O'Keefe: NU School of Communication's new modular curriculum approach prepares students to work in creative industries

November 11, 2015

Northwestern University’s School of Communication in Evanston, Illinois, USA, is embracing its role as a professional school, and it’s doing so with a revolutionary modular approach that prepares students to work in creative industries.

In an NU-Q community meeting, Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication, detailed the development and execution of the new approach, during a recent visit to NU-Q as part of a delegation from Northwestern’s Provost’s Office. NU-Q is one of Northwestern’s 12 schools and works closely with the School of Communication, Medill School of Journalism and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at the university’s campus in the U.S.

O’Keefe explained that the new approach allows students take four to six courses designed to give them a coherent and deep command of an area of focus. The modules cover a diverse range of disciplines and are supplemented by participation in extracurricular activities and instruction from industry experts.

It was developed after both faculty and students expressed a desire to break down the boundaries both between majors and disciplines, and between in-class and extracurricular learning. “What we’ve done is pull out the coherent sequence of courses within our curriculum, and turned those into their own programs,” O’Keefe said, “each of which is aligned with extracurricular experiences that allow students to practice outside of class what goes on inside the class.”

For each module, students complete a capstone project that varies in form depending on the subject matter. In addition, students submit an artist’s or scholar’s statement, outlining what they sought to achieve and how their project integrated what was learned in the module. The modules reinforce the School of Communication’s new commitment to providing a professional education, one that prepares students to work in industries while remaining rooted in intellectual philosophy.

With that in mind, the school has tailored its offerings to give students an education commensurate with the 21st-century communications landscape. That has included a popular health communication program, a new master’s degree in leadership for creative enterprises, and an in-development master’s in sound arts and industries.

According to O’Keefe, the master’s programs represent a conscious turn away from the traditional three-year model. Instead of offering an intense single year of study and career-development support, the programs are aimed at people who have been working for a few years and discovered a need for specialized skills. “We think that people will be doing a succession of graduate degrees, and the kind of graduate degrees they need are not what we’ve had before,” she said. “They do not need the three-year MFA where they sit around and reflect for a long time and life passes them by.”