational Research, 81(4), 493-529. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654311421793

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68      

Sparks, S. D., & Conwell, P. (1998). Teaching public relations–does practice or theory prepare practitioners? Public Relations Quarterly, 43(1), 41–44.

Tatone, J., Gallicano, T. D., Tefertiller, A. (2017). I love tweeting in class, but . . .: A qualitative study of student perceptions of the impact of Twitter in large lecture classes. Journal of Public Relations Education, 3(1), 1-13. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2017/05/24/i-love-tweeting-in-class-but-a-qualitative-study-of-student-perceptions-of-the-impact-of-twitter-in-large-lecture-classes/

Todd, V. (2009). PRSSA faculty and professional advisors’ perceptions of public relations curriculum, assessment of students’ learning, and faculty performance. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 64(1), 71–90. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769580906400106

Van den Broeck, A., Ferris, D. L., Chang, C. H., & Rosen, C. C. (2016). A review of self-determination theory’s basic psychological needs at work. Journal of Management, 42(5), 1195-1229. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206316632058

van der Meer, T., Verhoeven, P., Beentjes, H., & Vliegenhart, R. (2017). Communication in times of crisis: The stakeholder relationship under pressure. Public Relations Review, 43(2), 426-440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2017.02.005

van Zoonen, W., & van der Meer, T. (2015). The importance of source and credibility perception in times of crisis: Crisis communication in a socially mediated era. Journal of Public Relations Research, 27(5), 371-388. https://doi.org/10.1080/1062726X.2015.1062382 

Vansteenkiste, M., Zhou, M., Lens, W., & Soenens, B. (2005). Experiences of autonomy and control among Chinese learners: Vitalizing or immobilizing? Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(3), 468–483. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.97.3.468        

Weed, A. J., Freberg, K., Kinsky, E. S., & Hutchins, A. (2018). Building a social learning flock: Using Twitter chats to enhance experiential learning across universities. Journal of Public Relations Education, 4(2), 87-98. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2018/08/17/building-a-social-learning-flock-using-twitter-chats-to-enhance-experiential-learning-across-universities/ 

Weed, A. J., Wallace, A. A., Emmons, E., & Keib, K. (2020, August 6-9). What it really takes: Revealing the shared challenges in PRSSA faculty advising [Conference Presentation]. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Annual Convention, San Francisco, CA, United States. https://www.aejmc.org/home/2020/06/prdv-2020-abstracts/      

White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297–333. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040934

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Weed, A.J., Wallace, A.A., Griffin, M., & Freberg, K. (2021). Student organization management in an online world. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 100-143. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/12/27/prssa-during-covid-19-examining-the-challenges-and-best-practices-of-student-organization-management-in-an-online-world/

Thriving in “The New Normal”: Student-Centered Practices, Design, and Tools of Hybrid and Online Learning Environments

Online learning became our new normal over two weeks in Spring 2020 and remains a critical component for instruction at many institutions as the process of vaccination and return to campuses continues. The rapid shift brought technological integration, pedagogical shifts, and evolution in assessment. This left many educators and students overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused in the process. Originally presented in a panel as part of the 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division’s Virtual Conference, this team of educators in public relations and media production offer insights on online instructional design and share tools and resources valuable to public relations education used during the pandemic response, with applications beyond the pandemic. In addition to providing a review of several tools, this article will share perspective on managing diverse learning styles, content delivery for diverse platforms, ensuring accessibility for all learners, class engagement, and assessment, while providing some personal reflection on their experiences in offering traditional public relations offerings during the pandemic.

Key Words: Online Learning, Pedagogical Tools, Accessibility, Certifications, Project-Based Learning


In the spring 2020 semester, public relations educators joined faculty around the world in migrating their courses totally online in two weeks or less, and were expected to deliver a high-quality course, even as this likely meant scrapping existing client partnerships, cancelling project deliverables, or fundamentally adapting them to accommodate the platform shift. Additionally, our approach to connecting with students to provide counsel in project development, building learning communities, and ensuring quality of outcome became severely limited by the quality of the technology and broadband of faculty and students alike. Finally, the socioemotional toll on both faculty and students alike has  been a source of concern when determining methods of evaluation and making appropriate accommodations when accounting for those dealing with the various forms of trauma, we have all encountered in this time (Madden & Del Rosso, 2021; Scannell, 2020). 

In addition to the pandemic’s impact on the way we live and work, and the personal losses many of us have incurred due to its impact on public health and the economy, an election year, and the ongoing civil unrest over issues of race and class have permeated the public consciousness and found its way into classroom dialog around the country. These factors further complicate our challenges in making it all work as scholars, educators, and servants to our discipline and community.  Not surprisingly, most of us have been asked to make these changes without institutional guidance or logistical support to execute the task at hand. 

In February, we held a panel where we offered our perspectives, along with resources to help those who are still working to adapt to online and hybrid learning. The conversation was rich and opened some channels of dialog with peers across the discipline who are veterans and novices of distance learning alike. In the weeks that followed, the editorial team invited us to develop an article loosely based on the review structure commonly adopted by the Journal of Public Relations Education to provide insights on new or existing resources to faculty across the discipline. In addition to traditional considerations of software platforms and technologies in this piece, the authors are offering personal insights and perspective on specific practices common to teaching in our discipline and how we individually adapted our own practices to accommodate student needs. 

The authors offer these topics and resources as examples of  resources at your disposal, and to offer support to those who may still be struggling with adapted formats. That said, we know these tools and advice may prove valuable to educators who may be developing online courses in the discipline for the first time. In each case, each of us have a wealth of experience and are certified online course developers, so we consider ourselves fortunate to have been trained to manage this process well in advance of the crisis at hand. We know this edition of JPRE will provide some early assessment of the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning during the pandemic. Our intent is that this review and commentary on our own process of adapting to and accounting for elements specific to online learning and public relations pedagogy proves a valuable complementary resource, as well.

Online Recording/Presentation Delivery
Rafael “RC” Concepcion

One of the biggest challenges of the student experience in a pandemic classroom was maintaining a level of connection with the students and ensuring educational continuity.  Teaching in an online environment requires the breakup of curricula into smaller digestible components (Bao, 2020) so it is important to ensure that you cover the educational material in a way that makes the most impact and has a measure of assessment tied into it. 

Leveraging asynchronous content allowed for organization of material based on our “new need,” but also allowed the creation of online content that students could watch with whatever device they wanted to use (Islam et al., 2020). This afforded the opportunity to foster better student progress and address any learning gaps in online synchronous (live) sessions.

In developing asynchronous content, it was also important to consider students’ tendencies to watch content on mobile devices or in a second screen experience. Any content that is developed for this student experience would have to be tailored to these students’ viewing habits and attention needs. To reach them, a recorded PowerPoint lecture simply is not enough.

To develop asynchronous content, we used two software applications- Screenflow from Telestream for the Mac operating system and Camtasia for the PC operating system. This screen recording software allowed us to develop the presentations in a “two camera” setup – one camera being the WebCam and the second camera being the slide content or software being taught. Once completed, the recording was edited in the included software editors for each project.

Recording presentations in this manner allowed us to switch between the slide content and a host more frequently – helping keep student attention. Further – by addressing key topics on screen and switching back to a presenter to talk about the application of these key topics, the student is left with the impression that the asynchronous recording was planned to fit a larger developed component of the classroom and not just a replacement of a lecture that would have been done in-person were it not for COVID-19.

The professor would present the foundational concepts of a lesson in an asynchronous topic, leading to a series of questions that would serve as a formative assessment at the conclusion of the presentation.  This allowed the professor to gauge how the students fared with the concepts before meeting for the live session. 

During the live online session, the faculty member can steer the class facilitating discussion about the topic and provide his experience of the topics that were presented asynchronously.  Using the synchronous time to connect, discuss, and share – you leverage the online medium to foster a “front row” to every student in the class and elevate connection in an environment where human connection was in short supply. 

In using the Camtasia and Screenflow recording software to make the asynchronous content, we were able to pause, highlight, zoom, and call out specific portions of a lecture or demonstration. With students being more inclined to view content on their mobile device, most presentations that are designed for a laptop or desktop presentation will appear small in the mobile device. In addition to the student’s inability to read or decipher content on that small of a video, the student is left with a feeling that the education they are receiving is not flexible enough to meet their needs and an after-the-fact experience. 

By formatting the content with this extra level of production value, it demonstrates to students that the content is tailored for their medium and encourages mobile use. Encouraging them to use a second screen during presentations also prompts students to use their laptop or desktop devices to follow along and make notes – deepening the connection with the material. 

Once the content was rendered, it was uploaded to the Kaltura Media Space or unlisted on the YouTube video platform for hosting. When uploading the video and setting the language, YouTube will generate captions for the presentations, streamlining the process.  

Ensuring that the content is available for mobile platforms and varied to keep student attention would be incomplete without ensuring that the content was viewed and assessed.  To help with this, the content would be linked using the Playposit Interactive video platform. 

Playposit allows you to create a series of Bulbs – a combination of video links and organized questions for students to review. The Playposit bulbs allow you to create stop points in the video where questions can be asked on the topic that is presented. Playposit allows you to prevent the student from advancing ahead on the video without answering the questions – giving you greater control over the student experience. 

As students interact with the Playposit bulbs, professors can monitor their progress using Playposit built in reporting. From here, professors can analyze how the content is being adopted in an asynchronous format and adjust the live sessions in response.  

Online Recording Software Summary

Screenflow by Telestream


  1. Can record multiple monitors.
  2. Can record regions of a screen for tailored presentations.
  3. Can record iOS devices for use in presentations.
  4. Easy-to-use post production features.


