Across the Spectrum
Visual Communication and Technology Education programs focus on applied learning, mandatory co-ops and corporate partnerships
By Julie Carle
More than 20 years ago, faculty in the Visual Communication Technology program at Bowling Green State University took a risk. They made a deliberate decision to jump into digital imaging technology, which was just coming into the mainstream for production.
“We decided to get rid of all the darkrooms and film and take a lead into digital technology,” said Dr. Donna Trautman, associate professor and interim chair of visual communication technology (VCT).
“It was a little risky at the time, because our industry partners were not quite yet at that point,” she recalled. “But then it became our students and graduates who were leading the change in the small and medium-sized companies. They were making digital technology smooth and applicable in any of the industries they went into, leading them into the next generation.”
In the Marketplace and Chronicle of Higher Education survey, it was a clear message from employers: the single most important credential for recent college graduates is on-the-job experience through co-ops or internships.The digital technology decision exemplifies VCT’s ability to meet the challenge of ever-changing technologies and times. The program was born out of that same philosophy of looking at industry, looking to the future and creating a curriculum to prepare students for new world technologies.
VCT has developed into a premier cross-media program, with nearly 500 students learning about photography, print, video and Web. Students specialize in a primary visual medium that emphasizes the uniqueness of that medium while understanding the dependence each form has on the others. VCT students master the spectrum of visual communication to deliver compelling messages to all kinds of people in all kinds of places.
The program started in the early 1970s as an outgrowth of industrial technology education, which evolved into technology education, and career and technology education in the then-College of Technology.
Trautman believes the program has been successful because it is relevant to both industry and students.
According to a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media Marketplace, half of the surveyed employers indicated they have a difficult time filling positions. A third of them gave colleges a fair to poor grade for producing successful employees, stating graduates lack “basic workplace proficiencies, like adaptability, communication skills and the ability to solve complex problems.”
BGSU has historically placed a great emphasis on preparing graduates for the workforce. With a foundation of applied learning, problem solving using technologies, and a required cooperative education component, the VCT program serves as a campus model as students, families, industry and government across the country demand an ever closer relationship between university study and career success.
Dr. Paul Cesarini, former chair of the Department of Visual Communication and Technology Education and executive director, Center for Faculty Excellence, said VCT faculty maintain close ties to industry, ensuring their curricula address the most imperative needs of a rapidly changing industry.
“This is a plus for our students, whose learning is always on the leading edge. Our faculty care about the program and staying current, so we are always updating our courses,” Trautman said.
“Who had a designated Web developer 10 years ago? Who could ever think about using augmented reality to solve problems and to use in displays or exhibits?” she questioned. “We’ve been able to adapt to the changing industry since we’ve started.”
Applied learning teaches troubleshooting
Judy Sharp McFarland ’82, president of Thread Marketing Group, a successful marketing communications agency in Toledo, Ohio, believes the teaching model of the VCT program was well ahead of its time.
“The VCT program provided a unique blend of hands-on training with a well-rounded university degree,” McFarland said. “This approach allowed us, as students, to take pause and really formulate how best to reach and engage people through our visual language — all while learning how to master the technical tools and equipment available to us.”
As vice president for Internet marketing for CBS Television Distribution, Lisa Lasarenko ’89, uses many of the basic lessons she learned in the program at BGSU daily.
“The applied learning approach had us in the darkroom doing photography and standing at a type press. We learned how to troubleshoot any problem that might arise,” she said. “That is how I approach every day. I know where I start. I know where I need to end up, and I troubleshoot along the way.”
McFarland also valued the group-learning environment, which provided “a more global understanding of how to work within a team – a critical skill needed in the workplace.”
Direct connections to industry
“Staying aligned with industry is an important component of the program,” said Cesarini. “Through outreach and networking with industry and our alumni, we have gained support, grants, equipment and advice that has helped us stay relevant over the decades.”
One of the most significant networks recently forged is with the corrugated packaging and displays industry. Through the International Corrugated and Packaging Foundation (ICPF), BGSU has received equipment and a meaningful connection to an industry that has lots to offer.
Richard Flaherty, president of ICPF, reported, “The corrugated and packaging and display, industry is huge.” As a $25 billion a year industry, it is vital to the U.S. distribution system.
His foundation’s mission is to work with colleges and universities to help advance their design, engineering, business and related curricula; thereby generating a stream of increasingly qualified graduates for employment in the corrugated packaging industry.
BGSU is one of 25 colleges and universities across North America, and the first in Ohio, to benefit from this strong connection. In October 2012, BGSU received a Gerber Computer Aided Design Table and software for its labs. The donations helped to jumpstart the program to integrate the teaching of graphic and structural design for corrugated packaging. The new curricula have been incorporated into six existing courses reaching more than 300 students each year and serving as an important recruiting opportunity for students interested in the industry.
In the year and a half since the packaging and display lab was created, several BGSU students have already landed jobs in the field.
Other industries within the field are also connected to the University program. They recognize that the key to maintaining a strong workforce is education.
“When an industry wants prepared graduates, they know the universities that have solid programs, so they are willing to assist to help make that happen,” Trautman said. “Additionally, we have a solid technology base at BGSU, including a strong Information Technology Services and University support. Also the faculty are creative and networked enough to be able to go out and find resources for lighting, screens, software, hardware and materials
The program also has an active advisory group that maintains ties to alumni and industry representatives, Cesarini said. They provide a voice and an outside perspective to keep faculty attuned to what’s unfolding in the industry and how to integrate that into the curriculum.
