UNCF Institute for Capacity Building

How might our institutions provide intentional and sustainable pathways to build 21st century competencies and help our students find meaningful employment in their desired career field?


UNCF is missioned to build a robust and nationally-recognized pipeline of under-represented students who, because of UNCF support, become highly-qualified college graduates and to ensure that our network of member institutions is a respected model of best practice in moving students to and through college. Since April 2018, the Lab has collaborated with UNCF to accelerate the development of programs that will strengthen the capacity of institutions to meet students’ career development needs now and in the future. Our work with UNCF currently includes three initiatives:

  1. Career Pathways Initiative Cohort 1: 2019-2020, 14 institutions
  2. Career Pathways Initiative Cohort 2: 2020-2021, 8 institutions
  3. Liberal Arts Innovation Centers: 2020 – 2021, 4 institutions
news and events

Six “College Hacking” Trends to Watch in 2020

By Kathleen deLaski and Tara Lifland

When we first predicted the “Learner Revolution” in 2014, we talked about it as a trend that might take hold by 2030. The Learner Revolution is a world where the college degree becomes just one option for professional career preparation, where learners might hack their own path to attain skills in shorter courses or micro-degrees. Their credentials might be delivered by a mix of colleges, employers, or experience providers at any point in their lives.
By early 2019, to celebrate the Lab’s fifth anniversary, we wrote about how quickly public views on the importance of the college degree had softened as enrollments at two- and four-year colleges, and particularly graduate schools, were declining.

At the start of the new decade, experimentation and attitudes about new models to support the Learner Revolution are dialing up at an even quicker pace. We have identified six developments and trends to keep an eye on as we step into the 2020s.


1.  Employer-Driven Pathways

With 7.4 million U.S. job openings in mid-2019, it’s no wonder employers are getting desperate not just for talent, but talent with skills of the future. Last July, Amazon made waves by pledging over $700 million to upskill more than 100,000 of its U.S. employees, expanding its “Cloud School” training to community colleges in northern California and the state of Virginia (after the announcement of the new headquarters in northern VA). The list of blue chip companies not requiring four-year degrees for professional roles got longer in 2019, with JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon penning a year-end piece in Fortune Magazine called The Future of Work is Skills, So Stop Worrying about Degrees.

At the other end of the spectrum, we see enterprising companies in many states taking matters into their own hands. We are impressed with Sundt Construction Company reaching out to Central Arizona College to co-design stackable pathways for heavy machine operators to move into construction management careers. Sundt couldn’t find the workers—now they’ve got 200+ learners in stackable short-term certification programs ready to work while they pursue an associate’s degree that articulates seamlessly to a bachelor’s from Northern Arizona University. 


2.  Rise of “Education as an Employee Benefit”

They say talent is the new oil, a scarce and valuable resource, and increasingly, employers are providing “education as a benefit” to attract and retain employees. Some employers are approaching this benefit with the help of companies like Guild Education, which shot past a billion dollar valuation last November. Guild helps brand name companies like Chipotle, Disney, and Walmart curate education offerings for employees, tapping into federal or state tuition reimbursement programs.

Hot valuations can be more a sign of hype than reality, but this one signals that employers and employees are buying into “The Weave” model that we are helping colleges consider, making a bet that because 70% of all college learners are also working 15 hours or more, successful models will increasingly blur the lines between work and school, over a lifetime. While many groups are innovating in this space (InStride, Sunlight, Outset) the opportunity is still largely untapped; the 400,000 working adults Guild has helped represent just 3-5% of employees at their partnering companies. 


3.  Competencies, Not Degrees

“Within the decade, all but the most exclusive learning providers, old and new, will compete for students at the competency and experience level rather than at the degree level. That is the principal paradigm shift of the Learner Revolution.”

We made this statement in our 2019 white paper, and have been watching for signs that colleges or other learning providers are shifting their marketing to lead with workforce competencies, rather than degrees. 

So far, we see a lot of four-year colleges pitching experiential learning, opportunities to solve real world problems, and efforts to translate the liberal arts degree. Many community colleges and some four-years are incorporating certifications, such as Google’s IT certification, right into coursework, but not many colleges are breaking out to market their best competency offerings beyond their own students. 

Our favorite example of this is “Sneaker Essentials” school, a genius play by Fashion Institute of Technology to market a short-term program offering specific competencies to get hired into the hip world of footwear design. You can scroll through the videos graduates and wannabes post; many of them accentuate that the learners already have a college degree, but need different competencies to launch their dream career. Online competency courses—the sweet spot for providers like General Assembly for half of the last decade—have been retrofitting college graduates for careers in IT, digital marketing, and UX design. But, it’s newish to see slick offerings coming from colleges in competencies such as footwear design, like the “Sneaker Essentials” course sponsored by pop culture website Complex. The price tag for this course is $1,000, which seems reasonable if employment outcomes are well-established. But one accepted applicant, who calls himself Deadstock Quality on YouTube, resorted to a funding plea from his hospital room, underscoring that, as we start the new decade, federal financial aid does not cover a build-your-own-pathway “competency” approach to postsecondary education.


