On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Rich Novak to evaluate the changes in higher education over the past decade, and the opportunities ahead for continuing education.
Voiceover (00:05): Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Rich Novak, who is Vice President for Continuing Studies and Distance Education at Rutgers University. Rich and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia evaluate the changes in higher education over the past decade, and the opportunities ahead for continuing education.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:31): Rich Novak, welcome to the Illumination Podcast.
Rich Novak (00:33): Hey, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. Hey,
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:34): I appreciate you taking the time out here. And, and for those of you who, who are listening to this episode, you'll obviously recognize Rich's name. If you have any background in the continuing ed space, I'm particularly grateful to. Rich is one of the first contributors to the evolution in in Yes. I think you wrote the article in 2011 and we published it when we went live in 2012. And yes, it's, it's really been an education for me to, to have the opportunity to work for you. So it'll work with you. So I, I just appreciate you taking the time.
Rich Novak (00:57): Well, it's been a tremendous service to our sector, right. To adult and continuing education, all the articles that you're doing, the podcast and so on. I think it's been really helpful. And, you know, I salute you for that. You, you haven't given up, you know, from, from that original vision. Right. I,
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:15): It seemed crazy at the time, right?
Rich Novak (01:16): No. Well, it, you know, I don't know. Crazy. I, I would say it was, it was risky <laugh>, right. And, and it was clear that it was gonna take a lot of heavy lifting Yeah. To get it going. But you've done it and you've, you've consistently come out with quality articles and quality people like you have, you have wrangled,
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:40): The contributor base is incredible. Yeah. I see. I mean, folks are really passionate about this work. Yeah. And that's, well, and that's, you know, we're, we're obviously, we're recording for those of you who are listening, and you're like, what's the background noise? Yeah. we're, we're live at, at the OPIO conference here in DC and, you know, you, you obviously have a, have a pretty significant background with the organization and what's always struck me about ups A and my, I think I did my first ups I was 2013 or 2014, and I've loved everyone since. It's, there's a sense of community here that's
Rich Novak (02:06): There is, yeah. Yeah. A absolutely is. Even a, a conference with a thousand people, there is a sense of community. It's
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:12): Incredible. There's 1100 people here with us. Yeah. That's absolutely incredible.
Rich Novak (02:15): It's astounding, you know, and I know people that, here, I see people here go back 20 years mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, I mean, so I've had these long time relationships with people. Yeah. And it's just been great.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:27):
Great. Absolutely. I mean, it really is. It's collegial, it's collaborative, it's friendly. This is so, I, and I'm curious about that. You know, you're, you've obviously had a, a, a storied career in the space. Yeah. You've, you've been at Rutgers for 20 years. What have been some of the more dramatic or drastic shifts that you've seen o over the course of that period of time? Because I mean, we're talking about a conference now that has 1100 people. Yeah. And if I think about SIA in 2013, and you told me that in whatever this is, call it six or eight years or so, that there'd be 1100 people at the conference. I, I think I would've been pretty staggered.
Rich Novak (02:58): Yeah. And, and I think it's a reflection of what's gone on in higher education, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, that the growth of interest in, in lifelong learning, the growth in adult learners and serving adult learners. Obviously you know, we saw most dramatically through the pandemic, the growth in online. But I think all of those things have, have motivated people to mm-hmm. <Affirmative> gatherings like this. Yeah. And to share with colleagues and to learn from our sponsors who are here. Yeah. And you know, what, what new tools are there? What new ideas are there? What are some of the best practices? But as I like to say, I think abea is a place where people are not afraid to share their worst practices. Right? Yes. These are the pitfalls. Like, watch out for this. Yes. You know, and as I tell my staff you know, I have an idea. It may not be a good idea, <laugh>, but it's an idea. So let's, let's talk it through. Let's let you know. And if it's a bad idea, we sync it, you know? But I think that opens a door for everybody to have an idea. Yes. And I think that's what you see here. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <Affirmative> it's not just the, the schools that are, you know, the leads. It's everybody. Everybody has a chance to, to be part of that community and part of that conversation. But I think that's terrific. Well, you
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:25): Know, it's, it's interesting you bring that up. Cause I think a common thread for me through, through this conference, through the conferences we've seen, we've experienced over the past few years in, in this space specifically, is around an, a really unique and interesting combination of empathy and business mindedness.
Rich Novak (04:41): Yes, absolutely.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:42): Right? Absolutely. Business mindedness is, is central. It's, it's part of the DNA of, of this segment of the industry. And empathy has always been part of it. But I feel like more now than ever, I'm seeing empathy coming to the forefront. An openness to vulnerability. Yes. And openness to understanding it and to putting yourself in the shoes of the learner, putting yourself in the shoes of the staff. Yeah. Yeah. It's, it's really incredible to, again, it, it, it just speaks to the community.
