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New service offerings! The Lab teams up with Credential Engine to offer preparation support for Learning and Employment Record pilots

Learning and Employment Records (LERs) – digital records of an individual’s learning and work – have the potential to create more equitable access to employment and education opportunities by equipping individuals with verifiable and shareable data about their skills, achievements, experiences, and credentials. As  states, postsecondary institutions, and employers explore piloting LERs, it is important that pilots are designed with: equitable outcomes for learners as an explicit goal; and that they use linked open data to support interoperability within a skills-based talent ecosystem. 

The Lab and Credential Engine (CE) have teamed up to offer services that will help stakeholders prepare for LER pilots, laying a strong foundation for pilots designed to empower learners in the sharing of  their verifiable credentials and skills as currency towards job opportunities. Together, the Lab and CE bring a blend of human-centered design tools and processes, best practices in data transparency, and technical knowledge that will position emerging LER pilots for success. The partners will work with you so that LER pilots are prepared with a strong use case and value proposition for learners, a plan for incorporating credential and pathways data, and a rich understanding of the human and technological requirements to support an LER workflow.  A description of services for springboarding LER pilots is below. These offerings can be customized and combined with additional services to address specific circumstances and needs.

Download the Full List of Services (PDF)

Learn More About Our Work with Credential Engine

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How Maricopa Community Colleges are keeping up with booming employer needs in Arizona

Four colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) are designing eight micro-pathways in IT and advanced manufacturing. Rio Salado College president Kate Smith says the Education Design Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund is “helping community colleges and industry partners come together and speak a common language – one that is often missing.”


Rio Salado College (RSC) has historically been recognized as an innovative online education provider with flexible programming. Based in Tempe, Arizona, RSC is a relatively young two-year institution that opened its doors in 1978.

A Culture of Business and Education Collaboration with Flexible Programs

Beginning in 1990 under the presidency of Linda Thor, a position she held for 20 years, RSC built a business-oriented, collaborative culture focused on underrepresented learners. That culture included, by 1996 and through today, flexible, fully online, eight-week courses that students could enroll in every Monday instead of waiting an entire semester. In 2006, Thor wrote about RSC’s history under her leadership, noting the importance of building alliances with local employers that included offering easily accessible, short-term occupational certificate programs.

RSC’s culture and thinking fit well as a new participant in the Education Design Lab (the Lab) Community College Growth Engine Fund (the Fund), a design accelerator started just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into future roles as regional talent agents in a skills-based economy. The Fund is currently helping 10 of the nation’s largest community colleges and systems within two cohorts. RSC is one of 10 colleges in the Arizona East Valley Region’s Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), also known as Maricopa Community Colleges. MCCCD joined Cohort 2 in January 2022, along with the Colorado Community College System, Community College of Philadelphia, and Bunker Hill Community College.

RSC and MCCCD’s Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Mesa Community College and Scottsdale Community College are now on a path to create eight micro-pathways in IT and advanced manufacturing.

Co-designed with learners and employers, micro-pathways are 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.

“We’ve invested in the Lab’s micro-pathways as a springboard for creating social and economically mobile pathways,” said Rio Salado College President Kate Smith. “We’re creating pathways that can take individuals to prosperity through something that is short-term and accessible. It’s part of Rio’s core fabric. It’s in our DNA.”

Bridging Two Languages

Smith described RSC’s participation in the Fund as “a wonderful marriage focused on building a very intentional design structure, helping community colleges and industry partners come together and speak a common language — one that is often missing.” The Lab is bridging the two languages of industry and education through a structured approach “to work together with our industry partners to build very meaningful credentials and a pipeline for students to go right into the workforce in high-demand, high-need areas,” Smith added.

A Booming East Valley Arizona

Being based in Maricopa County, with 27 growing towns and cities, including Phoenix, certainly helps that effort. The Phoenix Business Journal recently reported that “Maricopa County added more new residents than any county in the nation last year, continuing a trend that local officials call a credit to the region’s opportunities and affordability.” The U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, estimated that Maricopa County’s population grew by 76,020 people from April 2020 to July 2021, increasing its population to just under 4.5 million.

RSC’s Vice President of Strategy and Advancement Janelle Elias said that as Maricopa County grows, the institutions in the MCCCD increasingly collaborate between themselves and with local employers.

