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How to share the design journey – and lead change – within your college

Storytelling insights from the Education Design Lab’s community college partners
By Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, Education Design Lab Communications Director

Before we get into it, I need to say up front: Thank you.

Thank you for being an innovator.

Only innovators – the curious intrapreneurs, the courageous change agents – would read a story like this one.

I know how hard and messy innovation can be at a community college, because I’ve been there.

No matter my job, I’ve always tried to lead through ideas … to use creativity for the greater good. Which is why we wrote a grant that brought Education Design Lab to Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, Va. I considered our work with the Lab as a professional development opportunity, so we could practice design thinking together – and keep students at the heart of our decisions.

In 2019, the Lab led us through a design challenge focused on stackable credentials in healthcare. I was the grant specialist who coordinated the work between our college and the Lab. I helped with the on-site logistics for each design session – (critically including lunch!) – but my most important role was communicating to the rest of the college. No one asked me to tell our story as it was happening. I was just excited to share our adventure because I believed so much in its potential.

Looking back three years later – now as the Lab’s communications director – I see how essential storytelling is to change of any kind. This is how we learn … how we connect. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University (and one of my favorite higher ed innovators), believes we lead through storytelling. In his latest book, Broken, LeBlanc writes:

“Stories – the ones we tell and the ones we collect– are the single most powerful tool we have as leaders. Stories are how we think. They do not come after the work; they are the work.”

YOU can lead and influence through storytelling, too.

Layering communications: ‘Multiple times, multiple ways’

During two Lab convenings this past year, I asked some 30 community college innovators this question: How do you share information internally at the college? What is most effective?

In true Lab fashion, our partners shared their answers through colorful, anonymous sticky notes.

Almost all of the answers clustered into the categories below. But one of the most insightful responses came from a BRIDGES Rural partner during our gathering in Finger Lakes, N.Y. The sticky note simply said, “Multiple times, multiple ways.”

Emails might get ignored. Someone could miss a key meeting. Instead of choosing just one method or event to share your change initiative, consider layering your communications, like a lasagna.

Multiple times, multiple ways.

Here’s where to start:

Layer #1: Share stories through a blog … or at least by email.

In my study of innovation over the years, I’ve learned both organizations and individuals have a greater chance for success if they build from their strengths. My 15-year career at a daily newspaper made writing natural, so with encouragement from my manager, I documented our design journey through blog posts. I started with an enthusiastic introduction where I ranked my excitement level at “Buddy the Elf.” I wrote in first person, which helps make updates more conversational and story-like — a departure from so many official communications. Most importantly, I shared blog links in the college’s weekly email to all employees. I wanted my posts to get seen on a regular basis.

Yes, blogging can be a major investment of time, but consider some big benefits:

  • A blog not only helps you reflect on learnings as you go, but it also involves everyone who might be curious. This is key to culture change – and can help the ideas radiate beyond the core design team. I made sure my blog posts included ways readers could get involved, even if it was just to ask questions.
  • Visibility = trust. The more frequently your colleagues see and hear about your design journey – challenges and all – the more likely they will help it succeed. Transparency and visibility helps build trust … and makes you more approachable.
  • Staff changes have become common on many community-college design teams – a blog could help document your progress so new team members can get up to speed.
  • If your blog is public, then the Lab can amplify through our national communications channels. We would love to feature your journey on our website and in our email newsletter … just email me! This is how our Innovator Network learns together.

An alternative to blogging? A few partners mentioned their president’s email updates as an effective communication method, so consider providing senior leadership a monthly summary of your progress. Our partners recommend using photos, infographics, and/or surprising data points to help tell the story.

Layer #2: Make the work visible in college meetings.

The most frequent response about effective internal communications? Our partners said: Meetings. Specifically: Department meetings, committee meetings, and “role alike” meetings.

While a blog or newsletter may help introduce your work, meetings are where the ideas can really spread. This is one of my regrets. I wish I had encouraged our design team members to share regular updates in their departmental and governance meetings – or designated a team member with public speaking superpowers to go on tour (remember: build on your strengths!). College-wide convenings are also prime opportunities to make your work visible … and to open up the conversation. For example, I organized a session inspired by an idea that emerged in our design process. When a dean was shocked she didn’t know students could get free bus passes, she suggested the college showcase all of the learner resources available during in-service. (So we did just that).

Layer #3: Don’t forget the power of 1:1 conversations.

Some final insights from our partners: “Make phone calls (instead of emails)” … or even “direct emails” to individuals. Also: A few folks emphasized “personal relationships” as an effective way to communicate. For a former newspaper editor trained in one-way mass communications, this is easy for me to forget: Every interaction is an opportunity to lead change. This takes me back to my college’s very first design session with the Lab. Small groups of faculty and staff interviewed eight learners, face-to-face, about their favorite experiences and how they were making decisions. Over and over again, the students talked about the personal relationships they developed along their college journeys. Relationship-building is also one of the most long-lasting impacts of our work with the Lab. Our design challenge created time and space to work with colleagues across departments – and that alone was transformative. One longtime advisor at the college was so moved we took the time to interview her as part of the “understand” phase, she surprised me with a small jack-o-lantern decoration to show her gratitude. (She knew Halloween was my favorite holiday.) That thoughtful gift stays on my desk as a reminder of the power of this work.

