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Skills Visibility: The next frontier of the Learner Revolution

A (l)earner mom works on her laptop while her two children play at home in the background
A Letter from Kathleen deLaski, Founder and CEO, Education Design Lab

It’s been eight years since we introduced the construct of the Learner Revolution with the Lab’s first white paper.

We predicted technology and changing learner attitudes would force the unlocking of degrees to empower all learners to disintermediate their education, choosing their learning pathways on their own terms. By 2019, our second Learner Revolution white paper named the beginning of the shift from degrees to skills as a more equitable, inclusive currency for being hired and promoted and suggested how colleges could transform to serve learners in this new paradigm.

Now it’s 2022, and the Learner Revolution has joined forces with the Skills Revolution.

Who would have predicted then a global pandemic? Or the national racial reckoning after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others? Both sets of events accelerated the pace of interest toward more inclusive, skills-based learning and hiring models. They coincide with the readiness of a set of national standards and technology capabilities that still need “human trials” before being ready for prime time. If you haven’t heard about “learner wallets” yet, several major pilots are coming online by the end of 2022. If we can get those trials right over the next few years using the equity vision of many players, we could begin to close the wage and skills gaps that plague this country.

Do we understand this opportunity? Do we see the potential? Are we mitigating the risks?

This paper — Skills Visibility: Why and How a Skills-Based Economy can be More Equitable — attempts to organize that thinking as more than the sum of the interesting parts that are emerging. We attempt to organize it into a new talent ecosystem vision made possible by the skills-based learner revolution. And to urge that we act now to consider the promise and the risks as these tools, standards, and practices begin touching humans. And to design accordingly before it is too late.

Think about it. We move away from a world where a $200,000 history degree gets me a job interview because blue-chip companies only come to the best campuses to interview candidates. We are now tantalizingly close to a world where my skills are telegraphed digitally to any employer around the nation, or even the world, looking for that skills cocktail. And it works the other way: all employers looking for certain skills can feed into a real-time skills ticker tape, signaling to learners and the learning providers that serve them what combination of skills will yield employment.

The magic of this vision, coming to a job market near you in the next two to five years, is “visibility.”

You may not see it happening, but several sectors are leaning in. Technologists are creating the data infrastructure and “digital wallets.” Machine learning companies are scaling skills translation and assessments. Learning institutions are ramping up micro-credentialing strategies with competency-based stacks and one-off badges, attempting to translate their degrees and learning outcomes to a language that speaks to employers. Employers are open to looking at talent differently; in fact, they have to, with the labor shortages and 10-year outlook for new entrants to the workforce. And perhaps most importantly, to enable all of this, learner views about degrees are changing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these changes with millions of people leaving lower-wage jobs and positions that do not align with their career goals or economic needs. The call for more skills training and programs that closely align to employer needs is being heard at local, regional, and national levels. Without a shift to skills, politicians see the economic growth drag that is predicted to slow the economy down by $1.3 trillion by 2030.

Before we turn to the paper, let us honor the degree and its important signal value for a learner’s confidence and (for now) required entry to regulated fields such as medicine, teaching, and law. Nothing we have said should be construed as disrespecting the degree. We simply recognize that expecting it as the gateway to professional success has been an exclusionary practice for so many, and we need alternatives.

These alternatives must be driven by the needs and goals of learners most harmed by the existing system, and not just by their needs and goals, but by these learners themselves. People are incredibly resilient, and many of the learners we’ve worked with over the last eight years have solved for their problems despite operating within a system setting them up to fail. It is on us as systems leaders and decision-makers to change the system itself, and to capture this turning point, this moment, so that all people have what they need to succeed on their own terms.

This paper addresses what that will take at the ecosystem level. And, it calls us all to action.

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

news and events

The Lab’s top 3 hot takes from SXSW EDU 2022

Pictured from left: Don Fraser Jr., Leah Moschella, Miriam Swords Kalk

Education Design Lab team members are excited to return to in-person conferences, and SXSW EDU 2022 has been the biggest so far. Three Labbies each shared their most impactful takeaway from the March conference in Austin, Texas.


1. We’re not going back to normal

Leah Moschella, Senior Education Designer: Like many others, it had been two years since my last large-scale, in-person conference, and attending SXSW EDU in early March did not disappoint. The energy of the event was palpable as colleagues and partners from around the nation exchanged real-time connections, hugs, and laughter. Attendees crowded vendor tables, and speakers were flooded with thought-provoking questions and insights. As I boarded the plane home, I couldn’t help but think, it’s almost as if things are getting back to normal.

However, the message of the speakers, sessions, and vendors was clear: Education and workforce leaders cannot go back to normal. Instead, now is the time to innovate and reinvent to build more effective, transformative partnerships across education, workforce, and the community.

Dr. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, affirmed the call to reinvent in an inspiring morning keynote: “We’re closer to a reset in education than ever before. We’ve already been disrupted, so why are we building it back the way it was when it didn’t work for everybody?” Cardona spoke to how shifts in access to remote learning could support opportunities to embed work-based learning models into the school day. Leading global employers such as Deloitte spoke to the growing interest and efficacy of digital mentoring opportunities. During the global pandemic, we saw education and workforce systems reimagined overnight, and now is the time to consider how these innovations can continue to benefit learners as they navigate their earn-and-learn pathways.