Rich Novak (05:04): Yeah. I, I, I suspect, and this is just a hunch you know, it didn't empirically test it, but I, I suspect that the pandemic has made us all a little more empathic mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and that we recognize that we are all vulnerable. Yes. you know, on some level, in some dimension. So having that sharing that with others is, is, is a really positive thing. Absolutely. The other thing I would say about EA that has been consistent through the last 20 years is that people, even though they are technically competitors mm-hmm. <Affirmative> schools are technically competitors, especially now in the online space. Yes. are very willing to share. Yes. Right. They will share trade secrets. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, this is the only industry. Yeah. That's where true people actually share trade secrets, you know? And, and it is that sense of, of I don't know, community mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, you know, you use that, that word. I think that's, that's, that's accurate. Yeah. Yeah.
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:03): We've, I mean, we've, we've always, you know, when, when we used to do a contributor newsletter some 10 years ago Yeah. We referred to those contributor community. Yeah. And we really, that community element of, of this work is something that I think draws people back to it and draws people into it. Yeah. Now, I am curious, we, you know, we talked about some of the changes that we have seen. What are some of the changes that you wish you'd seen by this point?
Rich Novak (06:25): Yeah, I, so I, I want to pick up on one more change that I've seen. Let's dive into that, because it does influence everything else. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> and, and I think that's we, we've seen a much more educated consumer base.
Amrit Ahluwalia (06:41): Yes.
Rich Novak (06:42): A much more demanding and, and I think that the supply has grown even bigger than the consumer base. Right. And, and the interest. Interesting. So, you know, you have a lot of diversity of offerings. Many of them are free, you know, so, so there are opportunities for people to learn, I think, more dramatically today than 20 years ago mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and they can do it. And, and thankfully the technology has supported that they can do it at their home. Yep. You know, and with their computer on their phone, you know, whatever. Yeah. So yeah. So I think those are all really, really good
Amrit Ahluwalia (07:24): Development to sort of a, a broader student centricity, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> it student centricity, and in flexibility of offerings in design of the administration, in even the, the decision making around programming in terms of launches and sunsets. Absolutely. It all comes back to what's right for the student.
Rich Novak (07:39): Yeah. And, and so then that, that, I'm gonna segue from that to your second question. Yes. Which is, you know, what, what, where I'm gonna paraphrase you know, where are there some places that we haven't grown as far as I would like to have seen this grown? And I, and I do think, take that first part with all the additional learners, all the different ways that people are learning all the different vehicles and so on, we are still too stuck, too stubborn in our reliance on credit hour. Yes. Right. We, we just are mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, you know, and I, I love there was an article that I read many years ago by the author, I believe is Peggy Noonan. I think she was like early days University of Phoenix, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And, and this article, and, and, and it's stuck with me ever since. And she said when we are focused on seat time, we are worried about the wrong end of the student <laugh>. And, and I love that. Right? Yeah. I love it. Because that just keeps coming back even more so than 20 years ago. Yes. So I think the area, that's one area that I would say that, you know, we still haven't grown far enough, right? There's a great push in terms of the microcredential alternative credential mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and that's coming. That push is coming from all sides. Yeah. And, and it's gonna be hard to hold that back. Right. Well,
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:12): You know, it's, it's interesting you bring that up, right? Because when I think about the power of micro-credentialing, it strikes me as a challenge to the foundations of what we've built our industry on. You know? Absolutely. We've built our industry on degrees and, and on seat time.
Rich Novak (09:27): The coin of the realm, man. So
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:29): How, you know, how do we start to make that palatable? Yeah. Like what's, and, and, you know, it speaks broadly to the role of continuing ed. And, and I think there's, you know, actually it, what, what an accidental segue into <laugh> into the next question. Yep. Because that, it implies a very different role for professional continuing and online educat. That's right. Unit,
Rich Novak (09:50): That's right.
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:50): As the foundational demand for education shifts from being what the industry is used for a millennia That's right. To what the de that the consumer and the employer wants today.