If I were still at the college, I would focus more energy on developing one-on-one relationships with the deans. Why the deans? Before leaving, I helped lead a governance group tasked with interviewing employees as part of our strategic planning process. One of the questions we asked was some version of, “What communications from the college do you pay attention to?” It became clear that faculty, especially, were overloaded by email … but they made sure to pay attention to emails from their deans. I couldn’t get to know every faculty member, but occasional coffee chats with the deans might have created more understanding about their needs – and more effective communications across the college. I would have probably blogged about that, too.

So to recap:
  • We learn, connect, and lead change through storytelling.
  • Build from your strengths: What are your communications superpowers? Writing? Photography? Public speaking? Start there.
  • Layer your communications like a lasagna: Multiple times, multiple ways.
  • Layer #1: Share project updates through a first-person blog … or at least by email.
  • Layer #2: Make the work visible in college meetings.
  • Layer #3: Don’t forget the power of 1:1 conversations.

We’ll ask you the same questions: How do you share information internally at the college? What is most effective? And also: How have you shared your work with the Lab? We’d love to highlight your ideas and blog posts in a future story. Email

Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, the Lab’s communications director, combines her experience with daily journalism, design thinking, and community colleges to tell the story of the Lab and its innovative partners.
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Education Design Lab’s Top 5 Resources of 2022

Just in case you missed any of the Lab’s must-read publications of 2022 … here are the top five resources to help us all innovate toward a more equitable, skills-based economy.


1. Skills Visibility: Why and How a Skills-Based Economy can be More Equitable

The Lab’s “big think” paper of 2022 offers a vision to reinvent the talent ecosystem, with specific calls to action for: 

+ (L)earners
+ Education and training providers
+ Employers
+ States
+ Associations and intermediaries
+ Technology platforms and vendors

Get the Skills Visibility paper (PDF)



2. Micro-pathways: A Gateway to Community College Transformation

This January 2022 Design Insights Brief features micro-pathway models co-created through the Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF). Insights include:

+ Learners need practical pathways with a clear return on investment (ROI) as well as flexibility in format and timing.
Employers see the micro-pathway co-design process as transformative to deepening their relationships with community colleges.
+ For community colleges, the micro-pathway design process can serve as a gateway to institutional transformation.

Get the CCGEF Design Insights Brief (PDF)




3. Design Insights Brief: Single Moms Success Design Challenge

While this report was released in late November 2021, it continues to be among our most downloaded in 2022. The Single Moms Success Design Insights Brief introduces four pilot programs launched in fall 2021 at the following colleges:

+ Central New Mexico Community College (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
Delgado Community College (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Ivy Tech Community College (Indianapolis, Indiana)
+ Monroe Community College (Rochester, New York)

The report also shares six insights from the design process, which can help other colleges and universities better serve single mothers with more flexible, affordable, and relevant programs.

Get the Single Moms Success Design Insights Brief (PDF)



4. BRIDGES Rural Design Insights, Part 2

In this February 2022 update, you’ll find:

+ 5 pilot programs from rural community colleges in Idaho, New York, Maine and Ohio.
+ 5 design insights that address access, flexibility, relevance and affordability.
+ 5 critical questions to help your institution better meet learner and community needs.

Get the BRIDGES Rural Design Insights Brief (PDF)





5. A New Role for Higher Education

After 10 months of work with 11 higher education leaders across the country, we offer higher education and ecosystem leaders a framework and resources to start aligning regional stakeholders toward building a truly equitable future. Cohort 2 Designers in Residence will use these tools to build and enhance a sustainable, effective education-to-workforce ecosystem in their region in 2023.

Get the actionable framework + tools.


You can find a library of the Lab’s publications + resources here. Looking forward to new partnerships and insights in 2023!

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How to better serve adult learners: 5 ways community colleges align noncredit + credit programs through micro-pathways

The six colleges and systems in the first cohort of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund— CCGEF or the Fund, for short — are piloting their 30+ micro-pathways.

Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

Cohort 1 colleges have focused on adult learners as their primary target audience. Data shows these are the majority of learners that enroll in noncredit courses. They are more likely to be older: The average age of students in noncredit programs is 34 compared to 22 for students in credit programs; more likely to have a GED rather than a high school diploma; and more likely to be students of color*. With that in mind, Cohort 1 intentionally designed their micro-pathways to begin with noncredit programs. This provides adult learners an entry point into postsecondary education and a bridge to higher credentials and degree programs on the credit side. However, this has meant bridging the noncredit-credit divide typical at community colleges.

