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Designing Micro-pathways with and for Learners

Q&A with Dr. Tara Zirkel, Senior Education Designer with the Community College Growth Engine Fund

The Community College Growth Engine Fund is a design accelerator led by the Education Design Lab working with community colleges across the country to design a set of micro-pathways for New Majority Learners that result in jobs at or above the median regional wage. Micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials that can be achieved within less than a year and include 21st century skills. Learn more about the project here.


Q: How is the Lab co-designing equitable micro-pathways with the Community College Growth Engine Fund using human centered design?

Dr. Tara Zirkel: The human centered design lens that we bring puts learners at the center of the design process. One way we’re doing that is through student pressure testing or student validation by taking the micro-pathway prototypes that the institutions have created and presenting them to diverse sets of learners to ask questions that focus on 21st century skills and how we make them visible. We want them to have opportunities to go into the workforce in a way that highlights their unique skills, their personal skills.

Another strategy the Lab uses is the use of personas, and thinking about how we build programs around students who might have the greatest set of barriers because if we can design for a student that has multiple barriers, and intersectional barriers, we’ve truly designed for anyone. Maybe the persona is a single parent, or a woman of color, or a displaced worker who was affected by the pandemic. How do we build a pathway for them is the question we posed to our partner institutions. Building for students who need us the most, who face the greatest status and set of vulnerabilities is a huge focus of the Lab. 


Q: What are the learner centric components of this project?

Dr. Tara Zirkel: These pathways were co-created with student input. We have received feedback from a lot of different perspectives including learners, employers, faculty, community groups, and others while trying to design around a day-in-the-life of a learner. We are being deliberate about having conversations around what support students have access to and making sure the folks who can provide those supports are the people who can connect those dots and are represented within our design teams to engage in these conversations. 

To really design responsive models, we’ve had to have uncomfortable conversations with institutions about the barriers their students face. We really encourage institutions to have some tolerance for that discomfort, to really embrace the discomfort to understand that the discomfort is part of a growth mindset. It’s hard to acknowledge most programs offered by today’s community colleges were geared for a student who is 18-20 years old, doesn’t work full-time, and has support at home versus the great majority of learners at community colleges who are working part- or full-time. Grappling with that reality can be difficult. The biggest barriers that learners cite in accessing any post secondary education, whether it’s credit and non-credit, is how to pay for it. We do have some modest scholarship funds for the first cohort of students and we’re also having conversations about how we leverage other funding streams like WIOA to help pay for this emerging micro-pathway model.


Q: What have we learned about the perceived learner value proposition of community colleges?

Dr. Tara Zirkel: Within the Community College Growth Engine Fund, a huge part of what we’re doing is really having a lot of conversations with adult learners. We’re doing qualitative research with them, pressure testing the design of micro-pathways developed by the colleges. And we’re also doing asynchronous market research with adult learners to really see what is motivating them. What we’re learning is that folks want concise, accessible, flexible programs that have all kinds of different on and off ramps that can connect them with better paying jobs. The traditional undergraduate value proposition is “come here for four years,” or for community college, “come here for two years and transfer.” But that value proposition doesn’t fit everybody. This project is being really intentional about giving voice to adult learners, centering the design of these micro-pathways on the needs of adult learners: the social needs, economic needs, and 21st century skills needs. Identifying the value, with the learner in mind with the learner at the center, is a huge priority of what we are trying to do.

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