Illumination by Modern Campus

Melissa Vito (University of Texas San Antonio) on Creating Future Literacy to Prepare Students for a Changing World

March 14, 2024 Modern Campus
Melissa Vito (University of Texas San Antonio) on Creating Future Literacy to Prepare Students for a Changing World
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Melissa Vito (University of Texas San Antonio) on Creating Future Literacy to Prepare Students for a Changing World
Mar 14, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast co-founder Amrit Ahluwaliawas joined by Melissa Vito to discuss the importance of soft skills and providing real-life workforce opportunities for learners. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast co-founder Amrit Ahluwaliawas joined by Melissa Vito to discuss the importance of soft skills and providing real-life workforce opportunities for learners. 

Voiceover: 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 Melissa Vito, who is Vice Provost of Academic Innovation at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Melissa and podcast co-founder Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the importance of soft skills and providing real-life workforce opportunities for learners. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Melissa Vito, welcome to the Illumination podcast. It's so great to be chatting with you.

Melissa Vito (00:06):Oh, it's awesome to be chatting with you arid. It's been a long time and thank you. Thanks for the invite, really appreciate it. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:12):No, the pleasure is mine. Well, you're doing some really, really interesting work at UT San Antonio, and I think it starts with just a sort of a new conception of really the focus of where the division needs to play, what learners actually need. So just to help us level set a little bit, why is it important for education providers to be as focused on developing durable or soft skills, professional skills called 'em, what you will as they are on supporting the development of those more technical skills that have a tendency to be maybe more overtly in demand?

Melissa Vito (00:46):Yeah, no, Amber, that's an awesome question. And actually it's something that I think about a lot because I think higher ed has a tendency to respond to what they perceive needs are and to always sort of chase whatever the new idea is. And I feel like this is a both and situation. And so if you look at the NACE data that career services leaders receive every year when they ask what employers who are on college campuses actually you're seeking, they're seeking leadership skills, communication skills, creative thinking, problem solving skills. Those are always in some order the kinds of things that land at the top. And along with that, I've gotten interested in something that UNESCO kind came out with back in 1920 called Future Literacy that we need to think about as we're working with our students, preparing them for a life of change. If we think about what our lives have been like, I look at my Facebook memories from four years ago and I was at a sorority reunion and then a month later I was working fully remotely, and we were in the middle of a pandemic.

(02:00):You look at 2022, life was fine, and then suddenly toward the end of the year it was still fine, but generative AI had taken a new seat at the table and was changing everything. So we need to be preparing students for a future that will continually change, so a flexible opportunistic mindset, but we need to couple that with what the actual needs are right now in the workforce. And so that's where there is the both and situation. So we need to have a framework and help our students and adult learners have a flexible opportunistic mindset and have the people skills that will last them through a lifetime and will be important in every role while at the same time they're taking maybe project management skills that they wouldn't have had normally, or maybe digital communication skill, a certificate that they got in that will give them an extra ability to get that job. So it's a synergistic relationship in my mind.

Amrit Ahluwalia (03:03):Well, absolutely. And it becomes really interesting because ultimately we're talking about creating a new pathway to a different kind of employability. So I'm curious, as you guys start talking about durable and professional skills, how are you seeing the employability of your learners changing, but also how are you seeing their willingness to continue in upskilling and reskilling changing?

Melissa Vito (03:26):I think two great questions. And I actually think when we think, if we think about an active mindset that we incorporate in student learning that your life is going to change continually, that you will have multiple jobs over your lifetime, not like three to five, 10 years ago, but maybe changing in a matter of months. I think that those students become adult learners very quickly. And so you go into the workforce knowing that you're in a life of continual learning and that you need to be able to update your skills, seek opportunities, and read the environment around you. So I think that we can start with our students and that will bleed into our, today's students are adult learners in a few years after their first job. And so I think that we change the way that people think about that. But I think along with that, employers now are rethinking their workforce and they're thinking more about what kinds of skills they need, what kinds of people they need in their workforce and what types of priorities they have. And so within the workforce, there are changes happening that are impacting how people are trying to acquire new skills, whether it's re-skilling or upskilling or whatever we want to call it. It's learning something new that's going to help me do my job better at the end of the day. And I think both of those things are work in concert.