Rich Novak (10:02): Exactly. Exactly. So I think that for PCO units, professional, continuing and online unit they are, we are. Cause I'm part of that community <laugh>, you know, still as, now. Last, last I checked, you know, no emails from my boss or anything. So no, but seriously you know, that in this community, we have been able to leverage increasingly powerful technology that is easier to use. Price points are much lower, many things are free, and we're able to provide access to many more people. Yeah. At the same time, we have we, we've, we've increased the number of on-ramps for people. Yes. And it could be you know, a non-credit certificate program. It might be a mooc, it, it could be any number of things. And I think those are all really positive developments, but that means that PCO units have to have many more tools Yes. In their toolbox. You cannot rely on a single tool. Right. If I give you a hammer, not everything is, is a nail. Right. <laugh>.
(11:14): So, yeah. No, that's, that's really critical. Thankfully we're seeing, again, from all over an increased focus on lifelong learning. Yes. You're hearing it everywhere. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you are, you know, you, you, you, you can't go any pay attention to anybody that's talking about any learning or education. You're inevitably gonna hear lifelong learning. Yep. That's, I think, really a positive development. That's, that's us PCO units, that's what we support. You know, my own unit division of continuing studies at Rutgers we have 20 different business units. What links us all together is lifelong learning. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So we're offering programming from preschool through senior adults. Right. But lifelong learning is the key. Yeah. And it might be credit, might be non-credit, might be badge, might be that might be a mooc, doesn't matter. Yeah.
Amrit Ahluwalia (12:07): Well, it's, and you start to think about the, the, the expanse of a 60 year curriculum concept. Yep. Yep. You know, it really does take into account, well, what does, what does the pre-K look like? How are you building a college going culture among people that might not have ever thought of themselves as college going? Right. How do you build that socioeconomic ability that, that the post-secondary education institution is supposed to provide? Yeah. And that's where the, the first portion, because you know, and even in, in our space when we talk about lifelong learning, we're talking about 25 plus. Yeah. You know, usually we tend not to think about the lesser than or equal to 17 usually. Yeah. so it's, it is kind of fascinating to think through. Like, if we're gonna talk about a 60 year curriculum that's, that's expansive.
Rich Novak (12:49): That's right. I, I would add three other points mm-hmm. <Affirmative> really quickly. One is, I think that with p c units, one of the things that we have the opportunity to do, and we see many examples are, excuse me, of addressing diversity, equity access, diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. Yes. And we are doing it, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, we're making inroads because we have more tools in our toolbox. Yes. And it's not just the credit hour, it's not just the degree. We have many more things that we can do. So I think that's, you know, that's one thing I would point to. Another thing change that I would point to is I see greater collaboration among universities Yes. Than ever before. Yep. For joint curriculum, for joint programming, for you know, any number of things. Right. So I think, again, that's really, that's really a positive development in my mind that serves the learner. My biggest goal is to how do we serve the learners? Yeah. How do we serve the learners? We're also not quite there yet, but we're paying a lot more attention to credit for prior learning.
(13:56): You know, we're just, I mean, yes, there are institutions out there who are doing it well, I'm talking about like, you know, is there, is there widespread across, I don't think yet, but it's, I think
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:07): There's a recognition. There's recognition there is for the need, if not a recognition for prior learning <laugh>.
Rich Novak (14:11): Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and there are tensions right. In, in traditional universities there, and my own included you know, there are tensions between the traditional, traditional list, I'll call them, right? Sure. Credit hour degree program. That's the way that you attend higher education mm-hmm. <Affirmative> up against open access Yep. <Laugh>, right? Yep. let's serve populations that have not been served. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, let's find ways to eliminate or, or at least lower barriers to participation. And you know what? That diversity makes us all better. Yes. Makes us a richer environ, a richer culture, a richer community. So I think those are all developments that I've seen that, that I think are really hopeful for the future.
Amrit Ahluwalia (15:00): Absolutely. So, you know, it's, it's interesting. We talk about a lot of these, a lot of these features and facets, and I think in the PCO world, a lot of these trends were things that we've either been doing or seen coming for Yes. Again, for decades. Yes. but you know, when you talk to folks on the traditional side of house and the, the broad shifts since 2020 to flexible learning, to online modalities, and these kinds of things seem like they came outta nowhere. Right. Right. Right. So, I am curious if, if you think about the last three years in the context of your full career Yeah. How did the pandemic impact the way that PCO units work and the role that they tend to play?