4. Hacking Pathways

More than ever, learners today are embracing the do-it-yourself mindset and hacking together their education. A survey from Pearson found that 84% of learners look for more self-service education as they get older, looking for learning resources that are just-in-time and just-in-place. An organic support and guidance community, illustrated by this example from a Google IT certificate earner, has sprung up on YouTube, where learners are helping each other make sense of the proliferating choices. Massive open online courses (more popularly known as MOOCs) were heavily criticized for most of the last decade, but they continue to build as the backbone of the hacked competency pathway model. While college and university enrollments in the U.S. dropped the past eight straight years, over the same period, through 2018, total cumulative enrollments in MOOCs grew to 101 million. 2019’s most popular Coursera MOOC that learners completed: artificial intelligence.

And, for learners who need help hacking their own future, we particularly like models like this one of our own that is seeing early success with Goodwill San Antonio (San Antonio, TX). We are currently designing and managing a pilot with an advanced logistics certificate micro-pathway, co-designed with Alamo Colleges District and funded by Walmart, that embeds the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Badges to help incumbent workers build collaboration, creative problem solving, and resilience skills. Employees get time off the retail or warehouse floor to upskill.


5. Employers Are Coming to the Credential Translation Table

With more targeted, skills-based hiring on the rise, we’re starting to see evidence that employers are willing to hire based upon these one-off courses disconnected from the degree. In our own efforts to build proof points at the Lab, we asked dozens of employers last fall from our three BadgedToHire regions (San Jose, CA; Albuquerque, NM; and the state of Maine) which hiring tools they expect to leverage the most in the future (3-5 years out). The college degree didn’t make it into the top five, but digital micro-credentials did. And employers in the Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s T3 Innovation Network are translating job descriptions to be usable in the increasingly dominant search engines that they use to find candidates. 

Another area we’re paying attention to: the movement in HR from talent management to talent experience platforms that give employers a way to share and track competency maps. This shift will allow employers to understand company-wide skills gaps and publish routes to promotion. For competencies to be a meaningful currency within an organization, they need to be broken down well beyond the degree level. Here’s a look at how some of these platforms think about displaying competencies (note, no sign of degrees). As 2019 neared its close, a leader in the talent experience marketplace, Degreed, acquired Adepto, a company that specializes in talent management for gigwork.



6. Data to the Rescue?

The more data we have on careers and credentials, the less dependent we are on the bachelor’s degree as a proxy. Where all pathways used to end with a bachelor’s or associate’s, we are beginning to have competency-level data that can tell a job seeker the precise skills they need for a specific role so they can “stop out” or try to combine the degree path and a better paying job. In 2019, we ramped up our use of market-level data to help colleges build “opportunity occupation” pathways, to borrow the phrase coined by the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia and Cleveland in their report last spring. We’ll be doing a lot more of this work in 2020.  

Of course, we are all concerned about too much data and too many sneaker schools pitching to learners. Credential Engine is tracking credentials for a national registry, their count doubled in just the last year, up to 738,000 discrete credentials. They have not tackled the difficult and important work of recommending “stacks” based on employer feedback or validation, yet. It’s hard for a nationwide directory to bite off that level of high quality social good, but we hope curation and employer validation platforms will emerge early in this next decade and not be owned by one of the big tech players. While they could scale quickly, we are concerned about privacy and transparency of data. One path to scale is to start at the city and state level. Colorado announced a holiday present for us all just before Christmas, am ambitious project called C-Lab, which gives us one model.  

C-Lab’s employer, learning institution, and policy partners are testing the “learning economy protocol,” that is a map of all the competency types in the state of Colorado to leverage blockchain technology, which allows all existing units of learning (online courses, work experience, LMS data, all nodes in the graphic below) to connect to one another to help a learner tell their competency story via one package. 



It’s a precursor to exciting work. Many players are working to develop a learner records “backpack,” where the learner owns and stores all of their records of competencies and certifications. For the Learner Revolution that we predicted five years ago, a self-sovereign tool to own and display your learning, from all parts of your life, where you can choose to make all or part of it digitally discoverable to increase your networks and opportunities, is essential. If we can get it right, it will help address the problems that the Lab was created to tackle: making learning more accessible, portable, visible, and relevant.   

news and events

HBCUs Excel at Supporting Black Students. Here’s Why Strengthening Their Career Outcomes Matters.

Faculty members from Jarvis Christian College and Florida Memorial University work on bettering their respective campus pilots to improve career outcomes for their students.


Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were founded with the principal mission to educate African-Americans, providing pathways to opportunities for a population that was systematically excluded from active participation in higher education. 

