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The Lab is 3 years old! What’s Your Birthday Wish?

When does a start-up stop being one? It’s been three years this week since we created the official non-profit to formalize the work the Education Design Lab had been doing for a year already. It’s a great moment to look back to ask ourselves if we are demonstrating the “plausibility of the possible” or drinking from the spiked water cooler.

We should start with the top FAQ we get. Education. Design. Lab. “Those words are cool, what do you do?”

Lab designer Binh Do leading students in a session at Western Governors University this week on peer engagement in competency based programs.

First and foremost, we have become a non-profit design consulting practice, one that uses a combination of learning experiences and expert design teams to move trends from discussion to prototypes.  To date, we’ve helped 60+ universities/colleges or their senior administrators look through a student lens to design new approaches to aspects of higher education. Everything from virtual cyber internships for veterans to teaching and learning solutions aimed at increasing attainment for high need students. I am surprised to see that, even today, we appear to be the only design organization focused on any particular social mission: ours is the broken K-12 to work pipeline.

Second, we find ourselves in the vanguard of a national or international advocacy effort on the changing higher education landscape. When people call us, it’s not only to hire us for a design challenge, but because they want to join us, quite literally. They are looking for fellow travellers, even, in some cases, a new job outside the ossified silos of their ivory tower. One college president wrote to me recently, “ You have ignited such a movement. The Lab’s dream will benefit so many.” 

Third, to meet our mission, we target white spaces that the market is not solving for.  Our 21st century skills micro-credential challenge has tremendous potential success and has sparked interest from around the world. We’ve had a little luck so far with raising pools of money to help innovators move from theory to action in some of the toughest but most promising areas, such as  affordable hybrid pathways in hot industries, like hospitality or cyber-security.

Finally, we found that schools, universities, and innovators, once introduced to the  discipline of design-driven innovation for co-creating new models, want training in this method of inquiry and action for their administrators, faculty and students. So, are we a new style learning organization, or should we be, as we all grapple with creating the horizontal axis of learning to supplement the current vertical disciplines? We’re helping several institutions build a culture of design-driven innovation and partnered with Arizona State University and Georgetown University to create an Academy of Innovation in Higher Ed Leadership.

As a former TV journalist, I am always trying to reduce my work to pictures. Our team worked this summer on a visualization of the “wicked problem” in higher education. This is a primitive graphic as it only tackles attrition numbers in the pipeline. Issues of cost, access, time and relevance, causal factors behind the data, are admittedly not captured.

But we used this “wicked problem” as wallpaper to map some of our biggest design projects to see where our work clusters and remind ourselves where we need to push for more innovation.


In this work, it’s important to remind ourselves that these are early days. It is still early for us to have outcomes data for the prototypes that we are helping institutions design. In many cases, our wins are still about improving process, e.g. building stakeholder engagement capacity, helping schools ask the right questions, rapidly prototyping multiple solutions, expanding growth mindset and change leadership skills, or simply clearly mapping and rethinking student journeys. So, I guess we are still a start-up, because we only have early examples of what works; most of our projects have been underway for six months to two years.  We need to hold ourselves accountable to follow through and also to share what we are learning broadly to accelerate the rate of failure and success.

We can say that in our community, with our Innovator Network of 600 collaborators and interested parties, we’ve gone from talking breathlessly about the coming disruption of higher education to funding and building bridges to that future in the form of experiments.

At a Kennedy Center convening we helped organize on creative problem solving recently, one big thinker, who works with the UN, said, ”the world is becoming so complex that our institutions are not nimble enough, and they can’t problem solve at the current rate of change. They will be left behind. “That got me thinking about how our informal network operates. Are we nimble enough to work at the rate of change in a regulated sector, one that’s regulated for good reasons? We do want to celebrate intre-preneurs inside institutions who can bring along their 500 year old traditions to blend with the new “nimblists.” I want to spend this year building more proof points. If you want to give us a present on our third birthday, light a candle and give us a wish. We always start a project by scoping a design question. What’s your design question and how can we approach it nimbly?

Some members of the Lab team celebrating our birthday in Washington DC this week.
Some members of the Lab team celebrating our birthday in Washington DC this week .

-Kathleen deLaski

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