Rich Novak (15:38): Sure, sure. So let me use a a little bit of a, a crude story here that I experienced, right? So pre, before the pandemic I had one of our deans who thought the work that I was doing was essentially lower than dirt. Right. It just <laugh>, it really had no respect. Yeah. In, in academ, during the pandemic, I get a call from him and he's lost, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, what do I do? My faculty are knocking down the door. How do I, how do I, so I provided all the solutions, my team, not, not me personally, right? Sure. Yeah. But, but that's what we do. Yeah. Like, we were ready for this. Right. I have become a godsend <laugh> to him. Those are the words ears. Right? So, so that's a tremendous shift. Yeah. In, in respect. We, we didn't change, you know, I'm still the same person I was, you know, before the pandemic for sure. But, but now that you need me and now that you're thinking more broadly, right. It's a, it's
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:37): All of a sudden,
Rich Novak (16:38): All of a sudden. Yeah. so I would say that, you know, that was, that was one of the big shifts in the pandemic mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, this is what we had prepared for, for 25 years. Yeah. Well,
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:49): Because it did, it didn't come outta nowhere. This is
Rich Novak (16:51): Right. Exactly. Exactly. And we knew how to make that shift. Yeah. And, and the other thing is, we helped the academy to understand the difference between online that is built from the ground up, intentionally planned over a long period of time. And this emergency instruction Yes. Emergency remote instruction. Yes. That we could turn on a dime. You know, my team's converted like 3000 courses in a week. Goodness gracious. You know, and, and, and we didn't call 'em online. We said, you know, this is remote learning. This is remote learning, you know, and it's in an emergency. We met the emergency and students were well served. Yep. Students were well served. They got the equivalent you know, we, we don't say the same, but they got the equivalent and the course objectives, any outcomes and, and, and all of that. So I think that proved a point Yep. That we can learn virtually. I'm not suggesting in any way that this is, this is now the motivation that we shift everything online. Yeah. Right. Close down to campuses. No, that, no, that's ridiculous. Right? Yeah. But, but I think it provides access for just tons of people who otherwise wouldn't have access to higher education. We know that more education is, is better for you. It's better for your health. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, it's better for your social wellbeing. Yeah. It's better for your own personal economy. So why wouldn't we give it to everybody?
Amrit Ahluwalia (18:16):
Absolutely. Right. You know, it's, it's incredible. It's, it's interesting as you, as you point that out, because that's one of the pieces that I think anytime we talk about innovation, there's this perception that because of innovation or because of a change, or because of a, a new approach, we're suggesting to get rid of everything that came before it. Right. And I always think about it in terms of highways and roads mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, right. When a highway gets built, we don't tear the road out.
(18:42): Right. The road still exists for the people who need the road. That's right. The highway exists for people who need a different way to get where they're going. Exactly. And, and that's, I, I think it's really important when we talk about the, the advances of, of digital learning opportunities and, and hybrid learning environments. When we talk about the, the introduction of alternative credentials and new credentialing formats, the suggestion is not because we're launching this, we want to get rid of that. The suggestion is people were not served by what we were doing before. And isn't it great that we can create more access to people?
Rich Novak (19:11): And I think it's the same thinking that we should approach things like artificial intelligence. Yes. Ai. Right. It's not a threat. No. I don't see it as a threat. I see. The challenge is how do we work with it? How do we use it? There it is. How do we, how do we you know, it's not going away. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, it's not gonna replace us, but if we don't deal with it then it is a threat.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:37): Well, because it, it'll show a, a lack of alignment.
Rich Novak (19:40): Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. I, I think that, that is there are so many exciting prospects for the future mm-hmm. <Affirmative> that we're only seeing just the, the tip of the day.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:55): Well, and let's talk about that a little bit. I mean, as you think about the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years Yeah. In the continuing ed world, I mean, what are some of the things that you really want continuing education and higher education more broadly to embody? What, what do you want some of the characteristics to evolve into?
Rich Novak (20:12): You know, I think a couple things that I've mentioned I would double down on. Sure. Okay. So I would double down on our commitment to diversity, equity, access and inclusion. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> you know, I, I think that is that just gotta be part of the dna. It's not a separate program. It is. It be, it needs to be infused. It needs to be so at, at, at, at our unit, at, at division of continuing studies, it, it is one of our core values. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> we program around it. We do staff development around it. Why? Because we want a more inclusive community and we want more access. Yeah. so I think I would double down there. I would double down on microcredentials. That's not going away. Industry leaders are telling us they really want it, but they're confused.
(21:05): You know, universities are confusing them. So we gotta get our act together. Yeah. And, and, and I think partnering is one way of doing that. Right. Partnering with business and industry. Yeah. And, and doing some things together. Because there are some tremendous educational leaders who are in Yes. Industry. Right. They're not dummies. Yeah. So let's do the best of both worlds and let's serve learners. Completely agree. So I think that's another area. I think looking at the technology. So we talked about ai, how do figuring out how do we use AI to improve learning and improve our business processes? Right. It, there's the opportunity to eliminate, and, and this is early days mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, there are possibilities to eliminate some of the routine business practices. We don't need people Yeah. Doing that. Yeah. Let AI do it. Let people do more interesting work. Yes.
