E-learning in Public Relations

Central Institute of Technology (Formerly Central TAFE)


Organisation Background
Central TAFE (Central) has recently changed its name to become the Central Institute of Technology. It is the largest provider in Western Australia of Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses and is currently shaping into a new organisation that encompasses a new $60m building focused on providing key training to the engineering and resources sector. Central is also one of Australia’s largest VET colleges, training more than 25,000 students, including 1,300 from overseas.
  • Central offers around 400 nationally accredited courses in the areas of:
  • Business, management and finance
  • Creative and digital (art, design and media; information technology and information services)
  • Engineering and building
  • English and community access
  • Health and community services
  • Resources and science
  • Sport and education
  • Tourism and languages.

Project Background
The Certificate IV and Diploma of Public Relations courses delivered at Central are the only VET accredited public relations (PR) courses offered in WA. These courses comprise of 10 and eight units respectively and address the fundamental requirements for PR practitioners to enter the communications industry.
Although a niche area, PR is predominantly about the promotion of an organisation’s perception with its public coupled with the ability to persuade its public to view an organisation in a positive light. PR has seen a marked increase in enrolments in 2009, together with newly accredited courses needed to review the delivery methodology, content and assessment tools.
This provided a great opportunity to include web 2.0 applications and in doing so, learning about how to use online tools in the PR course. Research showed Central that social media and communication trends coupled with industry requirements through blogs, wikis, links to industry associations, Twitter, e-learning in general, LinkedIn and many other avenues of online digital channels of communication, was a primary choice for embedding both e-learning and use of social media tools for future PR practitioners. In light of this, the funding was utilised for the e-learning project: E-PR (E-learning in Public Relations).
The project enabled students to discover the use of tools for online learning and engagement whilst understanding their use and development for future PR campaigns, which would ultimately benefit their career pathways as PR practitioners and in using online tools in a professional capacity instead of just socially.
The challenge was to embed e-learning into the student’s courses by introducing the use of social media as a professional tool. The reason being that online marketing, PR and general promotion is an imperative and an immediate communication channel to use for disseminating and managing newsworthy information and building credibility for the image and branding of an organisation. The category for the project funding was managed under ‘empowering learners.’

The project was needed because…

Technology has moved in leaps and bounds in recent years and the PR industry has changed having embraced the ability to use web 2.0 tools for dissemination of information to spread positive messages via the internet. The changes were enough for the PR industry to now label this as their own - PR 2.0.
Central believes it is also of major importance to encourage and motivate the students about the ability to not only use these new social media tools, but to know how to manage them, in a professional environment.
In completing this project, Central believed the outcomes were to teach the students and encourage them to use and manage technological tools on the internet for the benefit of their future employers and their personal careers.
Some unexpected outcomes were:
• Social learning and online delivery has ‘now’ been embedded in the course for future delivery.
• Interest generated by industry looking at what we are accomplishing with the students.
• Interest generated by industry representatives such as PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia).
• Use of applications in the students’ voluntary workplaces – some of the students have been requested to develop social media applications for not-for-profit organisations to enhance and increase their profile.

Project Team

The project was managed by Keith Critchett, Public Relations Lecturer and overseen by Ros Howell, Learning Portfolio Manager of the Business and Management portfolio at Central.
The project was managed on a daily basis with the students making up both the team and being active participants in the learning and the ultimate development of a road safety campaign called Focus.
The daily management was to oversee, monitor, mentor and evaluate students’ daily use of applications ensuring that they were aware that they were leaving a digital trail, both professionally and personally. The latter impacting noticeably on the future use of their own social media applications as they realised the extent of their writing and imagery.
Other PR lecturing staff that assisted, included Heather Tebbs and Morena Dobrowolski. The PR road safety campaign was administrated by Sandra Pinto and Brittany Billett.
This was also complemented by assistance from the IT Department, Library (multimedia) and Marketing Departments, with a high level of endorsement from the Central’s Management.
Externally, the project was also assisted by Janice Calcei, Diane McLaren, Cheryl Galloway, Cathy Baxter and Jyothi Jayaram. The E-PR project was also nominated by the WA Innovations Coordinator to present the project as a case study to other e-learning innovators via an Elluminate session at the online conference Exploring e-Innovations 09.
The project was also supported by James Humphrey, WA Operations Manager from Optus and Murray Johnston from RoadWise.

