Spotlighting the upcoming Content Strategy School

A mock certificate award in Content Strategy
That's right, badassery!

When it comes to career training, there are a few options for getting a leg up: articles and books, webinars, conference presentations, workshops, vendor/brand certifications, MOOCs, or the big-time tackling of a university degree. Those of us interested in the relatively new field of Content Strategy have had to settle for the piecemeal approach; picking and choosing from limited offerings because formal degrees are not yet mainstream. But a new educational option appears on the horizon. While specifics are still ironing out, the Content Strategy School could be a viable option to shape oneself into a major content strategy asset, without the steep investments of higher education.

Before heading off on my family summer vacation last month, I noticed a tweet bobbing through the #contentstrategy sect of Twitter, bringing attention to a curious name and link: Content Strategy School. The school website is a little shy on detail, but gives hints to a web-based training system due in “Fall 2016”, powered by “top experts”.

Hilary Marsh is behind the project through her business, Content Company, Inc. Knowing Hilary has been interested in producing some kind of certification process for the last 3 years, at least, I touched base with her through email to pose a few questions. She graciously allowed me to share what I learned.

I began by asking Hilary if the Content Strategy School is the manifestation of her original ideas from years ago. Her response to this question sets the stage:

In every content strategy community I’m involved with (face-to-face or online), I regularly see people wishing for content strategy education and training. For the most part, this has been happening at conferences and local events, and through online reading.

While in the past several years I’ve seen numerous content strategy courses and training programs emerge, as well as the first graduate program, each program has a different focus. I think it’s because there’s still no common definition of what content strategy is.

Content strategy is a large, multifaceted profession, and there’s still no large-scale program that exposes people to all it entails and lets them find their home within it. Instead, it’s cast as part of other things – marketing or user experience, typically. This program will encompass editorial, business, content analysis, marketing, analytics, technology, globalization, omni-channel, as well as an understanding of related fields – the broad array of subjects that comprise content strategy.

I’ve been a content strategy practitioner, consultant, mentor, speaker, and teacher since 1999. That’s one of the reasons I’ve felt equipped to lead the charge for exactly this kind of training. And I think the time is right for this, both for me and for the profession.

Some existing and past content strategy courses that Hilary refers to include a masters course taught by Misty Weaver at the University of Washington, a masters course I taught for two years at the University of Strasbourg, and an online masters course that Hilary herself taught for Kent State. (There are certainly others, and I apologize for overlooking them. Feel free to mention them in discussion if you know what they are.)

None of these courses were part of a full Content Strategy degree, rather they served as a window to the kinds of things a content strategist deals with and how important they are. A single class in content strategy can hardly cover the breadth and depth of the field, thus will not make you a content strategist by itself.

Hilary also mentions a “training program”, and the one that occurred to me was the Content Strategy Specialization organized by Northwestern University in partnership with Coursera. The specialization was a three-part program — two MOOCs and a project, that began with MOOC 1 in Fall 2013 and finished with the project two years later. John Lavine, director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center and lead professor behind it all, said “people loved MOOC 1”, and that it blew away other course offerings at the time. Régis Faubet, head of digital at the Grenoble School of Management, took part in the first MOOC and wrote about it for us. Based on Faubet’s report and other reviews I’ve seen, satisfaction with Northwestern’s MOOC training was rather mixed. Of the 21,000+ people who signed up for MOOC 1, only 12% completed the course, which Lavine and company said was a strong value. Presumably the completion rate would be much higher if students actually paid for the training. Likewise, enrollment would be much lower.

Finally, the “first graduate program” Hilary alludes to is the one in Graz, Austria, where the FH JOANNEUM’s Department of Media and Design now offers Europe’s first Content Strategy degree, perhaps the first anywhere. This is a part-time, four-semester program composed of in-class and remote instruction, practical field excursions, and even study abroad. People I’m familiar with who have already contributed remote instruction in the degree’s inaugural year include Rahel Bailie, Doris Eichmeier, Lisa Moore, and Sascha Stoltenow — all of whom have presented talks and/or workshops at past CSForums too. Sascha is even one of our esteemed ambassadors emeriti, having organized CSForum 2014 in Frankfurt, and currently co-advising CSForum 2016 in Australia… All of which has earned him a role in CSF’s steering crew to help explore new event opportunities and models.