2. Practices + policies must shift to enable equity- and learner-centered futures

Miriam Swords Kalk, Senior Education Designer: “This is the moment to make sure that all students have purpose, self-determination, and connection to communities. This is our moment to transform and do right by our learners.” This quote from Dr. Amy Loyd of the U.S. Department of Education brings together so many of the messages that spoke loudest to me during SXSW EDU.

People from far-reaching corners of this giant education world spoke to the need (always, but especially now) to shift the focus of education systems from controlling and regulating students to supporting them along paths toward their individual goals – and how this shift is necessary for us to make headway toward more equitable futures in education and the workforce. Dr. Monique Umphrey of Austin Community College discussed bringing learners in as co-creators of their learning experiences rather than just consumers of higher ed, saying, “We don’t need to be patriarchal with learners. We’re here to help them self-actualize.”

Acknowledging the responsibility that learning providers have to design environments that respond to learners’ needs – both tangible and psychological – resonates strongly with the approach to human-centered design that we utilize at the Lab, especially with our engagement framework. As Dr. Gregory Fowler of University of Maryland Global Campus said, “We need to make our colleges student-ready rather than our students college-ready.”

Dr. Leon Prieto of Clayton State University and Dr. Chanelle Wilson of Bryn Mawr College spoke about how decolonizing curricula – and education systems more broadly – inherently entails shifting from top-down, command-and-control environments to deeply supportive learner-centered models that encourage learners’ self-determination. So much of what they discussed – from making assessment more participatory, future-focused, and formative rather than judgmental and unidirectional, to co-designing learning experiences in partnership with students – underscored how supporting each learners’ sense of growth, belonging, and agency is a critical component of making education more equity-centered.

Practice shifts by learning providers must play a critical role in pivoting higher ed’s focus to sit squarely with learners who have been underinvested in, but we can’t stop there. Policy changes at the state and federal levels need to become more human-centered, seeing education throughout people’s entire lives as a public good rather than a private service. Amari Fennoy of NAACP, Chelsea Miller of Freedom March NYC, and Jemere Calhoun and Mary-Pat Hector of Rise spoke powerfully about the impact of student loan debt on Black learners and their families – how absolute student loan forgiveness and truly free college could have a major impact on narrowing racial wealth and pay gaps and stimulating our economy. Rewinding to the beginning of our lives, Cody Summerville from Texas Association for the Education of Young Children highlighted how early childhood education must also become a strong area of financial investment by federal and state governments in order to equitably support young learners’ brain development, parents’ flexibility to work, and early childhood educators’ access to family-sustaining wages.

3. Shorter, cheaper, BETTER

Don Fraser, Jr., Chief Program Officer: Those three words played over and over in my head as I left sessions. They played in my head when I finished talking shop with old and new friends, even after hours. Shorter. Cheaper. Better. Yes. Yes. And well, sort of. Maybe? It depends. Are we tackling better? The consensus at SXSW EDU was no, but the call for better was an enthusiastic and resounding, we must!

Whenever the economy has had a very specific need, our education system has historically stepped up to meet it — to create certificates or degree pathways that positioned learners to satisfy employers and fill emerging job roles. Given the pace of change and technological advances, however, it has become harder for higher education to respond quickly to market demands and be the learning provider of choice. This created a marketplace for other learning providers to fill in skills gaps that meet the needs of the workforce. The value proposition for these learning providers has been that the investment is tailored to the market (in ways bulkier certs and degrees aren’t) and SHORTER than what a two- or four-year college offers. And in comparison to the rising costs of a higher education, these programs are sometimes CHEAPER. Learners of all types voted with their feet, trying these shorter, cheaper options … but with mixed results.

Much to my delight, the acceptance and growth of micro-credentials, competency-based learning, and credit for prior learning have enabled higher education to get back in the game, to be more responsive, to stand up programs that meet the needs of a rapidly evolving, skills-based economy. To offer shorter and cheaper.

Community colleges have led the sector, but four-year colleges are churning, putting learners at the center to create responsive programs. It’s a call to action all of higher ed must embrace. I was particularly inspired by the session, “Future-Proofing Higher Ed: Serving New Demographics,” with Kate Smith, President of Rio Salado College; Gregory Fowler, President of University of Maryland Global Campus; and Justin Lonon, Chancellor-elect of Dallas College. Three leaders talked passionately about how centering learners leads to more responsive programming, and for most learners, they need shorter and cheaper.

But how are we addressing the quality of the new programs we’re rapidly standing up? No matter where they’re offered, we must design and build better programs. In our parlance, better means the program is (a) well-aligned to market needs, (b) provides increased entry and exit points, (c) leads to jobs with family-sustaining wages, (d) allows the learner to be nimbler in the workforce, (e) provides greater visibility into the skills needed to grow in the field, and (f) is offered in a flexible format.

That sounds like a lot because it is. But that’s what better has to be. That’s what better can be.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” is fine if you’re Meatloaf, RIP, but learning providers cannot settle for SHORTER and CHEAPER. Our programs must be BETTER.

news and events

BRIDGES Rural, Part 2: New report features 5 pilots, 5 design insights + 5 questions for your rural college

Rural community college students learn manufacturing and industrial engineering

A rural revival is happening across America.