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:58): Absolutely. Right. You know, it, it is funny. And you'll know Wayne M's. Extremely well, and
Rich Novak (22:03): Absolutely
Amrit Ahluwalia (22:03): Wayne, I, I do hope you're listening to this <laugh>. So Wayne had a concept, and
Rich Novak (22:07): I hope he's Well yeah,
Amrit Ahluwalia (22:08): No, exactly. He had a concept of high-touch, high tech. Yes. And, and you know, basically the capacity for automation to start taking things off people's plates. Right. you know, and, and you think about automation theory. It's basically, it's not the idea of replacing jobs, it's replacing work processes. Yes. Job functions. Yes. And that's the piece that I think both inside and outside the post-secondary institution, we should be very aware of. We have the capacity to leverage tools and automations to make life easier for staff so they can focus on the things that their energy deserves. And at the same time, we can, we can find ways to create learning opportunities so that for, for folks in the workforce who need upskilling and reskilling opportunities, it's because automation is freeing their time up to do more human specific things. Like this is, this is a two-way street for us.
Rich Novak (22:54): Right. And to bring it full circle, it underscores the importance of lifelong learning AB Absolutely. Because those jobs are changing, right? Yes. And you need to change with it. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I, I, you know, when president Obama was in office and was doing funding for job training, right. Yeah. One of the most distressing things that I read about was a, a, you know, a a, there was a, a, a town that had been decimated because their industry moved outta town. Yep. And people were complaining. They said you know, because there was the opportunity to be retrained for new jobs mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And, and there were too many people saying, I don't want a new job. I just want my old job back. You know, that model just doesn't work. Doesn't work. So I think that's the nub for us. Like, how do we make a convincing argument that look, learning doesn't hurt <laugh>.
Amrit Ahluwalia (23:47): That's such an interesting point. Like that's, you know, Clinton ran on that, that promise as well. Yes. That was, that was also his, he was the education president. Yeah. His whole thing was on tra creating opportunities for upskilling. Absolutely.
(23:58): Upskilling. It's a marketing issue to a certain extent for us, but there's more to it. There's, it's a program alignment. Yeah. It's, it's a value proposition issue. And I think the more we can find ways for the continuing education to have visibility during the traditional undergraduate experience Yeah. The less we'll run into these issues over time. Cause people will have some exposure to what that could be. Right. I mean, have you, have you seen opportunities to create that alignment as yet between sort of continuing education and the main campus and, you know, further to, to the conversation we're having? Have you seen the interest in that grow over the last 20 years?
Rich Novak (24:30): Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think because it's grown successfully in many places, I think there is less fear Yeah. About it, right? Yeah. And, you know, it was a new thing. We are not gonna ruin the brand <laugh>. Right. We're not gonna give away the coin of the realm mm-hmm. <Affirmative> we're, you know, but this is a way to really be of service. And I think that's the, you know, that is the best thing that we can do is how can we be of service. Absolutely. Right. Yeah. I think there are, there are so many opportunities for growth in the future. I think PCO is, is really well positioned. You know, another thing I would point to that I've seen over 25 years is online learning has matured. Yeah. It has become so robust. The tools that we have can make for such a dramatically powerful learning environment and experience. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I think we'll keep going. We'll keep pushing double down on that, right? Yeah. and, and I think that's really exciting for the future.
Amrit Ahluwalia (25:29): Yeah, absolutely. Rich Ev, every time we have the opportunity to chat it, you know, I, I saw it's a
Rich Novak (25:35): Delight hammer, so, you know, always talking with you and it's so much
Amrit Ahluwalia (25:39): Fun. Well, I tell you, it's one of this, every now and then you forget Your're recording, you know, <laugh>. So let me, let me ask you this as we close. Okay. If someone finds themself in, in Rocky Creek,
Rich Novak (25:48): No. Rocky Hill.
Amrit Ahluwalia (25:49): Rocky Hill, New Jersey, <laugh>, where do they need to go for dinner?
Rich Novak (25:51): Okay, well, there, there is a restaurant in Rocky Hill is the, the, the Rocky Hill Inn. Which is pretty terrific. And we, well branded, right. <Laugh> Ex. Exactly. And, and we specialize in these incredibly deluxe cheeseburgers and about 50 different types of beer. So you can't go wrong. Yeah,
Amrit Ahluwalia (26:11): Absolutely. Rich. It's a pleasure, man. Thank you so much.
Rich Novak (26:14): Same. Thank you.
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