  1. Cost (Check  on your university’s licensing agreements).
  2. Available on Mac only.

Camtasia by TechSmith


  1. Can record multiple monitors.
  2. Can record regions of a screen for tailored presentations.
  3. Can record iOS devices for use in presentations.
  4. Available for Mac and PC.


  1. Cost (Check on your university’s licensing agreements).
  2. More of a learning curve than Screenflow.



  1. Create Bulbs (videos plus interactive questions).
  2. Can prevent users from fast forwarding through video.
  3. Can control video playback speed.
  4. Great reporting controls to monitor progress.
  5. Incorporates into a variety of question types for the video.
  6. Can be organized and stored for re-use.


  • Monthly cost ($12 USD) for instructors.


Playposit – Creating and using Bulbs:  http://rcweb.co/playpositdemo

Ensuring Accessibility of All Learning Abilities 
Christopher J. McCollough, Ph.D.

In the past decade, to force compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, nonprofit organizations working on behalf of students with a wide spectrum of impairments are filing lawsuits against universities which fail to comply with web accessibility standards on the main Web sites and on course content delivery systems. A recent case involved the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University facing suit from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) for failing to comply with provisions of the ADA when they failed to provide closed captioning on their entire catalog of instructional videos housed on online course pages (McKenzie, 2019). Other cases include matters of failure to optimize photos, videos, course pages, and slide presentations for learners who are dealing with visual impairment, hearing impairment, and color blindness, among others. In short, there is a growing movement to ensure Web content on university and college platforms are compliant to avoid being swept up with other institutions in a suit. Unfortunately, the movement to comply with these measures is an inconsistent priority across higher education. The rapid pace at which many of us had to migrate content online likely means many of us have done so with little attention paid to or support for ensuring compliance. As such, the author wanted to share some resources they use in course development. The author was introduced to these tools at a previous institution when serving as an accessibility champion for the university’s Center for Online Learning. Using these tools have ensured my courses are ADA compliant.

WCAG is the Key to Compliance
To help educators comply, the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (A3 WG) established the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Because our understanding of and best practices for supporting differently abled learners continues to evolve as medicine and science cultivates a sharper understanding of meeting needs, A3 WG maintains a living document approach to WCAG, and currently abides by what is called WCAG 2.2 (W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, 2021). Educators should review WCAG periodically to ensure they are accounting for updates to the guidelines that happen over time. As the organizations filing suits for failures in ADA compliance cite precedent from the WCAG standards, using these standards as a means of developing content and course presentation ensures compliance.

Identifying the WCAG Standards
The WCAG consists of four standards for the content developer to meet using a checklist, which includes subcategories that must be satisfied to meet the standards. The four standards are:

  1. Perceivable – 11 components pertaining to visual and audio presentation that ensures learners coping with impairments have a clear means of accessing content logically.
  2. Operable – 5 components pertaining to logical organization and clarity of function of headers, hyperlink destination descripts, and elimination of time limits and automations that may limit clarity of the content.
  3. Understandable – 4 components pertaining to clarity of site navigation, sequence of the document, languages used, and guidelines for how one writes equations adherent to accessibility standards.
  4. Robust – 1 component focusing on whether the author has provided thorough accessibility to third party tools and resources essential to course learning.

Resources to Support Educators in WCAG Compliance
Given the volume of expectations for educators in meeting these standards, the following  offers public relations educators (and the larger community at your respective institutions) with a list of links to tools and resources to ensure ADA compliance. The first suggestion is to seek out your institution’s support network for online learning to identify what resources they may house to support WCAG and ADA compliance online. One strong example is at my former institution’s Online Course Accessibility Guidelines, which are put together by the Online Course Accessibility specialist Ann Newland. Look around to see what you may be able to draw on from your institution.

Absent of that, here is a comprehensive list of resources for educators who need tools to ensure development of WCAG compliant content:

The following links provide accessible checkers for content developers to test each piece of course content prior to site launch:

Given the growing trend of filing suit to force compliance, adapting to WCAG now ensures not only that you are compliant, but that the content is easy to follow and facilitates learning for multiple styles of learning, especially important to pandemic pedagogy when students may not have their usual access to learning support. This only works to strengthen what we offer in the public relations classroom and provides the same quality of content for learners of different abilities.

Certifications, Simulations, and PBL Software

Jamie Ward, Ph.D.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020), employment of public relations  specialists is projected to grow seven percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. A key component for career success in PR today is both knowledge about, and experience with, digital marketing and communication. Student preparation requires classroom training along with applicable experiential learning activities. The use of digital certifications, simulation-based training and project-based learning can enhance student engagement and facilitate an educational environment where students become adept in the skills required for success in the public relations industry.  

Digital certifications such as Google Analytics or Stukent’s Digital Marketing Certificate have become a popular addition to many college and university courses in recent years and their applicability has only been heightened with the shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Certifications can serve as an extension of the classroom, provide up-to-date training in areas that are constantly evolving, and add a level of innovation to course work. There has been little research conducted on the benefits of digital certifications within public relations curriculum. Therefore, research focusing on certifications and marketing courses has been utilized to highlight the curricular and professional benefits to students.

According to Professor Donald Bacon, “Keeping courses up-to-date with the latest theories may be less important than developing pedagogies that engage students, challenge their thinking, and inspire them to improve their communication and interpersonal skills” (Bacon, 2017, p. 121). Student success is heightened when professors not only endorse the content, but can also speak to the value of content and how it can be included in professional materials.

Cowley et al. (2021) found that faculty often select the digital certifications they offer in their courses based on recommendations and endorsements from industry professionals, professional advisory boards, or administrators.  Faculty also develop assignments and craft curriculum to assist students in obtaining critical skills necessary for success in the job market (Madhavaram & Lavarie, 2010; Schlee & Karns, 2017).

Student acceptance and excitement over certifications is largely linked to the way the certifications are explained and integrated into the syllabus. An examination of student feedback from 2018-2021 in the author’s fundamentals of social media course shows a correlation between the student’s perceived value of digital certifications and the amount of time the professor has spent highlighting the skills that can be acquired through certification.  

Based on student feedback, some best practices for incorporating certifications into public relations curriculum include:

  1. Make sure to get certified yourself before assigning certifications to students. This means watch all the videos and take the exams as if you were the student.
  2. Identify pain points, plan for questions, and incorporate that information into lectures.
  3. Remain the star. Certifications should supplement the knowledge that is already being presented in a classroom.
  4. Highlight the value in obtaining the certification so students are encouraged to work for their scores as opposed to simply looking for an answer key online.  

Some of the most common certifications being used to supplement or enhance curriculum include:

There is a myriad of different certifications available. A more comprehensive list can be located at https://digitalmarketingcompetition.com/

In addition to certifications, simulation-based training has also shown significant value to educators. Public relations education is most effective when it bridges theory and practice with real world application (Gleason & Violette, 2012). Students need to understand how to apply what they are learning. Students who are confident in their understanding of public relations and in how to effectively counsel clients, will have a much easier time finding positions in the industry and to that matter, be far more effective in the industry than those who are unsure and question their skills. The more hands-on experiences educators can integrate into their course work, the more prepared the students become. There are two simulations, Mimic Public Relations and Mimic Social, both developed by Stukent, that are well suited to address the needs of both public relations professors and students.

Mimic Public Relations helps students gain experience and practice creating and targeting media pitches, writing press releases, creating targeted social media posts, developing content for crisis management, and reinforcing Associated Press Stylebook formatting. The content can integrate well into many introductory public relations and public relations writing courses. Asal and Blake (2006) claimed that “simulations, particularly human-to-human interactions, offer social science students the opportunity to learn from firsthand experience, and can be an important and useful addition to an educator’s teaching repertoire” (p. 1).

Mimic Public Relations provides targeted training in public relations writing. Pitching is a unique activity, and pitches are developed based on the relationships with media – bloggers, editors, and reporters. This simulation, with its characters and archetypes, allows students to select different media – journalists, bloggers, etc.  and learn the intricacies of working with each of them. The press release portion of the simulation takes a scaffolded approach. Students initially select content from set choices and then eventually build up to crafting content on their own. This allows students the opportunity to think content sequencing throughout the piece.

The Mimic Social simulation helps students obtain practical experience with formal and informal social media strategies. Students gain experience:

  1. Creating targeting ads on a variety of different social media platforms.
  2. Testing and adjusting their strategies. Students can engage with the simulation for a period of four to eight weeks, they have an opportunity to adjust their strategies, including days and time of posts, based on KPIs.
  3. Targeting influencers. This includes selecting influencers best suited for the brand and deciding how much compensation to offer for posts. The simulation is designed to have the influencers turn down insufficient offers. Most students do not get the opportunity to gain experience in this type of strategy before they graduate.
  4. Managing a budget. Students manage a $5,000 budget each week.

Educators can effectively guide students through these simulations while also assisting students in articulating their experiences and the value to potential employers. Many instructors have had great success implementing simulations and find simulations to be effective pedagogical tools (; Dorn, 1989; Olson 2012, Shellman, 2001; Wang, 2017).

Project based learning models put students in the driver’s seat and allow them to serve as public relations practitioners in a safe environment where they are encouraged to learn and make mistakes. The instructor provides guidelines in areas unfamiliar to students such as guidelines on copyright for photos or helping to develop strategies for engagement. The key to success here is for the instructor to give up some of their control and to let the students take the reins and implement what they have been taught. In public relations courses, project-based learning is often done by having students work with classroom clients.

