Education Futures Podcast 28: Meeting Changing Market Needs with Dr. Sada Knowles

by | Mar 25, 2021 | Education Futures Podcast, Featured

​Dr. Sada Knowles believes in education. That’s why she’s working to change it.

As the Dean of the New College at Oklahoma Christian University, Dr. Knowles is helping to meet the needs of all students, from high school students wanting to get started on college early to adult learners looking for a new path. She talked with Dr. Rob Reynolds about her work on the Education Futures Podcast.

“We have some people who come to us that maybe they tried college 20 years ago, and life happened, or it didn’t go well, or they made some bad decisions,” Dr. Knowles said. “We just respect them for coming now and knowing that they bring strengths and experience to the table. How do we honor that, walk alongside them, and give them confidence as they re-enter higher ed?”

Many colleges and universities are launching a New College similar to the one at Oklahoma Christian University. With the speed of change in technology and its implications in the lives of those in today’s workforce, many schools are looking for ways to help meet the needs of the changing economy.

For OC, launching New College is about being responsive to the needs of the community. Through New College, OC is launching new online degree programs to help people upskill or just make continuing education more accessible, such as programs that help nursing assistants earn a Bachelor’s Degree.

New College is also helping high school students make a smoother transition to college by providing options for dual credit.

“We want college to feel accessible to high school students,” Dr. Knowles said. “We want to open those doors earlier.”

Helping students earn significant college credit in high school builds confidence in the student’s ability to be successful in college and also provides options. By creating a path where students can earn an associate degree while in high school, those students can choose to take that degree and go get a job, earning professional experience. The student can decide later if they need to get a four-year degree, and if they do, they already have two years under their belt.

For Dr. Knowles and OC, it’s about being relevant to their market and connecting students’ passions with market needs.

“I just really get excited about [students finding their] individual desire, their strengths, and then really preparing them to go make a difference in the world,” Dr. Knowles said. “And making sure that our programs and our trainings are very relevant and really are preparing people for what the workplace needs and what the workforce wants.”

Education Futures Podcast 28: Dr. Sada Knowles, Oklahoma Christian University

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Hi everyone. Rob Reynolds here. Really glad you joined us. I have a very special guest today, Dr. Sada Knowles, sorry, Dean of New College at Oklahoma Christian University. Welcome Sada.

Sada Knowles:

Hi Rob. Thanks for having me.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, absolutely. Sada, as I said, is currently the Dean of New College at Oklahoma Christian. She has a really interesting background and an interesting, I think, journey and pathway to get to her current position, which we’ll talk about. But first Sada, why don’t you give people a little background of where your education journey has taken you so far to actually get here.

Sada Knowles:

Sure. So I did my undergraduate here at Oklahoma Christian in family science, and had a second major in vocational ministry. Did a lot of Bible classes as well, and faith and family have always been really important to me. I think that also plays into the story of my educational journey. So I’ll just say that upfront.

Right after I finished my undergrad, I was hired by Oklahoma Christian to work in freshmen programs, really focused on freshmen retention, and they were very flexible during that time and also let me work on my master’s degree at Oklahoma State University. I did my master’s in human development and family science, so still in my academic area, love of studying family systems.

Then I started having children and I spent several years at home, primarily with my kids and also did some adjunct work during that time in the Department of Psychology and Family Science. As my kids started getting closer to school age, I thought, okay, it’s time for me really to decide what I want to be when I grow up, and I really think I would love to go back to the university classroom full time instead of just adjunct and I’m going to need a doctorate to do that.

So I applied for the Ph.D. program at Oklahoma State in human development and family science. They were gracious enough to take me back for another degree, and I did that program while I was teaching full-time at Oklahoma Christian.

I also had a new baby about three months before I started my doctorate. So that was just a really busy, exciting season, to have a newborn, go back to working full time and start a doctoral program. But I also think that is important to admit because I talk about what we’re doing in New College and working with adult learners. I think I have empathy for adults who are juggling work, family and school because of my experiences.

So I taught full-time here at the university for a while and then was pulled away by Oklahoma Christian Academy, where a couple of my children were attending school and spent about six years there in administration. I started as their middle school and high school principal, did a lot of college counseling in that role, and then finished as Academic Dean and then even served as interim president before I came back to Oklahoma Christian.

So really enjoyed that time, learned so much during that stretch in K-12. While my whole career has been in Christian education, there are just significant differences and even really distinct vocabulary between K-12 and higher ed. So that really was a good time of expansion and learning and growth for me. Then I came back to the Oklahoma Christian as Dean here in June. So that’s a little bit about my journey here.

