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An Inside Look: From Prototypes to Pilot Design with Our BRIDGES Rural Cohort

In July 2021, we convened with our BRIDGES Rural cohort institutions in-person for the first time, after everyone was fully vaccinated.


This last July, the Lab’s BRIDGES Rural team alongside design partners and stakeholders from each institution in the BRIDGES cohort gathered at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, ME. The result? Two days spent in-person full of thought partnership, prototype iteration, and community building. 

Over the past six months, the BRIDGES Rural cohort has demonstrated that transformational change can happen quickly if you are open-minded to possibilities, hungry for learning, action-oriented, and committed to building more learner-centered, equitable futures.


“Human-centered design has really allowed us as an institution to step back, take some time, and trust the process, as well as get feedback from all stakeholders, including our students because they are our stakeholders, to help us make solid decisions in our pilot moving forward.” – Tracey Porter, Zane State College


Working in a totally virtual manner since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to rethink many parts of our design process. Virtual gallery walks and convenings have allowed our partners and their communities to access events from wherever they are, and introduced them to different technology platforms where they can continuously connect and collaborate with us and one another. The progress the BRIDGES teams made in the last six months–while they worked remotely, while COVID cases spiked in their communities, while bringing learners back to campuses, and so much more–exceeded expectations of what we thought was possible. We deeply value the online community of practice we’ve built through BRIDGES, which offers our partners the opportunity to learn from people across the country they otherwise may never interact with, and yet there will always be something special about working together back on-campus. 

Leading up to the in-person convening, we created and tested video prototypes of each institution’s new models with a variety of key stakeholders: current, prospective, and stopped-out college learners in their local communities; a variety of employers, economic developers, and representatives of community-based organizations; faculty and staff from their colleges; fellow cohort members; members of the Lab team; and national rural higher ed and workforce thought leaders and practitioners. 

The feedback each institution received directly informed how each team transformed their prototypes into pilot designs during the two days. Core to the Lab’s work, pilot designs must fulfill a set of agreed upon and data-informed design criteria that reflect the Lab’s and each initiative’s theory of change. 


Design criteria for the BRIDGES Rural initiative pilots:

  • Increase access to employment opportunities with living wages
  • Address learners’ needs, including growth, belonging, and agency, with a focus on those who have been systematically underinvested in and underserved
  • Enable institution to develop stronger partnerships with employers and community based organizations
  • Create models that are sustainable and scalable
  • Impact learners of focus who have been systematically underinvested in and underserved
  • Make learning visible, portable, affordable, flexible, and relevant for new majority learners


Different sessions during the July convening provided an opportunity for cohort teams to dive deeper into these design criteria, with further input from experts to support them in evaluating the extent to which their prototypes met these criteria, and how they might incorporate new learnings into their prototypes. 

We kicked off the two days with Dr. Naomi Boyer, the Lab’s director of credentialing products, who spoke on the importance of making learning visible in the digital skills economy. After in-depth brainstorming with their cohort community of practice on how teams might connect their learners with the digital skills economy, the institutional teams worked to incorporate these learnings into their prototypes. Employer feedback and validation was top of mind as the teams explored the potential impact of micro-credentials and badging in their communities.


“To design a strong local skills ecosystem that stimulates economic vitality, all contributing members must be engaged in the co-designed experience. In the development of career micro-pathways, response services, and credentials, identifying new and innovative ways to digitally showcase what learner-earner ‘know and can do’ can simultaneously nurture a robust talent pipeline AND attract new business.” – Dr. Naomi Boyer, the Lab’s director of credentialing products


Building on this, the convening welcomed an employer panel to discuss what the future of work looks like in their given industries. Many of the employers present spoke about rapid changes in their industries and emphasized that they do not have two to three years to fill open job vacancies–they need to hire people now and want to work with their local colleges to develop creative ways to support learners. This led to thoughtful discussion of the value of earn-and-learn models and of curricula infused with 21st century skills, which employers specifically called out as some of their top priorities. 


“It was interesting to hear so many of the employers talk about how they wanted learning-oriented employees and how 21st century skills, badges, and micro-credentials are the signals that employers want and need as they hire new employees.” – BRIDGES Rural cohort faculty member 


Across people in the cohort and on the employer panel, the topic of affordable housing for workers and learners resonated strongly. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased demand for real estate in rural areas that was already at the tipping point before so many more people found themselves with the opportunity to work remotely. As the wealth disparity continues to grow in these rural destinations, more and more multi-generational families find themselves priced out of their own hometowns. This exacerbates other barriers—we dive into these in depth in Design Insights, PART 1: Understanding the Potential of Rural Community College Learners, published in June 2021—like transportation for employees and learners as they are forced to move further away from their workplaces. 

Earlier this year our evaluators and partners at Higher Ed Insight asked each BRIDGES Rural cohort team what kinds of changes they hope this human-centered design process will bring to their learners, their institutions, and their communities. These ranged from better understanding all of the learners in their regions to developing more localized pictures of their economies, and from creating stronger alignment between faculty and the local industries to  community-wide awareness that higher education and training can support individuals reaching their career goals.

During the July convening, HEI led the cohort teams to explore how they wanted to update and add to these early vision statements, after being immersed in learner and community voices for the past six months. 

Each of the five cohort teams emerged from the event with a pilot design focused on building their college’s capacity to serve as an engine for economic growth in their region, as well as an action plan for how to bring this pilot to life, including ideas they will start to operationalize this week. 


“The feedback on our pilot was so helpful! I am really excited about helping learners find their voice and their path, as well as identify their support teams (these are all part of our pilot project). I loved hearing from the employers on the employer panel yesterday, and I am excited to keep thinking about what we learned from them and how we can incorporate these thoughts into our work moving forward.” – Megan London, Early Childhood Education faculty, Eastern Maine Community College 

“I love the feedback we’ve gotten from our fellow cohort members that is helping us to improve our pilot model! My biggest takeaway from the convening is the power of the BRIDGES theory of change and how we can use this in our work college-wide and system-wide.” – Lisa Larson, president, Eastern Maine Community College


The early pilot designs developed by the BRIDGES Rural cohort provide inspiring examples of how colleges can build models that simultaneously center historically underinvested learners and drive toward greater economic growth and agility in their rural regions. To wrap up the convening, teams drafted headlines describing the impact these pilot programs aim to have in the future.


Future-forward Headlines + Visioning for the BRIDGES Rural Pilot Programs: 

  • CEI connects the community with training and jobs that meet people where they are! 
  • Go far while staying here
  • Micro-Pathways Bring BIG Career Results
  • WSCC supports lifelong learning while driving the local economy
  • Achieve your dreams at ZSC while providing for your family


During the fall of 2021, BRIDGES Rural institutional teams will continue to gather feedback on their pilot designs from learners and other stakeholders in their communities. Each team will receive an additional incentive grant to help support and sustain their pilots as they work toward their January 2022 launch. We look forward to seeing how the BRIDGES Rural community of practice carries each pilot design to successful launch, producing the economic impact people in these regions are hoping for.

Check out our BRIDGES Rural July Convening video for an inside look at our work (also available below), and follow the teams as they move from pilot to implementation on Twitter @BridgesRural. Learn more about our BRIDGES Rural initiative here

The National Pilot Design Convening

The Lab’s BRIDGES Rural initiative aims to design, test, and scale postsecondary approaches that support the economic agility of rural learners and the capacity of rural community colleges to drive economic growth in their communities. See how the Lab engaged five leading, rural community colleges in a design experience to move from prototypes to pilots in July 2021.

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