Project based learning encourages students to think, speak, and act as competent public relations professionals. Project based learning allows students to identify with course concepts, find the course material relevant to real-life situations, and become more familiar with the theoretical course content and more confident in the application of that content in the classroom and beyond (McCollough, 2018).

Designing Capstone, Internships, and Projects for Online Learning 

Adrienne A. Wallace, Ph.D.

Lucky for us, best practices for online learning began long before the COVID-19 pandemic flipped higher education topsy-turvy. For those who were already certified in online learning through our institutions, we had the advantage and likely found the transition smoother from an in-person to an online classroom. As an adjunct, the author took advantage of all the training and resources made available to me in this role as I thought it was more like a benefit offered to me than something I was required to do through the institution and as you know there are not many benefits afforded to adjunct faculty members. 

Many scholars and practitioners have reported the positive outcomes of a flipped, or inverted, approach to instruction (Baker, 2000; Bates & Galloway, 2012; Lage et al., 2000; Lo & Hew, 2017; Pearson, 2012; Wright, 2011). Very few articles are published on the idea of flipped learning in public relations and even fewer on a flipped classroom online in public relations, but Enfield (2013) looked at this model for multimedia journalism courses. A researcher at the author’s institution, Robert Talbert, has an active blog that the author began to engage with to help develop and maintain active classrooms.

Much later researcher H.O.U. Zhi-quiang (2018) published a conference paper which was a reflection on a public relations and tourism classroom that confirmed the author’s experience, the quality of her own teaching, the quality of student input and prep was greatly improved with the flipped classroom idea. Other tools that helped the author inform my classroom and course design, were the books Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, 2014), Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning (Vanderbilt, 2021), Out of Our Minds: The Power of Being Creative and The Element (Robinson, 2017, 2009), Creative Confidence (Kelley & Kelley, 2013), Outliers (Gladwell, 2008), The Culture Code (Coyle, 2018), Poke the Box: When Was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time? and Linchpin: Are you Indispensable? (Godin, 2010, 2015). Finally, of course, the author can shoehorn anything by Brené Brown into a classroom to build confidence in new pros and have hooked many on her podcasts. While the author reads a lot of pedagogical material, she probably spends more time trying to transform the classroom through business acuity. It differentiates my classroom (online or offline) from others’ and allows the author to really tap into the 22 years of experience she has in communication practice. She does not cater to a passive student experience. Students regularly acknowledge how much they like the “active” classroom and “crowdsourcing” conversations through starters from book chapters to podcasts and anything in between to keep learners active outside of “just” textbooks. 

The author believes that a flipped classroom allowed me to seamlessly take her classes, with very few syllabus or schedule changes, online when COVID-19 struck, and our campus shut down. Students often mock the author’s love of spreadsheets and project management, but they were the calm for many in the storm that was the end of that first COVID-19 semester. Like many colleges and university settings, the author was given very few days (two to be exact) to prepare my courses as we ventured online when our campus shut down. An unexpected bright side of taking a flipped course online was this is the exact way a student would operate in a professional environment with clients or work teams and so in my campaigns and capstone classes, The author was also showing students how to create workflows and best practices regarding time management, project management during our prep and class periods as well as how to better work in teams on large-scale projects remotely. So, the next transition, from college to a job during COVID-19 becomes much less of a stressful transition and more of a curious continuance into the working world. 

While not all my experiments and assignments have worked out, the author has learned from each failure and side-step along the way in the spirit of continuous improvement. Here are a few things that have made transition from in-person campaigns courses and capstones easier: 

  1. Adopt and embrace cool tech. Utilize a project management system (PMS) and deploy it alongside your learning management system (LMS) at school. The author has used Asana, Trello, Monday, Airtable, and Basecamp over the last few years and I like Basecamp best in my classes. It seems to be the quickest to learn, their support is instant and amazing, and there is a great blog and rich video library for the students to learn tips on working remotely, team dynamics, group project tips, and project management tips of all kinds. The books It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work and Rework (a New York Times Best Seller) are also must reads for anyone tackling large-scale projects, managing multiple teams, and remote work. There are drawbacks and bonuses to each system listed above. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. You should practice with a few and be comfortable trouble shooting in the one that you pick. Basecamp has a free education program which also sweetened the deal for me as my institution does not have the budget for tools like this for just one professor.

    Reduce anxiety with instant exchanges. Engage in the use of an instant message platform like Slack (or Google Hangouts/Chat) even if your PMS has a chat feature for quick informal exchanges and to monitor group progress. Assign class-wide interest channels, team channels, and allow for direct messaging with your students. Slack uses a great mobile application the author finds far superior to Basecamp’s app which includes “Campfire” as a messaging tool, but their mobile interface has been heckled by the author’s students due to its poor functionality. So, the author works with her class to pick the best tools, based on their advantages and functionality. Slack is a crowd favorite, and students report they have used it at work, in internships, and in other classes to communicate with classmates and peers. Slack is much like Microsoft Teams chat which makes it nice to show how to communicate better virtually, but leaves room for students to feel confident learning any new platform for messaging as they progress through school and jobs. 

Training for adaptability and platform-agnostic students to me is more important than specific platform training. When the author provides professionalism and support, the students will be able to hack any tool they encounter into submission. As an aside, the author knows this seems like a lot of accessibility to the professor, and maybe it is too much for everyone, but the author finds this “concierge-level” communication of higher quality between the students and herself as they can express something more easily that is maybe personal or professionally curious in a direct message or gain feedback from their classmates in a general channel on something like an assignment or an internship. These platforms can also allow the professor to eliminate issues before students stew on them, leading to decreased anxiety about small issues — before they become bigger issues. This platform has allowed crowdsourcing help for students from other students when the author is delayed in responding to students. The author sets firm expectations about my accessibility to students. I realize this approach is not for everyone. 

  1. Introduce time management and distraction management early on. New tools bring increased accessibility of all involved. When the communication is easier the flow of information is faster and more frequent which introduces for some the feeling of being overwhelmed or stretched too thin. In every class taught, the author does exercises for speed researching and writing to demonstrate that three hours it took a student to write that 800-word blog post for your client, should and could be 45 minutes with time for a healthy edit experience. Using speed exercises in classes sans distractions does wake students up to the idea of less notifications is better for not just their writing life, but their whole life. The author performs a lot of tech support in class demonstrating how to mute notifications on phones and laptops for time blocks, how to use apps to our advantage with timers, or how to use calendar blocks to commit to a project for a while. Demonstrations are often followed up with a reward like a 20-minute walk or 15 minutes of TikTok. Whatever the case, there is a reward out there for everyone. 

In the first day of class, which is full of onboarding activities and networking, we each access the “lifestyle” portion of our phone which unlocks how much time you have spent on apps that day, week, month, etc.; there are always gasps of horror in this newfound knowledge. Usually, students’ progress through this discovery much like they experience other forms of grief. First in denial: I do not spend that much time on TikTok. Next, pain and guilt: I could be working on schoolwork or training for a marathon, but I am on TikTok? Then, anger and bargaining, masking the effects and beating down the resentment: Well, if TikTok were not so entertaining and if only I did not need to use it for work/internship/to keep up with friends then I would not have to use it. Next up depression: quiet emotions and the feeling of confusion about how they let social media get this far. Then finally, acceptance and hope: I am going to set limits and timers for my social media consumption and try to spend more time in self-care screenless activities. 

This ultimately lays the groundwork for the idea of time block scheduling using a tool like Todoist, mind mapping, Design Thinking, process building, Pomodoro Technique, and use of Google calendar and to-do lists in Basecamp. This has led to the adoption of timekeeping apps on teams (to fill in time slips – just like “real life”) like Toggl and Clockify. In general, discussions the author has with students are about how to best project manage oneself for better performance in all life activities, not just school and to avoid scheduling every moment of your day including your leisure time which can lead to burn out and dissatisfaction with your work (Tonietto & Malkoc, 2016; Malkoc & Tonietto, 2019). 

  1. Demonstrate how all the pieces support the whole. Students used to complain about “too many things to look at” until the author spent time during the first classes on a software demo about how everything works together to create the experience with the tools, along with a discussion on creating successful processes for improved organization and learning potential. Many classes have a Google Drive, an LMS, an PMS, a chat, and more. This can be confusing until you define the utility of each item, and as I mentioned earlier, “right size” the experience, meaning take the students through why choices were made in the first place and showing them how the decisions were made has since made for much less resistance in the space. The author has students suggest tools, and they pilot them in classes through mini-project briefs that we share with the class. Discovery then becomes part of the class norm. This doubles as job training as many times between client apps, files, and systems plus your own firm’s apps, files, and systems, things can seem chaotic at first glance. Defining utility and improving understanding helps reduce anxiety about digital natives using new tools for professional projects. 

Digital literacy is something the author strives to improve in every class; it is no secret that digital natives are not professionally digitally literate (Luttrell et al., 2020). The author uses radical transparency to show the behind-the-scenes operations so that students understand the author knows how to use these tools and can help them improve their skills too. The idea of “learning together” is something that makes the author feel vulnerable, but it has helped students get comfortable being uncomfortable. The class makes it work together. 

  1. Ditching perfection for utility. The author is not a video producer, a scriptwriter, or a podcast host. That is okay. 

The author has long given up on the made-for-TV movie she thought she would be making, and instead am thriving in my gifts of imperfection (thanks Brene’ Brown). Flipped learning can mean a lot of content creation, but it does not have to mean the instructor has to create all the content. The author prefers to use videos of herself less, audio of herself more, and mix it together with industry pros, and great industry articles in a smorgasbord which is created for consumption each week. Over time, the author found this to be a “best practice” in several books and articles, at least until she took a direct hit through a student evaluation where they said there should only be instructor-made videos in the class, that the author was not working hard enough if they are watching, say the introduction video produced by Basecamp to serve as the tutorial for the platform. The list went on and on. The author wore this shame around my neck for assigning certification videos in my tech class and tutorials made by software companies to introduce things like our PMS or our Slack for our chat. 