If the project had not been funded…

If the project had not been funded, both the Certificate IV and Diploma PR courses would have still been delivered, but with a high probability of not engaging students and embedding social media as part of the delivery. However, the impact of not being funded would not have harmed the prospects of those students being gainfully employed.
However, Central suggests that the students were better equipped and have a more rounded appeal for their future employers as they have not only learnt about social media practices, but actually implemented this in a real time campaign. This was also complemented by networking with industry representatives who were engaged in using the social media sites established by the students. Central also believed the project has helped students gain a new and unique level of competency in the use of social media applications, which would highlight their capabilities to future prospective students.
As an example of embedding this e-learning project, the recent PRIA conference held in Brisbane, presented their primary speaker, Deidre Breckenridge, author and PR practitioner and more importantly, an international advocate for PR.20.

What was done
The project was split into two distinct phases of operation:
  • Part 1 (semester 1) - students undertaking the Certificate IV in Public Relations – the discovery and practical use including analysis and evaluation of using online tools for delivery of an organisation’s communication message and the advantages and disadvantages of use within the PR industry. This included application and implementation coupled with industry campaigns for not-for-profit organisations.
  • Part 2 (semester 2) - students undertaking the Diploma of Public Relations – development of a real time PR campaign for road safety called Focus.
The project stemmed from a need to:
  • Embrace new technology and its use in the online learning environment.
  • Provide technology-based learning that the new PR course and industry required.
  • Develop a high level of student engagement required for the very specific market of young learners.
The enthusiastic students developed a Facebook page as part of a peer networking facility and for future online collaboration. Initially, up to 27 students were engaged in this project from the Certificate IV Public Relations course, which culminated in 12 students moving onto the higher level of Diploma of Public Relations.
The use of web 2.0 tools was written into the learning plan, which was a requirement of Central to provide direction and as a forward planning tool for students. Competency and critical tasks were underwritten as part of the course/unit curriculum with assessments developed to ensure compliance with the course requirements but using different methods of evaluation. The students were introduced to a number of social networking platforms, and integrated their own knowledge from Facebook and MSN eg into establishing their own class network on Facebook, monitored and managed by the lecturer.
Use of social networking was always fraught through lack of discipline as the students are generally unaware of the dangers of ‘digital trails’ so Working in Groups and Use in Online Rules were established upfront to (try to) ensure this was properly managed in their online world. Thereafter, the students were introduced to their new wiki site, an online portal for learning, working individually and in groups, peer review and assessment, collaborative networking and links for off-campus tasks. The site established through Wikispaces for the Cert IV in Public Relations can be found at: http://certivpr.wikispaces.com and the Diploma of Public Relations site can be found at http://dipofpr2009.wikispaces.com.
The learning provided was introduction based only, with rules of online engagement firmly established prior to use. The students were also required to report, with journaling through newly established blogs using Blogger on a weekly basis, of their new knowledge, thoughts, opinions and learned material. The primary site for the class blog can be found at: http://certivpr.blogspot.com.
Once comfortable in this new paradigm away from normal learning – chalk ‘n talk, the students took personal ownership through self-learning which in turn built up their own confidence in use of online tools. There was also a natural carry-over when they undertook tasks for their chosen not-for-profit organisations during their workplace experiences.
The teachers and trainers role was to move from a lecturing standpoint to one of mentoring and facilitating and become part of the groups’ activities.
Tasks for future weeks were placed on the Course Requirements Wiki page of which each student was required to review on a daily basis as part of their use of web 2.0 tools and as their online calendar or events, activities and learning. A PDF file of assessment due dates, presentation times and themes were also highlighted. Links to PR industry sites, case studies and other typical industry links were added on a weekly basis. This also included a number of students working off-campus in their own time and posting relevant PR stories, jobs, updates, links, etc.
As a number of students had called in sick and with other real personal issues that stopped them from attending class, the online environment ensured that they were kept up to date with everything that was happening within the group.