As stated by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice Chancellor of Workforce Development & Innovation at Pima Community College: “Equity is really at the center of all of this work. Everything we do in higher ed that hierarch-alizes the learner, and even otherizes them, especially when you put “non”-in front of a learner and call them a ‘noncredit’ learner, we have other-ized them. That’s why we have embraced this vision of the new majority learners that EDL has taught us to embrace and bring about in the context of equity.”

Pima and the other Cohort 1 colleges have embraced micro-pathways as a gateway to community college transformation.

Below are five of their accomplishments in aligning noncredit and credit.

1. Noncredit micro-pathways courses + credentials articulate to credit programs.

For CCGEF, Cohort 1 colleges put the onus on themselves to align competencies and assessments to ensure credentials and courses completed in noncredit programs are credit-worthy, rather than learners having to prove themselves through additional assessments or other Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) activities. This was accomplished through articulation of mirror or mirrored courses (which are the same courses offered in credit and noncredit), industry certification crosswalks and equivalency agreements.

2. Learners can enter and exit micro-pathways at their own pace.

Cohort 1 noncredit micro-pathways provide an on-ramp to a credit career pathway and the opportunity to earn higher credentials. Learners can move along the career pathway at their own pace, and enter and exit at different points along the pathway as their career goals dictate. For example, many learners can move into employment after completing the micro-pathway, but can choose to return to earn a higher- level credit certificate and/or degree as their personal and professional career goals dictate. These pathways and entry and exit options were communicated to learners in advising, on institution websites, and through infographics.

3. Colleges are developing a culture of ‘a learner is a learner,’ regardless of where the journey begins.

Cohort 1 design teams have worked to overcome the typical division in support services offered to noncredit learners. Two of the colleges have established formal advising programs for learners who start on the noncredit side and others are doing this on a more informal basis through faculty members who oversee both noncredit and credit pathways. One college has set up a co-enrollment process with their local workforce system to ensure learners have access to tuition assistance and wrap-around services — services that would normally only have been offered on the credit side. Colleges are also providing noncredit learners access to work-based learning opportunities and scholarships, with new funds established specifically for CCGEF learners.

4. CCGEF colleges launched a Data Collaborative to better understand learners.

Cohort 1 launched the Data Collaborative with partners Brighthive, the National Student Clearinghouse, Urban Institute, and Credential Engine. Cohort 1 wants to learn more about their noncredit learners, including whether they matriculate into credit-bearing programs or disconnect from the college after completing noncredit courses. The Data Collaborative’s goals are to yield valuable information about learners, credential completion, employment and wage data, among other items.

5. Colleges are scaling their noncredit and credit alignment through micro-pathways design.

For each of the Cohort 1 design teams, micro-pathways have served as a way to innovate around noncredit and credit alignment. Most of the teams have been learning and iterating on a handful of programs but have plans to scale across the college. For example, Prince George’s Community College designed and launched three micro-pathways and added a fourth early in 2022. Pima Community College launched eight micro-pathways and added another, with plans to scale even further during 2022.

What’s next?

The progress Cohort 1 has made is tremendous, yet if you ask any of the design teams, they will say there is still more work to be done. They would like to see more resources to support noncredit advising models and a greater focus on marketing to noncredit learners. The Lab is grateful to have partnered with our six colleges and systems and their dedication to serving new majority learners.

To learn more about Cohort 1 and the Community College Growth Engine Fund, download: Design Insights Brief: Community College Growth Engine Fund Micro-pathways: A Gateway to Community College Transformation.

This article by Valerie Taylor is part of the Lab’s work helping community colleges innovate and transform through the micro-pathways design process. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, subscribe to our email newsletter for updates, and follow along on Twitter: #Micropathways.

* Citation: Xu, D., & Ran, X. (2015). Noncredit education in community college: Student, course enrollments, and academic outcomes. Community College Research Center, 2015. Available: 
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How to market micro-pathways: 5 insights to help community colleges reach adult learners

The six colleges and systems in the first cohort of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund— CCGEF or the Fund, for short — are in pilots for their 30+ micro-pathways with adult learners as their key target audience.

Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (including at least one 21st century skill) which are validated by employers and lead unemployed, displaced, and low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

Marketing this new class of credentials has not been business as usual for the colleges’ marketing and communications departments.

“Our colleges and systems are utilizing a variety of marketing strategies. With micro-pathways being so new, we may not see the promise of some of these right away,” said Dr. Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. “As a human-centered design organization, we realized that one of the best ways to determine optimal marketing strategies is to ask learners.”

To do that, the Lab hosted three, 45-minute virtual marketing feedback sessions open to learners who were completing coursework in their micro-pathways. There was geographic, occupational, gender, and racial diversity across learners engaged in the sessions.

Below are five marketing insights gleaned from learners in our feedback sessions.

1. Adult learners respond to a variety of marketing strategies.

“I found out about my micro-pathway on Facebook. It was a simple post and very straightforward application that was linked to the post. It was quick and easy.”

