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A Year of Transformation: the Lab in 2020

This year has been a reckoning. Knowing that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of economic transformation and further exposed our broken systems is not news. Amidst the trauma, tragedy, and uncertainty of unemployment, job loss, and mass housing and food insecurity, we’re watching the economy shift and opportunity gaps for underinvested-in learners widen, especially for those who are black, brown, or underpaid and living in poverty. 

This crisis in combination with racial uprisings across the country is an opportunity for us to think and do differently. And, strangely, these twin realities have expedited the efforts of colleges, foundations, employers, and states to design for New Majority Learners and workers. So, now, we are at an inflection point. Many year-end pieces have pointed to a quote Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote on the eve of the Russian Revolution: “There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.” 

The Lab was founded under a moral imperative to center learners and workers who have been and continue to be excluded and minoritized. And, over the last year, we’ve tried to lean into the increased interest to redesign a school-to-work ecosystem that works for the majority of Americans. Together with our partners, we’ve launched 15 new pilots that put underinvested-in learners—including single mothers, learners of color, frontline incumbent retail workers, transfer students, first-generation and adult learners, and underpaid and underemployed workers—on a trajectory toward meaningful careers and higher wage earnings. We’ve been on the ground, albeit remotely, with 440+ institutions and organizations, 530+ higher ed leaders, 90+ employers, 400+ participants and stakeholders, and 3,000+ learners to bring programs and pathways to life that are more affordable, relevant, portable, and visible for learners. 


In 2020, we….


Launched an Accelerator to Co-design + Test Micro-pathways with Community Colleges

Micro-pathway showing potential credentialing path for an aspiring Associate Supervisor at a healthcare clinic. Learn more about the Lab’s micro-pathways here.

The pandemic has presented a need for short-term skilling and reskilling opportunities, and has pushed us toward designing a new class of credentials with an important set of quality criteria. Community colleges are in a unique position to drive these credentialing opportunities and address the increasing opportunity gaps experienced in today’s workforce. Launched in August, the Community College Growth Engine Fund is an accelerator to work with six community colleges and systems in designing, testing, piloting, and scaling a total of 18 micro-pathways to connect learners with in-demand jobs.

What have we learned thus far? A single data system does not exist—no one can tell the entire story of a learner’s journey from education into work. More importantly, no one can point to the effects and impacts of specific programs on different learner communities (for example, how do we know which higher ed programs positively benefit or hurt black women?). What’s next? In 2021, the Fund’s inaugural cohort of institutions will move through a multi-stakeholder design process to build and test their micro-pathways.


Joined with Strada to Facilitate a National Impact Coalition in Response to COVID-19

An overview of some of the leaders involved in Strada’s National Impact Coalition.

In May, we joined with Strada Education Network to facilitate design sessions with Strada’s National Impact Coalition, a collective of nearly 60 leaders in education, philanthropy, and the workforce. Together, the Coalition is collaborating on approaches to address key needs brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, while working to define a shared path forward.


Launched a New Initiative to Close Employment Gaps for Rural Learners

In July, we facilitated a remote design session with researchers and thought leaders in rural education. Our hot start? Asking our participants, “What would you bring to a barbecue?”

Rural communities in the U.S. are as diverse as the geographies they represent, yet overall, rural learners experience greater disparities at each stage of the education-to-workforce pipeline relative to their urban and suburban peers. As a result, these communities have lower postsecondary educational attainment, persistent poverty, and declines in employment for prime working-age adults across many rural areas. With support from Ascendium Education Group, the Lab has launched BRIDGES Rural, an initiative with five rural community colleges to explore what it means to respond to their regional labor markets and enable greater economic agility for their learners and communities.

In light of the pandemic, we’re asking: How might we leverage the resulting flight for remote-enabled workers to live rurally while investing in the assets of rural communities? Having announced our inaugural cohort this past month, the design phase of our work with BRIDGES Rural officially kicks off on January 19.


Designed + Tested a Remote Summer Internship Experience for High School Students with D.C. Public Schools

The Lab’s Creativity for COVID team and student participants.

When the pandemic first hit, we watched the opportunity for in-person summer internships disappear completely. One program in particular, Washington D.C.’s Summer Youth Employment Program was turnkey in providing students with valuable training and work experience, helping to open doors to future employment and create valuable networks. In response, we teamed up with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) to launch Creativity for COVID to re-imagine what a remote summer internship could look like for 100+ high school students. One thing became clear: We need to flip the model of internships so that employers act as clients not hosts, and learners act as consultants not interns. We know that internships will become even more selective over the next couple of years, providing opportunities to fewer students. So, unless we change the model, hundreds of thousands of students will face a historically tight job market without marketable experience and skills.