These institutions have been steadfast in their support of Black students, despite resource constraints due to a lifetime of underfunding compared to their predominantly White counterparts. At the Lab, we believe that if we can both enable traditionally under-resourced institutions to reimagine their programming and co-design with them new models to enhance career outcomes, we can scale these initiatives to positively impact all learners across the higher education ecosystem. In other words, designing for resource-constrained institutions and underserved learners—in human-centered design, we might say “extreme users”—will address the needs of the many. 

HBCUs are incredibly diverse: public and private, two-year and four-year, small and large, some religiously affiliated, liberal arts and research universities. Given this diversity, they are known for their rich institutional cultures and family environments. A 2015 Gallup study revealed that Black students who attend HBCUs are twice as likely to recall experiencing support measures than Black students who attend non-HBCUs. These support measures include having a professor who cared about them as a person, having a professor who made them excited about learning, and having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. 

And, the payoffs are evident. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund notes that HBCUs are responsible for large percentages of African-Americans in prominent roles: 40% of Black doctors, 50% of Black engineers, 50% of Black lawyers, and  80% of Black judges are HBCU graduates.


Gallup USA- Funds Minority College Graduates Report, 2015: Black students who attend HBCUs are twice as likely to recall experiencing support measures than Black students who attend non-HBCUs.


Despite HBCUs’ successes in connecting Black students with opportunities, Black students still experience many barriers on the pathway from college to career. In ACE’s recent Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education Report, researchers found that Black students are among the most likely to receive financial aid, the most likely to borrow money to fund their education, and the least likely to complete their undergraduate education. Just last May, billionaire Robert F. Smith pledged to satisfy all student loans for all 400 members of Morehouse College’s Class of 2019, an attempt to best position graduates to start their careers without the financial strain of paying off college debt. For Black graduates, unemployment rates were also among the highest, and median annual earnings for bachelors’ earners age 25 and older were among the lowest. To address these long-standing opportunity gaps, the UNCF Career Pathways Initiative (UNCF CPI), launched in December 2015 and funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, partnered with 24 HBCUs and predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) to develop sustainable programming to improve career outcomes for graduates. 

Over the past year and a half, the Lab has served as a technical assistance provider for a cohort of 14 institutions out of the UNCF CPI 24, leveraging human-centered design to prototype and test one pilot on each campus. The goal? Transformational impact on career outcomes for graduates. The pilots vary in size and scope, from actively engaging industry leaders in the curriculum design process at Tougaloo College to using the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Badges to convert traditional work-study jobs to “micro-internships” at Oakwood University.

Many of these initiatives are not new to higher ed. However, each pilot is designed and tested with the learner at the center—a co-design and iterative process that allows these initiatives to better address the learner needs on each campus. To these HBCUs, we’ve brought (and are still bringing!) our tools, design process, and expertise in education-to-work models to support this cohort of 14 institutions in engineering new approaches that will enhance career outcomes for their students.

Through this work thus far, we have identified four key learnings:

1. The thirst for demonstrating 21st Century skills is real.
Each of our design sprints with the 14 institutions made one thing clear: campus leaders have deep interest in ways to further develop their students’ 21st century skills. This interest among higher ed leadership is not new. Contrary to popular belief, however, students on our HBCU & PBI campuses understand and see a need for better developing these skill sets. At the University of West Alabama (UWA), a PBI, the Lab is supporting UWA’s core team to actualize UWA 201, an online second-year co-curricular experience. As part of the intake process for the new program, students were asked to identify which skills they most need to develop in order to be successful in their desired careers. Without prompting, students named communication, problem solving, and collaboration—the exact 21st century skills that employers are asking for.

2. Strengthening student employability starts with understanding the world of work.
HBCUs, like all colleges and universities, are mission-driven institutions focused on preparing students to become active and engaged citizens. If we are to redesign the models at each of our 14 CPI institutions to improve career outcomes, we need to create a collective understanding of the world of work that students are entering, now and in the future. To build this understanding, we turned to our gallery walk tool—a curated series of artifacts, journal articles, infographics, and other data sources—to inform campus leaders of the challenges that their graduates will face post-graduation. The result? Institutions identified key needs to build social capital, provide access to networks, develop skills, and promote career exploration as important cornerstones of improving student employability.

3. To enhance career outcomes, faculty and business leaders need to connect early and often.
Coming into this work, the entirety of our 14 institutions understood the importance of employer partnerships in addressing opportunity gaps. Together, we are actively exploring how these new relationships can be built and sustained over time at each campus. Tougaloo College, for example, is creating an employer resource council to foster regular communication between business leaders and faculty. This initiative has the potential to both directly connect students to jobs and build buy-in among faculty. 

Employer-institution partnerships are deepened when faculty are actively engaged in the process and can incorporate their learnings about employer needs into the classroom. Although learners on campus are the primary users in each pilot, faculty and employers must be considered as secondary users. Initiatives dependent on strong employer partnerships need to be responsive to employer needs so that they can, in turn, be responsive to learner needs.

