The State of the Union-sparked debate on whether community college should be free reminds us to write about the design session we led at the White House before the holidays. As part of the White House Symposium on Innovation in Higher Education,the Lab lead a design session with 40 enthusiastic education innovation leaders (representing universities, community colleges, entrepreneurs, foundations, commentators) from WhiteHouse2webaround the country. Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education, and his team pushed us to consider the following design question:

How might government best accelerate

scalable pathways to high-quality,

low-cost workforce-ready credentials?

It’s an especially good question right now as both Departments of Labor and Education have upcoming prize money competitions to incent multi-sector teams to test new frameworks, models, services for underserved post-high school students. (Although they could only share the few lines that have already been published, so that no one in the room would have an unfair advantage if we choose to compete for the grants.)

So, for the design session, we tried to isolate how the government might catalyze new post-secondary pathways, either by:

  • direct curation and organization of open online resources
  • or supporting colleges and universities in their efforts to serve the non-traditional post-secondary market

For our design challenges, we try to move through 4 phases of work:

1. Understand | 2. Ideate | 3. Prototype | 4. Pilot

In one afternoon, in a formal White House room where you have to negotiate what you can tape to the walls (a story for another day), we worked through the first two phases.


1. What does and doesn’t already exist?

We guided the experts through design exercises to tease out what does and doesn’t already exist in the workforce-ready credentials and learning landscape. The summary below is a sampling of our quick “heat map.”

– What doesn’t exist?

1. Low-cost/free pathways to degree or non-degree credentials | This is to say that the free MOOCs and open courseware, or even most community colleges, are not low cost enough or DIY enough to help underserved non-traditional students get from motivation to job-ready. Ideally, a school is advising them on this but either schools can’t keep up with the market, or students are like cafeteria customers getting courses from different sources and then no one is helping them put the package together to be prepared for a particular market opportunity.

2. Actual credentials | Here, we are talking about the whole network of job skills that need a measurable taxonomy and learning institutions (old or new style) to teach and certify.

– What are the biggest pain points?

1. Mismatch between knowledge/degree and workforce needs.

2. Lack of soft skills.



2. What’s not attracting capital?

Creating coordinated pathways from K-12 through degrees or other credentialing to the workforce. | There may be a business model in pathway visualization, but it’s not clear yet how those brokers would get paid. Schools are buying data from analytics firms like Burning Glass, but putting the partnerships together between employers and learning institutions and community workforce promoters is labor intensive. And the matchmaking services that have been attempted are usually between schools and consumers or employers and consumers. No one is attempting to serve the whole K-12 to degree to job life cycle.


3. Necessary features & functionality ranked by importance

We then helped the design participants imagine and prioritize the type of features and functionality that would help the independent learner who might be trying to use open or low cost resources to build credible workforce ready skills. Below are the features and functionality ranked by importance.


1. Assessments “backwards mapped” from employers
2. Back-end data analytics
3. Employer-sponsored pathways
4. Open, interoperable platform
5. Curated open learning resources
6. Adaptive learning courses
7. Individual advising: virtual
8. Cognitive task-analysis (way to discuss back-mapping skills)
9. Peer interaction functionality
10. Credit aggregation service (troubleshooting for credit transfer)
11. Digital tutors
12. Group mentoring functionality
13. Concept inventories (as used in physics)
14. Employer “speed dating” functionality
15. Games, and game-based design
16. Individual advising: in person


WhiteHouse5webFinally, we broke into groups to generate ideas about different services that government funding could catalyze. It was interesting to see patterns emerge around visualization of pathways, curation of open content into marketable credentials, and, perhaps, most importantly, advising support to help nontraditional students troubleshoot credit portability and the best pathways given their prior credit, skill sets, and dreams.

Are these findings surprising to you? Why or why not?

How might we bring these ideas to life in a scalable, meaningful way? Tell us in the comments.

*There are a lot more notes from the design session on all the topics above. If you’d like our full session notes, email us here.