That’s because rural communities have so much to offer, from a renewed focus on access to affordable, reliable broadband; to an increase in remote job opportunities; and, last but not least, access to gorgeous landscapes and scenery that cannot be paralleled. Despite their assets, there is a great deal of investment and attention still needed to help rural communities realize their full potential, and we believe community colleges have a role to play.

That’s why the Lab launched BRIDGES Rural, an initiative supported by Ascendium Education Group aimed at strengthening the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities.

As we enter the final phase of the human-centered design process – the Launch phase – the Lab releases BRIDGES Rural Design Insights Part 2: Designing + Piloting a New Approach to Economic Agility in Rural Communities.


In this brief, you’ll find:

+ 5 pilots 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.


Download the brief:

About Education Design Lab: The Lab is a national nonprofit that co-designs, prototypes, and tests education-to-workforce models through a human-centered design process focused on understanding learners’ experiences, addressing equity gaps in higher education, and connecting new majority learners to economic mobility.

Join the Lab’s #InnovatorNetwork: Twitter +  LinkedIn + email newsletter

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College and employer interest grows as micro-pathways come to life

Education Design Lab's Community College Growth Engine Fund National Convening: Micropathways A Gateway to Community College Transformation
Highlights from the Community College Growth Engine Fund National Convening on Jan. 19, 2022.  

Have you ever had a moment in your work or your career when you felt like the pieces were finally fitting together?

Learners (and employers) have been drawing the outlines of a new model of college for us at the Education Design Lab, through 1000+ interviews, for eight years. And forward-leaning colleges have been prototyping and testing with us as partners.

But it felt like one unifying idea — “micro-pathways” — finally came into full view on Jan. 19, during our first National Convening for the 24 colleges in the Community College Growth Engine Fund.

Hundreds of guests were in the Zoom audience, some asking how they could learn more about designing micro-pathways and whether this could be applied to four-year colleges. Dr. Shouan Pan, Chancellor of Seattle Colleges, observed that it felt like a “movement.”

We were so proud as the first cohort of 11 colleges unveiled their first 30 micro-pathways, and reporters chronicled the accomplishments in The Hechinger Report, Community College Daily and Work Shift.

This article in Work Shift begins: American adults consistently say that they want shorter, faster paths to college credentials — and ultimately to career and economic advancement. For the past year, the Education Design Lab has been working with a group of the country’s largest community colleges and systems to design new microcredentials that meet that need.”  

Dr. Lee Lambert, Chancellor of Pima Community College in Arizona, described it as a way for community colleges to combat declining enrollments and move to the Second Curve of transformation.

Dr. Rufus Glasper, CEO of the League of Innovation in the Community College, called it a long-needed, fresh approach to attract the COVID-19 “lost generation,” as early research from the Urban Institute suggests that 65 percent of the first 1,200 students to enroll in these pathways are learners of color. 

Thirteen new colleges will form a second cohort across the country, including seven urban and rural colleges in Colorado, which will jointly focus at the state’s request on healthcare and energy micro-pathways. Dr. Joe Garcia, Chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, said, “This collaboration keeps us at the forefront of work-based learning innovation and will help us meet the needs of our growing adult learner population.”

Each college is focusing on regional needs where high-demand, good-paying jobs are going unfilled. And in many cases they are new pathways for emerging roles that have never been designed before. 

Melvin Smith of Seattle Children’s Hospital told the Zoom crowd that he could not find healthcare IT administrators to manage EPIC, an electronic health records system used at hospitals around the country. The hospital helped Seattle Colleges design the pathway using the Lab’s “design criteria” ….. and even offered scholarships as the program started up.

Ivy Tech, a statewide community college system in Indiana, has developed pathways including Cloud Technician and Commercial Truck Driver Plus (the plus being management training for logistics supervisor roles) to help the state with its supply chain issues. Dr. Stacy Townsley, Ivy Tech’s Vice President for Adult Strategy and Statewide Partnerships, said: “It’s still a little clunky as we iron things out the details, but it became very apparent that there are great opportunities to make this a much more seamless experience for learners.” 

Jessica Cinelli of Kingsborough College in Brooklyn, New York, described how the T profile engagement tool has helped transform employer relationships and build 21st century skill credentials into each pathway: “It’s hard to describe the spontaneous combustion that happens when a college administrator, faculty and an employer get together.”

Along with 45 employers, nearly 100 learners were involved in the design of the micro-pathways this past year. One of the learners who completed an Austin Community College pathway said: “It really was a great stepping stone.” 

Perhaps the mindset shift the learners helped create among the colleges was best summed up by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice President of Workforce Development & Strategic Partnerships at Pima Community College in Tucson, a Hispanic-serving institution: 

“Equity is really at the center of all of this work. Everything we do in higher ed that ‘hierarchical-izes’ the learner, and in many cases ‘other-izes’ them, especially when you put ‘non’ in front of a learner and call them a ‘non-credit’ learner, it ‘other-izes’ them.” 

Dr. Linda Lujan, Lamar Community College President from Colorado, noted her biggest excitement/worry in joining Cohort 2 is how to create opportunities for small employers and rural students as well as breaking the artificial barrier between credit and non-credit.

The barriers are real. Non-credit learners don’t qualify for federal financial aid, for advising, and for portability of their courses. June Evans, Director of Prince George’s Community College’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, described how it wasn’t easy for faculty to convert learning outcomes from traditional courses to competencies for their micro-pathways in healthcare, IT support and hospitality management, “But we did it for all our micro pathways … and it gave faculty the professional development needed to think about courses as CBE (competency-based education).” 

