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Passing the baton: Reflections from Lab Founder Kathleen deLaski

Kathleen deLaski (in the front row) and team co-designing with learners at George Mason University in January 2014, during the Lab’s first design challenge.
Kathleen deLaski began prototyping the Education Design Lab in 2012 with a passionate group of innovators inside and outside of higher education. They incorporated as a national nonprofit in 2013 and haven’t looked back … until now. When Kathleen decided in early 2021 that she wanted to encourage a new generation of executive leadership, the Lab’s Board began a national search and chose Bill Hughes to succeed Kathleen. He began as President last fall, and takes over as CEO on Aug. 1, 2022. Kathleen will remain involved as Board Chair and as a senior advisor.

How do you mark the end of something? Like other baton-passing founders, I am surprised by my own strong instincts to eulogize about my decade developing and growing the Education Design Lab. I’m not sure why, partly because it feels like the capstone of a 40-year career and I need to make sense of it in that context. But partly because, under our next talented leader, Bill Hughes, the Lab will evolve, as organizations do and should, as this emerging field of equitable skills-based learning and hiring comes into its own. In Google Maps terms, I suppose I am dropping a pin in the journey to mark a midpoint destination, not knowing the next destination for me or the Lab.

And that is the odd thing about birthing a nonprofit, rather than a book, a painting, a family foundation or even a privately held company. My ending is a handoff, a book with many more chapters to be written. And so, call me a political creature … a third-generation Washingtonian who cut my teeth in journalism at ABC News, politics as a political appointee at the Department of Defense, navigating early tech-bro culture at AOL, brand management at Sallie Mae. I was taught: At least try to control the narrative of your own journey.

So, to honor all those who inspired and grew the Lab, here are a few “chapter outlines” to chronicle my take on the Lab’s beginning, the start of an experiment that became a series of pilots that became a movement…. A community of committed social entrepreneurs where I had my favorite job ever and met many of my best friends.

Chapter 1: Premise building: The broken pipeline

In the beginning … in 2012 … we gathered a group of like-minded people who were passionate about higher education and what the stats were painfully showing: a new majority of learners were being left behind. It was the year of the MOOCs, “disruption” was in the air and in the pocketbooks of the venture capitalist scouts. I was a governor-appointed board member for George Mason University in Virginia, Chairman of the Academic Affairs Committee. And even though our tagline was “Where Innovation is Tradition,” we struggled to move a huge public institution to new ways of addressing equity and new models of education. And, weirdly, it felt like a race against time. How do we disrupt ourselves before the private market changes the education game forever?

Our premise started picking up steam: If we believed education was the best lever for economic mobility, and we knew that 60% of Americans do not attain a degree and our shortage of skilled workers gets worse every year, how might public institutions change to serve these needs? This single graphic compelled a lot of people to stand with us in the beginning and ask “How Might We…”

From the Lab’s first website home page, 2013.

The Lab was incubated at George Mason University the first year, thanks to the senior team there and President Angel Cabrera feeling strongly about exploring what an “inclusive” public university might accomplish. We road-tested our concept for a “design challenge,” meant to bring all parts of a college together to reimagine a problem or barrier through the eyes of what we later termed “new majority learners.” The first challenge, “How might we capture learning outside the classroom in ways that will be meaningful to employers?,” was seen as exploration of how to level the hiring playing field for learners who had to work outside of school (and thus couldn’t land unpaid career-related internships) or whose best resume skills came from lived experience. That challenge led to our internationally recognized framework for 21st century skill assessment, our eight-year badging campaign, and now, “XCredit.”

Chapter 2: Finding our people

It turns out people are the key. Which makes sense, since the Lab was founded on the principles of human-centered design, and the mission has always been how to unleash human potential by reimagining education and training equitably.

In our world, it takes two kinds of people to make the magic: Intra-preneurs at institutions and education designers to support and facilitate empathy, experimentation, and transformation.

We have learned through our Innovator Network that the Lab is most beloved for being a “strategic friend” to those innovators at colleges who want to be pushing their teams and leadership toward transformation, but they sometimes feel lonely and in need of a toolkit, a methodology, or an intervention. I love how my LinkedIn network has become a sort of “Dear Abby” for public college warriors trying to do what they can inside a bureaucracy. I think of Luke Dowden, who approached me at a conference five years ago, and is today leading the country in micro-credentialing strategy with and for the San Antonio community college system. Or, an assistant director of Employer Relations at a public college in Louisiana, just starting his journey, who writes, “How do I up the game with employers?” And now employers are writing to us as well, wanting to design from the other end of the hiring pipeline.

