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Five Learner Insights about Designing Micro-Pathways

In April 2021, the Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF), a national initiative to build 18+ employer-validated micro-pathways, hosted a series of learner feedback sessions across the country. Micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials that include a 21st century skill and lead to a median wage career in one year or less. In these sessions, the cohort of six community colleges and systems engaged directly with their learners to gather feedback on their micro-pathway prototypes, a critical element of human centered design used by the Lab. Learners helped to identify five key insights that include areas for improvement, potential barriers, and successes of the prototypes based on their experiences. Hearing directly from core stakeholders such as learners, employers, faculty, and others is a core component of designing micro-pathways as a new type of model that makes learning and skills visible, portable, flexible, relevant, and affordable.


Five Key Insights from Learners:

1. Learners need practical pathways with a clear return on investment (ROI)

“I think if people even knew about the job and knew how much it paid. I think that would encourage a lot of people. Because let’s be honest, I think money motivates people. It motivates me.”

“I wasn’t aware of the other opportunities my [credential] would lead to. I thought once I got my [credential], that was it. I would be interested in learning a lot more about that and I would bet that a lot of other drivers, after so many hours and so many miles, would be too.”

Learners appreciated the clear return on investment demonstrated in the micro-pathway prototypes. Understanding the total cost of pathways, in both time and money, as well as the value gained from the pathway was a key benefit of the micro-pathways. In order to understand that value, learners emphasized a need for high-level details from the outset of the program including skills, educational and career steps, and job opportunities. Having a roadmap of potential growth was highly valued by learners and often unavailable in traditional degree programs. Learners also appreciated the involvement of employer partners in the micro-pathway experience and wanted to be confident that employers would hire micro-pathway completers.

Learners also stated an appreciation for the focus on certifications as it provides a quick, feasible, and low barrier way to enter into the industry.

2. Learners need flexible micro-pathways that meet them where they are in their journey

“In the COVID world, more offerings being online, making it more flexible, where you don’t have to travel to the campus…I think that would make this even more attractive.”

“If I’m a practicing nurse, shouldn’t that hold weight? It has taken my journey, in particular, five years. If I had gone to [a 4-year university] I would have a bachelor’s degree in the time that I’ve spent at [CC] because it took me three years retaking things that I felt I didn’t need to retake because I’m a working full time nurse. I’m not only doing pediatrics, but I’m ex-Navy. I’ve got a lot of different experiences.”

Learners noted that they appreciated flexibility offered in these micro-pathways. This meant flexibility in format and timing of offerings, but also meeting the learner where they are in their journey. A working learner may need flexibility in their course hours because of their employment but may also need a pathway that can adequately account for and acknowledge their previous experience and skills. This requires designing micro-pathways that are offered in multiple delivery modalities that accomodate the life circumstances of learners.

3. Learners highly value hands-on and work-based experiences

“COVID screwed a lot of things up for the IT students because you really need hands-on experience. And I think what [CC] offers right now for the hands-on experience, it’s good, but, of course, COVID ruined everything. So I think if we get back on it [in-person], for hands-on experience, it’s really good.”

Learners viewed hands-on and work-based experience as highly valuable and necessary to gaining employment in their goal industry. In sessions for micro-pathways that did not include an explicit work-based experience opportunity (e.g. apprenticeship or internship) learners noted a need for including one. Learners also emphasized ensuring that work-based experiences with employers involved learners gaining real technical experience for their goal occupation.

4. Learners value opportunities to interact with industry professionals

“Having industry recruiters and department heads come and visit with the class and explain what their companies do and what kind of entry level positions they are looking to hire for was one of the best parts of the class. Having people that are actually ground floor explaining to you what it would really look like to get you in the door…would be crucially valuable.”

Learners viewed opportunities to interact with industry professionals as the most valuable parts of their courses and programs. These experiences provided them with opportunities to familiarize themselves with on-the-job expectations, skills, and more.

5. Learners need an advocate or supporter to help navigate their educational + career steps

“Our teacher was an engineer at one of the local companies here in town. He gave me some advice about things that should be on my resume so that I was able to find a job in the tech field.”

Learners noted a need for navigational support across the ecosystem and throughout their program, and upon completion and transition into the workforce.  Currently, many find that support in instructors or faculty but many noted an interest in deepened engagement and touchpoints with those  who work in their goal industry.


Next Steps for the CCGEF Cohort

Over the coming weeks, the CCGEF cohort institutions will continue to receive feedback for each of their selected micro-pathway occupations. Using the feedback identified during these sessions, institutional design teams made up of college administration and faculty will iterate  the design of their pathways and continue to build targeted learner supports. Learners will continue to be actively involved in the design process as co-designers to ensure that their needs are being met.

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