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The Lab Looks Back at 2021: A Year of Resilience, Collaboration + Innovation

Together, We Found a Gateway to Community College Transformation … and 7 More Breakthroughs of 2021

As we head into the fourth surge of the COVID-19 virus that was supposed to be “over” by that first summer, it’s hard to be positive about the past two years. 

But … it has to be said … COVID has been the mother of invention and incredible driver for innovation on the part of the “intra-preneur” heroes in higher education. 

To support students in crisis, you have pushed the boundaries of flexible and portable learning. To get access to the federal and state funding flowing in, you have forged partnerships across the “learner journey” with high school districts, workforce investment boards, employer groups and intermediaries. 

Particularly for new majority learners, you are repackaging learning opportunities to be more flexible, affordable, relevant, portable, and visible to help displaced workers build agile skills portfolios.  And you did it all under threat to your own personal health and well-being. 

We are awed as we close this difficult year by your resilience, at how you accelerated the pace of innovation on behalf of your students.  

The Lab would like to name some of the 2021 innovations we witnessed and were humbled to be a part of: 


1. Together, we found a possible gateway to community college transformation: Micro-pathways

The Community College Growth Engine Fund, led by Dr. Lisa Larson, is the Lab’s design accelerator that was set up just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into a future role as regional talent agents in a skills-based economy. Six of the nation’s largest community colleges and systems joined the Fund’s first cohort, surpassing their goals by designing 30 micro-pathways in 2021. What are micro-pathways? These stackable, employer-validated credentials take less than a year to earn and connect low-wage and entry-level workers to in-demand jobs that pay at-or-above median wage. Lab founder Kathleen DeLaski and Lee Lambert, chancellor of Pima Community College, argue that micro-pathways are the gateway to community college transformation in this CCDaily essay.

What’s next: Community college leaders, employers, funders, and learners will share their progress during the CCGEF National Convening on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (Register here for the free, virtual event.) Also happening on Jan. 19: The Lab will announce the community colleges joining Cohort 2 and release the Fund’s first Design Insights Brief, which can spark action at your own college.


2. Together, we’re re-imagining higher ed’s role in regional ecosystem transformation

In 2021, the Lab assembled a cohort of 12 higher education leaders as Designers in Residence to tackle this critical question: How might higher education strengthen and evolve to better drive regional ecosystem alignment?

Through a process of ecosystem mapping, we gained the critical takeaway: Partnerships that are strongest are not connected merely by regional geography. Rather, the strongest ecosystem partnerships are those that are connected by a shared vision, collective goal, and transcend a time-bound contract. Partnerships rooted in a shared vision enable proactive rather than reactive planning and are more likely to outlast leadership transitions, staff turnover and short-term funding. 

What’s next: We look forward to publishing our actionable framework for higher education’s role in regional ecosystems transformation in 2022, and we can’t wait to share how our Designers in Residence are putting these levers into action. A few are already leading the national conversation, including Dr. Michael Baston of Rockland Community College and Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook of Southern New Hampshire University. 


3. Together, we’re sharpening design tools to meaningfully engage earner-learners

In 2021, The Lab published a major paper and hosted a webinar about the Learner Engagement Framework, which explains the three key drivers of engagement: Growth, belonging, and agency. The paper shares recommendations to help educators better support new majority learners

What’s next: In 2022, we will more deeply integrate the framework in our design process and work with national partners to make it more accessible to educators, employers and Lab partners through webinars and short courses.


4. Together, we’re designing with and for even more employers

In 2021, the Lab was ecstatic to work with employers across various projects, from the Business Roundtable, to our 11-college micro-pathway initiative, and to a “general education of the future” project with Western Governors University. We also released our popular Employer Engagement Guidebook for the Design + Delivery of Micro-pathways.