What’s the next step?

As we said at the beginning, many in the audience asked how to learn more or get involved in this work.

Each of these cohorts is funded by national and regional foundations for a one-year design process managed by the Lab, a second year of implementation, and follow-up evaluation. How can we bring this model of micro-pathways to more colleges, as well as four-year institutions in a more scalable format? We will be running design sessions to test a next version of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. 

If you are a college that is interested in participating, please email And thank you.

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Education Design Lab’s #Micropathways Initiative Celebrates Year 1 with New Report and 2nd Cohort

+ New report: The Lab unveils 30+ micro-pathway models and design insights from the first cohort of the Community College Growth Engine Fund
+ New cohort announced: Four major community college systems join the Fund
+ National Convening: College leaders, employers + funders gather Wednesday, Jan. 19

WASHINGTON, D.C. (JANUARY 18, 2021) — Education Design Lab, a national nonprofit that designs, implements, and scales new learning models for higher education and the future of work, today announced the release of its Year 1 insights in a new report, along with the second cohort of colleges participating in the nationally recognized Community College Growth Engine Fund (the Fund) initiative that designs micro-pathways, a new class of credentials.

New report

We’re at a pivotal moment for forging the robust changes needed to better serve new majority learners. As community colleges continue to address inequities amplified by the pandemic, the Lab releases its latest Design Insights Brief, featuring 30+ micro-pathway models co-created through its human-centered design process. 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.

Cohort 2 announcement

Building on the momentum of the first cohort, which included Seattle Colleges (WA), Pima Community College (AZ), Ivy Tech Community College (IN), the City University of New York (NY), Prince George’s Community College (MD), and Austin Community College District (TX), the Fund announces four new colleges and systems for Year 2 (and their sector focus areas under consideration):

  • Colorado Community College System (Energy + healthcare)
  • Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona (Advanced manufacturing + IT)
  • Bunker Hill Community College in Boston (Healthcare + IT)
  • The Community College of Philadelphia (Healthcare; STEAM life sciences + technology; and transportation + logistics)

Dr. Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund: “Learner attitudes about school and work are shifting, employers are at the table looking for new solutions, and community colleges are on the brink of change. There has never been a more pressing moment to figure out what the next generation of community colleges are and, importantly, how to get there. So far, we’ve seen firsthand how the Fund’s Micro-pathway model and design process can serve as a gateway to community college transformation.”

“We are thrilled to partner with the Education Design Lab and roll out this exciting approach to program design at our colleges,” said Joe Garcia, Chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. “This collaboration keeps us at the forefront of work-based learning innovation and will help us meet the needs of our growing adult learner population.”

Dr. Steven R. Gonzales, Chancellor of Maricopa Community College District: “This generous support and investment from the Community College Growth Engine Fund will enable our East Valley colleges to strengthen community partnerships to support new pathways to employment in high-demand fields.”

Dr. Pam Eddinger, President, Bunker Hill Community College: “With the average community college student around 27, it is a necessity to have career tracks in the workforce for the adult learner.”

Dr. Donald Guy Generals, President, Community College of Philadelphia: “Now, more than ever, it’s important for students to have access to intentional, industry-recognized training that will help them obtain family-sustaining jobs.”

National Convening

College leaders, employers + funders will discuss the transformative micro-pathway initiative during a National Convening on Wednesday, Jan. 19. The virtual event is from noon to 3 p.m. EST. Register:

What are micro-pathways? Co-designed with learners and employers, micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials, including a 21st century skill micro-credential, that are flexibly delivered to be achieved within less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage.

About Education Design Lab: The Lab is a national nonprofit that co-designs, prototypes, and tests education-to-workforce models through a human-centered design process focused on understanding learners’ experiences, addressing equity gaps in higher education, and connecting new majority learners to economic mobility. The Community College Growth Engine Fund, led by Dr. Lisa Larson, is a design accelerator set up just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into a future role as regional talent agents. We want to thank the Charles Koch Foundation,, and the Walton Family Foundation for their early investment as well as the Arizona Community Foundation, Jeffrey H. and Shari L. Aronson Family Foundation, Ascendium Education Group, The Beacon Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Citizens, deLaski Family Foundation, Garcia Foundation, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, Robin Hood Foundation, and the ZOMA Foundation. This brief does not reflect the position or opinions of investor partners.

Download the brief:

Join the Lab’s #InnovatorNetwork: Twitter +  LinkedIn + email newsletter

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The Lab Looks Back at 2021: A Year of Resilience, Collaboration + Innovation

Together, We Found a Gateway to Community College Transformation … and 7 More Breakthroughs of 2021

As we head into the fourth surge of the COVID-19 virus that was supposed to be “over” by that first summer, it’s hard to be positive about the past two years. 

But … it has to be said … COVID has been the mother of invention and incredible driver for innovation on the part of the “intra-preneur” heroes in higher education. 

To support students in crisis, you have pushed the boundaries of flexible and portable learning. To get access to the federal and state funding flowing in, you have forged partnerships across the “learner journey” with high school districts, workforce investment boards, employer groups and intermediaries. 