One day the author came to a realization: making content is not her job. Curating content IS her job. Translating and providing meaning and purpose to the content IS ALSO my job. So, she gave herself the deserved pass for those videos and carries on. She is not a tech company. She uses radical candor when  introducing the videos. helps the student pull out the concepts of the prefab tools, and applies them together. The author advocates for the position that if you are putting your students through anything, and she means anything, whether it be Google certification to Slack tutorials to Hubspot social media training to Facebook Blueprint – you do the damn thing yourself and come back to the class and unpack it with the class. The experience and knowledge transfer should be led by you. It does not have to be made by you. How can you make them care if you do not? Make the time, do the prep.


Asal, V., & Blake, E. L. (2006). Creating simulations for political science education. Journal of Political Science Education, 2(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/15512160500484119

Bacon, D. R. (2017). Revisiting the relationship between marketing education and marketing career success. Journal of Marketing Education, 39(2), 109–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475317710061

Baker, J. W. (2000). The “classroom flip”: Using web course management tools to become the guide by the side. 11th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning, Jacksonville, Florida, United States. Digital Marketing Competition. (2021, January 7). 

Bao, W. (2020). COVID‐19 and online teaching in higher education: A case study of Peking University. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, 2(2), 113-115. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbe2.191 1  

Bates, S., & Galloway, R. (2012). The inverted classroom in a large enrolment introductory physics course: A case study. The Higher Education Academy. https://www2.ph.ed.ac.uk/~rgallowa/Bates_Galloway.pdf

Cowley, S., Humphrey, W., & Muñoz, C. (2021). Industry certifications in digital marketing and media education: Examination of perceptions and use among educators. Journal of Marketing Education, 43(2), 189-203. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475320948570 

Dorn, D. S. (1989). Simulation games: One more tool on the pedagogical shelf. Teaching Sociology, 17(1), 1-18. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1317920.pdf 

Enfield, J. (2013). Looking at the impact of the flipped classroom model of instruction on undergraduate multimedia students at CSUN. TechTrends, 57(6), 14-27. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11528-013-0698-1.pdf 

Gleason, J. P., & Violette, J. L. (2012). Integrating service learning into public

relations coursework: Applications, implications, challenges, and rewards. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(2), 280–285. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ996274.pdf 

Islam, M., Kim, D.-A., & Kwon, M. (2020). A comparison of two forms of instruction: Pre-recorded video lectures vs. live ZOOM lectures for education in the business management field. Sustainability, 12(19), 8149. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12198149 

Lage, M. J., Platt, G. J., &Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 30-43. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220480009596759    

Lo, C. K., & Hew, K. F. (2017). A critical review of flipped classroom challenges in K-12 education: possible solutions and recommendations for future research. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 12(4). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41039-016-0044-2 

Luttrell, R., Wallace, A., McCollough, C., & Lee, J. (2020). The digital divide: Addressing artificial intelligence in communication education. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 75(4), 470-482. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1077695820925286 

Madden, S., & Del Rosso, T. (2021). “We should have to take therapy classes”: The need for a trauma-informed approach to public relations education. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(2). https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/09/10/we-should-have-to-take-therapy-classes-the-need-for-a-trauma-informed-approach-to-public-relations-education/

Madhavaram, S., & Laverie, D. A. (2010). Developing pedagogical competence: Issues and implications for marketing education. Journal of Marketing Education, 32(2), 197–213. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475309360162 

Malkoc, S. A., & Tonietto, G. N. (2019). Activity versus outcome maximization in time management. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 49-53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.04.017

McCollough, C. J. (2018). Competition and public relations campaigns: Assessing the impact of competition on quality of projects, partners, and students. Journal of Public Relations Education, 4(1), 25–48. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2018/05/22/competition-and-public-relations-campaigns-assessing-the-impact-of-competition-on-quality-of-projects-partners-and-students/ 

McKenzie, L. (2019, April 8). Legal battle over captioning continues. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/04/08/mit-and-harvard-fail-get-out-video-captioning-court-case 

Olson, K. S. (2012). Making it real: Using a collaborative simulation to teach crisis communications. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 23, 25-47. 

Pearson, G. (2012, November 8) Biology teacher’s flipped classroom: ‘A simple thing, but it’s so powerful’. Education Canada. https://www.edcan.ca/articles/biology-teachers-flipped-classroom-a-simple-thing-but-its-so-powerful/ 

Scannell, C. (2021). Intentional teaching: Building resiliency and trauma-sensitive cultures in schools [Online First], IntechOpen, https://doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.96571 

Schlee, R. P., & Karns, G. L. (2017). Job requirements for marketing graduates: Are there differences in the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes needed for different salary levels? Journal of Marketing Education, 39(2), 69–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475317712765

Shellman, S. M. (2001). Active learning in comparative politics: A mock German election and coalition-formation simulation. PS: Political Science and Politics, 34(4), 827-834. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096501000774  

Talbert, R. (n.d). https://rtalbert.org/

Talbert, R. (2017). Flipped learning: A  guide for higher education faculty. Stylus Publishing.

Tonietto, G. N., & Malkoc, S. A. (2016). The calendar mindset: Scheduling takes the fun out and puts the work in. Journal of Marketing Research, 53(6), 922-936. https://doi.org/10.1509%2Fjmr.14.0591 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020, September 1). Public Relations Specialists: Occupational Outlook Handbookhttps://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/public-relations-specialists.htm

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. (2021). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview. https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/

Wang, M. (2017). Using crisis simulation to enhance crisis management competencies: The role of presence. Journal of Public Relations Education, 3(2), 96–109. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2017/12/29/using-crisis-simulation-to-enhance-crisis-management-competencies-the-role-of-presence/

Wright, S. (2011, July 28). The flip: Why I love it, how I use it. MindShift. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/14109/the-flip-why-i-love-it-how-i-use-itZhi-qiang

H. O. U. (2018). Practice and reflection on tourism public relations curriculum based on flipped class. Journal of Hebei University of Engineering (Social Science Edition) 2.

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: McCollough, C.J., Concepcion, R., Ward, J., & Wallace, A. (2021). Thriving in “The new normal”: Student-centered practices, design, and tools of hybrid and online learning environments. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(3), 144-169. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/12/27/thriving-in-the-new-normal-student-centered-practices-design-and-tools-of-hybrid-and-online-learning-environments/

Digital Learning: Standards and Best Practices for Public Relations Education in Undergraduate Programs

Acknowledgment: This study is created from the workgroup with the Commission for PR Education’s focus on digital learning in Public Relations

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted May 18, 2020. Revisions submitted August 24, 2020; December 1, 2020; and February 18, 2021. Manuscript accepted for publication March 22, 2021. First published online September 2021.


Carolyn Kim, Ph.D., APR
Chair, Department of Public Relations and Strategic Communication
Associate Professor of Public Relations
Biola University 
La Mirada, CA
Email: carolyn.kim@biola.edu  

Keith A. Quesenberry, M.S. IMC
Associate Professor
Messiah University
Mechanicsburg, PA
Email: kquesenberry@messiah.edu

Karen Sutherland, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer
School of Business and Crative Industries
University of the Sunshine Coast
Sunshine Coast, Australia
Email: ksutherl@usc.edu.au

Karen Freberg, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Strategic Communications
University of Louisville
Louisville, KY
Email: karen.freberg@louisville.edu


Traditional enrollment in higher education has been declining, while online enrollment has increased for the fourteenth year (Seaman et al., 2018, p. 3). Fifty-three % of public relations educators indicate offering online public relations courses, 6 % with online undergraduate degrees (DiStaso, 2019), and the U.S. has 53 online public relations master’s degrees. With COVID-19 and institutions switching to online and remote learning, higher education best practices for digital learning have become a primary consideration. However, there is limited, specific research on online education for public relations. A survey of 157 faculty and students with online public relations course experience identified best-practices for learning methods, engaging communication, and courses suited for online. Findings include recommendations for specific pedagogical approaches appropriate for particular public relations courses and recommendations for the most effective course communication practices to guide faculty development, resources, assessment, and strategic pedagogical practices.

Keywords: public relations pedagogy, online learning, teaching public relations, digital learning, digital pedagogy

With the impact of COVID-19 and institutions worldwide switching to online and remote learning, higher education best practices for digital learning became a primary consideration for administrators, faculty, and students alike. To provide a foundation of support for best practices within the discipline of public relations, the Fast Forward: Foundations and Future State, Educators and Practitioners report issued by the Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) identified online education in public relations with two key factors. The report identified online learning as an area that will influence both the future of public relations and an area requiring further clarification for guidelines and standards. Building from the recommendation for further guidelines, this study was designed to explore areas critical to future success and effectiveness in online public relations undergraduate education.

Literature Review

Online Learning Growth and Perceptions

As the higher education landscape continues to shift, online learning represents both a sector for growing enrollment and opportunities for more students and a sector that necessitates new standards and practices within the academy (Commission on Public Relations Education, 2018). In fact, as traditional enrollment declines for institutions of higher education, online enrollment is continuing to increase for the fourteenth year in a row (Seaman et al., 2018). Online learning falls under the broader sector of distance education, allowing students to engage with faculty and programs that are not necessarily geographically close. As more programs and institutions adopt digital tools to expand education’s reach, online learning has taken many forms. Courses that leverage online learning for 30% – 80% of the course are considered hybrid and blend a traditional face-to-face approach with online education. Those that deliver 80% or more of the content digitally are considered fully online (Allen & Seaman, 2016).