4. Leveraging existing resources and institutional champions go a long way.
Addressing available resources is critical, especially for HBCUs that have been traditionally under-resourced and underfunded. To guide prototype development, we often turn to our Napkin Pitch tool. The Napkin Pitch acts as a guide for taking a big idea and narrowing in on who it serves and how we will know that it’s working. To confront historical disparities, we developed a second iteration of the tool: adding a “bring/build/buy” map to help teams narrow in on how their institution might leverage existing and new resources.


Our Napkin Pitch in action: LeMoyne-Owen College’s first iteration of their prototype for an online program focused on 21st century skills development.


In the same vein, building on-campus champions that leverage existing human capital is critical for designing new programs. Often, campus representatives were one or two staff members who were charged with advancing most of the CPI initiatives on their campus. As a result, when points of contact transitioned out of the institution, the work had to be restarted or stalled while new team members were onboarded. To promote continuity and build institutional support, we are working with each of our HBCU teams on capturing concepts and building champions that can advocate for projects from the design stages through implementation. At Xavier University, for instance, a partnership between the CPI director, Career Services, and faculty creates a shared approach to program implementation that spreads the responsibility across multiple stakeholders rather than focusing on the talents of one person.

Through our work with this cohort of 14 institutions, we have deepened our understanding of how human-centered design can be used to build innovation capacity and put learners at the center at institutions that are historically under-resourced. Despite their constraints, HBCUs have been a pathway to success for so many Black students and continue to provide safe, nurturing environments. By both enabling these institutions to rethink their programming and co-designing with them new models to enhance career outcomes, the consequences for all of higher ed are clear: positive impact for all learners across the higher education ecosystem. Our work over the last year and a half with UNCF Career Pathways Initiative has helped us to learn about how diverse the needs are at each institution. We look forward to sharing more lessons learned in a forthcoming white paper to be released in May 2020.

To learn more about the Lab’s work on UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative, visit our project page

news and events

How to Get it Done: A 2-Day Sprint to Redesign an HBCU’s Curriculum

Faculty from Florida Memorial University moved from big problems facing their students and their university to tangible solutions in two days’ time.


Increased financial pressures and declining enrollment are forcing small private colleges to adapt. For many, a curriculum redesign is the way forward

Florida Memorial University (FMU) is facing many of the same pressures as other colleges and universities across the country—they’re working to tackle mounting pressures and adjust to a changing landscape. With roots tracing back to 1879, Florida Memorial University (FMU) is the only historically Black university in South Florida, serving an undergraduate population of 1,500. From March 2017 to March 2018, Black unemployment averaged 7.4% compared to 3.7% average for white Americans. In response to these lopsided unemployment rates, the Lab has partnered with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to design and strengthen career pathways for 14 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as part of UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative (CPI). In preparing for the upcoming academic year, Florida Memorial wanted to create a space where faculty could reimagine their curriculum for today’s learner and workforce. FMU faculty asked themselves, “How might we meet today’s education-to-career challenges while remaining true to who we are and what we offer?”

Enter FMU’s Faculty Institute, an annual two-day convening focused on professional development—and, with the Lab’s help, a sprint towards curriculum redesign. Here’s how we got it done.


We Need to Be Doing Things Differently

We introduced Florida Memorial’s faculty to frameworks and tools—namely, growth mindset and human-centered design methods—to help them tackle the weight of a curriculum overhaul. We began by providing the faculty with a few data points (read: 10 highest- and lowest-earning majors for African-Americans; Gallup’s report on school-to-work outcomes for minorities). We aimed to push them to look at the greater landscape, including outcomes for African-American students, who comprise 72% of FMU’s undergraduate student population. We used data to ask: How are your offerings preparing students to go out into the world to be successful? 

The data pointed to opportunities for students to explore skill development and career exploration, and highlighted the need for building social capital. Very quickly, a realization clicked for folks: “Oh, we need to be doing things differently.” As education designers, that’s what we want. Providing the big picture—we do this with our partners via a gallery walk of data and statements related to their learner population—helped framed specific challenges to spark ideas.


Capturing Faculty Ideas + Common Themes

To capture “a-ha” moments and the ideas that those moments generated, we developed a new tool named an Idea Capture that we piloted for the first time with Florida Memorial (note: the best tool names are the most obvious). Every faculty member took a moment to write down one idea to infuse into FMU’s curriculum (cue the sticky notes). The prompt? “Think about something that helps address an issue that you heard earlier.” Each faculty idea was then shared with two colleagues for feedback. Based on feedback received, faculty iterated and furthered their concepts. Thirty minutes later, faculty had more than 50 ideas in-hand.