“That’s been a big part of our journey in the design process, leveraging the strengths and assets across our system and with local employers,” Elias said. “The East Valley region is one of the fastest growing areas in technology companies,” she added. “We jumped to number seven in the country over the past few years, and we saw a 6.2% increase in women working in technology. We started to see companies like GoDaddy, Intel, General Motors, and Google come to the valley.”

In addition, Elias points to data and research published by the Arizona Commerce Authority, showing that the state has grown to hosting 5,000 manufacturing establishments. The East Valley region now accommodates companies in “aerospace, defense, bioscience, optics, and photonics. They have come to the valley in ways that we have never seen before,” Elias explained.

Human-Centered Design and a Common-Sense Iterative Process

The Lab assists the design process by guiding the Fund’s cohorts through a year-long effort driven by six milestone achievements that focus on human-centered design:

  1. Examine market demand: Use labor market data and employer input to determine in-demand occupations.
  2. Determine skills and competencies: Elicit skills plus competencies needed by employers.
  3. Design to learner needs: Discover and determine learner needs from direct inquiry.
  4. Test and iterate prototypes: Test and iterate prototype pathways with all stakeholders.
  5. Marketing and business model: Test and iterate on various business models.
  6. Finalize pathways: Finalize pathway components into a digitally discoverable and learner accessible format.

Lab Education Designer Elisabeth Fellowes explained that RSC is now working through milestones three and four of the micro-pathway design process, identifying skills needs with employer partners and prototyping the micro-pathways. Throughout this work, the team has been mapping the current ecosystem and processes that exist across the district in order to determine a system-level approach that streamlines the experience for employer partners and supports collaboration across the district.

“One of the key priorities is to conduct all of this work on a system level,” she said. After Cohort 2 completes the one-year design process, the Lab stays on for a second year with continued support. Following the second year, the Lab and Cohort 2 collects and analyzes impact data to understand the results of the entire project.

What’s next?

Follow the Community College Growth Engine Fund’s design journey by signing up for the Lab’s email newsletter. You can also explore 30+ micro-pathways from the first cohort on the Lab’s website. To get in touch, email our team at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

* Citation: Xu, D., & Ran, X. (2015). Noncredit education in community college: Student, course enrollments, and academic outcomes. Community College Research Center, 2015. Available: 
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How Alamo Colleges are scaling digital skills badges in Texas

UpSkill SA! — a partnership between Alamo Colleges, Goodwill San Antonio and the Education Design Lab — led to the Alamo Colleges District creating more opportunities for students to earn marketable skills badges. The district issued 851 badges in Fall 2021 to students who demonstrated  21st century skills mastery inside their traditional academic courses. 


“By 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree” – that was the overarching goal of the 2015 Texas Higher Education Strategic Plan known as 60x30TX.

The state’s 2022 plan, Building a Talent Strong Texas, aspires to the same goal, but includes more adult learners: “at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-64 will have a postsecondary credential of value by 2030.”

Luke Dowden, Chief Online Learning Officer/Associate Vice Chancellor for the Alamo Colleges District and its AlamoOnline division, comprised of five community colleges in the San Antonio region, has been on a mission to meet that 60×30 goal sooner rather than later. That path opened up in early 2019 when Dowden and two of his District colleagues, Instructional Designer Amber O’Casey and Online Learning Coordinator Eryn Berger, joined forces with the Education Design Lab (the Lab) and Goodwill San Antonio to launch UpSkill SA! in partnership with Palo Alto College. Their work is focused on the creation of meaningful additions to the district’s catalog of noncredit digital badges and for-credit, stackable, certificate programs that now typically include courses embedded with badges. 

UpSkill SA! offers Goodwill frontline employees (called team members) tuition-paid enrollment in a series of three non-credit online badges in resilience, collaboration, and creative problem solving — called “SkillsBooster” — and a 21-credit Level 1 Certificate in Logistics Management that incorporates the creative problem-solving badge into the first course of the certificate program. As noted on the UpSkill SA! project website, the idea was to “quickly upskill incumbent retail workers to prepare them for careers in Advanced Manufacturing and other growth sectors that can enable their social mobility.”

Dowden explained the entire UpSkill SA! effort was well thought-out with a highly supportive Goodwill staff comprised of professional counselors, a career navigator, and an enrollment coach that worked in concert with Palo Alto College enrollment professionals. “An advising team of faculty and program coordinators were ready to work,” Dowden added. “Goodwill would do the internal marketing and vetting, and then their career navigator would begin working with our enrollment coaches to get them [team members] through the admissions process so they would not get hung up there.”  