Amrit Ahluwalia (05:03):I want to dive a little bit deeper into that because what's interesting here is that we're talking about shifts in learner demand and maybe creating a different mentality around a continuing education experience than those learners may have expected or may have set out for in the first place. So before we get into the divisional changes that have to happen to facilitate this, I'm curious, how do you start to change the way that learners themselves think about the role of education and think about the quality of a learning experience?

Melissa Vito (05:40):That's probably an hour long conversation

(05:45):Or two, but I think we start where we can. And so again, I think we do a couple of things. We think our gen eds create a lot of opportunity for us, all students take them where we have opportunities to start to think about classroom to career. We're very focused on that at UTSA. And we have a lot of student engagement opportunities for internships and an array of things that start early to create a mindset about what the workforce might be and how I might be thinking about approaching it and knowing that it's not going to be a one and done. I graduate, I go do this, and this is what I do forever. So I think that we have opportunities to do that about how we work with our students while they're in school and where we give them opportunities to talk to real world employers.

(06:42):And we're not the only school doing it, but we're fortunate to be in San Antonio that is a growing city, kind of a city of the future in a lot of ways. And that creates a lot of opportunity for an array of different areas of interest for our students to be able to engage along with those students who graduate and have a side hustle and start a career, but also want to build their own business. And I think we're seeing more and more of that over time. And we're seeing some of our students doing skill-based micro-credential work because it'll help them in whatever their side hustle is, not necessarily their role. So I think that we're trying to create a more explosive, open to new opportunities kind of mindset going in, but knowing that you've got to be understanding what your skills, what skills you may lack or what you need to refresh.

(07:33):And we work with our employers a lot, whether we're in professional and continuing education or our career and engaged learning area, we're always connecting to each other. I always will say to an employer, and I've said it in my previous role, and I say it here, I want you to think of us at UTSA as kind of your preferred provider. So if you're looking for interns that are college students, if you are trying to think about new skills you want, if you're hiring out of college or if you're looking at your current workforce and thinking about what you need, work with us because we will help build what you need or we'll help your employees get what they need to be able to be successful. And so it's a competitive market and employers are also looking for different ways that they can act to be able to keep their best employees there. So I think I talked all around that, but hopefully there's something there.

Amrit Ahluwalia (08:32):You covered a lot of angles at once. Well, and what gets us to the broader question, which is how is the continuing ed division having to shift in order to facilitate this change? So speaking first theoretically, because I know there are specific things you've done at UTSA, where are some of the biggest or most promising areas for change within the standard continuing ed unit to facilitate the shift?

Melissa Vito (09:00):Yeah, I think it's interesting. Continuing ed units are just like a foun of opportunity. And I always have said we can talk about the demographic cliff, but at the end of the day, the people that we're serving in professional education, that's the growing population. And so we need to be thinking about it. I would say that those areas for most of higher ed, for much of the time that they've existed haven't been a key area of focus. And so many of them have been maybe sort of an extension area or distance learning. I mean, weird as it sounds. In my earlier role when I worked with distance ed and even here, there were instances where they were still doing paper exams or sending in things to be scanned. And so they haven't been the seats of innovation that they actually can be. I think generally.

(10:05):And I think that professional and continuing ed is understanding that now there's a lot of turnover in leadership, there's a lot of reorganization. And I think that higher ed, the true academic part of the institution is understanding that they need to think of professional and continuing education as embedded in the institution, not simply an auxiliary area that can potentially make money for the institution. And that's different. And so I think that for professional and continuing education, we've got to up our game. And so we need to be working with not just a handful of employers, but many employers. I think professional and continuing education has relied a lot on third party providers for content, which is great. It's a way to get to market quickly, but it's not always a way to provide what is actually distinctive and necessary in maybe the region where you are or with your local employers.