“The first time I saw the poster about the micro-pathway, what grabbed my attention as a mom is that I can participate after I pick up my kids and everything. That program is going to be after that. And being virtual is important, too.”

The learners we spoke to found out about their micro-pathways in a variety of ways. Some learners discovered their micro-pathways through digital means, such as keyword searches, Facebook, the college website, or through email outreach from the colleges. Others mentioned physical assets, such as seeing flyers and/or posters nearby or on campus. Some found out through word-of-mouth from their employers or other professional contacts. From what we heard from learners, it is important to cast the net wide when marketing micro-pathways to appeal to different preferences.

2. Showcase learner testimonials and success stories on your micro-pathways website.

“Add success stories, links from YouTube, where people tell about how their program went, what you can expect, the pros and cons, and what types of employers they received feedback from.”

Learners stated that testimonials and/or videos from micro-pathway completers should be included on micro-pathway websites. They shared that it is important to them to hear stories from others that completed these programs to understand how the programs impacted them and the jobs they were able to secure as a result of completing the micro-pathway. This is something to consider as colleges begin to have micro-pathway completers.

3. Partner with employers to promote upskilling to their employees.

“Have a (college) representative come in while we are at work. That is the top way to reach adult working learners.”

With micro-pathways designed to help individuals in low-wage occupations move into median wage or higher positions, upskillers are a key target audience. Upskilling may be with a learner’s current employer. One example is Seattle Colleges’ Health IT micro-pathway, designed with employer partner Seattle Children’s Hospital. The hospital included information in their company newsletter including their offer of paid scholarships. On the other hand, we spoke to other learners who shared that marketing by their employers did not exist and that it has a lot of untapped potential. The learners had great ideas for colleges to help local employers get the word out to their employees, such as creating posters that can be posted in hallways and/or break rooms, providing brochures or flyers to distribute, and having a college representative come talk about the micro-pathway(s) with employees during work hours.

4. Most important messages for adult learners: Affordability, flexibility, and an accelerated timeline (a year or less).

“The timeline – you can finish in a year and get your dream job – some people might think about going back to school even if it’s been a long time. You’re just meeting once a week, I can do that. Micro-pathways kind of say that, but they might now know what a micro-pathway is.”

From the learners, we heard messaging about the very nature of micro-pathways and the design criteria are paramount.

Design criteria are the principles or aspirations that the pathways should meet. They should serve as parameters or guardrails for our designed solution in order to meet the needs of the learners and other stakeholders. The micro-pathway design criteria focused on those three areas include:

  • Can be completed in one year or less
  • Offered in a flexible delivery format
  • Affordable cost
5. Advisors are the critical link between the website and enrollment.

“The website is fluid and has all the information I was looking for. I was able to contact people from the website.”

We heard from learners that they appreciated the ability to reach someone at the college directly through the colleges’ micro-pathways website and have their questions answered. Advisors from the college also played an important role in learner decisions to enroll and start classes. It was clear from the learners who met with advisors that these individuals had a major impact on their decision to take classes and work toward earning the credentials in the micro-pathway. The advisors carefully listened to the learners and helped them select pathways that were in demand locally and aligned to the learners’ interests.

The Lab and our partner colleges are still learning how to best market micro-pathways. As with anything new and innovative, it’s going to take some trial and error. However, we are grateful for the insights provided by our micro-pathway learners and believe this will help to shorten the learning curve.


This article by Valerie Taylor is part of the Lab’s work helping community colleges innovate and transform through the micro-pathways design process. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, subscribe to our email newsletter for updates, and follow along on Twitter: #Micropathways.

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The Lab’s Innovation Capacity Assessment

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How Interviews with 100s of Rural Learners are Shaping New Program Models for our BRIDGES Rural Cohort

Since our BRIDGES Rural initiative kicked off last spring, we’ve been asking: How might we strengthen the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities? At the Lab, we always aim to tackle these big, messy, systems questions by starting with learners—learners who are attending our schools of focus, those in the workforce that are interested in or might benefit from re-engaging in college, learners who attended previously but were unable to complete, and potential learners in the greater community. Our work with five community colleges through BRIDGES Rural is no different. Since January, we’ve worked with our cohort to conduct comprehensive research with nearly 500 learners, institutional faculty, and other community stakeholders about their experiences.


What did we hear?

The communities involved in our cohort—spanning Idaho Falls, Idaho; Bangor, Maine; Canandaigua, New York; Marietta and Zanesville, Ohio—and the learners and stakeholders we heard from highlighted the rich diversity and strengths of rural places, underscored systemic and institutional barriers, and identified opportunities that exist to build on what works well. While unique themes exist at individual colleges, much of what we heard can be mapped across rural institutions. And, many of these shared themes in experience are true for learners beyond rural spaces.

#1 Many rural learners value connections to their homes and communities and want to feel this sense of rootedness more deeply at school

Strong relationships and consistent, accessible, transparent communication with faculty, staff, advisors, and other learners can support learners’ success.