There were a few issues that arose when commencing with this project:
  • Initial problems with internet speed(s), too many downloads and images either researched or viewed. This was overcome by involving the IT department in what was required to undertake the project. Internet speed was an issue that could not be accommodated, and is a future Central initiative.
  • Students losing focus on the expectations of the project and course – as when asked to look at Facebook and explore its potential for sending media messages, monitoring business sites and even viewing activist sites, students became distracted. This was overcome by ensuring the students knew that teachers and trainers were watching their screens via SyncronEyes, software that Central had installed to monitor what students were looking at. As soon as a student was not completing a task, there was an initial warning and there screen would be locked and their ability to fulfil that task. This could be undertaken on the lecturers’ computer at the front of the class.
This was the first Facebook page for online collaboration, established for networking.
Facebook page for online collaboration

  • Even though initial research via a survey was undertaken of students’ competency in internet use, teachers and trainers had underestimated the extent of what they knew (data collected) and didn’t know. Some students were very competent and others only used the internet for social activities and nothing else. A few students required some one-on-one tuition to get them up to speed with internet use. Techniques from instructional intelligence were used and placed those students in groups of both strong and weak capabilities to learn collaboratively. This worked better than expected as each student had to accept personal accountability for their role within each group, so there was no ‘ducking under the radar’.

What worked well

What worked well was the collaborative approach to teaching and peer review and assessment by establishing a wiki site on WikiSpaces. This was developed for the Certificate IV in Public Relations.Each student established their own page and commenced populating this with an introduction about them selves and then took turns to present their new page. Each student was then asked to view every other student’s page and make some positive or constructive comment about the look, content, links, etc. This enabled the students to experiment and gain experience using the collaborative tool and explore it’s potential.
Course pages were developed and presented key information on the course, assessments, presentations and times. Students were required to review the content on a daily basis in case there was something new to be completed or new links to read. For sustainability practices, it was perfect for not having to copy pages of slides, notes, and it saved on time, toner and paper.
Students were also placed in groups and requested to source and complete workplace assessment for a not-for-profit organisation. This also included establishing blogs for journaling their experiences.
During the same period a number of business sites were explored and evaluated as to the extent of their social media initiatives and how they were used to good effect.
Once the students had completed the Certificate IV in Public Relations some continued on to the Diploma of Public Relations and continued on with their new found knowledge. A new wiki site was established: http://dipofpr2009.wikispaces.com.
The students, having embraced the technology and use of social media now began phase two of the project. They became the proactive participants in guiding how and where their knowledge could be used. A new wiki site, with vastly more structure, use of space, research links, articles, networks established and a more collaborative online community of practice was built around the new delivery.
The course evolved into PBL (Project Based Learning). After a collaborative and brainstorming session, it was decided to implement a road safety campaign to bring other students’ attention to the issue of texting whilst driving.

Wiki page
Focus campaign site

This campaign was the first in the state, if not the country, to initiate such a public relations campaign that was named Focus, with the by-line Drive Safer, Talk Later. The campaign objective was to send a message of awareness to 20,000 Central students and to change people’s attitudes to texting whilst driving. The campaign employed a number of ideas that included promotional posters, an event held in late 2009 on campus at Central and more importantly, meeting the needs of the students by using social media as a communications channel. This was accomplished by establishing a Facebook page, which currently has 657 members and still being populated as of 14 November 2009. There is also a Twitter page:
The page was used to bring people to the Facebook site and engage in online discussion groups, displaying film clips from international advertising campaigns. The students also initiated an online competition to win a digital camera. Anyone wishing to enter was requested to view the video clip with the objective of bringing awareness to people. They needed to email the answer of what colour was the Air Ambulance.
The students also joined LinkedIn, Scribd, researched blogs on Technorati, Live @ edu, YouTube, submitted work to SlideShare, monitored Facebook and Twitter through Tweetdeck, used mobile technology, email and shared resources through del.ici.ous.The delivery methodology was to encourage a constructivist approach to teaching whilst working in a collaborative environment.
Other technology tools used included:
  • Microsoft products
  • Blackboard Learning Management System
  • Reviewed capabilities of Wetpaint and Wordpress
  • Three students participated in a trial using Skype and Elluminate
  • Video and still camera footage was also recorded for all events, participation and recording presentations for later video blogging for promotional purposes.
Weekly reflective activities were built into the course as part of the evaluation process and also as part of building an ongoing e-portfolio of evidence for both their individual and group assessments. These was utilised by the students to build their own personal resumes for online job applications and references in future months. Several students have both applied and been interviewed for jobs in the communications industry and used their blogs and experiences of wikis as part of their resume portfolio.