The Idea Capture starts with one person’s idea to a big problem. Step two: share your idea with two colleagues for feedback. Step three: iterate. Step four: affinity map.


To narrow in on the faculties’ ideas, we affinity-mapped them to find common ground. Affinity mapping allows us to identify patterns across multiple layers of thought generation. We started by collecting all 50 ideas and then worked to sort them based on commonalities. For example, the common theme between “developing networks among alumni and partners” and “establish role models for networking”? Social capital. (Pro tip: set up a “parking lot” for ideas/notes that fall into their own category.) 

First, we identified core needs: students need social capital and access to networks beyond college, career exploration and development should be embedded in academic activities, 21st century skills should be explicit to students before they apply for jobs, and curricula should be made more accessible. (Note: these core student needs are often common across institutions.)

Next, we identified eight core themes to inform FMU’s solutions-finding: teaching pedagogy, career exploration in the classroom, peer mentoring, real world problem-solving, classroom policy, first and second year experience, 21st century skills, and micro-credentials. These themes are indicative of Florida Memorial’s student needs in combination with data-driven programming from the greater higher ed landscape. Looking at this list, we then asked FMU’s faculty, “How do you hardwire these into your curriculum so that every student gets to benefit?” Affinity mapping provided a litmus test for faculty to identify where they had the most energy to innovate.


An overview of our two-day curriculum redesign sprint.


Harnessing Innovation-Ready Ideas

Using the eight themes as catalysts, faculty worked in small teams to develop prototypes. To guide prototype development, we often turn to our Napkin Pitch tool. Imagine writing your idea on a napkin, except that napkin is poster-sized and asks tough questions. The Napkin Pitch acts as a guide for taking a big idea and narrowing in on who it serves and how we will know that it’s working. 

In our ongoing work with UNCF’s CPI cohort (reminder: the Lab plus 14 HBCUs are working to better career outcomes for students), we developed a second iteration of the tool: adding a bring/build/buy map to help teams narrow in on how their institution might leverage existing and new resources. Addressing available resources is critical, especially for historically Black colleges and universities that have been traditionally under-resourced and underfunded. 

Over two days, Florida Memorial faculty considered resources, stakeholders, needs, benefits, and metrics for success and evaluation in imagining a redesign of their curriculum. The result? A set of prototypes vetted by faculty that have the potential to enable FMU to better adapt to the changing needs of its students while remaining grounded in its institutional values. Top solutions included developing a framework that outlines the completion of micro-credentials at each milestone for a three-year degree program and creating a Second Year Experience program that builds on the learnings and energy generated from the First Year Experience program. By the end of day two, faculty walked away with eight solutions-focused ideas to pitch to FMU. Next, the Academic Affairs leadership team will take these ideas and move through a decision-making process to determine what elements of a curriculum redesign to fund and build in the coming year.


Two of the eight big ideas following their respective themes. On the left: develop a framework that outlines the completion of micro-credentials at each milestone for the three-year degree program. On the right: create a Second Year Experience program that builds on the learnings and energy generated from the First Year Experience program.


Like so many small private schools, Florida Memorial is at a crossing point. In two days time, the path to putting today’s learner at the center of their curriculum is even clearer, bolstered by the support of faculty on how to best get there. While we did not completely solve for the challenges that FMU is facing, we did help them build a foundation for faculty engagement and collective buy-in to imagine an overhaul of their curriculum in service of improved student outcomes. This is not the end. For Florida Memorial, they’re just getting started.

news and events

Building an Innovation Toolkit with the 2019-20 ACE Fellows

Before and after: We split the ACE Fellows into teams to rapidly design, build, and test paper airplanes—and compete them against one another—all in under 10 minutes. The result? An immediate energy boost and surge of community.


On August 6, the Lab led a human-centered design session for the 2019-20 cohort of ACE Fellows, a diverse group of 38 aspiring leaders in higher education. We were honored to join them on the first day of their opening retreat to provide practical guidance on how they can apply a human-centered design lense to transform their institutions.

We warmed up the session by collecting everyone’s favorite karaoke songs on sticky notes as the fellows arrived to create a playlist. We then split into teams to rapidly design, build, and test paper airplanes—and compete them against one another—all in under 10 minutes. Both activities helped build energy and community among the fellows and opened the way to an afternoon exploring design tools together.

Our task was to equip the fellows with a toolkit they could employ for problem solving in the context of a changing landscape in higher ed, which would be the focus of their case study assignment later in the week.

We shared the Lab’s learnings from our latest white paper, The Learner Revolution: How Colleges Can Thrive in a New Skills and Competencies Marketplace, and introduced the fellows to five future models that we see emerging from our work with over 100 institutions. As part of a gallery walk, the fellows interacted with the five learner-driven models and considered their institution’s likelihood to adopt the models, ranking them 1-5. The Workforce Integrator emerged as the model most likely to be embraced by schools.