#2 Learners need to feel embraced as their whole selves at their schools and in their communities.

Systemic inequities and dominant cultures have shaped vastly different experiences for learners based on race, gender, sexuality, age, and whether they are a caretaker or not. Historic underinvestment in diverse rural communities contribute to some learners experiencing a greater sense of belonging than others do.


#3 Learners want to build family-sustaining careers where they can grow, feel fulfilled, and contribute to their communities.

To make informed choices about their education and careers, people benefit from understanding the opportunities, earning potential, and possible paths associated with different careers in their communities so they can decide what their individual journey will look like and see the ROI of their education in terms of their goals. The fundamental structures of learning experiences need to be redesigned to align with learners’ hopes, goals, and life experiences and to reflect local career opportunities. Rural communities’ colleges can play a major role in preparing community members for in-demand jobs and in working with their broad-reaching networks to support economic growth and well-being.

#4 Learners benefit from opportunities to access learning and support in ways that meet them where they’re at and fit flexibly with their lives.

For rural learners, barriers related to childcare, transportation, distance, finances, basic needs, broadband internet access, belonging, and time can be interconnected in ways that make success in school feel out of reach, frustrating learners’ sense of growth and agency.


#5 Many learners need and want greater opportunities to combine work and learning, and rural community colleges have the potential to be “hubs” that connect community members with learning opportunities that address regional workforce gaps.

Partnerships are essential to this and should exist between multiple stakeholders in rural communities.


700 Ideas: What Happens When You Have a Holistic Understanding of Community Experience

Each of our five community college partners worked with the Lab to bring together comprehensive data about their learners’ experiences, their institutions, and their communities more broadly. We curated this research into virtual galleries that hundreds of people from across each school’s region explored. Based on what they learned through their gallery walks, the cohort collectively came up with almost 700 ideas to tackle their design question. These ideas range from focusing on holistic support, career development and employer engagement, advising, pathway design, diversity and inclusion, and more. Here are just a few examples:

  • Community-Powered Single Parent One Stop with multi-generational programming and resources, including transportation assistance, financial resources, and academic and career supports.
  • Provide industry-driven micro-pathways in partnership with employers large and small, delivered in a distributed way throughout the region for close proximity to learners and employers.  
  • Establishing a Chief Diversity Officer at the college to promote and celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion across the campus and the broader community, informing learner support strategies, program and curriculum design, community outreach, and policy change across the institution.
  • Embed the college as a strong community presence with expanded student and community engagement outside the classroom through sports, volunteer opportunities, events, clubs, and more. 
  • Appalachian Arts College to re-enliven Appalachian culture and crafts, engage local artisans, and offer learners free tuition for working at the college.
  • Create “Roadmaps to Success” that will help learners to visualize the diverse number of ways to pursue career and personal goals from entry to completion.


Want to dig in deeper?

Feel free to peruse the BRIDGES virtual gallery walks within our community of practice, hosted by our partner Participate:

In March, we released “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency. Many themes we heard from learners in our BRIDGES cohort echoed calls we’ve heard from our work with 100s of learners over the last seven years. This framework dives in a bit deeper to provide tangible suggestions that can better a learner’s sense of growth, agency, and belonging, and in turn, give learners the opportunities and resources they need to meet their goals.


How We Got it Done—Thank You to Our Partners!

Collaboration among the Lab, the BRIDGES Rural cohort, and key partners made these gallery walks and our research possible. Higher Ed Insight, our BRIDGES evaluation partner, compiled and visualized powerful quantitative data for our gallery walks. To complement this with qualitative data, Urban Rural Action helped the Lab team conduct interviews with learners and other community members, which you can learn more about in this Areas of Agreement podcast episode focusing on our collaboration. 


Up Next: Prototyping

Next up, the BRIDGES teams will prototype, test, and continue to iterate on their big ideas, moving steadily toward pilot launches in partnership with their communities. Want to stay up to date with our BRIDGES Rural work? Follow us on Twitter @BridgesRural for frequent shareouts of our BRIDGES learnings and @eddesignlab for general Lab updates and opportunities to connect!

Stay tuned for our series of insight briefs soon to be published about unlocking the potential of rural learners!  

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Through the Voices of Learners: A Spotlight on Delgado Community College’s Single Moms Success Pilot

Faculty and staff at Delgado Community College participate in a gallery walk during a design session where they built prototype programs to increase single mother learner college completion.


In fall 2020, community colleges in the Lab’s Single Moms Success initiative (SMS) cohort began to launch elements of their pilot programs, all while grappling with the operational, emotional, and public health challenges posed by COVID-19. This week, we are excited to share a preview of Delgado Community College’s Single Moms Success pilot program: SMART – Single Moms Accessing Resources Timely. 

Throughout Single Moms Success, Delgado has demonstrated its strong commitment to offering single mothers in the New Orleans region greater educational opportunities to advance their careers and support their families. 