See related story: COVID didn’t stop these working moms from earning stackable credentials through Goodwill San Antonio and Alamo Colleges


Alamo Colleges Boost Badges + Certificates

Their efforts thus far have been hugely successful, despite being severely waylaid by the pandemic. For instance, a Goodwill San Antonio Digital Literacy program, which helps potential enrollees garner the foundational digital skills needed for studying online, was developed and implemented through lessons learned during the piloting and launching of UpSkill SA! in 2019. More significantly, UpSkill SA’s development of its SkillsBooster and the Level 1 Certificate programs became the spring board that helped to enable the entire Alamo Colleges District to boost the integration of more marketable skills badges into academic courses. 

“The certificate program, which was really our first attempt at embedding marketable skills badges into academic coursework, has exponentially expanded our work,” Berger said. “Now we have an initiative called Course + Badge [launched in the summer of 2020], where we train our faculty on how to embed digital skills badges into our academic courses, and they are the Education Design Lab badges.”  

Through Course + Badge, faculty undergo a semester-long training that teaches them how to map competencies and embed marketable skills badges into their academic courses, and about 100 faculty have completed the training to date. After successfully completing the training, they become credentialed badge specialists who can offer marketable skills badges in all their courses. 

Encouraging numbers

All this work has led to some impressive results. For example, in late 2019 and early 2020, 54 Goodwill employees earned a total of 72 badges through UpSkill SA’s SkillsBooster digital badges program offered at Palo Alto College. Since then, 1,258 skills badges have been earned by students through the scaling up of digital badge offerings throughout the entire Alamo Colleges District, with 851 digital badges earned during the Fall 2021 semester alone. “We’re getting really positive feedback,” Berger said. “It’s helping us to socialize badges around the district.”

Student testimonials

“We reorganized our team with people dedicated just to the development and support of micro-credentials at the Alamo Colleges,” added Dowden. Working with Goodwill San Antonio through UpSkill SA! “really influenced what we are doing, and we are excited about it. We think you need to be able to have something as evidence that you have skills, and our students are confirming that.”

“I took this course while applying for new jobs,” said a working adult learner who earned a resilience badge during the summer 2021.  “Believe it or not, the exercises forced me to really think about my previous experiences. I had an interview a few days ago and I was so relaxed and confident because of the exercises. The interviewer loved me, and I start my new position on Monday.”

Another learner who completed the Goodwill SkillsBooster program said “the experience brought to light strengths and knowledge that I did not know I possessed. During the exercises I often found myself sharing the reference articles and questions with others. Writing out the responses helped me reflect on how I handle situations. Multiple times I was able to apply what I learned directly to things actively occurring in the workplace.”  

“I was able to go to work every day and help my team members on how they can meet their goals,” said another Goodwill employee who completed the SkillsBooster program. “It felt great.” 


Want to learn more?

Here’s how to contact the Lab.

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COVID didn’t stop these working moms from earning stackable credentials through Goodwill San Antonio and Alamo Colleges 

Many of us think of Goodwill as a great service for donating clothes or household goods we no longer need or want. But behind the stores and drop-off locations, Goodwill is a 120-year-old, international nonprofit social enterprise comprised of 155 community-based, autonomous organizations in 12 countries and 3,200 stores in North America that combined do a lot more than accept and sell donated goods.

In a recent Harvard Business Review Imagining the Future of Work podcast, Goodwill International Industries President and CEO Steve Preston said, “Most people do know us for our stores, but our mission in life is to help people reach their full potential through learning and, ultimately, through employment. We work to tool people with the right kind of supports and services so that, ultimately, they can take care of themselves and move down a successful career path.”  

The mission of providing meaningful career education and advancement assistance is not lost at Goodwill San Antonio, a 77-year-old organization with 1,500+ employees (called “team members”) who serve Texans within a surrounding 24-county territory. Goodwill San Antonio offers many no-cost-to-enroll programs, three of which include: Good Careers Academy provides comprehensive and accredited vocational training. The Good Careers Centers assist job seekers with job readiness and immediate access to employment. Youth Services, through the NXT Level Program and in partnership with the City of San Antonio and Community In Schools of San Antonio, assists young adults, ages 16 to 24, with their career goals. And Digital Literacy provides computer and internet training. 