Hilary’s Content Strategy School aims to make content strategy training available from wherever you’re sitting. Since people can represent a range of backgrounds, experience levels, and industry interests, I asked Hilary to frame the audience that her school is targeting, and if there will be a stratification of training materials based on experience levels. She said the initial audience will be people new to the field, or new to some aspect of it:

To be a well-rounded content strategist, you need to understand many different aspects, from content management systems to search engine optimization. So even people who’ve been working in one area of content strategy would learn a great deal from exploring the other areas they have not yet been exposed to.

Other questions I had for Hilary were about curriculum, costs, formats, and expected commitments with time. Regarding curriculum and costs, Hilary said training will be based on a robust certification process and the education will not be free:

I’m planning to invest money in creating a curriculum that will introduce people to the breadth of content strategy and enable them to explore the depth in various areas. And they need to be able to prove to themselves and current/potential employers that they know their stuff – hence the certification aspect. I think people will value what they pay for.

Because the training — taught in English only — will accommodate people in different locations and time zones, the format is expected to be a combination of recorded video and live webinar sessions. The certification process may also be broken up so students can earn smaller, specific certificates in a given area of study, or earn the major certificate after completing the whole program.

The program will be self-paced, since it needs to fit into the lives of busy people. And Hilary thinks it’s important for students to feel like part of a learning community, thus communication tools will be selected that enable participants to interact at any time.

Though participating in live webinars and sitting through recorded video are expected elements of the certification program, you can already find resources like that all over the web. So I was curious how the Content Strategy School will differentiate. For example, besides just logging in at the allotted hours, how will students be evaluated to measure their comprehension of course material and topics? The idea of grading, even if on a pass/fail basis, suggests other program elements may yet be clarified: homework assignments, online exams, collaborative projects, essays, short presentations, or a combination of the above and something else. Whatever the means, instructors must be able to verify that students grokked the concepts, which in turn puts more demand on instructors to design and score the evaluation materials. In short, I asked Hilary how is the educational value established for certification purposes? What’s the process for making that determination?

That’s the final piece that needs thinking through. I haven’t yet started exploring what the requirements are to be a certifying institution, but I know it’s absolutely essential.

Hilary’s response gives me the impression that a 2016 launch is a little optimistic. I expect we’ll see adjustments to the school’s website, perhaps reflecting some of the details we learned here. At the moment, the site seems no more than a placeholder for what’s still a ways off.

My frankest question to Hilary was if this gig was really happening. It’s a big undertaking and commitment, after all, with a lot yet to sort out. She gave me a definitive “yes”:

For now, I’ve just put up a quick site to let people know about it and to start gathering interest. I’m in the process of refining the curriculum, looking for instructors and instructional designers, coming up with the exact plan for certifications, and pinning down the platform. So yes, it’s on, but still in the works.

Multiple course instructors from different locations are anticipated to be involved. They will likely be picked based on their specialization, teaching experience, and availability. Hilary has names in mind but nobody was signed on as of two weeks ago.

The school offers a lot of potential for anyone involved, whether it’s learning, teaching, partnering, helping with platform development, designing materials, or maintaining the school’s visual brand and social presence. All of that will need covered, and proposals are surely welcome.

If you think you’re qualified to be an instructor, or would like to help in another way, you should get in touch with Hilary to make yourself known. Use the contact form at bottom of the Content Strategy School homepage.

There’s more to this conversation that I haven’t touched on, and you probably have three questions of your own already. We invite you to continue discussing the Content Strategy School in the discussion boards. Hilary will join us there.