Co-ops are program stronghold
In the College of Technology, Architecture and Applied Engineering, where the VCT program is located, co-ops are mandatory, and not just one, but three, for VCT students. Each co-op is a paid, full semester, intensive experience. Students leave behind the familiarity of the classroom to navigate the world of work as part of their graduation requirements.
“This is the strength of the cooperative education program of our college,” Cesarini said. “Because it is an academic component to our program, and not just a recommendation, students graduate with the equivalent of at least a full year of experience.”
The premise is that hands-on experience outside of the classroom offers valuable lessons. Industry agrees. In the Marketplace and Chronicle of Higher Education survey, it was a clear message from employers: the single most important credential for recent college graduates is on-the-job experience through co-ops or internships.
In a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 63 percent of students who worked in co-ops or internships had at least one job offer by graduation, compared to 40 percent of the students who did not have actual work experiences.
The VCT co-ops are not in response to any recent outcry of industry, but a long-term commitment that has paid dividends. Trautman pointed to a graduate research survey that is conducted every five years which indicates that 74 percent of their students have jobs or are accepted into graduate programs at commencement or soon after.
“Our students often have a year or more of real work experience, and they know what it means to show up for work. They know how to dress on the job, work with diverse teams, solve problems, and they understand standard etiquette for their industry,” said Trautman.
Lasarenko learned lessons in each of her three co-ops, from how to present a more professional appearance to the value of being mentored by women in leadership roles. She also landed a job at her final co-op, which started her on a career path toward her current high-powered job in Los Angeles.
During co-ops, the companies and the students are both auditioning one another. Potential employers are testing the students for job skills and compatibility while the students are deciding if they like the environment and the work they are doing, helping students solidify their career interests.
Co-ops benefit more than students
Research and hundreds of examples confirm that co-ops benefit students, but the University and industry also benefit.
The co-op program has established partnerships with more than 2,000 co-op sites over the years. Because faculty members are often the ones who visit the co-op sites to ensure the partnership is mutually beneficial, they are connected with industry partners.
“The best part for us is working with these co-ops. They help us stay current, which helps us adapt our curriculum,” Trautman said. “These are the connections that have helped us gain equipment, grant money and positions for people.”
“We are grounded within academia to make sure we stay focused to position our students to lead and to reinvest in the program,” she added.
And the efforts come full circle, when the improved curriculum better prepares the students for success in the co-ops.
According to McFarland, “We have utilized a number of co-op students through the years and are never disappointed with the level of knowledge and professionalism that BGSU students demonstrate. They seem to have a more complete understanding of the industry and are definitely more technically savvy.”
Currently half of Thread’s staff are BGSU graduates, with half of those being VCT graduates.
Extended programs, new audiences
As demographics change, and the definition of a “typical student” evolves, the college department has responded to the demand. In an important step four years ago, the VCT program completed the process to become qualified for evening programming. Each semester, courses are rotated, which allows working adults to take the classes in the evening and complete the program in a reasonable time while they continue to work. Adding online classes also allowed students who were participating in co-ops to also take classes.
Two additional programs within the department also have been well received. The learning design and technology bachelor’s degree completion program and the learning design master’s program expand BGSU’s reach through a completely online format.
These programs address the statewide and national need to help working adults advance their education. About 30 percent of the students in both programs may still live geographically close to BGSU, but are working and depend upon the flexibility of online courses, said Dr. Gary Benjamin, who heads up the two learning design programs. The majority of the students take the classes from locations across the country, as well as overseas.
The VCT program was also extended to Firelands students in 2005 and has opened doors for students there.
Amanda Nixon, a current Firelands VCT student, said “The VCT program at BGSU Firelands is perfect for me. Everyone has been very accommodating to me, which has allowed me to pursue a career in a visual communications field.”
An agreement with the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) connects many military people to BGSU to finish course work toward a bachelor’s degree or advance their education in the online master’s program.
After 22 years in the Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Bob Gauthier retired last fall from his job at the Pentagon at about the same time he finished his bachelor’s degree in learning design and technology from BGSU.
Several years ago when he decided it was time to advance his education and career by earning a master’s degree, he looked at the CCAF-provided list and recognized BGSU as the alma mater of Andrew Kovich ’91, one of his former commanders.
Gauthier, who was trained in technology, space and missile systems, found the BGSU forecasting technologies lessons
“Sitting in a one-deep position in the Pentagon and being the only individual with hands-on experience working on the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, specifically the Minuteman III weapon system, has led me to many very interesting and at times highly classified discussions in my job,” he said.
“One of the requirements of forecasting technologies assists me on a daily basis. Determining demand and consequences of implementing not only technologies but policies, rules and regulations gives the entire view of a project.”
For Gauthier the learning design and technology program seemed a perfect fit, not only the content, but also the format.
The online classes allowed him the flexibility to work his military job during the day, coach his two sons after work, enjoy family time in the evening and “go to class from about 10 to 11:30 at night,” he said.
The program is rooted in education, having evolved from industrial education to career and technology education. Today the two tracks, education and industry for training and development, attract many people who recognize they need additional education to advance in their careers, Benjamin explained.
“It’s possible here at BGSU in this program for someone to complete their bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. all online,” he said. “There has been an initiative from the governor to improve college graduation rates in Ohio. There is a civic responsibility to upgrade education of citizens in general; these programs are addressing that need.”
“Everything we’ve covered, it’s really stood the test of time. It has very little to do with one person, but the strength of the program. The program is rooted in history, but it is certainly not standing still,” Trautman concluded.