Students setting up event
Student (Vicki) working on Facebook and Twitter

The crowds pour in
Day of the Focus event

What would we do differently next time and why?

Central would not consider too many changes to the course as it is an accredited course and articulated to ECU’s (Edith Cowan University) Mass Communication degree. The course structure, student issues, limitations and use of technology worked exceedingly well the first time around. If there were to be any additions, changes or review we would consider the following:
  • Getting the students to develop podcasts and vodcasts that could be used as part of their portfolio for journaling.
  • Establishing better working links with social media organisations that can assist with the course.
  • Reviewing PR campaigns and case studies to ensure that social media can be fully utilised in the campaign, even to the point of increasing social media use.
  • Evaluating all tools in the project against current tools available eg is Blogger the best journaling site? What professional networking sites can we access and use to promote a cause?
  • Exploring sites like Second Life for purposes of simulation, risk management, layout of event and even delivery.

Benefits experienced by Central and lessons learnt

The challenge of the project we considered initially were to:
• Introduce and develop social media applications as part of the delivery for Cert IV Public Relations through to the Diploma of Public Relations.
• Embed and view social media as a working tool to be used in the communications industry.
• Keep abreast of industry standards and requirements.
• Engage a young cohort of students with something they understood and were passionate about – technology, computers and the internet.
There were a number of key benefits to Central:
• Lowered the attrition rates as students are more engaged, motivated and career focused.
• Improved outcomes as the course has ‘self-promoted’ by engaging other portfolios in focus groups, online social access and presentations.
• Assisted in building Central’s brand with better educated and trained students who have represented Central when working in industry.
• Raised industry awareness of the levels of competency and capability of Central students.
The growth, future development and sustainability of the project will be enhanced by:
• The adoption of other lecturing staff in engaging their students in the use of web 2.0 tools for online learning.
• The validation with industry to ensure that we are embracing change and adopting our courses to suit industry expectations.
• The students becoming advocates for both the course and students in other classes, as well as potential mentors.
• The students possibly participating in future projects with the course as online mentors with a professional, collaborative input into future student assessment projects.
• The students through the project will be proactive participants by contributing to the design of the new course model.
Teachers and trainers learned that student engagement was a primary factor in the ability to both manage and teach students a subject they knew nothing about. By understanding student needs and learning styles, course requirements and what industry expects from a trained student. By marrying these together and coupled with some creative and innovative ideas for delivery, we ensured that even several of the Cert IV students who realised, all too late, that PR was not the industry for them, still participated in promoting the PR course by presenting at an exhibition and being advocates for the course in speaking with school students. The project was a very positive step to engage young students; most were aged under 18 with three 16 year olds, it also established very early on that school had finished and that respect works both ways when participating in adult tertiary education.