The reality is, however, that one of the most significant criticisms of online education is that it will not deliver the same quality or breadth of education that a traditional, face-to-face education delivers ( Chao et al., 2006; Saad et al., Busteed, & Ogisi, 2013). Concerns have included “teaching effectiveness, faculty-to-student ratios, attrition rates, student satisfaction, and institutional resources invested in online delivery” as primary concerns in online learning (Chao et al., 2006, p. 1). While studies have identified this perception for a number of years, it has been heightened in the general public due to the experience many students had transitioning into an online learning environment in the middle of a semester due to the COVID-19 (Lederman, 2020). Studies suggest that communication or engagement is critical for successful online learning (Cole et al., 2014). In other words, communication with faculty in order to recruit, equip, and prepare them for teaching online is critical. Furthermore, it is equally important to cultivate a vibrant communication environment within online courses that will facilitate student/faculty interaction, engagement with assignments and course expectations, and peer-to-peer connection. 

No One-Size Fits All Approach to Online Learning

One significant area of communication deals with defining, developing, and equipping online educators. While some institutions seem to be moving toward the construct that all educators should be able to teach in any modality, some studies indicate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to online faculty. Studies suggest that some faculty may thrive in an online environment, and others may not be able to based on qualifications, experience, and perceptions held by the educators (Kim & Freberg, 2018). Some faculty may prefer to teach either traditional or online courses, or a combination of those, while others may enjoy a hybrid model. Current research suggests that faculty who teach in online programs must effectively manage a digital setting, and training is a central component of effective online education. As with a traditional classroom, development related to integrating student evaluations and voices (Gómez-Rey et al., 2018; Secret et al., 2016), assessment practices (Tinoca & Oliveira, 2013), and professional training opportunities (Brinkley-Etzkorn, 2018; Lawrence & Tar, 2018) influence perceptions about online education (Frazer et al., 2017).

Once institutions clarify who will (or should) teach online courses, it is equally important to communicate information regarding processes to develop a course, run a course, and manage technical components to a course. A survey of faculty by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup found nine out of 10 faculty reported being involved in online or hybrid course design. However, only 25 % reported using an instructional designer (Jaschik & Lederman, 2018). Research suggests there are different ways of training faculty to teach online. Some institutions require faculty to complete training, while others do not, and some have faculty design their online courses while others utilize instructional designers (Lowenthal et al., 2019). Support can come from the school, institution, or outside vendor and varies from supplying instructional designers, providing training, and providing technical support. This support can take the form of online training, workshops, one-on-one, and informal mentoring for technology, Learning Management Systems, course design, pedagogy, assessment, and accessibility (Andrade et al., 2019). While communicating to faculty about how to define, develop, and cultivate excellence as an educator is important, it is also critical that communication about learning and expectations occurs for students within online courses. 

Communication Practices in Online Environments

Communication in an online learning environment is extremely important (Dixson, 2017; Hajibayova, 2017). It can influence students’ learning, motivation, desire to stay enrolled, and their belief that they are connected to peers and the faculty member. Many students identify the lack of communication as one of the most significant challenges in online learning and the reason they feel isolated (Chao et al., 2006; Cole et al., 2014).

Out-of-Class Communication. Previous studies have confirmed the role of communication in education, with a growing body of research focusing specifically on out-of-class communication (OCC) (Kim, 2018). In an online class, intentionally building OCC between faculty and students is a critical element to consider. This is because OCC has been linked to the ability for students to adjust to the academy, retention in learning, perceptions of faculty members, and the potential to increase motivation among students in courses (Jaasma & Koper, 1999; Jaasma & Koper, 2002; Kim, 2017; Terenzini et al., 1996). Thus, traditional communication elements to courses and OCC are important when considering best practices for the future of online learning in public relations education.

Course Related Communication.  Scholars have. Additionally, discussion and interactive assignments that prompt students with thought-provoking real-world situation questions invite the sharing of diverse opinions, and personal perspectives tend to elicit more engagement (Buelow et al., 2018).

While there are best practices for communication, research has found that students can vary in their capabilities of performing well in an online teaching environment. Schommer-Aikins and Easter (2018) found that students with higher cognitive flexibility were better at exploring online sources, monitoring their success, and engaging with peers and instructors online. While it may seem to mirror what educators encounter in traditional classrooms, the study also found that students with high procrastination were less capable of time management (Aikin & Easter, 2018). Additionally, students that had a strong need for closure were less capable of managing stress in an online course environment. These differing capabilities must be considered by online faculty. In an online environment, these types of nuances significantly influence not only an individual student but the class culture. In public relations, for example, we often have many team-based and group activities (Smallwood & Brunner, 2017). While group or team-based activities is always challenging for groups, in an online environment it can prove even more complex., It is easy for an educator to not see this issue for group-learning if consistent and regular communication is not designed as a key component to the course. 

In light of the need for sound assessment practices and multi-levels, regular and substantive communication practices, careful attention should be given to course sizes. There are many factors institutions face when determining course sizes. The administration has the responsibility of ensuring that courses are financially feasible and profitable. This reality can cause courses to have significant numbers of students enrolling while unintentionally diminishing the quality of assessment (and thus, learning) to reducing if not removing substantive communication practices (D’Orio, 2017). Thus, once a threshold for profit and minimum enrollment requirements have been established, institutions should review what else is required to ensure not only profitability but effective learning occurs in each course.

One area that seems to influence perceptions, and the belief about whether students are getting personal communication and education, is class size. Scholars have engaged in various studies to examine the topic of online course enrollment. Taft et al. (2011) recommend a trifecta to determine optimal course sizes, including Bloom’s taxonomy, engagement, and assignments or inquiry models. Using these three factors, they recommend large courses have fewer than 30 students, medium courses have 16-30, and small courses have fewer than 15. Beyond the academy, outside organizations have recognized the importance of class size on education quality. US News & World Report, for example, points out the relationship between class size and education, focusing on the student experience of personal presence and interaction with faculty (Best Colleges, n.d.; Quillen, 2015). There are models with much larger student enrollments, with some programs having 150 enrolled in a course (Haynie, 2014) – or other models such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which could have hundreds of students. Students also hold unique views of class size (Morrison, 2015). Thus, setting class sizes becomes quite complicated when incorporating financial realities and implications, faculty load and bandwidth, resources for programs or online courses, and qualified interaction providing substantive content for students.

Online education delivery of communication degrees is growing. A 2015 survey of 61 graduate communication degrees in the US found that only 11 % indicated the use of online delivery mode, and just 10 % indicated the use of a hybrid model (Quesenberry et al., 2015). By 2019 another survey found 53 fully online public relations and strategic communication master’s programs in the US (Weissman et al., 2019). Additionally, a survey in the Commission on Public Relations Education Report found 53 % of public relations educators now indicate their program offers online public relations courses, and six % have an entirely online undergraduate degree (DiStaso, 2019).

While there is a significant body of research that addresses general best practices and standards for online education, the dramatic growth of online course delivery for both public relations undergraduate and graduate courses and degrees points toward a need for new research. The following research questions have yet to be explicitly addressed for public relations education. 

RQ1: What are the perceptions of online learning methods among those who have taught and taken an online public relations course?

RQ2: What pedagogical practices are best suited for specific public relations courses?

RQ3: What are effective communication practices within online public relations courses?


Survey Respondents & Recruitment

While research exists on particular pedagogical practices, primary research was conducted to learn more about particular perspectives related to courses recommended by the Commission on Public Relations Education. An online survey was disseminated in Spring 2019 by the primary researchers and key educational bodies to reach faculty and students. Requests to participate included liaison groups such as the Public Relations Divisions in the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication, the International Communication Association, and the National Communication Association, as well as the Public Relations Society of America Educators Academy. 

As indicated above, the survey used respondent-driven snowballing to recruit participants, seeking to only include those faculty who have taught or students who had taken an online public relations course. This approach was used so that those who responded would have tangible experience in mind as they considered the items on the survey, rather than including a wider sample that would be responding based on speculation or perceptions of an online learning course, without having had an actual online class experience in that learning environment. While the idea of snowball sampling has raised concerns with some scholars, due to the potential integration of a biased sample (Wimmer & Dominick, 2010), other scholars suggest that there is validity in this recruitment method for certain types of audiences. Using a snowball technique is useful when researchers need “referrals made by people who share or know others who present characteristics that are of research interest” for the study (Lopes et al., 1996, p. 1268). As this study sought to recruit only public relations faculty or students who had participated in an online public relations course, snowball sampling allowed the above networks to connect people for the “identification of such populations requiring knowledge of insiders who can locate people willing to participate in the study,” (Lopes et al., 1996, p. 1268). In other words, snowball sampling allowed the researcher to connect with people who had knowledge about others that also participated in an online PR course. In addition, scholars argue that using snowballing as a technique does not immediately result in an uncontrolled method of data collection:

As with random sampling, the snowballing method is not as uncontrolled as its name implied. The researcher is deeply involved in developing and managing the origination and progress of the sample and seeks to ensure at all times that the chain of referrals remains within limitations that are relevant to the study. (Etikan et al., 2015, p. 1)

Thus, as a study designed to receive insight only from those who enrolled or taught a public relations course in an online environment, snowballing allowed for the identification and recruitment of this particular sample through the network of national PR educator affiliations. 