UpSkill SA! is the most recent addition to their free, career-enhancement programs, developed through an innovative partnership with Alamo Colleges District’s AlamoONLINE at Palo Alto College and Education Design Lab (the Lab). UpSkill SA! offers Goodwill team members tuition-paid enrollment in a series of noncredit online badges, called “SkillsBoosters,” and a 21-credit Level 1 Certificate in Logistics Management provided by AlamoONLINE. Both got off to a strong start in late 2019 and early 2020. During that time, 54 team members in two cohorts earned a total of 72 badges. In addition, 23 learners enrolled in the first two flex semesters of the certificate program, which officially launched during the Fall 2019 and Winter 2020 semesters. 

Then came the pandemic, which brought a temporary cancellation of the program in early 2020. Of the 23 learners enrolled in the certificate program, three currently employed team members continued and earned the certificate in 2021. 

The program has since re-constituted itself and is back on track with more team-member cohorts increasingly coming on board for both the SkillsBoosters badges and the certificate program. As an added benefit, the Goodwill San Antonio Digital Literacy program, which helps potential enrollees learn the foundational digital skills needed for studying online, was developed and implemented through lessons learned during the piloting and launching of UpSkill SA.  

See related story: How Alamo Colleges are scaling digital skills badges in Texas

UpSkill SA! success stories

The three team members who completed the certificate – Angela Ashworth, Maryjo Barrera, and Carmen Frias – are all working mothers who are a testament to the effectiveness of the program.  

Ashworth, 36, is an engaged mother of four children, ages 9 through 15. She’s an eight-year Goodwill employee who currently works full-time at the Randolph Air Force Base location. “The world was in a pandemic, and I was able to hold down a full-time job, four kids, and school,” she said, adding that the certificate program was a fast and convenient “adventure” but also very challenging for someone who had never attended college-level classes, let alone fully online. “I had to make time to study and do all the school work,” Ashworth explains. “I feel I have grown a lot. In the future, I will continue to expand my education because this experience showed me that I can do more things than I gave myself credit for.”

Barrera, 33, is a married mother of eight (four of whom are step children), ages 11 through 25. She, too, works full-time at Randolph Air Force Base and was a newbie to college. “It was difficult for me being out of school for so long. I was reaching out to my professors almost every single day,” she said, adding that the support staff at Palo Alto College “helped me every step of the way.”  Since the certificate is stackable, Barrera has enrolled in the Logistics and Supply Chain Management A.A.S. program and is currently taking general education required courses. She says she got her inspiration to pursue a higher education from her children. “I needed to show them if their mom can go back to school and finish, they have the choice to do it, too.” Her teenage son, for instance, is enrolled in a high school early-college program. “He tells me all the time, ‘Mom, you’re doing it. I’m going to do it.’” 

Frias, 46, is a married mother of five adult-aged children. She’s been working for Goodwill San Antonio for 17 years and is currently the full-time manager of its Gateway store in Live Oak. She attended a four-year college about 20 years ago but had to drop out after having her fifth child while working part-time. “It was just overwhelming,” she said. “I was not able to really commit to it.” With her children now grown into adulthood, she decided to enroll. “When I went to the orientation and found out I could do this at my own pace from home [fully online], I thought it was doable for me, so I signed up,” she added. Frias was inspired to earn the certificate by her daughter, who at the time was in the process of earning her bachelor’s degree. “She was my motivator. She kept telling me I could do this.” Now Frias is encouraging her coworkers to enroll. “I’m just thankful Goodwill provided this program. It has really been an inspiration in my life to be able to do this.”

“It was an uplifting experience to teach Goodwill team members through Palo Alto College’s partnership with UpSkill SA! Seeing individuals coming in and gaining their certificate in logistics to advance their careers is very encouraging, especially now that training in these areas is so vital due to growing demand,” said Ronnie Brannon, lead instructor for the Logistics and Supply Chain Management program at Palo Alto College. “They emerged industry-ready and ready to make a difference in their organization or future organization.”

A program whose time has come

“Goodwill San Antonio deeply believes in growing their team members,” said Don Fraser, the Lab’s Chief Program Officer, who spent time on the ground with some of the San Antonio stores and its central office. “You can see pictures of team members everywhere. They are able to transform peoples’ lives, and they celebrate that all the time,” he explained, adding that many of the support services provided by Goodwill — such as life-skills coaching, career navigation, and giving enrollees paid study time during their full-time shifts — “is a key difference.” The end result is that team members feel like they belong there and are valued. Last year, Goodwill San Antonio held a celebratory breakfast for the three graduates.  