Benefits to the students

(Including key outcomes, analysis of the project and experiences of learners)
There were a number of benefits to the students:
• Students felt empowered with knowledge to express their own ideas and opinions which meant adjusting some of the initial delivery.
• This increased their ability to perform at and beyond industry standards and expectations because they were interested in the technology.
• They became very confident and motivated in their abilities to perform the same tasks when undertaking workplace experience.
• This has led their current workplaces to place a high level of responsibility on the students in managing their social media campaigns.
• An unexpected increase in student attendance even though a great deal of work was offered and delivered online.
The gains included a high level of professional confidence, all of the students are networking through professional sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter with other like minded PR practitioners, leading to attending PR events. Most of the students are now actively communicating on a daily basis with other PR people in the communications industry, with student Kylie De Vos actually coming to the aid of a PR company whilst networking and connecting them to a graphic designer.
It was Keith’s opinion that they are better equipped and have a more rounded appeal for their future employers as they have not only learned about social media practices, but actually implemented this in a real time campaign. Central also believes this has helped the students have a new and unique level of competency in the use of social media applications, which would highlight their capabilities above another prospective applicant.

Students’ comments:
“Tomorrow never ends...this past week I have spent a fairly ludicrous amount of time studying social media techniques and trends. That being said, what seems ludicrous and unfathomable now will one day soon be necessary and barely adequate. Social media trends are something that I have decided to heavily focus on in my PR career as the same trends seem to be coming up that force me to foresee a technological shift in PR in the VERY near future.
I'm attempting to make as many contacts as possible, but not simply by adding people on LinkedIn. I'm offering help with organising activities, offering my opinion in polls and debates and asking questions to experts in the industry. There's nothing people like more then being asked questions that they can answer in depth based on their background knowledge. I'm actually at work experience right now, on my break and writing my blog because I have too much to do to even think about eating and maintaining my own well being.”

Twitter; simply for the self indulgent or effective tool? "Twitter for the self indulgent in all of us." I read this quote the other day whilst reading articles on the internet. I can't for the life of me remember who said it, why they said it and when they said it, but they did and it got me thinking. By thinking I mean researching, asking, analysing, twittering, more thinking and finally - here and now – blogging.
I must admit when I first heard of twitter many moons ago I was not interested at all! I assumed twitter was more useful for celebrities, socialites, people that lead far more interesting lives. And boy was I right.I suppose us mere mortals should find the cliché - that celebrities, socialites and the like have jumped on the twitter 'bandwagon' - funny. However I don't. I think twitter - if used correctly - is an effective tool that can be used to inform, promote, establish, advertise, assist and connect. That is if it is used correctly.
Yes twitter can be self indulgent, but everyone must have some sense of self indulgence. Otherwise there wouldn't be potentially 18 million twitter users by the end of 2009, or blogs for that matter. You cannot deny that fact that twitter is an effective tool that is growing prominence in the media, and this effective tool can be used for free. With the current Global Financial Crisis and organisations cutting costs in advertising, marketing and public relations, channels such as twitter can be utilised to ensure that promotion is still in place and is effective.
This is what Ashton Kutcher said, "individuals are becoming consumers and (the) editors of the media (Twitter) has and will forever change media. It gives you an ability to stay in tune with your audience...but also as it has continued to grow; it gives me a great platform to syndicate content. I can do it for free (by) pushing a button,"

The results

This case study can act as a guide and template for future VET practitioners. It can be further enhanced by a web-based demonstration highlighting the input from both levels of competency of students’ evidence.

  • Case study report and evaluation of use of learning and embedding use of web 2.0 tools of social media for use in the PR industry and any other course whereby a collaborative, constructivist and online approach could be used to engage students in their learning.
  • Use and succession planning for other courses and the capabilities of professional development with other lecturing staff for student engagement.
  • Report on use of web-based tools. Wiki, for off-campus use in both individual and group projects and other social media sites.
  • Web based demonstration for others to impart knowledge of use of web tools in a class environment including guides, reports and evaluation processes.
  • The industry areas of benefit include public relations, marketing and promotion and event management based on achieving competency in Certificate IV and Diploma of PR.
  • The PR students were comfortable in using their Wiki and were asked to assist another class in establishing a new wiki, helping other students get online and assisting them with the development of their own pages.
  • Being an advocate for use of social media tools has demonstrated their use in many workshops and as e-learning mentor. This has culminated in a number of lecturers now using wikis, blogs and setting up new Blackboard shells to professional development by undertaking a facilitation course with Gipps TAFE.