There were 157 respondents, 51.9% faculty, and 48.1% students. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the participants as identified by the status in the academy.

Table 1 Breakdown of participant status and title.
Participant StatusFrequencyPercentValid Percent
Associate Professor138.39.5
Assistant Professor148.910.2
Instructor (Full-Time)95.76.6
Freshman PR Student53.23.6
Sophomore PR Student117.08.0
Junior PR Student2214.016.1
Senior PR Student2012.714.6
Alumni from PR Program85.15.8

Of the participants who reported their age, the majority of participants were 18 to 24 years old (n=59, 37.6 %), followed by 35 to 44 years old (n=30, 19.1 %). The complete breakdown by age is in Table 2.

Table 2 Breakdown of participant ages
Participant AgeFrequencyPercentValid Percent
18 to 245937.643.1
25 to 34106.47.3
35 to 443019.121.9
45 to 541811.513.1
55 to 64117.06.0
65 to 7495.76.6

Instrument Design

The survey instrument included core demographic information at the beginning, followed by multiple scale questions that examined perceptions of online learning pedagogical methods. The initial scale question asked participants to respond to 16 different pedagogical methods that they felt would be “most appropriate” to online learning. If respondents marked any online learning method as one that “should never be used in online education,” then that option would not appear on future questions. 

Next, respondents were presented with a series of questions about the same methods relating to specific public relations courses. These courses were identified from requirements in the Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) standards and the leading courses in the curriculum. The courses included were: 1) Strategic public relations planning (such as creating a campaign or initiative for a client); 2) Public relations writing; 3) Public relations research; 4) Public relations ethics; 5) Public relations principles; 6) Public relations theory; 7) Public relations management; 8) New technologies in public relations; 9) Internships.

For each course, respondents were asked to identify if they had previously taken or taught the course online. If they responded positively, they were then asked to identify which pedagogical methods were most suited to that topic in an online environment. If they responded that they had not taken or taught the course online, they were automatically advanced to the next course questions. This allowed for greater clarity in that respondents provided feedback on courses they had personally experienced in an online environment, giving precise insight on particular courses versus online education in general for public relations. Finally, a series of questions concluded the survey, which examined communication best-practices within a course between peers, between a faculty member and individual student, and a faculty member to the course as a whole. The section concluded with scale questions exploring the best practices for helping students succeed in assignments in an online environment. 


Participant Demographic and Base Experience Analysis

An important differentiation in this was understanding the level and breadth of experience with online education. When asked how many courses they had taken online, the majority of students had taken 6+ (n = 20, 31.3 %), followed by students who had taken 3 (n = 14, 21.9 %) and those that had taken 4 courses (n = 12, 18.8 %). The majority of faculty reported teaching more than 6+ courses (n = 49, 69.0 %), with the next majority teaching 3 courses (n = 8, 11.3 %). Of those who responded, forty % (n = 55) reported being from a public institution, and 59.9 % (n = 82) reported being from a private institution. Nearly half (n = 67, 48.9 %) reported being at a medium size (1,000-8,000) person institution, with 42.3 % (n = 58) reporting being at a large institution (8,000+), and only 8.8 % (n = 12) reporting being at a small institution (less than 1,000). The survey was released globally, and participants represented locations from the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America. The majority of respondents were from the United States, with only 9.41% (n = 13) identifying as being from another geographic location. 

Perceptions of Online Learning Methods in Public Relations Courses 

Respondents were asked to rank what they felt were the pedagogical methods most important to teaching or learning PR in an online environment. From this, respondents identified the top five pedagogical methods or tools as 1) writing assignments (n = 125, M = 4.44); 2) videos (n = 124, M = 4.38); 3) reading, such as blogs and articles (n = 125, M = 4.30); 4) messaging (n = 124, M = 4.08); and 5) discussion boards (n =125, M = 4.07). In order to determine whether there is a difference in perception of the effectiveness of online educational pedagogy practices between faculty and students, the following analysis was performed using a T-test on each of the top methods:

Faculty will differ from students in perceptions of the appropriateness of writing as a pedagogical tool in online courses. The T-test was significant, revealing a higher mean among faculty than among students regarding the appropriateness of writing as a pedagogical tool: Faculty (n = 69, M = 4.75, SD = .50) and students (n = 55, M = 4.03, SD = .86), t(82.00) = 5.50, p<.001.

Faculty members will differ from students in their perceptions of the appropriateness of videos as a pedagogical tool in online courses. The T-test was significant, revealing a higher mean among faculty than among students regarding the appropriateness of videos as a pedagogical tool: Faculty (n =69, M = 4.75, SD = .50) and students (n = 55, M = 4.03, SD = .86), t(82.00) = 5.50, p<.001.

Faculty will differ from students in perceptions of the appropriateness of reading as a pedagogical tool in online courses. The T-test was significant, revealing a higher mean among faculty than among students regarding the appropriateness of reading as a pedagogical tool: Faculty (n = 69, M = 4.70, SD = .58) and students (n = 55, M = 3.80, SD = 1.04, t(79.73) = 5.71, p<.001.

Faculty will differ from students in perceptions of the appropriateness of messaging as a pedagogical tool in online courses. The T-test was not found to be significant, even though the mean among students was higher compared to faculty regarding the appropriateness of messaging as a pedagogical tool: Faculty (n = 69, M = 4.03, SD = .90) and students (n = 55, M = 4.16, SD = .83), t(121) = -.851, p = .396

Faculty will differ from students in perceptions of the appropriateness of discussion boards as a pedagogical tool in online courses. The T-test was significant, revealing a higher mean among faculty than among students regarding the appropriateness of discussion boards as a pedagogical tool: Faculty (n=69, M = 4.40, SD = .83) and students (n= 55, M = 3.65, SD = 1.08), t(99.33) = 4.19, p<.001.

Public Relations Course Specific Pedagogical Practices 

Respondents were asked to respond to the types of pedagogical approaches appropriate to particular courses. Only participants who had taken a course in the subject within an online environment were able to respond to that portion of the research instrument. While this reduced the number of respondents for various courses, it provided a more precise response in that the respondents had a tangible experience in mind as they reflected on the survey items rather than conjecturing about an experience with which they did not have familiarity. The courses were 1) Strategic Public Relations Planning (n = 53); 2) Public Relations Writing (n = 46); 3) Public Relations Research (n = 26); 4) Public Relations Ethics (n = 13); 5) Public Relations Principles (n = 41); 6) Public Relations Theory (n = 21); 7) Public Relations Management (n = 14); 8) New Technologies in PR (n = 49); and 9) Internships (n = 40). One course that many participants mentioned having taken online but that was not included in this study was crisis communication. The following represent the overall analysis (faculty and students) in a particular course. 

Strategic Public Relations Planning. The top recommendation for this course is to use writing assignments (M = 4.46); followed by the use of discussion boards (M = 4.20) presentations (M = 4.18), readings (M = 4.18) and case simulations (M = 4.12).

Public Relations Writing. The highest recommendation was writing assignments (M = 4.78), followed by readings (M = 4.49), discussion boards (M = 4.02), social media assignments (M = 3.98), and textbooks (M = 3.86).

Public Relations Research. The top pedagogical recommendation was the use of readings (M = 4.54), closely followed by writing assignments (M = 4.5), presentations (M = 4.14), videos (M = 4.08), and textbooks (M = 4.05).

Public Relations Ethics. The top methodological tool was readings (M = 4.5), followed by videos (M = 4.45), writing assignments (4.36), discussion boards (M = 4.36) and case simulations (M = 4.27).

Public Relations Principles. The majority recommended the use of readings (M = 4.38), followed by textbooks (M = 4.34); videos (M = 4.33), writing assignments (4.32); and discussion boards (M = 4.20).

Public Relations Theory. The top methodological recommendation was writing assignments (M = 4.7), followed by reading (M = 4.65), discussion boards (M = 4.4), textbooks (M = 4.28), and videos (M = 4.1).

PR Management. The majority recommended writing assignments (M = 4.83), followed by discussion boards (M = 4.75), readings (M = 4.67), case simulations (M = 4.5), and videos (M = 4.42).

New Technology in Public Relations. The top methodology recommended was social media assignments (M = 4.55), followed by videos (M = 4.16), writing assignments (M = 4.16), discussion boards (M = 3.96) and case simulations (M = 3.87).

PR Internships. While this course skewed much lower than others in terms of participants agreeing particular methodologies were helpful, the top recommendation was writing assignments (M = 3.46), discussion boards (M = 3.38), messaging (M = 3.24), readings (M = 3.16) and video conferencing (M = 2.75). 

A summary of the top pedagogical practices by course within an online learning modality is shown in Table 3.

Table 3 Top pedagogical practices by course within an online learning modality
Course1st Practice2nd Practice3rd Practice
PR WritingWriting AssignmentsReadingDiscussion Boards
PR ResearchReadingWriting AssignmentsPresentations
PR EthicsReadingVideoWriting Assignments
PR PrinciplesReadingTextbookVideos
PR TheoryWriting AssignmentsReadingDiscussion Boards
PR ManagementWriting AssignmentsDiscussion BoardsReading
New Tech in PRSM AssignmentsVideoReading
PR InternshipWriting AssignmentsDiscussion BoardsReading

Online Public Relations Course Communication Practices 

Peer-to-Peer Communication. Students and faculty were asked to identify the most important communication method among peers in a course to explore best practices and perceptions of communication within online courses. With the options of 1) discussion boards; 2) video conferences; 3) social media; 4) email; 5) group text messages, and 6) phone calls, the most recommended method was email (n = 111, M = 4.25, SD = .90).