Rob Reynolds:

Well, certainly lots and lots of experiences. I was going to say as you were talking about having a child and going back to your Ph.D. program and working full time, I’m not sure how that blended together and what you remember through all the chaos, other than it was generally a warm experience. But no, that’s just amazing and it’s awesome and it does give you quite a bit of empathy in your job now with adult learners. I think that’s so important.

Sada Knowles:

Yeah.

Rob Reynolds:

So one of the things that I think is interesting is you have had that experience as an administrator and a principal working at a high school and a K-12 academy, and now you’re back on the university side. You’ve been there before. So when you think about learning and students and approach to learning, what just jumps out at you at a high level as you go in between those two models?

Sada Knowles:

Yeah, I think one thing that really jumps out to me and why I think it was good to spend some time in K-12 is just to be reminded of the practical concerns of K-12 students and their parents as they’re making decisions about entering higher ed. When you’re teaching in an academic department, you’re so focused on your content area and your major and the careers that you’re preparing students for, sometimes you forget the context from which they’re coming, the decisions and factors that played into them choosing your university, maybe some of the challenges and constraints that are still happening in the background.

I think just being with high school students and their parents and watching them think about where are we going to go to school? Why? How are we going to afford this? What strengths does my student have? How do I help them choose a major? Where are they going to be successful? It just really grounded me, and I think helped me think about some more practical concerns as students are entering higher ed, if that makes sense.

Rob Reynolds:

No, it makes a ton of sense. So on the administrative side, that’s also another bit of transition and a gap between. It’s one thing you’re looking at a certain number of things when you’re an administrator in a space like that, working in a middle school and high school perspective, and even in your role as president across the entire academy, and then to come to being a college administrator. So what are some of this role or obvious things you’ve noticed in making that transition?

Sada Knowles:

Well, we’re just in a season of rapid change. We were talking about change and relevance, and we’re really shifting our focus from Millennials to Gen Z. I mean. We were having a lot of those discussions before COVID.

Then COVID-19 happened, and we’re talking about technology change, relevance, even more so. I feel like that just poured fuel on the fire for that discussion about how do we meet the needs of changing learners in a changing economy and how do we maximize engagement through the use of technology? So I think those conversations, we were having those on the K-12 side, we were having those on the university side, and man COVID-19 just created a perfect storm for that.

I feel like it actually was a good time for me to make the move and for what our university is trying to do. We can talk more about those specifics. But I will say that just everything that’s happened now makes my transition feel timely, and I feel like what I’m doing is really relevant because of just sort of our current climate and culture.

Rob Reynolds:

Absolutely. For those who are listening to this, Sada left her position at Oklahoma Christian Academy and became the Dean of New College last summer. So really as COVID had just come in and taken old and was then starting to explode and impacting all of the higher ed institutions who were then getting a taste of what the K-12 groups had already tasted more of as they were going trying to finish out their terms, and everything just went crazy.

So I think you’re right in one way, it was a perfect time for change, and it was a perfect time to do that and take that position. You brought in some good perspective and were able to, I think, to really address some needs that the institution had.

So let’s talk about New College. It’s an interesting name, and talk a little bit about the genesis of that, the purpose of it, and what you think is so unique about what you’re trying to do.

Sada Knowles:

Sure. So I will say, I found out I was, I was told the name of New College my first day on the job. So I took this job and knew what I was coming to do, but it was still taking shape even as I entered this position. I learned that name, again my first day on the job.

New College actually is not a term or a name that’s unique to Oklahoma Christian University. There actually are lots of universities that have a New College, and they are all a little unique. But one of the things that is a common thread typically among New Colleges at other universities is they all are innovative or market responsive in some way.

There are some universities where New College is really focused on adult learners. I’ve seen a New College model where all they offer is interdisciplinary degrees or one New College where they really work with honors students that have to incorporate some research experience into their degree program. So they’re all a little bit different, but one of the things that they share is all of their programs are new and unique and different from the traditional model in some way.

Rob Reynolds:

So that’s a great-

Sada Knowles:

so-

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry.

Sada Knowles:

No, you go ahead, Rob.

Rob Reynolds:

I was going to say that’s where I was wanting to go with that. It’s a perfect setup, Sada. I know that in that sense of newness, that since you hit the ground running, you’ve been doing so many things over the past year, and there are a lot of new things that you are bringing through New College to Oklahoma Christian. So let’s talk about some of the things, the projects that you’ve been launching, the way you’re working with outreach and working with other groups, and some of the things you’ve been doing and what you’re looking forward to in the future.