“We are doing amazing things here in San Antonio for our team members, providing them with an opportunity to upskill themselves – at no cost – so their lives get better, their family lives get better,” said Jessica Greenway, Goodwill San Antonio’s Director of Training and Development. “They are achieving amazing results both personally and for the business of Goodwill.”   


Want to learn more?

Here’s how to contact the Lab.

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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.

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Education Design Lab and Credential Engine partner to build equitable pathways

Education Design Lab (the Lab) and Credential Engine announce a partnership to support community college systems and related state agencies in their efforts to prepare for the heightened expansion of skills-based learning and hiring. This partnership will help multiple stakeholders — but especially learners and workers — navigate the growing credential landscape and embark on paths with strong workforce outcomes.

There are nearly 1 million credentials currently off­ered across the country, a significant portion of which are found in community colleges. While each credential represents an important opportunity for people to get ahead, the current landscape is not easily navigable. Not to mention how hard it can be for people to identify which credentials equip them with the necessary skills required by today’s workforce. With so many credentials to choose from — and without widespread adoption of standards for comparing and evaluating them—people get lost and lose out on opportunity. Learner-earners need better information to navigate pathways to credentials, into the workforce, and toward their goals.

Credential Engine has partnerships with 29 states and regions to provide more equitable access to information about credentials, skills, and pathways. These partners are working toward credential transparency and the shared benefits that all stakeholders get from a landscape where all credentials, their associated skills, and the outcomes they lead to are public, easily accessible, and actionable so that credentials can be better understood and pursued based on what it takes to earn them, what they represent, and the jobs they can lead to. Credential transparency gets people to their desired destinations more easily, efficiently, and equitably.

Credential transparency is made possible by technology such as the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL) — a common language that allows stakeholders to catalog, organize, and compare credentials. Stakeholders who use the CTDL to map their credentials and related outcomes are encouraged to add that information to the public Credential Registry so that it can be openly available for anyone, anytime, anywhere to understand credentials.

The Lab is working with 24 community colleges across the country to launch “micro-pathways” that are designed to make learners’ skills digitally visible to employers who may want to hire them. 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. By combining this work with the principles of credential transparency, we can create more impactful pathways for learners and earners. 

This is why the Lab and Credential Engine are working together to build community college pathways that are connected using a shared data structure for credential and skill transparency.  

“We have a short window to get this right as states, employer groups, and learning providers rush to map skills into what will become the digital next-gen versions of transcripts, resumes, and job postings,” said Naomi Boyer, Executive Director of Digital Transformation at the Lab. “For this to benefit the learner and the worker in terms of expanded opportunity, we need to align on definitions and data standards, and our partnership with Credential Engine allows us to set examples of how the work of many partners comes together for the learner-earner.”

This partnership advances the work of the Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF, or the Fund for short), which is designed to meet the urgent demand from community college leadership for support to deliver skills-focused, market-driven education as regions struggle to mitigate the growing skills gap. The COVID-19 crisis, the massive disruption that has resulted, and the historic inequities in our labor market have forced higher education institutions to quickly adapt, clarify their value proposition, and create new revenue models. 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 the first year (explore micro-pathways by sector). Four additional college systems are now joining the Fund. Each system or college received a startup award through the Fund, which is supported by over 15 foundations and investors.

Through the partnership with Credential Engine, these pathways include clear, transparent information that connects not only the pathways, but also other related credentials, skills, and learning and career opportunities. Going forward, the Fund is creating a roadmap for scale to reach every learner and worker in the country and give them a path to economic dignity.

Credential Engine plays a foundational role in this work by providing the linked open data structure that enables diverse stakeholders to create connected pathways. These pathways span community college courses, programs, competencies, credentials, industry certifications, the Lab’s 21st century skills micro-credentials, and occupational skills and requirements. Data from multiple sources is combined in order to create these pathways and connect them to additional state, regional, and occupational data. The Credential Registry enables stakeholders to publish and describe their pathway components using the shared data structure of the CTDL. Data in CTDL is also included in digital credentials issued to people progressing on these pathways, so that they can see their own achievements and understand how they fit into pathways and broader opportunities.

“Pathways without clear information about their meaning and value can be just another layer of confusion for learners. Together we are addressing the need for clarity, using linked open data as a public good,” said Deborah Everhart, Chief Strategy Officer at Credential Engine

The Lab and Credential Engine have shared determination to proactively respond to equity issues by closing opportunity gaps and elevating learner-earners through voice, visibility, and supportive open data infrastructure.