We continue to work with employers to identify the core combination of 21st century and technical skills needed for specific job roles with our T-Profile tool. In our analysis of 100+ profiles, we can name the most in-demand 21st century skills by employers across more than a dozen industries in 2021:

  • Initiative
  • Collaboration
  • Oral Communication


What’s next: We will make our T-profile tool more tech-enabled, which will allow us to double the size of our library, to make the data publicly available, and continue to drive the conversation around the importance of 21st century skills and for employers to be more precise about the right combination of 21st century skills and technical skills. Employers are clearly hungry for new credentials and assessments to validate these less tangible skills that are so valuable in the fast-changing, ambiguous workplaces of today and tomorrow. We’re ready to help them!


5. Together, we’re helping earner-learners make their hidden skills more visible

In summer 2021, we launched XCredit — or “Experience Credit” — an initiative to capture and validate in-demand (but often hidden) skills so that the credential-earner can showcase their skills to employers, indicate fit for job roles, and increase their economic mobility. So far, we’ve learned people’s lived and work experiences are diverse and sometimes do not show up on their resumes; the opportunities to validate their many skills is a burgeoning opportunity space. No one validation method will align to and capture the breadth of people’s experiences, but we are leading the way to build and test a system to do this.

What’s next: In 2022, we move from prototypes to piloting with military and civilian populations, while continuing to build out our suite of skill validation tools and methods.


6. Together, we’re shaping the skills-based ecosystem

We are very proud of our work with Open Skills Network to take our foundational 21st century skills digital micro-credential competency framework into a digitized format called Rich Skills Descriptors that will catalyze learner-earners’ visibility of achieved skills.

There were many lessons learned: 

  1. The value of an “open” skills library with rich details and a common language about the 21st century skills in a digital format. 
  2. Deeper, boundary-spanning partnerships are essential and help guide the thinking on how we can best operationalize our digital micro-credentials in ways that will transform the value of these credentials in the hiring process.
  3. The Lab has a presence and responsibility as a magnetizing connector for the different ecosystem stakeholders across ed tech, philanthropy, higher ed, K-12, and more.


What’s next: Additional pilots with the Open Skills Network are underway. We’ve expanded our work with international partners and are leveraging the developed Rich Skills Descriptor collectors in multiple skills and program systems to provide access to our framework at scale.


7. Together, we’re designing for today’s teens to be career-ready

College enrollment continues to decline, and young people are navigating a new world with different ways to learn and all types of postsecondary options. 

In 2021, the Lab partnered with the Best Buy Social Impact team on a four-month design sprint focused on expanding postsecondary programming for today’s teens attending Best Buy Teen Tech Centers across the country. 

The Lab also launched Propel Polk!, a first-in-the-nation pilot to teach 21st century skills to Polk County (Florida) high school students, who will receive digital micro-credentials for their resumes. The ultimate goal of this pilot is to see how the intentional teaching of 21st century skills can increase rates of graduation, job placement, and higher education matriculation.

What’s next: We will continue elevating the voices of teenage learners in the design work across the Lab. 


8. Together, we’re learning to design virtually

The pandemic may have disrupted our in-person design sessions, but we were able to engage so many different stakeholders in the virtual space, especially in our BRIDGES Rural project. Participants who may not have had the ability to join — or felt as comfortable sharing in person — were empowered in 2021.

We learned to be unafraid of trying a new platform or tool — and to feel free to experiment or even fail forward.

The Lab’s in-person team retreat in December became a hybrid learning experience, as we simultaneously worked on strategic questions both in person and virtually. 

What’s next: Hybrid design! As much as we value our virtual experience, so much comes from stepping on to a new campus and learning even more about the places and the spaces that are supporting learners and communities.


The Lab’s 8 Media Highlights for 2021:


  1. Community College Daily: Have we found the gateway to transform community colleges?
  2. Axios: A conversation on innovation in learning
  3. Inside Higher Ed: Reimagining Supports to Help Single Moms
  4. The Washington Post: Opinion: Prince George’s students don’t need credentials to nowhere
  5. Inside Higher Ed: From Crisis Comes Opportunity
  6. Work Shift: A new take on certifying ‘soft’ skills—first for veterans, then everyone
  7. Fierce Education: Investing in Two-Year Colleges to Support Rural Communities
  8. Real Clear Education: Funding Community Colleges and Embracing Micro-credentials is an Equity Mandate


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