Sada Knowles:

Sure. So let me say Oklahoma Christian University, I love this place. Like I said, I was an undergrad here. Part of the reason I chose it and I’ve been fairly loyal to this university is because it was also transformational for my parents. They were both students here and didn’t have the best academic background, had some tough life circumstances. But this place brought them in. They met wonderful teachers, mentors, professors, and I feel like it changed a trajectory for my family because of the role it played for my parents. So I felt really blessed to get to be a part of that community again as a young adult myself.

So I say that Oklahoma Christian has been a university for over 50 years and has really done a great job of helping young adults. We have traditionally served that 18- to 22-year-old population, four-year residential degrees, and we think we do really great instruction and mentoring in spiritual development while you’re a student on our campus.

But we just realized, again I mentioned before, things are really changing. So we want to take what we do well and find new ways to package that market that offer that to serve broader audiences, different audiences, and to meet some changing market needs. So all of the things I’m doing in New College really probably fall into that scope.

We are expanding the mission of our university by reaching people that we have not previously been able to serve, and we’re trying to be really responsive to our community and the needs of our state and our city. So we’ve got four programs, four buckets in New College right now that align with that.

One, we are building out two online degrees. One is an interdisciplinary studies degree that is focused largely on education, and we are trying to help teaching assistants and paraprofessionals in the State of Oklahoma get an interdisciplinary studies degree with all this education and TEFL and human development coursework that then makes them eligible to pursue the state’s alternative certification pathway for paraprofessionals. So trying to help paraprofessional teaching assistants get a degree and become a certified teacher.

The other online program we’re working on is what we call work-based nursing programs. So we have a relationship with Integris Health Network here in Oklahoma, and we are trying to help nursing assistants get a BSN, a bachelor’s of science in nursing degree. So we’ve taken the didactic content from that program and put that into an online format, and then we will work with the hospital to take our lab, our skills, our clinical experiences in to the work setting.

Those two degree programs are really important for, again, when I talk about serving people that we have not been able to serve previously because we think there are teaching assistants and nursing assistants who would love to get a degree, but they can’t afford to quit their job in order to come to an on-campus program. They need to keep working because they have families and other commitments. So this is us trying to say, you know what, we’ll bring our degree to you, and let’s also try to recognize that there’s so much value in experiential learning and what you get through your job and try to work with those individuals.

New College also is home to concurrent enrollment. That was something I was really excited about from my experience in K-12. We just know more and more high schoolers are looking to get a head start. Also, we want college to feel accessible to high school students and I think concurrent enrollment or dual credit is an opportunity to show some high schoolers who maybe are on the fence, they’re not sure if college is going to be an option for them, that we can say, hey, let’s make these courses available and accessible now and show you, you have what it takes. You can do this. Let’s open those doors earlier.

The other area that we’re trying to expand our mission and really meet our market needs is we have an Academy of Alternative Certification. Oklahoma has a teacher shortage right now and we have a lot of emergency certified teachers in our state, and all of those emergency certified teachers are required to take coursework in classroom management and pedagogy. So we’ve taken those classes, put them in an online asynchronous format. We offer those throughout the year to make that, again, accessible and affordable for those individuals who are willing to step up and be teachers in Oklahoma.

So those are the four buckets in New College. All of those meet those requirements of just trying to expand who we serve at Oklahoma Christian University and being responsive to the needs of our community.

Rob Reynolds:

So in short, you haven’t had much to do in the last year.

Sada Knowles:

I don’t need that much sleep.

Rob Reynolds:

Well, that’s the advantage of … Honestly, it’s not a stretch, it’s a bit of being a parent and having-

Sada Knowles:

Yeah.

Rob Reynolds:

Been a mom. You get the whole sleep deprivation thing down and just keep on going.

Sada Knowles:

That’s right.

Rob Reynolds:

Higher pain-

Sada Knowles:

Lots of coffee.

Rob Reynolds:

Lots of coffee and a higher pain threshold, it really helps. One of the things, I’ve been so impressed with your work and the work of Oklahoma Christian. Obviously, I’m a big fan in what you’re doing here in Oklahoma because I think it’s so important. Initiatives with nurse practitioners, with the paraprofessionals in our education system, it’s really brilliant. I think there’s so much capacity building going on that’s really valuable in our state, and of course, helping families.

Right now families are really struggling in trying to know what to do in education for their kids who are in high school, going to college, and the pandemic has made a really crazy. What do we do? When do we enroll? I think there’s this whole idea really growing more rapidly than ever about how do we manage risk, manage costs and do all of those things. Concurrent and dual enrollment programs really do give parents some option and I know you’re very active in that.