Forty-eight percent of children in New Orleans are raised by single moms, and 58% of single mother families in the city experience poverty. According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), single mothers in Louisiana who graduate with an AA are 43% less likely to live in poverty and will earn $282,760 more in their lifetimes than those who have just high school diplomas, and those with a BA are 72% less likely and will earn $627,954 more throughout their lives than those with just high school diplomas. The relationship between education, career opportunities, and poverty for single mothers and their children has inspired Delgado’s Single Moms Success team to design a pilot program that will offer single moms the support and flexibility they need to persist in school and build fulfilling, family-sustaining careers. 

Delgado’s SMART (Single Mothers Accessing Resources Timely) pilot approach will enable 2,000 single mother learners to make progress simultaneously in their education, careers, and financial support of their families. Initial pilot element rollout began in fall 2020, and the full pilot will launch in fall 2021. 

Program Benefits 

  • Holistic Support 
    • Online + in-person case management 
    • Aunt Bertha for needs assessments and resource referrals
    • Scholarships + childcare vouchers specifically for single mother learners
    • Transportation assistance
  • Single Moms Community + Network
    • Single moms online community in the Delgado app
    • Proactive outreach + resource/support sharing from staff
  •  Learning + Workforce Support Tailored to Single Moms
    • Industry-aligned stackable credentials with opportunities for paid internships
    • Flexible asynchronous online courses
    • Orientation course specifically designed for single mother learners
    • Industry-specific career navigation

What We’re Learning through the Perspective of Delgado Learners

    1. Demonstrating to learners how you care personally about them can impact their engagement, student identity, and so much more.
      “The biggest thing was them knowing that they’re not alone. They have a safe place where they can share. They can come to me in my office hours. I want to promote their success in their education, their life goals.”

      – Shelly Planellas, the course instructor for Delgado’s orientation course design specifically for single moms 
    2. Holistic support and care for learners as whole people needs to happen both inside and outside the classroom.
      “This semester has been so emotionally tough on me. My first day of the Connect Success class, I probably looked like a mess because I had COVID. Then two weeks ago I lost my great-grandmother, who has been with me for my whole life, to COVID. This was the woman I would go to for everything. She babysat me, bathed me as a baby, cooked me sweet potato pie – I’m used to seeing her every day. I told Ms. Shelly I wanted to give up. I’ve never lost anyone. I’ve been part of five living generations together, and I’ve never known grief before. I was so nervous about my grades in handling the grief. This class is what kept me going. Ms. Shelly motivates me, the other students motivate me, we motivate each other.”

      Tarcelyn James, a single mom and nursing student at Delgado, on how Shelly has played a key role in her support system during an intense period of grief 
    3. Making sure faculty are informed about services and resources can support learners’ awareness and access of support.
      “The class turned out to be a class I really needed. There were some amazing people. Shelly was so great. She broke through all my layers. I even cried in the class. It was even just like therapy for me. I think I really needed that. Shelly didn’t let up. Most of my personal information I never tell anybody. Through the lessons and stuff she was teaching us, she gave us the strength we didn’t know we had. I’m a single mother. I have three boys… Different activities we did in the class brought back different parts of my life and made me rewind and process… Another thing with Ms. P – every resource, we knew about it. I’ve been at Delgado since 2017, 2018. I went to school at night, in the early morning. I never knew about any of the resources that Delgado had. Ms. P is everything. That class, I think I took the most seriously of any. I got so much out of that class… I would work from 4am to 1pm. I would take an early lunch at work and either go into the office or in the car so I wouldn’t miss that class.”

      – Tricilla Thomas, a single mother of three boys who is about to earn her Associate’s degree in business with a focus on small business entrepreneurship 
    4. Believe in single mother learners’ huge potential by supporting them to identify their goals, believe in themselves, and connect with resources and opportunities to reach those goals.
      “This class has been a mirror to my life because it made me reevaluate myself, challenge myself, better understand myself, feel more confident in myself… We did a mommy and me team project for Ms. Shelly’s class. Our team name was the ‘Never-Giver-Uppers,’ and our mascot was the eagle because baby, we soar high. We beat the odds.”- Tarcelyn James, a single mom and nursing student at Delgado,


For more information on Delgado’s pilot, and additional learnings and resources for how to engage learners in your community, read our recent release “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency.

Additionally, stay tuned for more updates to come about the Single Moms Success cohort’s progress by following along with our work in the Innovator Network and on Twitter @eddesignlab and #SingleMomsSuccess. 

news and events

New Release: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework

Dear partners and innovators,

We are excited to announce the release of “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency.

This actionable framework captures our vision, recommendations, tools, and insights for redesigning a learn-to-work journey that centers learners’ growth, agency, and belonging, featuring learnings from interviews with hundreds of learners for whom higher education was never designed.

Learner engagement and satisfaction of its underlying drivers have repeatedly been shown to predict persistence and retention, academic performance, completion rates, student satisfaction, and career outcomes. As a result, people’s engagement as learners can affect their economic mobility for the rest of their lives, impact key metrics for learning providers, and shape regional economic growth. 