(11:07):And so I think that professional and continuing education needs to do more market research needs to be a little bit more aggressive and assertive about working with employers. And I think that the marketing that professional and continuing education does needs to also up its game. We actually at UTSA are working with the same company that supports our online marketing to be able to do some actually analysis around who's on our website, how much time they're spending on it, what things they're paying attention to, and how we can tweak and move quickly to make changes to make sure that we're more relevant to what the needs are right now. So I think invest in marketing generally, upgrade the entire environment, work very closely with employers, and also work closely with your career services on campus because there's kind of a handoff opportunity there that I don't think always happens because the units tend to be in separate areas in higher education. So higher ed is typically too siloed to make that necessarily occur.

Amrit Ahluwalia (12:18):Absolutely. And Melissa, you just raised a really, really interesting point of distinction that I think is worthy of more conversation around the transition away from OPMs, but partnering on functionalities to figure out where you need to tweak or improve or change the website to really respond to the expectations of your consumer. It's interesting, it speaks to an evolving relationship between the post-secondary institution and service providers. We've seen that line shift quite a lot over the last decade or so. What are some of the things that post-secondary institutions should be comfortable partnering with and what are some of the no GOs that really need to be managed and owned?

Melissa Vito (13:05):I think generally speaking, I think it's always important that we think about what we're doing as our brand. It's UTSA. And so any type of partnering relationship that I have with another vendor, company provider, I want to make sure that whatever we're going to work together on is going to provide something that will be absolutely at the quality that we want people to experience as a part of the UTSA community. And so I think that building classes and thinking about how you put together your programs, I would say proceed cautiously. And I say that knowing that we have relied on third party providers for some of our content, and it's fine, it meets a certain need, but for some of our content that needs to be more distinctive or needs to respond to particular San Antonio market needs, we need to build it ourselves. We really do.

(14:13):And we need to be able to make changes when we want. We can engage our faculty to help us do that. And they're frequently excited to have an opportunity to do some things that go beyond teaching their normal classes or their normal research. And so I think at the front end we have to realize that everything that we're doing reflects on us. So it better be same quality, same experience as we would want an 18-year-old and their parent to get thinking about coming to UTSA where we put a very high I piece on quality and personal touch. And I also think that even in a more virtual world where a lot of professional and continuing education rests with people looking online, trying to figure things out, I do think that there is a greater expectation for personalization. And so some of that happens through a good third party relationship provider relationship.

(15:14):And some of that happens through the people on the other side who are handling it. So again, I think your content that you're developing, be careful because that really does reflect the people who teach those programs make a difference and they reflect on the quality of what we're doing. And then sometimes I think for marketing and communication expertise, that may not be where we have our strongest strength. Lemme go ahead and be redundant, but that might be where our strengths aren't, aren't competitive in the marketplace, and that may be where we want to do more partnering.

Amrit Ahluwalia (15:52):Absolutely. And so I want to turn our focus a little bit to the work that you've done at UTSA, because you and the team have executed this significant rebrand, you've created an extended campus, you're pivoting to serve the community, the San Antonio area in really new and unique ways. So why did you decide to pursue this shift and what were some of the key lessons that you learned in that process?

Melissa Vito (16:18):I think there are multiple things that came together around the same time. And so when I started my relationship at UTSA, actually just consulting around online, but I was reading materials. And at that time in 1819, they had just finished a strategic plan. One of the real pillars of it was to be able to connect more broadly to the San Antonio community to have a specific sort of workforce focus. And so that anchored a conversation that needed to happen around professional and continuing education. How can we step into that more? What does a modern kind of workforce provider look like? How do we really think about things? And I didn't have a direct relationship with that then, but I did with the provost, and we talked about this a lot. And so I think that the focus from leadership was there, San Antonio as a community and an environment is ready.