Reflections and suggestions

The funding by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Framework) allowed the public relations course at Central the scope to initiate new ideas in delivery and learning.The use of social media and collaborative online tools is now embedded in the course with future use and planning for 2010 currently underway. The students have a unique portfolio of evidence they can now use as part of their resume. Other lecturers have requested and now embedded the use of online collaborative tools in their delivery.
Suggestions include the use of mobile technology, vidcasts, podcasts, using Elluminate with the students and bringing online special guests and more speakers and representatives from PRIA, social media specialists and industry in general.

Framework connection

The national training system’s e-learning strategy, the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Framework) funds and supports E-learning Innovations projects, which aim to embed e-learning into the national training system by supporting and enabling innovation in training design and delivery at the state and territory level.
Embedding E-learning - Central
Chris Leigh, Leader Online Learning at Central recently had time to reflect on the current strategy of where Central is heading and added: What's happened since you developed your e-learning facilitation model as part of your 2008 funding? How has e-learning progressed at Central?
In organisational development terms:
  • Dedicated e-learning staff employed at Central, including three mentors and a Leader Online Learning and Innovative Practice.
  • Budget allocated for online learning resources and educational technologies.
  • E-learning integrated into Cenral’s business planning, with priorities set, review of IT services conducted to ensure infrastructure can support e-learning.
At the coal-face:
  • Several students have access to online resources has doubled from April 2009 - Oct 2009.
  • 74 e-learning projects funded during 2009.
  • E-portfolio trial conducted.
  • Increased use of audio recording, videoing and podcasting of lectures and growth in the use of Elluminate.
What are the Institute's future goals in developing e-learning?
  • A mix of high profile online developments involving diploma/advance diploma qualifications to increase Central's online brand.
  • Maximum online presence by end of 2011 plus increasing a number of courses incorporating enhanced e-learning environments - using collaboration, assessment, communication tools and containing interactive learning materials.
  • Develop organisational capability to sustain e-learning and mainstream innovation in educational technologies through professional development.
How has e-learning benefited your organisation and learners?
  • Plans to conduct a survey at the end of 2009 will confirm the benefits to Central and its learners.

Embedding E-learning – Public Relations course (project)

Based on the previous Framework project undertaken with the Business and Management project in 2008, Central are continuing to embed e-learning as part of their strategic direction for future delivery. This includes continuing to build the ‘body of knowledge’ in online delivery, student engagement and new methods of teaching, learning and delivery.
Currently new roles have been developed for a Leader Online Learning and three part-time e-learning mentors to support e-learning throughout the organisation. Central believes the project will continue to complement and build on the 2008 Framework project and embed e-learning as another, if not preferred, form of delivery for both distance and classroom blended delivery. New options and pathways will be created for the PR industry. No other TAFE is currently delivering this course in WA, and Central is aiming to have PRIA embrace the course and mode of delivery as another method of learning for the future professionalism of the industry.
As for impacting students, they will be better educated in the technological use of web 2.0 applications and as importantly, will create a great deal of digital evidence for future users, which will assist in promoting the course to potential students. There is also potential for industry representatives to mentor VET students online.
In engaging in this E-learning Innovations project, the following Framework products and resources were used…
We have used the Framework’s website as a research tool and point of reference for the e-learning project. They include:
• Your Guide to Social E-learning
• Benchmarking and Research
• Framework website
• Designing and Implementing E-learning
• e-Gems
• E-learning for Industry
• E-learning Innovations Blog
• Innovate and Integrate
We have engaged in a number of workshops offered by the Framework and more recently, presented our project at the recent online conference Exploring e-Innovations.


This is a Western Australian E-learning Innovations project output, developed by Central Institute of Technology (formerly Central TAFE) with seed funding from the Framework.

For more information

For more information on Central Institute of Technology (Formerly Central TAFE)
Keith Critchett
Phone: (08) 9427 1235
Email: keith.critchett@central.wa.edu.au

For more information on the Australian Flexible Learning Framework:
Phone: (07) 3307 4700
Email: enquiries@flexiblelearning.net.au
Website: flexiblelearning.net.au