Faculty to Individual Student Communication. Using the same options as above, respondents identified that email was the best method for faculty-to-individual-student communication in online courses (n = 111, M = 4.75, SD = .58).

Faculty to Class Communication. Using the same options as above, respondents identified that email was the best option for faculty-to-class communication (n = 104, M = 4.73, SD = .60).

Table 4 Top communication practices by type within an online learning modality

Respondent TypeCommunication1st Practice2nd Practice3rd Practice4th Practice5thPractice6th  Practice
FacultyPeer to Peer Discussion BoardsEmailGroup Text MessageVideo ConferenceSocial MediaPhone Calls
Current StudentsPeer to Peer EmailGroup Text MessageDiscussion BoardsSocial MediaVideo ConferencePhone Calls
FacultyFaculty to Individual StudentEmailDiscussion BoardsVideo ConferencePhone CallSocial MediaGroup Text Message
Current StudentsFaculty to Individual StudentEmailVideo ConferenceDiscussion BoardsSocial MediaGroup Text MessagePhone Call
FacultyFaculty to ClassEmailDiscussion BoardsVideo ConferenceSocial MediaGroup Text MessagePhone Call
Current StudentsFaculty to ClassEmailVideo ConferenceDiscussion BoardSocial MediaGroup Text MessagePhone Call

Success and Feedback for Assignments

Assignment Feedback. When asking what assignment feedback is most “significant to helping students learn and improve,” respondents were given the following options: 1) Graded rubrics; 2) Written feedback; 3) Audio feedback; 4) Video feedback; 5) A class announcement.

Respondents indicated that the most significant option would be written feedback (n = 104, M = 4.78, SD = .56). The second highest recommendation was a graded rubric (n = 103, M = 4.31, SD = .90). Particularly due to perceptions between educators compared to students related to feedback, a T-test was performed on each of the feedback methods to see if there were statistical differences between faculty and students. There were statistically significant differences between faculty (n = 64, M =4.89, SD =.40) and students (n = 40, M = 4.6, SD = .71) related to the importance of written feedback t(56.01)=3.49, p=.001. Similarly, there was statistically significant differences between faculty (n = 64, M =4.56, SD =.66) and students (n=39, M = 3.90, SD = 1.07) related to the importance of written feedback t(56.01)=3.49, p = .001. In both instances, the faculty mean was higher than students.

Success for Assignments. Lastly, students were asked what communication would best position them for success in online learning, particularly focusing on assignments and communication before they complete the project. Respondents could select 1) examples of a project; 2) outlined instructions; 3) a rubric that will be used to score the project; 4) A “common questions” document”; and 5) a group video conference to ask questions. The highest response was “outlined instructions” (n =104, M= 4.74, SD = 5.74). This was followed by “a rubric that will be used to score the project” (n = 104, M = 4.53, SD = .64) and “examples of a project” (n = 104, M = 4.5, SD = .71). When comparing the two groups separately (students to faculty), there were differences noted. Students, when analyzed independently, identified “example projects” as the most significant way to prepare for success (n = 40, M = 4.73, SD = .72) and rated “outlined instructions” as the second most significant (n = 40, M = 4.6, SD = .74). 

Table 5 Top pedagogical practices for assignments on online learning modality

Respondent TypeCommunication1st Practice2nd Practice3rd Practice4th Practice5th Practice
FacultyAssignment FeedbackWritten feedbackGraded rubricClass AnnouncementVideo feedbackAudio Feedback
Current StudentsAssignment FeedbackWritten feedbackGraded rubricClass AnnouncementAudio FeedbackVideo Feedback
FacultyAssignment SuccessOutlined instructionsRubric used to score assignmentExample projectsCommon questions documentGroup video conference to ask questions
Current StudentsAssignment SuccessExample ProjectsOutlined instructionsRubric used to score assignmentCommon questions documentGroup video conference to ask questions


RQ1: What are the perceptions of online learning methods among those who have taught and taken an online public relations course?

To set the foundation for this study, the researchers first wanted to establish a benchmark for understanding the general perceptions of pedagogical practices among those engaged with online learning. One significant finding was that respondents indicated that the primary choice of pedagogy among both faculty and students for courses is writing assignments. While faculty and student respondents did provide statistically significant differences related to the perceptions held of online learning, there were commonalities among pedagogical preferences that are helpful to note. For example, perceptions of pedagogical approaches, such as using video, blogs, and articles, and digital engagement opportunities such as messaging/discussion boards, were top preferences among participants. This contrasts with some traditional pedagogical approaches, such as using a textbook, slideshows, and group projects. 

This general finding helps lay a foundation for where educators and students align in their approach to online learning. These findings can help navigate some critical considerations due to the recent highlighting of student preparedness and equity in online education. For example, an on-going conversation in some institutions has been the rising cost of textbooks and the disparity it creates among students who have a lower socio-economic background. However, this study indicates that educators and students find online articles, blogs, and resources as a stronger pedagogical approach than textbooks in some courses, though not in all. This could mean that, for particular classes and subject matters, faculty may want to opt for online resources as class reading versus a traditional textbook. Thus, this finding for online education may help both in focusing on developing more rigorous learning environments by using preferred approaches among the key stakeholders in online learning. In addition to general approaches for online learning, the researchers wanted to identify particular pedagogical and communication practices that would directly impact public relations education in an online environment.

RQ2: What pedagogical practices are best suited for specific public relations courses?

This study found that, while faculty and students hold perceptions of pedagogical approaches in online learning in general, there is a customization that is needed based on the particular discipline and course being taught. Even in the midst of a smaller sample size, as this study included only respondents who had direct experience with the course, there are helpful insights for the development and enhancement of online public relations education. For example, specific courses benefit from case studies and social media more than other courses may. This finding further supports the idea of avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches to online education. Just as in the traditional classroom, public relations faculty have adopted particular pedagogical approaches for topics (like ethics case studies and crisis PR simulations), the online environment needs to be equally customized.

 While respondents continued to indicate writing assignments and reading (though not textbooks) as primary preferred pedagogical approaches, it is noteworthy that the use of discussion boards and presentations were often not identified. Also, while the use of certain pedagogical practices, such as video conferencing, seems to be a growing expectation, respondents identified pedagogical practices that were more about content absorption (reading) and content mastery illustration (such as writing) as preferred approaches. This could be due to the perception that there is busy work created in online courses, potentially enforcing the perception that online courses are less valuable than traditional ones. Also, respondents identified particular approaches for courses, such as social media assignments, only being among the top five pedagogical approaches for a technology class or video conferencing only being selected in the internship course. This seems to indicate that faculty must carefully consider the learning outcomes and the direct connection to those outcomes for any activity or interaction embedded into online courses. Also, faculty should carefully evaluate whether specific components for courses are present because they are traditionally included (like a textbook or discussion board) or whether those elements are central to the learning for that topic.

While previous research addresses the topic of pedagogical methods in general, this study provides unique insight into perceptions related to core public relations courses. By applying these recommendations, faculty may be better able to cultivate a productive learning environment for students that is uniquely suited, not only to our discipline but also to the niche topic of the course.

RQ3: What are effective communication practices within online public relations courses?

Communication within a learning community contributes to learning outcomes, student retention, and student satisfaction. This study indicated that while online learning communities have many digital options, email seems to remain a preferred communication method to bolster connections among peers, faculty, and the class as a whole. It could be that the automation of feedback and communication embedded into online courses gives the impression of a lack of intentionality – and thus, an email creates a feeling of immediacy and intention. This finding seems to indicate that purposefully integrating communication practices outside of the learning management system could be powerful for online courses. While communication is key for all courses, online faculty must consider how students perceive the communication and then create opportunities for OCC that feel authentic to students rather than merely an extension of what faculty have to do as part of a class.

Additionally, when it comes to communicating about assignments, respondents indicated a preference for customized feedback that is written. While online learning has developed a seamlessly integrated rubric option, the potential for learning based on qualitative feedback seems to be the most preferred method. These two findings, related to OCC and individual assignment feedback, are particularly noteworthy when administrators and faculty consider the overall construct of an online faculty member. In a traditional course, faculty can individually interact with students as they walk into class, perhaps as they pass on campus or when they come into the office. These all give opportunities for OCC to occur very naturally and without much additional time. Also, in a traditional course, faculty can provide feedback to the class as a whole with everyone in the room while also highlighting and noting particular elements for student work. However, in online learning, OCC and assignment feedback takes on a different form. It all requires much more individualization and purposeful investment. Thus, online educators should anticipate courses taking longer than a traditional course, not because the infrastructure is created each time anew, but because individual communication requires so much each time the course is run. While this is a challenge that faculty need to recognize, and administration should consider for faculty load and obligations, it is also a value-proposition for students that could position online learning in a more positive light. While there are criticisms of online learning being lesser compared to traditional, the respondents seem to indicate that the investment of intentional, customized communication represents an opportunity to create a differential that students would find attractive and appealing for an educational choice. 

Lastly, to prepare ahead of time, faculty and students recommend examples of projects, rubrics, and outlined instructions. This allows a more on-demand opportunity for students to understand the expectations and how the outcomes will be evaluated on various projects. Unlike the above finding related to communication, the focus on developing examples, rubrics, and outlined instructions is one that faculty can prepare prior to the course launching. Then, the faculty are able to benefit throughout the term and in future terms as the course runs again.

While faculty and students differ in the order of importance for particular pedagogical approaches or assignments, these areas remain the most significant in the perception of both parties to yield the best success within an online course.