For more information, email or

news and events

5 must-see Lab sessions at the 2022 IMS Digital Credentials Summit

IMS Digital Credentials Summit graphic

It’s been a long time since so many of us can come together — in person — for a professional conference.

Seven Labbies will travel to Atlanta for the 2022 IMS Digital Credentials Summit from Feb. 28 to March 2.

The summit brings together leaders in higher ed, workforce development, K-12, business, and philanthropy to share progress around this simple concept: Digital credentials can provide better ways to reward credit and link to opportunities than current paper transcripts, certificates, and resumes.

Our team is participating in five sessions, ranging from a design-thinking workshop … to a sneak peek at the Lab’s next Big Idea. (More on that in the weeks ahead!)

While all five sessions will be presented in person, two sessions will available to watch online during this hybrid conference.

The presentations are listed below in chronological order (with the two virtual sessions noted with ? ).



Workshop: Badge, Pitch, and Plan—Design a Digital Credentialing Strategy

Feb. 28, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. EST
(Separate registration required; registration available on-site)

Engage in design thinking by prototyping a badge, a pitch, and an implementation plan for launching your own micro-credentialing strategy. Workshop session led by Tara Laughlin and Matthew Aranda, both Education Designers at the Lab. 


2. ?

Visibility: The Path to Equity in our Skills Based Economy

Feb. 28, 5 to 5:30 p.m. EST

Lab Founder and CEO Kathleen deLaski presents this general session about our next big idea. This will be a sneak peek and dialogue about the Lab’s visibility framework. We are on the cusp of a set of capabilities that can solve for economic mobility IF we engage learners, earners, employers and colleges in ways that demonstrate the value proposition of a skills-based ecosystem. Who needs to do what and how do we get there? 


3. ?

Stories of Scale: Microcredential Strategies Revisited

March 1, 9 to 9:45 a.m. EST

Lisa Larson, Head of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund, joins this panel discussion about community colleges pursuing strategies to stack skills-based training and micro-credentials into degree programs. Also includes Luke Dowden (Chief Online Learning Officer / Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Success, Alamo Colleges District); Amber O’Casey (Instructional Designer, Alamo Colleges District); Lesley Voigt (Director of the Digital Credentials Institute, Digital Credentials Institute, Madison College). 



Bootcamp to Education Practitioner: Meeting Maine’s Need for Paraeducators

March 1, 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EST

Miriam Swords Kalk, a Senior Education Designer at the Lab, joins this session to outline an innovative delivery model that uses micro-credentials to educate individuals with limited classroom experience and helps them gain skills necessary to be effective paraprofessionals in the classroom. In addition to program components, participants will learn about effective recruitment strategies discovered during the pandemic, year-one program results, and how, with the support of the BRIDGES Rural project, they used learner-centered design to improve the program for the 2021 school year. The session also includes Emily Doughty (Educator Effectiveness Coordinator, Maine Department of Education); Megan London (Education Co-Chair, Eastern Maine Community College); and Jane Loxterkamp (Education Co-Chair, Eastern Maine Community College). 



Wellspring Participant Roundtable: Meet Institutional and Workforce Pioneers

March 1, 3:15 to 4:30 p.m. EST

Naomi Boyer, the Lab’s Executive Director of Digital Transformation, joins this roundtable discussion about Wellspring, a multi-year initiative of the 1EdTech Foundation and IMS Global to accelerate the adoption of an education-to-work ecosystem based on open standards.  Institutional, employer, and workforce representatives will discuss the development of an outcomes-focused, skills-based curriculum. What planning and preparations were necessary, what challenges did they encounter, what opportunities do they see and what are the implications for future program design and development? Also includes Scott Chadwick (Chief of Corporate Partnership Acquisitions, Maryville University); Katie McKenzie (Director, Professional Skills Development, Rung for Women); Kim Moore (Executive Director, Wichita State University); Michelle Navarre Cleary (Director, Learning in Public, College Unbound); Dee Nighswonger (Director, Sedgwick County Developmental Disability Organization); Bethany Toledo (Executive Director, Ohio Association for Direct Support Professionals).


The full agenda and registration information is available on the conference website.

news and events

Three prominent CC leaders discuss importance of transformative micro-credentials and micro-pathways

The feet of New Majority Learner on chalk arrows on the pavement, trying to decide on a micro-pathway

By George Lorenzo, Workforce Monitor, Published Feb. 9, 2022

news and events

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.