At the most recent edX/2U University Partner Advisory Council meeting, we had the privilege of spending time with Todd Nicolet. Todd is the vice provost for digital and lifelong learning at the University of North Carolina. In our conversations, we found Todd to be both incredibly collegial and massively knowledgeable about the shifting landscape of higher education. We asked Todd if he’d be willing to chat about his role and his career, and he graciously agreed.
Q: What does the role of vice provost for digital and lifelong learning entail? What is going on with online learning at UNC?
A: Digital and lifelong learning provides strategy, coordination and service for online and flexible learning of all types across UNC Chapel Hill, from short professional development experiences through full degree programs. Our units and service areas include credit programs, summer sessions, professional and community programs, online program services, a research hub, and a conference center. As vice provost, I lead the teams providing these campuswide programs and services and represent the university as needed in online, digital and flexible learning spaces.
At Carolina, flexible offerings make it possible for more amazing students to participate in our programs and online approaches, from hybrid to fully online, have been the dominant approach. We see growth across credit-bearing opportunities ranging from precollege through graduate programs, and we are excited, in particular, to be partnering even more closely with our Graduate School. We also see growth in professional programs that focus on competencies rather than credit and, like many, we are actively exploring pathways to help students build from such experiences into certificates and even degrees.
A key area of emphasis for digital and lifelong learning and for online learning at Carolina is collaboration. The coordination our unit provides across campus enables greater collaboration between schools and departments. And we regularly reach out across our system schools to collaborate, support and even offer programs together. I believe such strategic collaborations, both internal and external, will be critical for all types of institutions to navigate the many changes and pressures we are all facing.
Q: What was the career path that led you into your current role? And for other academics who might want to consider an alternative path to a traditional tenure-track faculty career, what advice can you share?
A: I started my career with the intention of being an English professor, but before finishing that Ph.D. program got pulled into working for a start-up company that supported online offerings for higher ed institutions across the country. This was the ’90s, so it looked a lot different than today, but those years were a fantastic way to learn about many different types of institutions and experience what students, faculty and administrators needed and wanted.
My work at UNC Chapel Hill began more than 20 years ago at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, supporting the CDC Responds webcast series and building online courses and programs. Over time, my roles on campus shifted across units and evolved to include a wide range of administrative experiences in school units, from finance and HR to research support and event management to even a library.
Although it was not always a primary part of my role, I kept being pulled back to online education, serving on institutional task forces, assessing support models and managing the launch and implementation of an online degree. In my current role, these many different experiences and viewpoints at Carolina and elsewhere have informed our strategy and helped us work with online and flexible programming across campus.
For those considering a career in academia, I encourage you to seek opportunities, but be flexible. I could not have charted the path I followed, and if I had tried, I could not have forced the opportunities that opened the doors I went through. When you see needs and opportunities at your institution, be part of the solution, even if it’s not in your immediate area. Be a collaborator that respects the authority of other decision-makers but offers ideas and partnership.
Higher education needs leaders who understand both mission and operations, and there are many ways to develop that combined skill set and build a career. Developing strong management skills is rewarding in its own right but will also set you apart as someone who can help make things happen. Finally, be respectfully persistent. I don’t want to count the times I’ve been a second choice, alternate or simply not selected at all. But so many of those “setbacks” enabled the next opportunity, creating a chance to make a connection for a different and better opportunity or providing the time needed before that particular door was ready to open. When I completed a Ph.D. more than a decade ago, I considered pursuing a traditional faculty role but couldn’t imagine leaving the path I was already on. Higher education includes many fulfilling and rewarding career paths and I encourage people think broadly about what working in higher ed might mean for them.
Q: The big topic of conversation these days in digital learning circles is the latest Department of Education guidance on third-party servicers and bundled services. What do you think of the guidance and how do you imagine this playing out?
A: Transparency, accountability and affordability are all critical in higher education. We saw the disastrous effects of for-profit institutions that focused on getting students into a first term rather than retention in high-quality educational experiences and ensuring nothing like that happens again is important work. We should all seek to develop and communicate a full understanding of how programs are supported.
Our online and flexible programs focus on quality educational experiences that support students through graduation and beyond. When we work with a vendor, we oversee their work with at least as much attention as we would if it were our own employee. And we will continue to maintain full control over admissions criteria and decisions, curriculum, tuition and more. What I’m describing is not unique to us and represents best practices we share across institutions. Higher education is incredibly challenging to do well and we need all the tools we can have to make the best choices for our students, faculty and institutions.
The reporting requirements for third-party servicers previously had been focused on direct work related to financial aid, so the expansion to include almost all areas connected to delivering education was alarming. Long-standing successful programs and practices in study abroad, internships, clinical placements, joint programs, precollege programs, learning technologies and more all suddenly have new administrative burdens. Some of these successful approaches may no longer even be possible, particularly with the limitations on international companies, a remarkable restriction in an increasingly global landscape.
Looking forward, my fear is that the updated guidance would make important educational experiences no longer possible and would increase our administrative costs significantly at a time when we are looking to decrease the cost of education for students and institutions. Bundling services through revenue sharing has enabled us to start programs we otherwise could not and provide high-quality programming more efficiently—losing that tool would limit the ways we can help students achieve their goals.
My hope is the extensive feedback provided by associations and institutions will help communicate the innovations these tools have enabled and demonstrate the care we take in managing our programs and services to meet student needs. At institutions across the country, we share a mutual goal of providing the best education possible for students in authentic and affordable ways that help them achieve their educational and career goals. This discussion could begin a call to action to work together toward the best ways to serve students today and into the future.