Limitations and Future Research

One limitation of this study was the respondent size for the course-specific analysis. In light of this, the findings are challenging to generalize to a larger population due to the limited number of responses. However, future studies would be able to build on these initial findings and further examine the results to verify if they continue to be supported with a higher number of respondents. In addition, in light of COVID-19, more faculty and students will now be able to respond to studies such as this with personal experience, given the volume of individuals who participated in online education during the pandemic. Future research would benefit from examining how this experience has now shaped perceptions and communication practices within public relations courses, particularly as some courses were infrequently (if ever) offered in an online format prior to the pandemic.  


This study focused on exploring the learning practices through digital learning amongst students and faculty in public relations. Online teaching will continue to grow and will be an essential skill faculty need to possess moving forward in higher education. In light of COVID-19, more instructors have been asked to bring their courses online immediately to address the needs of their respective institutions. Future research could explore the role of digital learning practices in a crisis and how students and faculty perceive their challenges and opportunities together. Also, future research could explore the new necessary skills and areas within digital learning which students need to possess when they enter the industry. Hosting webinars, moderating conference calls, promoting online digital summits, and more are just some of the new potential online assignments that need to be tested, evaluated, and discussed in digital learning research.

With the rapid and expected continual growth of digital learning, the future of public relations education will be significantly impacted by the standards and practices established by institutions. Focusing on appropriate faculty development, essential resources, effective assessment, and strategic pedagogical practices throughout the curriculum are key methods for programs to ensure effective learning environments.


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2016). Online report card: Tracking online education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group. http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/onlinereportcard.pdf

Andrade, M. S., Miller, R. M., Kunz, M. B., & Ratliff, J. M. (2019). Online learning in schools of business: The impact of strategy on course enrollments. Journal of Higher Education Theory & Practice, 19(5), 48–57. https://doi.org/10.33423/jhetp.v19i5.2280 

Best Colleges (n.d.). How important is class size in an online course? https://www.bestcollegesonline.org/faq/how-important-is-class-size-in-an-online-college-course/

Brinkley-Etzkorn, K. E. (2018). Learning to teach online: Measuring the influence of faculty development training on teaching effectiveness through a TPACK lens. The Internet and Higher Education, 38, 28-35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2018.04.004

Buelow, J. R. ., Barry, T., & Rich, L. E. (2018). Supporting learning engagement with online students. Online Learning, 22(4), 313–340. https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/1384

Chao, T., Saj, T., & Tessier, F. (2006). Establishing a quality review for online courses. Educause Quarterly, 29(3), 32-39. http://er.educause.edu/articles/2006/1/establishing-a-quality-review-for-online-courses

Cole, M. T., Shelley, D. J., & Swartz, L. B. (2014). Online instruction, e-learning, and student satisfaction: A three year study. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(6). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v15i6.1748

Commission on Public Relations Education (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners: The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf&nbsp;

DiStaso, M. W. (2019). Undergraduate public relations education in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations education report. Journal of Public Relations Education, 5(3), 3-22. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2019/11/20/undergraduate-public-relations-in-the-united-states-the-2017-commission-on-public-relations-education-report/

Dixson, M. D., Greenwell, M. R., Rogers-Stacy, C., Weister, T., & Lauer, S. (2017). Nonverbal immediacy behaviors and online student engagement: bringing past instructional research into the present virtual classroom. Communication Education, 66(1), 37-53. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2016.1209222

D’Orio, W. (2017, May 17). One size does not fit all. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/05/17/online-class-sizes-one-size-doesnt-fit-all

Etikan, I., Alkassim, R., & Abubakar, S. (2016). Comparision of snowball sampling and sequential sampling technique. Biometrics and Biostatistics International Journal, 3(1), 55. 

Flynn, T. & Kim, C. (2018). Online public relations education: Adapting public relations curriucula to an emerging delivery system. In  Fast forward: Foundations + future state. Educators + practitioners: The Commission on Public Relations Education 2017 report on undergraduate education  (p. 111- 115). Commission on Public Relations Education. http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf  

Frazer, C., Sullivan, D. H., Weatherspoon, D., & Hussey, L. (2017, February 23). Faculty perceptions of online teaching effectiveness and indicators of quality. Nursing Research and Practice. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28326195

Gómez-Rey, P., Fernández-Navarro, F., Barbera, E., & Carbonero-Ruz, M. (2018). Understanding student evaluations of teaching in online learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), 1272-1285. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1451483

Hajibayova, L. (2017). Students’ viewpoint: What constitutes presence in an online classroom?. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 55(1), 12-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/01639374.2016.1241972

Haynie, D. (2014, Sept. 26). Experts say class size can matter for online students. US News & World Report.https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/09/26/experts-say-class-size-can-matter-for-online-students

Jaasma, M. & Koper, R. (1999, February 19-23). Out-of-class communication between students and faculty: the relationship to instructor immediacy, trust, and control, and to student motivation [Conference presentation].Annual Meeting of the Western States Communication Association, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 

Jaasma, M. & Koper, R. (2002). Out-of-class communication between remale and male students and faculty: The relationship to student perceptions of instructor immediacy. Women’s Studies in Communication, 25(1), 119-137. https://doi.org/10.1080/07491409.2002.10162443

Jaschik, S., & Lederman, D. (Eds.). (2018). Inside Higher Ed’s 2018 survey of faculty attitudes on technology. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/booklet/2018-survey-faculty-attitudes-technology

Kim, C. (2017). Out-of-class communication and personal learning environments via social media: Students’ perceptions and implications for faculty social media use. Teaching Journalism & Mass Communication, 7(1), 62-76. https://aejmc.us/spig/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2017/01/tjmc-w17-kim.pdf

Kim, C. (2018). Millennial learners and faculty credibility: Exploring the mediating role of out-of-class communication. Journal of Public Relations Education, 4(2), 1-24. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2018/08/17/millennial-learners-and-faculty-credibility-exploring-the-mediating-role-of-out-of-class-communication/

Kim, C. &  Freberg, K. (2018) Online pedagogy: Navigating perceptions and practices to develop learning communities. Teaching Journalism and Mass Communication, 8(2), 11-20. https://aejmc.us/spig/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2018/12/TJMC-8.2-Kim-Freberg.pdf

Lawrence, J. E., & Tar, U. A. (2018). Factors that influence teachers’ adoption and integration of ICT in teaching/learning process. Educational Media International, 55(1), 79-105. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523987.2018.1439712

Lederman, D. (2020, July 8). What worked this spring? Well-designed and -delivered courses.” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/07/08/what-kept-students-studying-remotely-satisfied-spring-well

Lopes, C. S., Rodrigues, L. C., & Sichieri, R. (1996). The lack of selection bias in a snowball sampled case-control study on drug abuse. International Journal of Epidemiology, 25(6), 1267-1270. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/25.6.1267

Lowenthal, P. R., Gooding, M., Shreaves, D., & Kepka, J. (2019). Learning to teach online: An exploration of how universities with large online programs train and develop faculty to teach online. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 20(3), 1–9. 

Morrison, D. (2015, Jan. 14). Does class size matter in online courses? Three perspectives: the economist, instructor & students. Online Learning Insights. https://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/does-class-size-matter-in-online-courses-three-perspectives/

Quesenberry, K. A., Coolsen, M. K., & Wilkerson, K. (2015). Current Trends in Communication Graduate Degrees. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 70(4), 407–427. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695815621735

 Quillen, I. (2015, March 18). 5 questions to ask about online community college courses. US News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2015/03/18/5-questions-to-ask-about-online-community-college-courses?page=2

Saad, L., Busteed, B., & Ogisi, M. (2013, October 15). In US, online education rated best for value and options. Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/165425/online-education-rated-best-value-options.aspx

Schommer-Aikins, M., & Easter, M. (2018). Cognitive flexibility, procrastination, and need for closure linked to online self-directed learning among students taking online courses. Journal of Business & Educational Leadership, 8(1), 112–121. http://asbbs.org/files/2019/JBEL_8.1_Fall_2018.pdf#page=112

Seaman, J. E., Allen, E. I., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group. http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradeincrease.pdf

Secret, M., Bentley, K. J., & Kadolph, J. C. (2016). Student voices speak quality assurance: Continual improvement in online social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 52(1), 30-42. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2016.1112630

Smallwood, A. M., & Brunner, B. R. (2017). Engaged learning through online collaborative public relations projects across universities. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 72(4), 442-460. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1077695816686440

Taft, S. H., Perkowski, T., & Martin, L. S. (2011). A framework for evaluating class size in online education. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 12(3), 181-197. 

Terenzini, P. T., Pascarella, E. T., & Blimling, G. S. (1996). Students’ out-of-class experiences and their influence on learning and cognitive development: A literature review. Journal of College Student Development

Tinoca, L., & Oliveira, I. (2013). Formative assessment of teachers in the context of an online learning environment. Teachers and Teaching, 19(2), 214-227. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2013.741836

Weissman, P. L., Puglisi, G., Bernardini, D., & Graf, J. (2019). Disruption in PR education: Online master’s degree programs in public relations and strategic communication. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 74(4), 371–387. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695818819604Wimmer, R. D., & Dominick, J. R. (2010). Mass media research: An introduction (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

© Copyright 2021 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Kim, Carolyn, Quesenberry, Keith A., Sutherland, Freberg, K. (2021). Digital learning: Standards and best practices for public relations education in undergraduate programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 7(2), 77-105. https://aejmc.us/jpre/2021/08/31/digital-learning-standards-and-best-practices-for-public-relations-education-in-undergraduate-programs/