You have tons of experience, both now navigating through the pandemic, but also just in technology. You’re overseeing all of the remote delivered, your external programs there at the university. What specific lessons do you think that you’ve learned or seen that throughout the university through the pandemic and meeting the needs of students in the pandemic that you think will really help New College, but also the institution doing its job even better? Oklahoma Christian has had a tremendous reputation of serving students needs, especially those on-campus students and giving them that really, I think, intimate environment. But how was the university’s response to the pandemic? How do you think that can make them even better at what they do?

Sada Knowles:

Well, first of all, I really appreciate the university setting the stage for New College, letting us try these programs, letting us price these programs affordably. I have always wanted Christian education to be more inclusive.

At the heart of that is just the fact that Jesus was not exclusive. Jesus was not exclusive. Christianity is for everyone. So I really want Christian education to be available for everyone, and I think just private education in general, that just has not been the feeling. It’s known for being expensive and just maybe a little difficult to obtain. So we want to break down those barriers. We want people to know that Oklahoma Christian wants to serve lots of learners from all walks of life.

So these programs have been priced really affordably, and I think that our university is just seeing such a positive response to that. It’s really pushing us to see, okay, how can we take the things we do well and scale that, and really remove those barriers and get the message of affordability and accessibility out about our university? So I’m thankful for that.

I have learned so much about technology and adult learners. Online learning was pretty new to me when I took this role, and I still consider myself, Rob, just my personality I’m more of a jack of all trades master of none. I still don’t consider myself an expert on online learning. But one thing that I’ve learned is I think there’s a difference between online courses and online programs, and as we are really working to build out a degree programs and help adults go from start to finish in an online program, I think there’s real value in consistency of delivery and format.

One of the things that I have really learned and valued in our relationship with you and with TEL, is just that you guys put a lot of thought into design and delivery so that there’s consistency and some predictability for the learner. That’s something that I’ve really come to adopt, just trying to think, how do I make this experience consistent and smooth for the learner?

Also adult learners, just being real about the things that they’re juggling, having some flexibility, having empathy and respect, how we have people that come to us that maybe they tried college 20 years ago and life happened or it didn’t go well or they made some bad decisions or whatever it is. But just respecting them for coming now and knowing that they bring strengths and experience to the table, how do we honor that, walk alongside them and give them confidence as they’re reentering higher ed, maybe.

So I don’t know. I’ve learned a lot. Like I said, I still consider myself sort of a jack of all trades. I’ve learned a little bit about adult learners, a little bit about online education, but I still have a long way to go too.

Rob Reynolds:

Well here’s the thing, we all do. Absolutely, and one of the things that I’m fascinated by and where I know you and the leadership there are moving in these directions with your programs, but thinking about this and especially with adult learners, and probably shouldn’t say this live. But okay, I’m 61. I really feel like I’m just starting the next third of my professional career. That’s how I look at it. I feel great. I expect to be doing what I’m doing now till I’m about 90, and then I’ll figure out what I’m going to do next.

I think that’s an increasing trend about people my age, and people even a decade younger than me thinking, okay, I’m doing this. I got lots of ideas. I’m ready to go, but I need more training. Do I need to go back to school? What do I need to do? How do I need to do that?

I think universities that really get adult’s disruption, the way life cycles go in general, but this idea of longer life, learning and a longer life working, there are so many opportunities for a university to serve our adult populations. I think universities like OU will find over time that that very likely could become the majority of the total number of students they serve in different capacities while maintaining that core undergraduate mission they had a formative way to the 18 to 22 year olds, which is equally and critically important.

But I do think, even I think the adult learning market is going to keep breaking up into new segments that we haven’t anticipated. So I think that’s just bright for New College and lots of opportunities.

To me, the pandemic, one thing that it’s done is it’s made traditional students put them in a category that is similar in some ways to adult learning and it’s made, I think, universities more aware of, oh, we can’t just assume that we’re going to have kids in a class and be able to handle everything face to face-

Sada Knowles:

Right.

Rob Reynolds:

In the hallway, on the chalkboard and deal with that. What if we don’t have those interactions and we have to deal at a distance or we have to deal with very disrupted schedules and things that didn’t fit into our nice little models that we just developed over the years? I certainly see that at OC and other institutions, buy I know OC has embraced it and said, okay.

I know that’s part of the president, John Steiger’s work and his mission and attitude as well to say, we don’t have to be who we’ve always been. We can keep growing, and our mission is bigger than that. Our mission is bigger than our past. It’s about the future and doing that-

Sada Knowles:

Right.