Building upon this context, we reviewed the Innovation Capacity Assessment quiz from the white paper and the five associated categories: student voice, product development and branding, strategic partnerships, rapid innovation, and talent development. We drew examples from our work on the ground to illustrate the categories and demonstrate the application of tools and methods. In particular, we highlighted the use of the Value Statement Canvas, Stakeholder Mapping, and Pressure Testing to inform the fellows’ upcoming case study strategy.

While some of the fellows were new to human-centered design, others were familiar with the methodology and/or recognized elements of their own approaches mirrored in the process. We couldn’t cover everything in one afternoon, but we gave them just enough to be dangerous. We can’t wait to hear how they leveraged their innovation toolkit in their case study strategy!


In need of music to get those design juices flowing? Listen to the ACE Fellows Karaoke Playlist.

news and events

4 Ways to Design a Better Workshop: Notes from the Lab

Featured Image: The Lab team posing during Home Week with our favorite design tool ever…Post Its!

At the Lab, we take great care in designing sessions with our partners that are productive, engaging, and learner-centric—and we’re always looking for ways to improve our practice. Earlier this month, our team gathered in DC to reflect, expand our methods toolkit, and ultimately, get better at what we do. Our week-long bananza of field trips, workshops, and discussions yielded a clear takeaway (or, maybe four): However you are convening people, whether that be for a quick team meeting or for a design session with a room of 300, the details matter.

4 ways to design a better workshop:

1. Ask people what their favorite karaoke song is.

Karen Hold of Experience LABS challenged us to refresh our practice of facilitating and convening. How can we make design more fun? How might we shake people out of their regular way of thinking and ready them to imagine and explore possibility? Karen gave us space to play: building paper airplanes, creating tactile prototypes with pipe cleaners, and making trail mix. The team’s universal favorite? Set up a whiteboard and invite participants to write down their favorite karaoke song when they first walk in. Almost immediately, this exercise sparked joyful conversation and brightened up the energy of the room. (Pro tip: Use the list to create your playlist for the session.)

2. Bring the snacks…and the legos.

Walking into our afternoon with the education design team at Cannon Design, an integrated practice architecture firm, the connection between space and practice was immediately clear. How might we select, create, and curate a space where people want to be and learn? What kind of room inspires people? More often than not, the room we work in with our partners is little up to us, yet we do have the ability to bring snacks (our favorites are chocolates, mints, popcorn) and tools and imagery that inspire. Consider tools that are more tactile and visual, such as building blocks to create prototypes and models and photographs to prompt empathy for personas and communicate feelings.

Take a cue from Karen Hold: these silly toys helped spark our imaginations.

3. Help people recognize that they are awesome designers.

How do you facilitate a session that’s not another boring initiative on participants’ plates? Make impact the center of your conversation. Your participants are not just administrators and staff. They are warriors driving impact through innovation. Our conversation with Whiteboard Advisors, a strategy and consulting firm, brought this to light: Bringing people together to design for themselves is not just about designing for themselves. When we are co-designing healthcare pathways with Virginia Western Community College (VWCC), for example, we are not just designing for their learners. Helping VWCC core team members recognize that they are designers means reminding them that they are creating new models that have the potential to scale to the greater education system. And we think that is pretty cool.

4. Give compliments (to your team, too!).

Prior to Home Week, each of us at the Lab took the Clifton Strengths Assessment and shared our results (five core strengths) back to the whole team. We then collectively looked at our individual strengths, as well as our strengths as a whole. Where do each of our strengths shine? (Pro tip: Insert compliments here.) How might we use this new lens to better design our internal processes? To put together more balanced, and in turn, stronger teams? Asking your participants to take an official Strengths Finder Assessment might be too much, but finding ways to learn about their work styles, their strengths, or even their comfort level with the design process will allow you to tailor how you form working groups or assign roles.

Designing, facilitating, convening, workshopping––it’s all a practice. Giving space to reflect and explore how we can better ourselves and our work is a practice, too. So, the next time you find yourself hosting a staff meeting or something larger, check-in with yourself and ask: What’s my favorite karaoke song? 

Add your song to the Lab’s Karaoke Hits playlist

news and events

Updates from the Field | Building Understanding

The “understand” part of our design work is what allows it to be “human-centered”— through empathy building, we root ourselves in users’ experiences so we can approach the development of solutions through the lens of their needs, motivations, and behaviors. This summer, the Lab dug into the “understand” phase of this work with institutional teams from two of our newest design challenges – Single Moms Success and G3 Healthcare Pathways

Project updates below:

REIMAGINING Single Moms Success | Convening Recap

Earlier this summer, design teams made up of administrators, faculty, and staff from Central New Mexico Community College, Delgado Community College, Ivy Tech Community College, and Monroe Community College gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana, for the National Convening of the Single Moms Success Design Challenge (SMSDC). 

