Case Study: USF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication Program Offers Authentic Learning Opportunities

Professor David Ryan, Academic Director of the MAPC program, teaches a class at USF's downtown campus

The modern field of professional communications demands fluent communication over myriad digital media channels. Students in the MAPC program develop this fluency throughout their studies not only via their real-world assignments, but also from working within the course environments themselves. MAPC courses are offered in a variety of formats tied to the specific course content, including in-person, online, and hybrid courses. This range of educational contexts gives students flexibility (and responsibility) as they develop independent learning skills whilst they gain the practical experience of learning and communicating with teams over multiple media. Embracing the challenge of designing effective online and hybrid courses, the MAPC program creates an authentic learning environment that bolsters its students' professional success.

"The best authentic learning experiences include both the process as well as the product—having the opportunity to work within a real-world context while learning, builds confidence and professional identity within the field." – Jill Ballard, Instructional Designer, University of San Francisco.

Students in the program study in synchronous and asynchronous environments as they work independently and collaboratively on individual and team projects. Most of the MAPC courses have a fair number of asynchronous assignments where students read, write, post and respond to one another in Canvas or in other shared online spaces, such as Google Docs. In many of the classes, the students then converge in real time via video conference to discuss work and complete assignments.

"In the professional world, you may have a project manager based in San Francisco while staff are distributed in different locations. In this kind of work environment, people work with each other by using conferencing software. They share their screens, present their work, engage in discussions, and problem-solve," –Academic Director David Ryan

David Ryan encourages faculty in the program to consult with their online teaching peers for insight as well as to seek out USF's Instructional Design team for support. The ID team partners with faculty in the MAPC program to support them as they design their courses in the effort to broaden learning, and increase student engagement and success. As the instructional designer dedicated to the MAPC program, Jill Ballard works individually with instructors and offers input on best practices in online and hybrid course design.

The biggest practical challenge, says Ryan, is overcoming preconceived notions regarding learning in online environments. "Certainly, many students and faculty will hear the term 'online' and think of the asynchronous model of posting work with very little real time interaction. But our communication program values synchronous speaking and listening, so our hybrid and online courses utilize Zoom video conferencing for live interaction and Google's shared spaces to conduct class."

For Ryan, this approach achieves two important objectives: (1) it helps students develop online competencies and (2) creates a digital discourse community that may not get a chance to form otherwise. "Once students develop these competencies, they become more comfortable working in this environment," says Ryan. "Certainly, students come to San Francisco to be together; however, once many of them get internships and jobs, many stay at work and join class online. Because students and faculty travel to meet professional commitments, the online component helps them stay in class."

Whether instructors are thinking about adding digital components to their instruction, creating a new online class, or offering an existing class in an online modality, Ryan recommends, "speaking to the Instructional Design team at USF will help instructors better understand how the designers can help with this professional growth. Thereafter, they work to help you create the best online experience for you and your students. This kind of partnership brings together content and technology in a way that serves student learning with a high degree of quality and consistency."

Written by Jill Ballard, Mishiara Baker, and David Ryan


Galindo, J. H., Ed.D. (n.d.). Authentic Learning (Simulations, Lab, Field). Retrieved May 10, 2018, from