Particularly for new majority learners, you are repackaging learning opportunities to be more flexible, affordable, relevant, portable, and visible to help displaced workers build agile skills portfolios.  And you did it all under threat to your own personal health and well-being. 

We are awed as we close this difficult year by your resilience, at how you accelerated the pace of innovation on behalf of your students.  

The Lab would like to name some of the 2021 innovations we witnessed and were humbled to be a part of: 


1. Together, we found a possible gateway to community college transformation: Micro-pathways

The Community College Growth Engine Fund, led by Dr. Lisa Larson, is the Lab’s design accelerator that was set up just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into a future role as regional talent agents in a skills-based economy. Six of the nation’s largest community colleges and systems joined the Fund’s first cohort, surpassing their goals by designing 30 micro-pathways in 2021. What are micro-pathways? These stackable, employer-validated credentials take less than a year to earn and connect low-wage and entry-level workers to in-demand jobs that pay at-or-above median wage. Lab founder Kathleen DeLaski and Lee Lambert, chancellor of Pima Community College, argue that micro-pathways are the gateway to community college transformation in this CCDaily essay.

What’s next: Community college leaders, employers, funders, and learners will share their progress during the CCGEF National Convening on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Register here for the free, virtual event.) Also happening on Jan. 19: The Lab will announce the community colleges joining Cohort 2 and release the Fund’s first Design Insights Brief, which can spark action at your own college.


2. Together, we’re re-imagining higher ed’s role in regional ecosystem transformation

In 2021, the Lab assembled a cohort of 12 higher education leaders as Designers in Residence to tackle this critical question: How might higher education strengthen and evolve to better drive regional ecosystem alignment?

Through a process of ecosystem mapping, we gained the critical takeaway: Partnerships that are strongest are not connected merely by regional geography. Rather, the strongest ecosystem partnerships are those that are connected by a shared vision, collective goal, and transcend a time-bound contract. Partnerships rooted in a shared vision enable proactive rather than reactive planning and are more likely to outlast leadership transitions, staff turnover and short-term funding. 

What’s next: We look forward to publishing our actionable framework for higher education’s role in regional ecosystems transformation in 2022, and we can’t wait to share how our Designers in Residence are putting these levers into action. A few are already leading the national conversation, including Dr. Michael Baston of Rockland Community College and Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook of Southern New Hampshire University. 


3. Together, we’re sharpening design tools to meaningfully engage earner-learners

In 2021, The Lab published a major paper and hosted a webinar about the Learner Engagement Framework, which explains the three key drivers of engagement: Growth, belonging, and agency. The paper shares recommendations to help educators better support new majority learners

What’s next: In 2022, we will more deeply integrate the framework in our design process and work with national partners to make it more accessible to educators, employers and Lab partners through webinars and short courses.


4. Together, we’re designing with and for even more employers

In 2021, the Lab was ecstatic to work with employers across various projects, from the Business Roundtable, to our 11-college micro-pathway initiative, and to a “general education of the future” project with Western Governors University. We also released our popular Employer Engagement Guidebook for the Design + Delivery of Micro-pathways.

We continue to work with employers to identify the core combination of 21st century and technical skills needed for specific job roles with our T-Profile tool. In our analysis of 100+ profiles, we can name the most in-demand 21st century skills by employers across more than a dozen industries in 2021:

  • Initiative
  • Collaboration
  • Oral Communication


What’s next: We will make our T-profile tool more tech-enabled, which will allow us to double the size of our library, to make the data publicly available, and continue to drive the conversation around the importance of 21st century skills and for employers to be more precise about the right combination of 21st century skills and technical skills. Employers are clearly hungry for new credentials and assessments to validate these less tangible skills that are so valuable in the fast-changing, ambiguous workplaces of today and tomorrow. We’re ready to help them!


5. Together, we’re helping earner-learners make their hidden skills more visible

In summer 2021, we launched XCredit — or “Experience Credit” — an initiative to capture and validate in-demand (but often hidden) skills so that the credential-earner can showcase their skills to employers, indicate fit for job roles, and increase their economic mobility. So far, we’ve learned people’s lived and work experiences are diverse and sometimes do not show up on their resumes; the opportunities to validate their many skills is a burgeoning opportunity space. No one validation method will align to and capture the breadth of people’s experiences, but we are leading the way to build and test a system to do this.

What’s next: In 2022, we move from prototypes to piloting with military and civilian populations, while continuing to build out our suite of skill validation tools and methods.


6. Together, we’re shaping the skills-based ecosystem

We are very proud of our work with Open Skills Network to take our foundational 21st century skills digital micro-credential competency framework into a digitized format called Rich Skills Descriptors that will catalyze learner-earners’ visibility of achieved skills.

There were many lessons learned: 

  1. The value of an “open” skills library with rich details and a common language about the 21st century skills in a digital format. 
  2. Deeper, boundary-spanning partnerships are essential and help guide the thinking on how we can best operationalize our digital micro-credentials in ways that will transform the value of these credentials in the hiring process.
  3. The Lab has a presence and responsibility as a magnetizing connector for the different ecosystem stakeholders across ed tech, philanthropy, higher ed, K-12, and more.


What’s next: Additional pilots with the Open Skills Network are underway. We’ve expanded our work with international partners and are leveraging the developed Rich Skills Descriptor collectors in multiple skills and program systems to provide access to our framework at scale.