We kicked off the convening with a National Gallery Walk, immersing the teams in a curated collection of quantitative and qualitative data gathered from both national research and campus interviews conducted with faculty, staff, and single mother learners.  Reading and reflecting on the gallery, team members were able to ground themselves in single mother learners’ experiences, perspectives, and needs and to draw new insights about how they might better support their success. 

For an overview of how the gallery walk works, check out this video.

Special Guests and Provocateurs 

We were joined by special guest Jennifer Zeisler, Senior Program Director, Career Readiness, of the ECMC Foundation, which is funding the design challenge. Speaker and author Joy Thomas Moore shared stories from her and others’ experiences as single mothers in a fireside chat moderated by Marta. In addition, the Lab invited several experts from the field to serve as “provocateurs” and help push the teams to stretch their thinking throughout the session:


Participants work with Barbara Gault, IWPR, to identify major themes and insights about Single Mother Learners from the National Gallery Walk.


With their appetite for understanding and ideation bigger than ever, the design teams headed back home where they have been spending the summer furthering their research and learning about single mother learners’ experiences on their campus. This fall, the Lab will visit each of the four schools to lead Gallery Walks with over 100 local stakeholders at each campus. These will be followed by 1-day design sessions with 25-30 campus leaders who will work with the design teams to build on the learning and insights to develop concepts and prototypes for testing. 


Ivy Tech Community College hosted a special dinner for the cohort and the Lab invited guest speaker and author Joy Thomas Moore for a fireside chat moderated by Marta Urquilla.

Single mother learners and the Single Moms Success Design Challenge Cohort Members meet with Speaker and author Joy Thomas Moore.


Learn more about the Single Moms Success Design Challenge here. Follow the project on twitter using #SingleMomsSuccess.


Understanding the Student Experience | G3 Healthcare Pathways Design Challenge

In early 2019, Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) was selected to participate in a state-wide collaborative effort to transform workforce programs as part of the Virginia Community College System’s G3 (Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back) planning grant. Recognizing that the healthcare field in the western Virginia region is growing, with a high need for a skilled workforce in both clinical and non-clinical roles, VWCC crafted the following dual question to solve for:

  • How might we design employer-driven, stackable pathways that can lead to an AAS degree and prepare students for employment in the high-growth healthcare industry?
  • How might we design a related “One Door” advising model that increases institutional efficiency and student success rates?

To solve for those questions, the Lab travelled to Roanoke, VA, earlier this summer and led a two-day design session with VWCC, which included a Gallery Walk and rapid prototyping session.

The first day of the visit over 40 VWCC stakeholders participated in one of the day’s three Gallery Walk sessions. Participants dove into the Gallery Walk research—which included institutional data, regional trends, and student and stakeholder interviews. At the end of each Gallery Walk session, participants identified key themes woven throughout the student journey in the healthcare pathways at VWCC.


VWCC President Dr. Sandel participates in one of the day’s Gallery Walk sessions


These themes were then carried over into the visit’s second design session—a full day of ideation and design as the core team jumped into creating concepts and prototypes can meet the needs of students and employers while also addressing the deliverables set forward by the VCCS for the G3 Grant.

By the end of the second design session, we developed four early prototypes that will be tested with students, administrators, and employers through August and early September.

We’re so excited about the work happening at VWCC. We see the potential for healthcare pathway models like this to be scaled in the western Virginia region, and ultimately to other US regions—connecting more rural community college learners to meaningful careers in the high growth healthcare field. 

Learn more about the G3 Healthcare Pathways Design Challenge here. Follow the project on twitter using #G3HealthcarePathways.



Wellspring, a multi-phase project sponsored and led by IMS Global Learning Consortium, is focused on advancing the education-to-employment digital ecosystem by improving the information flow between candidates’ competency-based learner records and employers’ skills-based talent systems through the use of open technology standards.


The outcomes of the technology system connections will allow for 1) individuals to find jobs aligned to expertise and skills and 2) employers to better identify aligned talent for high need job roles through these direct outcomes:

  • Educational organizations document academic credentials that align with targeted job positions and follow open standards for data interoperability
  • Employers search and find the best candidates based on verifiable digital credentials
  • Learners use verifiable credentials to apply and qualify for jobs in employers’ applicant tracking systems


Primary Audience

College/Universities + Employer Partners, Ecosystem Designers

Project Length

September 1, 2019 - August 1, 2020
news and events

The Future of Learning will be Built on Skills Maps

Skills mapping is coming into focus as the holy grail for translating employer needs to learner pathways. It was a hot topic at the SXSW and ASU+GSV conferences the Lab has attended over the past few weeks. And our partners are looking for help understanding this emerging tool in the landscape.

So, here’s a two-minute primer:

What’s a skills map?

A skills map is a foundational map or grid that charts three or more essential variables for an educational program or offering. The three variables are skills, level of mastery of the skill, and the translation of that to job positions in the workplace.