Rob Reynolds:

Which I really admire. It’s just incredible. So as an educator, which you are a lifelong educator, and you look out and I know you’re a researcher, you look at what other people are doing. You’re always trying to learn. What do you see that excites you in terms of higher education now that you’re there and what other people are doing and what you see the possibilities as?

Sada Knowles:

I think I’m really excited about conversations about market connections, and I think that’s important for both types of student populations. It is funny sometimes that I’m this … With New College I feel like sometimes I’m the voice or the face of disruption and online and all this change at the university. Which is so funny, because like I said, I’m so loyal to this place and so grateful for the traditional model that we’ve always done so well. I tell people all the time here I am championing all this disruption, but I really want my own children to get to come here and have the same experience I had because it was so great.

But either way, and whether you’re serving an 18- to 22-year-old residential population or you’re serving an online adult population, being relevant to our market and connecting individuals, their passions and their strengths with market and community needs, that’s the sweet spot for higher ed to help the learner figure out this is what I really care about, this is what I’m really good at, and how do I efficiently and effectively train to meet this need of my community, my state, my industry. So I just really get excited about, again, the individual desire, their strengths, and then really preparing them to go make a difference in the world and just making sure that our programs and our trainings are very relevant and really are preparing people for what the work place needs, what the workforce wants.

I also, on a little more specific level for our programs, I’m really excited about prior learning assessment and the direction that’s going. It’s not necessarily a new topic and idea, but I think it’s going to become more popular and I think we’re going to start utilizing it more with some of these changes in trends.

We’re spending some time and resources on that here at Oklahoma Christian as we’re reaching out to adult learners to say, maybe you didn’t take that traditional pathway. You’ve been out of the education realm for 10 years or so. But what have you been doing and what have you learned from life and work experience that maybe maps to some of the curriculum and credits that we offer here at the university?

I think, one, that just communicates some value and respect to adult learners to recognize that their time has not been wasted. They have been learning and growing and building skills and things.

Also, I’m a realist. I’m super practical at the end of the day, and adult learners when they come back in, it’s like, yeah, I spent 10 years working and I need this degree to advance. What’s it going to cost me and how long is it going to take me? Those are their primary questions that I get a lot of times in the admissions process, and prior learning assessment I think helps them reach that goal to say, okay, well, what have you learned? How can we acknowledge that? How can we measure that? And then how can we maybe expedite your time to graduation or degree completion?

So I’m excited about seeing prior learning assessment here and doing that in the right way with our faculty and staff. So those are a couple of things I’m excited about.

Rob Reynolds:

No, yeah, those are great. I’m excited about those too, going back to what I was saying about this extended learning process for adults and lasting longer. Competencies, prior assessment, all of those are going to be increasingly important as people look for more ways to re-skill not just once, two, three times in a lifetime, and you don’t want to have to go back and get a whole degree every single time. If you’ve been learning and you’ve been an active adult and being professional, you want to say, okay, what do I get credit for? Can I get this down to six months? If I spend a year, I’m willing to suck it up for that so I can make a transition. So yeah, I think those are incredibly important trends where we’re headed in the US.

All right. Well Sada, thank you so much. This is all just, we can talk forever about all the great things you’re doing because it’s so much fun. I had the chance as you know, to adjunct for OC last term and got some insider from an inside faculty view, and all the many things you’re doing, it’s very exciting. Of course, we work with you through TEL and know all of your projects.

But I think OC is a great example of an institution that understands the currents in higher education right now, and is doing what you have to do to take advantage of it. You have to have the will to say, we want to address these. We understand that requires maybe a little change or at least some adjustment, but we’re willing to do that. And I’ve just been impressed with you and the faculty and the administration there in embracing that and saying, yeah, we’ve been doing this, but we’re okay with doing it. I know it’s not always easy, but I would say that you’ve been exceptional as an overall faculty administration and being willing to give it a try. I think it’s showing lots of great results.

Sada Knowles:

Thank you. Yeah, we are certainly giving it our best try right now. We’ve got a lot of things going.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah.

Sada Knowles:

But it has been really exciting and I am thankful to be part of this community that is willing to try things and to take some risks, meet people where they’re at, and I’m excited to see where this takes us.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. It is exciting.

Sada Knowles:

Yeah.

Rob Reynolds:

Well everybody, you’ve been listening-

Sada Knowles:

Thanks so much Rob.

Rob Reynolds:

You’re welcome. You’ve been listening to Dr. Sada Knowles, the Dean of New College at Oklahoma Christian telling about her trajectory and all the great things happening there and what they’re looking at in New College and their programs. Thanks a lot, Sada.

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