Decades of research in psychology and behavioral science have shown that three key drivers—growth, belonging, and agency—have an outsized impact on learners’ engagement, success in reaching their goals, and well-being. Yet these are rarely discussed amid higher education’s ongoing crises. Leveraging core principles of Self-Determination Theory and the Lab’s seven years of work with learners and leaders in higher ed, our team has articulated a learner engagement framework, with accompanying insights and examples from our work to co-create new models with colleges and other learning providers.

Download the framework here.

news and events

Four Insights from Employers: How Learning Providers Can Design Industry-aligned Pathways

A completed T-Profile by an employer partner


In January 2021, the Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF), a national initiative to build 18 employer-validated micro-pathways that connect low-wage and entry-level workers to in-demand jobs, hosted design sessions in which the cohort of six community colleges engaged directly with local and national employer partners from four industries; Allied Health, Construction, Information Technology, and Manufacturing. During these design sessions, employers helped to identify and prioritize skills to support the cohort’s design of pathways using the Lab’s T-Profile tool. The T-profile is a skills profile that allows employers to be honest and precise about the ideal combination of skills they are seeking for specific job roles (in a way that is not articulated in a job description) and institutions to understand exactly what they are looking for and can do to prepare learners. This approach to working with employers is crucial to designing the industry responsive pathways we seek to build through CCGEF. 


4 Key Insights from Employers:

1. 21st Century Skills are Most Critical that Learning Providers Develop—For Employers, They are the Hardest to Train for

“If you came to me with the 21st century skills, I would invest in training you on the technical side. But I don’t really have a way of training for these 21st century skills…”

Employers emphasize the need for strong 21st century skills development training as foundational, but noted how difficult 21st century skills are to train for. After completing the T-Profile exercise, employer partners indicated the importance of 21st century skills training. This theme rings true across employers in various industries, including health, IT, and manufacturing, and employer partners the Lab has collaborated with over the past seven years. 

2. Use Skills Profiles, like the T-Profile, to Align Skill Needs with Employers

“As an employer, these types of tools help us articulate our needs to local training providers. It’s very easy to use…and then translating it up to, hey, we need these things, can you help us train our people or upskill, train our future staff or upskill, our current staff?”

Skills profiles, particularly the T-Profile, are a useful tool for employers and institutions to align and hone in on skills as they work together to build micro-pathways—we know that establishing a shared language is trickiest when employers and institutions collaborate. Employers noted that using the Lab’s T-Profile tool allowed them to best articulate training needs and do some of the translating work for them.

3. Responsiveness is Key—Revisit Skills Profiles with Employers Often

“Being flexible, being agile as a learning organization, to be able to take what the industry is telling you and quickly put it into a credential package [is important].”

Employers need institutions and training partners to be flexible and agile to keep up with and appropriately respond to their changing needs. By using skills profile tools and engaging employers actively in the design of credentials, institutions can respond to employer needs to best prepare their learners for the workforce. 

4. Check for Internal Employer Alignment by Bringing More than One Employee to the Table

“We saw the one example: The same job and people are viewing a difference [in the skills identified], there’s a lot of subjectivity in this. So trying to tie that subjectivity down so it’s more consistent, probably helps the organization as well.”

Skills profiles can also help companies align internally. A theme that the Lab has been hearing since the launch of CCGEF is lack of alignment within organizations. Employers have noted that there is often a disconnect between the HR department and hiring managers within the same company. The two T-profiles below demonstrate this disconnect. Two employers at the same company, using the same job description completed the T-profile tool differently. In order to design pathways that meet the needs of employers, these needs must be aligned within employer organizations.

Two T-Profiles completed by two employees at the same company


Next Steps for the CCGEF Cohort

Over the coming weeks, the CCGEF cohort institutions will continue to complete skills profiles with employer partners for each of their selected micro-pathway occupations. Using the skills identified during these profile sessions, design teams will build a curriculum and pathways. Employer co-designers will continue to be actively involved in the design process to ensure that curriculum prepares learners for current workforce needs. 


Follow this work on our Twitter @eddesignlab with the hashtag #CCGEF

news and events

vsbl Platform Creates Hope for Rapid Adoption of 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials

Describe something as visible, and it means it can be seen. 

Describe a person as visible, and it means they are recognizable. 

Visibility is generally a good thing. It engages our senses and provokes our thoughts. It enlightens us. It gives us something to work with. We appreciate visibility.

When we launched a beta pilot of our vsbl platform in early 2020, our goal was to make learners visible; seen and recognized for the skills they have. In the midst of a global pandemic, over twenty 2 and 4-year institutions and organizations signed on to offer the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials (our first product on the vsbl platform). Learners who successfully completed the rigorous learning experience would earn a digital badge, a micro-credential that demonstrates competency and an intentional effort to acquire the most in-demand employability skills. In what will be a historically tight job market for years to come, our pilot partners, located in the US and abroad, recognize it is mission critical to provide learners with the opportunity to acquire 21st century skills and to offer a portable, digital credential that verifies their skills and makes them visible to the world.  Skills rather than degrees are the currency of choice for employers, and 21st century skills, in particular, are in even greater demand as companies seek to build a nimbler, resilient, interculturally fluent workforce. 