7. Together, we’re designing for today’s teens to be career-ready

College enrollment continues to decline, and young people are navigating a new world with different ways to learn and all types of postsecondary options. 

In 2021, the Lab partnered with the Best Buy Social Impact team on a four-month design sprint focused on expanding postsecondary programming for today’s teens attending Best Buy Teen Tech Centers across the country. 

The Lab also launched Propel Polk!, a first-in-the-nation pilot to teach 21st century skills to Polk County (Florida) high school students, who will receive digital micro-credentials for their resumes. The ultimate goal of this pilot is to see how the intentional teaching of 21st century skills can increase rates of graduation, job placement, and higher education matriculation.

What’s next: We will continue elevating the voices of teenage learners in the design work across the Lab. 


8. Together, we’re learning to design virtually

The pandemic may have disrupted our in-person design sessions, but we were able to engage so many different stakeholders in the virtual space, especially in our BRIDGES Rural project. Participants who may not have had the ability to join — or felt as comfortable sharing in person — were empowered in 2021.

We learned to be unafraid of trying a new platform or tool — and to feel free to experiment or even fail forward.

The Lab’s in-person team retreat in December became a hybrid learning experience, as we simultaneously worked on strategic questions both in person and virtually. 

What’s next: Hybrid design! As much as we value our virtual experience, so much comes from stepping on to a new campus and learning even more about the places and the spaces that are supporting learners and communities.


The Lab’s 8 Media Highlights for 2021:


  1. Community College Daily: Have we found the gateway to transform community colleges?
  2. Axios: A conversation on innovation in learning
  3. Inside Higher Ed: Reimagining Supports to Help Single Moms
  4. The Washington Post: Opinion: Prince George’s students don’t need credentials to nowhere
  5. Inside Higher Ed: From Crisis Comes Opportunity
  6. Work Shift: A new take on certifying ‘soft’ skills—first for veterans, then everyone
  7. Fierce Education: Investing in Two-Year Colleges to Support Rural Communities
  8. Real Clear Education: Funding Community Colleges and Embracing Micro-credentials is an Equity Mandate


news and events

Ivy Tech Designs 4 Micro-Pathways Leading to High-Paying Jobs

Ivy Tech Community College (ITCC) is using the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund— CCGEF or the Fund, for short —as a springboard to rethink and redesign what credential attainment and skill development can look like for learners  across their system. We have featured their approach to a “one-learner ecosystem”, a system where all students, particularly adult learners, are honored for their life and work experiences and learners can move seamlessly between noncredit and credit offerings. To get to their vision for a one-learner ecosystem, Ivy Tech is launching new, leading-edge credentials for emerging occupations through four micro-pathways. Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and underpaid low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree. 


Indiana’s Next Level Jobs initiative, led by Gov. Eric Holcomb, is seeking to drive Indiana’s workforce and economy forward by paying tuition and fees for learners and workers to secure work in high-priority industries and in-demand, high-paying jobs. As part of this effort, Ivy Tech has selected emerging occupations to be the focus of their micro-pathways: IT and business services, advanced manufacturing, and jobs in transportation and logistics industries. Ivy Tech’s micro-pathways have all been designed in partnership with national and regional industry associations and employers, from identifying technical and 21st century skills, selecting the industry certifications, creating labs for hands-on learning, and providing paid work-and-learn experiences to learners.



CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) Plus


You might remember the learner-centric approach of Ivy Tech’s merging of credit and noncredit in their CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) Plus Certificate micro-pathway we shared in-depth in a previous Innovation Snapshot: Ideas in Action blog post. This is the nation’s first training program of its kind that elevates the quality of training of commercial truck drivers and embeds additional skill learning and credentials to  give learners who complete the micro-pathway broader job responsibilities. While many community colleges offer Commercial Driver’s License programs, Ivy Tech’s “Plus” version adds a new set of enhancements for learners, including the opportunity to earn employer-recognized logistics certifications to gain a broader skill set beyond driving in the booming transportation and logistics industry. Learners also develop 21st century skills through hands-on learning and can participate in paid internships with regional employers. This micro-pathway was created in partnership with the Indiana Motor Truck Association, Venture Logistics, and Conexus Indiana, with employers across the state hiring learners immediately after completion of the micro-pathway.



Cloud Administrator Certificate 


One of Ivy Tech’s two new information technology micro-pathways, the Cloud Administrator Certificate micro-pathway focuses on training for IT work with the Cloud. This micro-pathway is for the “Cloud Upskiller” or someone currently serving in an IT support role, working in IT infrastructure, or an IT professional who is charged with leading a digital transformation initiative. It includes all-new, cutting-edge IT credentials — the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud Practitioner and Solutions Architect certifications — as well as the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) NET+ certification. Ivy Tech’s employer partners include AWS, Accenture, Bell TechLogix, and Trek 10, who partnered in the development of the curriculum, will serve as guest speakers, and are expected to hire graduates for their Cloud demand, which continues to grow.