(17:20):It's growing and there's growing industry and just so much happening whether it's downtown or in different pockets. And so the community itself was ready for it. There are agencies in San Antonio that focus on this, and we're open to working with us at UTSA, which has been awesome, and help us get the word out, help invest where possible. And so the ecosystem was really good. And so I think the piece of it then was for us to really modernize what we were doing. So it was basically continuing ed then now it's professional and continuing education, which is not an unusual name. A lot of schools use that. But it did signal a mind shift, a complete kind of reorganization around thinking about the roles that we play, what we do, what our real goals are, how do we reach out more to the community. We brought in some consultants to help kind of just play with different ideas and look at different models and other cities that had been successful.

(18:23):And then to hold ourselves accountable. We look at our numbers, we survey those who are participating in our programs. A really fortunate thing happened when the Southwest School for Art became a part of UTSA because it has both an academic part that has become part of our college of liberal art and fine arts, but it also had a big community focus of community arts program. And so that has provided a really awesome opportunity for us to both maintain the integrity of that, the reputation and grow it, but also to give us an entry point to a community where we haven't necessarily served a lot of people. And so that's been a really terrific opportunity. And so I would say it was a top to bottom. How do we step it up? How can we up our game? Who's doing great work? Who can we learn from?

(19:21):What's our business model going to be? How are we going to do our marketing? And most importantly, how do we communicate with the people who we hope to take our classes, which is frequently employers and older students. We're trying to put some focus to recent graduates now to understand what they're interested in, what their needs are, what they feel like maybe they didn't get while they were in college. And so we're partnering with Career and engaged learning to look at one of the bigger employers that they have to do some round tables with some of their younger employees that can kind of help us be seen as, oh, you're the next step when I'm in my first job and I think I need something not necessarily 20 years down the road. So absolutely.

Amrit Ahluwalia (20:08):Well, and let me just following on that, I'm curious about how you describe the ROI to the institution because at a certain point, all these kinds of shifts do take a significant amount of investment. And we're talking about programming with regular review cycles with shorter windows of relevance. We're talking about maintaining adaptability to constant fluctuations in demand. So why from an institutional perspective is it important to invest in continuous program improvement, to invest in continuing in professional education?

Melissa Vito (20:44):To me, it's critically important because it's another front door. I mean, it's another in higher education, we want as many places for people to connect with us as possible. The days that a four year R one higher ed institution is going to be seen as the only place to go are gone. And so our area is a big front door to the community. And actually the areas of university relations and external communications have done some, they hired a firm to do some consulting and some work to see how recognized we were in the community. And not surprisingly, we're not very well recognized for what we're doing in professional and continuing education. And so it's given us a great kind of starting place to think about how we can make ourselves more knowable to the rest of the community. But to me, it's important. It's a brand extender. It is what if we do what we do well, it will make the community and employers feel more positively about this us. They will come to us for their workforce. Our students will have jobs. It really works in every possible way. And we're an integral part of the growth of San Antonio. We can be seen as that, as contributing to it. And what's more important than that?

Amrit Ahluwalia (22:07):Absolutely. I mean, we're starting to really tackle that gap between town and gown.

Melissa Vito (22:11):Yeah.

Amrit Ahluwalia (22:12):Well, Melissa, I mean that pretty much does it on my end, which means this is the point of the interview where we pivot from being a higher ed podcast to being a food podcast. So you recently arrived in San Antonio, you've been there for a few years. What is your favorite restaurant in San Antonio?

Melissa Vito (22:29):Okay, great question. I always have a spot in my heart for PEIs, which was one of the early places I ever went in. An area used to go there with the provost and we would debrief on life and times, and it's Italian food, well done. But my current favorite and it's awesome, is a restaurant called Toro. And we were there, I was there a couple of weeks ago, was there a couple of weeks before that. Great small plates, Spanish, awesome. Good setting, nice outdoor patio. Live music from time to time. Really highly recommend Toro. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (23:06):Awesome. Hey Melissa. Thank you. So obviously we've, we've been working together for quite some time, so I really do appreciate taking time out here.

Melissa Vito (23:16):Thank you so much and I look forward to talking to you again soon. Thank you so much. Take care. Bye.

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