What’s an example of a skills map?

A skills map for a business program might show the the progression of skills necessary for  marketing, finance, sales careers or entrepreneurship careers. It would take all of the essential skills for these career pathways and organize them by levels of mastery that align with career milestones. A really good map will show shortcuts or forks in the path that could bridge to different roles. And it might show how the skills map back to more traditional learning outcomes or courses.

How do educators use these skills maps as a tool to map to courses, thinking about how skill development differs from student to student?

Lab partner Western Governors University (WGU) is taking skills mapping very seriously, seeing it as the course and program design manual to guide not only program designers, but also students who need to understand skills pathways leading to mastery for certain roles. Director of Program Architecture Kacey Thorne had a great interview about this recently in Inside Higher Ed. She includes other relevant variables in WGU’s skills maps such as mindset and context.

Hult International Business School is also developing skills maps, as we learned at ASU+GSV. When you have an skills map that underlies all of your curriculum, you can create cool tools like this Dream Job Mapper, which plots the learner’s current skills and proficiency level against the skills and proficiency levels needed for their “dream job.” Hult scaffolds competencies on a 4-level scale (Novice, Capable, Adept, Independent) and recommends pathways to help you build those skills.

Example of a skills map in a business program

Fox School of Business’s RoadMap “fitbit for business school” tracks student’s competency throughout the program

Another model we’ve been following for awhile at the Lab is the Fox School of Business at Temple University’s RoadMap. This dashboard, informed by employers, shows graduate students a picture of their competency development over time. As Christine Kiely, Associate Vice Dean, said, “No single grade for a single course can capture this kind of development.”

Many of the Lab’s partners are thinking about skills mapping.

According to our 21st Century Skills Badge Toolkit Survey, 78% of respondents are looking for methods to be more intentional about teaching of 21st century skills to all learners. Skills mapping is a way to make the skills more visible, intentionally surfacing pathways to development to reach career goals. While we’ve just shared three great examples, it’s not the Lab’s goal for every institution to create their own skills maps. These should be employment sector-driven, at least regionally, if not nationally. The Lab’s goal is to find a place of convergence. Through Tee Up the Skills, we are identifying the key skills “bundle” for entry-level roles and are feeding in to efforts by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and others. But that’s only part of the puzzle. Another key step will be to associate a level of mastery with those roles, for instructional designers and learners to use as a developmental road map.

If you are also interested in working on national prototypes, please email Lab designer Tara Lifland (  

news and events

Hitting the ground running in 2019

Five years ago, the Lab began with a vision to bring human-centered design and other innovative tools to bear on the wicked problems that lie at the intersection of the rapidly changing postsecondary education landscape, the future of work, and growing inequality. We set out to design and build new models with employers and partner institutions to help build more equitable futures for all learners.

From the start, we’ve been focused on populations that higher ed has not historically been designed for, from veterans to first gen students. We’ve spent the past five years partnering with 2- and 4-year institutions to design new solutions for connecting learners to meaningful credentials and employment.

A transfer student participates in a Seamless Transfer Pathways design session at Florida International University last year

A shot from an early Lab design challenge focused on designing cybersecurity pathways for veteran learners

Since the Lab’s inception, we’ve grown our team from three to twelve members and we’re currently leading nine concurrent design challenges across the country. Our mission has remained. We are still focused on designing with a purpose and driven by what we see as an urgent need to act in terms of re-imagining and implementing new possibilities for higher ed institutions, high schools, employers, nonprofits to serve learners in more equitable ways. We are working towards a future where learners, regardless of income or social capital, have access to high quality degrees and credentials, meaningful career pathways, and social mobility.

We’re working to impact 1M learners by 2025.

Who are these 1M learners we’re designing for? They are single mothers, transfer students, adult learners on a path to earning their GED, entry-level retail workers with little educational experience, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds.

Poised to Scale

After five years of building we are now poised to scale our work. And we’re hitting the ground running. Next month, we’ll launch the Single Moms Success Design Challenge with a cohort of four community colleges, launch a new design challenge aimed at upskilling incumbent workers and host a design charrette at Arizona State University to imagine a digital open credentials marketplace. The session will focus on presenting near-future use cases that could help drive human-centered design work on the curricula, assessment standards and user experiences that will best serve learners to deliver on the potential to expand digital open pathway opportunities for diverse sets of students (Stay tuned for key learnings from the session).

Over the course of 2019, we plan, with our partners, to launch a dozen or more  UNCF CPI pilots, 7 Tee Up the Skills pilots, 4 STP pilots, and an affordable hybrid learning model in the Southwest. We are so grateful to our past partners, funders and friends for helping to nurture the Lab from an idea and an initial design session to the growing organization it is today. Now we look to 2019 as an opportunity to build on our successes and leverage our experiences to go after bigger opportunities for scale and truly meaningful impact. Join us on this journey.