We are increasingly concerned that if we do not democratize 21st century skill acquisition and make it feasible and affordable for all institutions and organizations to do this with more intention, then learners of all kinds, but especially those who have been historically excluded from opportunities, will be passed over for by employers. 

Join the movement to make learning and 21st century skills visible. 1200 colleges have signed up for our 21st Century Skills Toolkit over the past three years and now we are ready to scale delivery of these Micro-credentials. 

How vsbl works

The vsbl platform was designed with our partners in mind. You need flexibility to offer the experience in multiple ways. You need dependability so the technology is not cumbersome. You need answers to your questions, help with your ideas, and support along the way. 

During the pilot, we focused on all of these areas. We successfully tested our ability to connect the vsbl platform to existing Learning Management Systems (LMS) through Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), which enables the content to flow seamlessly into systems like Canvas, D2L, Moodle, and Blackboard.  In some cases, our partners did not have an LMS, so we hosted their learners directly on the vsbl platform–a feature often needed for employers, high schools, and community-based organizations or institutions seeking to engage non-matriculated learners, like incumbent workers. We were even able to test our mobile application which we knew would be vital for learners who are using their mobile devices as the primary way to connect to the Internet.  For those with connectivity issues, the content was made available to be downloaded and accessed offline.

Three of the Lab’s Eight 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials


Once connected, pilot partners were able to access learning modules from one or more of our eight Micro-credentials and enroll their facilitators in a brief interactive online course to familiarize them with the modules and accompanying technology. Facilitators earned badges upon successful completion of the training.  

The most common integration of the content was directly into an existing course. Like nutritional supplements, faculty would layer in the 21st century skills, turbo-charging their course and providing their learners with a recognizable credential and a more complete learning experience. 

We recognize that every organization is unique. vsbl offers the flexibility to integrate the modules in whatever way you see fit.

  • In some cases during the pilot, the modules were offered as a co-curricular standalone learning experience and in one case as a substitute for internships lost to COVID.
  • One of our international partners used the Critical Thinking course as an “education-to-employment initiative” to create employable engineers.

  • Pilots were conducted across multiple academic departments including engineering, nursing, and accounting, as part of other liberal arts courses and through Career Services. 
  • The skills offered (in order of interest) were Critical Thinking, Resilience, Intercultural Fluency, Empathy, Oral Communication and Initiative. 

Overall, nearly 400 learners participated in the pilot and close to 200 badges were awarded, demonstrating that being present is not enough to earn the badge. Learners needed to successfully complete the four end of module assessments, called Proving Grounds, which challenge learners to prove they know how to activate the skill when called upon. 

See additional use cases of the Lab’s Micro-credentials.


The vsbl learning experience

Grounded in learning theory, the interactive online modules challenge learners to apply what they are learning to the real world, to reflect on and question their experiences, old and new, and to assess their skills through a series of performance based simulations and activities. This format makes it stickier for learners and helps them understand and articulate their skills on a much deeper level. 


Learners in South Africa access the Critical Thinking course within vsbl.


Start making your learners vsbl today!

We are at a critical and exciting juncture in the history of learning. Education will either shy away from the moment and continue to uphold the status quo or respond to the moral imperative to course correct and help learners level the playing field to demonstrate what they know and become discoverable to employers.

Micro-credentials are gaining steam as a way to provide shorter-term learning that is more responsive to what the workforce needs. The technology and structure of digital badges enables learners to be more machine-readable by applicant tracking systems and discoverable by employers, through skill tags, which can be a gamechanger for learners who do not have a network to give them a leg up in the hiring process. For six years, we have been leading the charge on designing rigorous micro-credentials with employers and educators. We have poured our knowledge and expertise into our 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials, testing and iterating and are now proud to be able to offer vsbl, a best-in-class solution to the skills gap. 

 Key features of vsbl:

  1. Comprehensive online modules grounded in our nationally-recognized and globally utilized 21st century skills competency framework 
  2. Ability to connect to a learning management system for an integrated learner experience
  3. Access to employer-validated, performance-based assessments and rubrics that provide the learner with a self-assessment balanced against the perspectives of “others” such as peers, supervisors, and mentors
  4. 21st Century Skills Facilitator training for consistency of delivery
  5. Mobile compatibility to meet learners where they are

The buzz about vsbl is building and the Lab’s team is standing at the ready to help you launch your 21st Century Skills Micro-credentialing initiative. As a thank you to our Innovator Network, whose support helped the Lab arrive at this exciting moment, anyone who signs up by April 30 will receive an additional 50 badges at no cost.

Contact us to take advantage of this limited opportunity or to learn more (


Get started with vsbl today!