Routing + Switching Certificate 


The second of Ivy Tech’s information technology pathway, their Routing and Switching Certificate micro-pathway, prepares learners to become Broadband Technicians, which are needed for the significant broadband infrastructure expansion underway in the state of Indiana. The Indiana Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship (OWBLA) formally recognized this Ivy Tech micro-pathway as a certified State Earn and Learn (SEAL). Besides work-based learning opportunities, learners earn the AWS Cloud Practitioner certification and CISCO’s CCNA technical certifications. As with the other micro-pathways, employer partnerships are strong and include AT&T, D&S Communications, and Berry Comm. AT&T has provided equipment grants for two of Ivy Tech’s campuses and all will be offering work-based learning and apprenticeships to enable learners develop the high-tech skills to thrive as Broadband Technicians.



Smart Manufacturing Digital Integration Micro-pathway


The manufacturing industry is undergoing significant transformation, and Ivy Tech is at the forefront with their new Smart Manufacturing Digital Integration micro-pathway. This micro-pathway trains individuals for entry-level and/or upskilling opportunities at facilities using smart manufacturing technology. For those unfamiliar with manufacturing, learners can earn the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-10 certificate and the Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA) Basic Operations certificate. Learners then have the option to secure employment with a partnering employer or continue on the micro-pathway to earn more advanced  SACA certifications,  participate in a work-and-learn experience, and complete a certificate, technical certificate, or associate degree  in Smart Manufacturing Digital Integration , giving learners more agency in finding what works for them. For this micro-pathway, Ivy Tech’s partners include Norco Industries, ITAMCO, and Lippert Components, who not only need entry-level talent but will be sending existing employees to this micro-pathway to upskill and become proficient in smart manufacturing. 


What’s next


Ivy Tech launched their CDL Plus Certificate micro-pathway this fall and is gearing up to launch the other three in January 2022. So far, Ivy Tech has received approval for state workforce grants to cover tuition and fees for learners on two of the four programs; they hope all of the micro-pathways will be covered soon.



This article is written by Valerie Taylor as part of a new mini publication series, Innovation Snapshots: Ideas in Action. This series dives into the many innovative ideas and models that we have co-designed with 135+ colleges and learning institutions to better center and support new majority learners in reaching their goals. Spotlighting our partners across different Lab-driven initiatives, each part of this series focuses on a process or framework and the resulting work of a different partner. Find the rest of the series here.


Learn more about the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and follow the work on Twitter: #CCGEF.


news and events

Competency-Based Education Can Be a ‘Game-Changer’: Prince George’s Design Team Shares 3 Tips to Get Started

In one of our last Innovation Snapshots, A Silver Lining: State Funding Leveraged to Support Student Advising Innovation for Prince George’s Community College Micro-pathways, we shared how Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) began instituting a new noncredit/Continuing Education advising model for their three micro-pathways as part of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund—CCGEF or the Fund for short. At the Lab, we define micro-pathways as two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and underpaid low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

In addition to developing new noncredit and Continuing Education supports, Prince George’s is using the Fund as an opportunity to redesign their offerings toward Competency-Based Education (CBE) models. Through the design of three micro-pathways— Healthcare Technician, IT Support Specialist and Hospitality Leadership —Prince George’s seeks to give learners more agency and control in their learning by shifting to CBE.


What is Competency-Based Education (CBE)? 

Definitions for Competency-Based Education vary across the field, but they all share the following key features: 

  1. Curricula are designed around specific competencies; 
  2. Advancement through a program is based on demonstrating competencies; and 
  3. The time it takes to demonstrate a competency can vary. Key to these definitions is a focus on learning, rather than time, with learning tied to demonstration of competence rather than seat time or credit hours*. 


How is Prince George’s approaching Competency-Based Education (CBE) in their micro-pathways? 

CBE provides learners the flexibility they need to complete their program in their timeframe. June Evans, CCGEF design lead for Prince George’s Community College and director of the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Innovation Hub (INNOHUB), explains, “We see Competency-Based Education as a game-changer. Even though our micro-pathways have been established to be flexible to meet learners where they are, connect them to jobs, and earn higher wages, the best way for us to do that is within a CBE model.From what PGCC has witnessed, most people, particularly adult learners, don’t want to go back to school due to the lack of flexibility.

Prince George’s believes CBE is not about adding new components to existing programs, and instead sees CBE as an opportunity to re-imagine the role of faculty and how learners engage in the programs. Evans explains it this way: 

“Let’s say there are seven Introduction to Communications classes taught by seven faculty members. Learners would complete most of their coursework independently online, then meet individually or in groups with a faculty member at specific times. This would be based on identified areas where learners may be struggling or need help. Each faculty member would specialize in something different based on learner needs. With the CBE model, we would not need to hire more or use less faculty, but instead use them differently with a focus on learner needs.” 


3 Tips for Community Colleges Starting the Journey to CBE

The approach Evans has outlined and her vision for Prince George’s requires a mindset shift and significant change management across the college. The Prince George’s design team shares their three major tips for colleges embarking on their own CBE venture: 



Start with Stakeholder Buy-in
The transition to CBE requires a paradigm shift. Dr. Clayton A. Railey, executive vice president and provost of Teaching, Learning, and Student Success, has made it clear the college is steering the entire ship in this direction. Evans and the core design team are taking the lead with securing stakeholder buy-in across the college and with external partners. Internally, it has been important to help everyone understand the big picture of CBE and the focus on learner buy-in. Externally, team members are doing presentations and engaging stakeholders about the shift and the positive impact it will have on the community as a whole. Employers are excited about learners coming to the workplace having mastered competencies related to key job roles. Community-based organizations are on board with greater focus on client/learner needs and the flexibility of CBE. As Evans shared, the feedback the Prince George’s team has gotten makes it clear many are ready for change.



