The Learner Revolution
How Colleges Can Thrive in a New Skills and Competencies Marketplace

Education Design Lab's 2019 white paper
Reflections from five years of applied human-centered design at 100+ institutions

Five Years in the Making

a letter from Kathleen deLaski
Founder and President, Education Design Lab

We started the Education Design Lab five years ago on the belief that only education could turn the tide on the growing income gap in the United States—but that the democratic promise of higher education required new thinking and fundamental change. At the time, U.S. higher education seemed at the precipice of the massive “disruption” that completely upended other industries, like taxis, publishing, hotels and retail. In the years since, we have seen a revolution take hold that places learners’ needs front and center, along with the demands of the industries looking to hire them.


In 2014, we named this shift the “Learner Revolution,” as we saw a future where power would shift away from institutions that define degrees to consumers and employers who are beginning to measure learning by other yardsticks. This paper offers insights into how that revolution is picking up speed faster than we expected and will continue to change higher education. We try not to be breathless and hype the trends. Our observations and recommendations are based on our experience designing for that shift with over 100 of the most aspirational colleges and universities in the country.

At the core of that work is a focus on building the connective tissue necessary to match the potential of higher education with the dramatically changing priorities of employers and learners themselves. Rather than simply change the delivery model (e.g., online) or launch new programs and supports, we wanted to help institutions understand the pace of labor market changes and student needs as we stand on the precipice of artificial intelligence-enabled, full-on digital competency-based learning. Our idea was to use the principles of human-centered design to co-create models that put students’ and employers’ needs at the center. The ultimate goal, as a nonprofit, was an intentional roadmap to more equitable futures.


This paper incorporates insights from five years of the Education Design Lab’s work with a goal of helping institutional leaders learn from the experiences of their peers. It is designed to support “intrapreneurs” who embrace a mindset shift as the relationship changes between buyers and sellers of post-secondary learning. Yes, we have been discouraged from using commercial terms in describing our students or the transactions we make with them. But, the increased portability, transparency and competency-based focus of learning will empower students with more choices. And if we are passionate about our offerings, we need to think like marketers to ensure students—and employers—know how to access and curate from the growing and confusing sea of options.

download the white paper

The Learner Revolution

Higher education is in the throes of a learner revolution that will fundamentally change the way students and institutions interact. This paper provides guidance for “intrepreneurs” who want to move their institutions toward preparing students for a more skills-based digital future and still preserve what is meaningful about traditional higher education.

Join the learner revolution discussion

The Learner Revolution Discussion

On Tuesday, March 19, 2019, we celebrated the Education Design Lab's five year anniversary by hosting a dinner and discussion about the future of work and the demand for new postsecondary education-to-workforce solutions.

Moderated by Kathleen deLaski, Founder and President of the Education Design Lab, and featuring George Mason University President, Ángel Cabrera, and Amazon Web Services Senior Manager of Worldwide Education Programs, Ken Eisner.

Discussants include Goodwill Industries International Senior Vice President of Strategy and Advancement, Wendi Copeland, Penn Foster CEO, Frank Britt, League for Innovation in the Community College President and CEO, and Lab board member, Rufus Glasper.

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