The other group that makes me beam proudly: Our own designers and the small part we have played in defining a new cross-competency job role for social impact organizations. What is an education designer? We have shaped the role to include four key competency categories: (1) Human-centered design facilitation, (2) storytelling/marketing, (3) product/project management, and (4) innovation strategy. It also helps if our designers have spent time in more than one sector, e.g., higher ed, business, nonprofit, government.

What is the work?

1. Helping stakeholders build a shared understanding of the needs and motivations of New Majority Learners and other “customers,” particularly employers.

2. Facilitating a testable, viable roadmap for change.

The first goal requires skills in empathy, facilitation, and creativity to draw out decisive insights and motivational storytelling. The second goal takes strategy, innovation, partnership development, implementation, and prototyping skills to move new prototypes and pilots forward in large and resource-constrained institutions. And we know we are getting it right, because our partners and the field are often hiring away our talent.

My heart brims with pride (and battle scars) losing our beloved team members to far larger organizations. But they go on to really cool roles like Chief Innovation Officer at the U.S. Department of Labor, Chief of Staff at the federal Employment and Training Administration, Head of Design at Calbright College, President of Centri Tech Foundation, Vice President of Economic Mobility and Workforce Innovation at Rockland Community College. And that’s just naming a few. It reminds me of a talk I heard before the Great Resignation, where the dynamic speaker was telling all us CEOs that our best employee value proposition should be: “We’ll help you get your next job.” Easier said than done, enduring the churn. But in our case, I think it’s because we’ve helped create a new job role: social impact designer, and many, many organizations see ours in action and want that mix of skill sets.

Chapter 3: Proof of concept

When we started the Lab, there were few models for social impact design processes. IDEO and a few consulting firms and researchers, like the fabulous Jeanne Liedtka, gave us some direction. But with immeasurable early help from design thinker Dawan Stanford, we attempted to build what we believe to be the first “vertical” in social impact design, a whole organization devoted to “designing education toward the future of work.” Our sturdy tagline has served us well. Our 2014 prediction of “The Learner Revolution” has played out in several ways. We no longer have to pitch the unbundling of higher education for the benefit of inclusivity. It’s happening all around us. And we seldom have to pitch the value of human-centered design as a valuable tool to rethink what learners want and need.

A human-centered design process encourages you to form a question, build an understanding of the user, test through prototypes, pilot, and launch. Our partners, mostly at colleges, have co-designed 100 pilots, 24 have gone to scale, and 22,000 learners have so far felt the direct impact of a new model or process aimed at breaking down the barriers for everyone to have a shot at meeting their own career and life goals. Some of our scaling initiatives include: The Community College Growth Engine Fund, which forms communities of practice around rethinking the degree as a series of “micro-pathways” to allow learners ultimate flexibility to come in and out of the workforce with meaningful credentials. Our BRIDGES design challenge has helped rural areas remap their many assets with the community college as a driver.

(Here’s a list of the Lab’s top 25 design challenges.)

And the Lab’s barrier-busting innovation agenda for the future is exciting as we have drawn in dozens of regions, cities, states, and employer-led groups to approach these new models across systems and other stakeholders.

So, this is where my staff-level story ends. A few more chapters of the Lab’s journey could be foreshadowed, and I point to the paper we released this spring: Skills Visibility: Why and How a Skills-Based Economy Can be More Equitable. But it is not for me to predict. My new role as Board Chair of the Lab will be an excellent perch from which to support Bill Hughes and share the amazing ride with our diversely talented and generous team. I have not determined what my next pursuits will be beyond the Lab. I am convinced that our increasingly complex world needs more social impact designers. I want to help nurture them to “fight back” across today’s soul-crushing set of global issues. I believe that having the ability to break down big, hairy, audacious problems into smaller human-centered design questions, and tackling those, actually provides the thing that doomsday scrolling is sapping us of. And that’s hope.

Influencers along the way

The Lab’s vision was helped by a broad array of thinkers beyond the Lab (to name a few): by Tom Friedman and his 2011 book, “That Used to Be Us,” about America sinking under the weight of its increasingly complex problems; by Jim Shelton at his desk at the Department of Education saying that we need a DARPA for education; Steve Case (my former boss) and his book about how the “Third Wave” of the digital revolution would require entrepreneurs to prioritize people, partnerships and policy; Antoinette Carroll and the Creative Reaction Lab’s equity design work that centers on shifting our institutional power to others; Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”: “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” Michael Peter Edson, at the United Nations at the time, telling us to persevere: “We need new organizations, nimble and responsive, that can initiate and manage the problem-solving in between and among aging bureaucracies.” And Michael Crow, Paul LeBlanc, Sue Ellspermann, and Michael Sorrell at Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire universities, Ivy Tech Community College, and Paul Quinn College showing us how a college can reinvent itself at scale.

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