Institute Professional Development for Faculty
Critical to internal buy-in is providing faculty with professional development opportunities centered on understanding and building expertise in CBE. Doing so encourages faculty to design programs with this in mind, and makes the payoff clearer. The college’s eDeveloper has been leading the faculty training, starting with differentiating competencies and learning outcomes. Traditional learning outcomes center on the learner understanding content, whereas competency-based learning requires learners to demonstrate they can do something in a measurable way, like perform a skill that would be needed on the job. Through this training, Prince George’s faculty are slowly getting more comfortable with CBE course development, and learners will begin to see the outcomes of this buy-in in how their courses ask them to engage.



Use a Phased Approach
As a core element of change management, pacing the transition to CBE is going to be key to sustainable success and adaptation, hence Prince George’s using the design of their micro-pathways as an opportunity to introduce and test this shift in program design. This fall, the first three modules for each of Prince George’s micro-pathways will be accessible online in a self-paced format with learners having access to a faculty member for support. The remaining modules will be available in January 2022. In spring 2022, additional enhancements include the opportunity for learners to attend two virtual career readiness workshops, engage with employers on either a project, design challenge, and/or participate in industry appreciation discussions. Every learner that completes both career readiness workshops will connect with the Career Development Center to help secure internships and/or job placement.


Prince George’s is using the design and development of their three micro-pathways as an opportunity to shift the college towards a Competency-Based Education model. The college expects to implement CBE across the entire college in approximately five years.


This article is written by Valerie Taylor as part of a new mini publication series, Innovation Snapshots: Ideas in Action. This series dives into the many innovative ideas and models that we have co-designed with 135+ colleges and learning institutions to better center and support new majority learners in reaching their goals. Spotlighting our partners across different Lab-driven initiatives, each part of this series focuses on a process or framework and the resulting work of a different partner. Find the rest of the series here.


Learn more about the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and follow the work on Twitter: #CCGEF.


 * Grant, 1979; Everhart, Sandeen, Seymour, & Yoshino, 2014; Competency-Based Education Network, 2018.


Propel Polk!

A first-in-the-nation pilot to teach 21st century skills to Polk County (Florida) high school students, who will receive digital micro-credentials for their resumes.


Propel Polk! Credentialing 21st Century Skills for Postsecondary Success is a pilot program to teach 21st century skills to 11th and 12th graders in the Polk County (Florida) School District. Over 450 students at 10 high schools are expected to participate.

The awarding of digital micro-credentials as “badges” will allow students to make the achievement of these skills visible to both colleges and employers. In addition, the deployment of the digital micro-credentials will be coordinated with business input through local employer convenings and effective Lab tools, such as the T-profile

Polk County School District, Polk Vision, and Central Florida Development Council are partnering with the Lab to deploy and support this foundational project.

Southern New Hampshire University is working with the Lab to analyze the 21st-century skills micro-credentials for the potential award of college credit.

All Polk County post-secondary institutions are encouraged to get involved. Interested partners can reach out to the Lab ( to learn more about the process. 

news and events

New Report: How 4 Community Colleges are Reimagining Higher Ed for Single Moms Success

The Lab’s latest Design Insights Brief will help institutions better understand single mother learners and increase their academic and economic success.

Washington, DC, Nov. 29, 2021 — Education Design Lab (the Lab) today released a new report about its Single Moms Success Design Challenge, a multi-year initiative funded by the ECMC Foundation that aims to dramatically improve community college completion rates for single mothers.  

The Single Moms Success Design Insights Brief, available to download here, 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.

Miriam Swords Kalk, one of the Lab’s lead Education Designers on the project, said: “The experiences, perspectives, and strengths of single mother learners have fueled this work from the very beginning. As we’ve seen across our whole cohort, redesigning higher ed with single moms at the center breaks down systemic barriers to them reaching their education and career goals. Yet the impact can extend even further – connecting their families with new opportunities; greater flexibility and support for other learners who have been underinvested in; powerful, equity-centered institutional transformation; and inclusive economic growth across their broader communities. When colleges focus on single moms, everyone benefits.

COVID-19 has made this work even more urgent, as school and child-care closures have hit U.S. mothers the hardest. As ECMC Foundation Program Officer Rosario Torres said in the brief: “When I think about this project specifically, I think about reimagination – really being able to reimagine what student supports look like for single moms and for student parents broadly speaking, knowing that higher education was not designed for single mothers. We need to be really intentional about meeting single moms where they are now, in light of everything that is happening, as we know the COVID pandemic has really exacerbated those inequities.”

What’s next: Over the next several years, the Lab will support the teams as they sustain and scale their pilots. The cohort aims to achieve a 30 percent increase in attainment of degrees and high-quality credentials by single mother learners at each school, impacting at least 6,000 single moms by summer 2024.

Download the brief:

The Education Design Lab (Lab) is a national nonprofit that co-designs, prototypes, and tests education-to-workforce models through a human-centered design process focused on understanding learners’ experiences, addressing equity gaps in higher education, and connecting learners to economic mobility. The Lab’s process also shows higher education leaders how to consider the needs of employers, using the curriculum and program design as a gateway to make skills more visible to students and employers alike. Learn more:  

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