What’s next? Rolling out and testing this new program with other universities and K-12 systems, starting with American University in February.


Designed + Introduced vsbl, a New Platform for Our Partners to Deliver the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials

Learn more and sign-up for free.

Over the last six years, we’ve co-designed and validated our 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials with 800+ institutions, employers, and learners. To better serve our partners, we launched vsbl, a new platform to better maintain and improve our content, seamlessly deploy options for delivering the Lab’s Micro-credentials, and track and understand outcomes of our 21st century skills competency framework. Come next year, we’ll be rolling out more features based on learnings from piloting the platform, including opportunities for automatic, next-generation skill assessments.


Launched New Learning Models Co-created with Single Mother Learners at Four Community Colleges Across the Country

This past Valentine’s Day, we celebrated the deep love single mother learners have for their children, sharing quotes and notes from single mother learners enrolled at our Single Moms Success schools.

Despite making up 11% of all undergraduate students and nearly half of the parent learner population in college today, single mother learners are rarely the focus of educational programming. Only 28% of single mother learners earn a degree or credential within six years, but each additional level of education they complete decreases their chances of living in poverty by 32%. Launched in 2018 with support from the ECMC Foundation, the Lab’s Single Moms Success initiative aims to co-design learner-centric solutions for single mother learners at four community colleges, aiming to improve attainment rates by 30% at each institution by 2024. Now, we’re watching institutions reimagine what learning and work can look like together: Bespoke learn-and-earn models can best support single moms in meeting the goals that matter most to them, while still allowing them to provide for their families. Each institution in our cohort has been rolling out elements of their pilots over the last year, with full pilot programs to launch in fall 2021. 


Partnered with 60+ Colleges to Award 100s of 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials to Learners

We teamed up with the University of Dayton to issue our 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials to their student body. As part of their rollout, the University of Dayton’s Institute of Applied Creativity for Transformation (IACT) produced a series of explainers showcasing how each of these micro-credentials focuses on teaching learners applied skills that employers are seeking.

Over the last few years, we’ve worked with learning providers and employers to operationalize micro-credentialing strategies to make learning more visible, portable, stackable, career-enhancing, and machine-readable. Now, the demand for 21st century skills is at a fever pitch. This year alone, 100s of the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials have been awarded to learners across 60+ institutions. And, we’re seeing our partners use the Lab’s Micro-credentialing Toolkit in phenomenal ways. Just one example: Unity in Africa, a South African learning provider, has adopted the Lab’s competency framework to further substantiate their STEM content to prepare engineers to move from 11th grade through tertiary education.

What’s next? As people seek to retool to get themselves back into the workforce, higher ed institutions will need to shift in how they deliver skilling and reskilling opportunities, and accompanying credentials. To meet this, we’re focusing our 2021 micro-credentialing efforts on substantiating digital discoverability.


Piloted a System for Embedding Data within Learner Credentials to Connect Employer Needs with Edu Program Offerings

Pre-pandemic working session with employers and higher ed administrators to skills map competencies based on employment and current curriculum.

Connection points, communication, and translation channels between educational institutions and employers, and learners and in-demand jobs have long been siloed and fragmented. Launched in 2019, Wellspring, a multi-phase project led by IMS Global Learning Consortium, seeks to build an ecosystem based on learner visibility and digital discoverability. Over this last year, the Lab successfully led a team of employers and educators to map and digitally link competencies, demonstrating that machine-readable linked data can connect employer talent needs with educational program offerings, and ultimately do so through a learner’s credentials.

What we’ve learned thus far: To scale this skills data ecosystem, three gaps must be addressed: (1) education curricula must explicitly tie to job requirements; (2) local and regional job variations must be taken into account to maintain validity; and (3) use of common, preferred skills terminology when applicable can positively increase the understanding of skill descriptions. Phase two of this work in 2021 will focus on furthering the competency frameworks, conducting employer research, and prototyping software that identifies how credentials are created, shared, and consumed.


Scaled the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials Across Three U.S. Regions

Central New Mexico Community College quickly mobilized to use the Lab’s Micro-credentials to equip local workforces—including frontline emergency workers—with critical 21st century skills at the start of the pandemic in March.

Through our BadgedToHire initiative, we’re testing the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials as a hiring signal with employers by bringing to scale three micro-credentialing initiatives at the University of Maine System, Central New Mexico Community College, and San Jose State University. One key insight: While the integration of micro-credentials into credit-based opportunities is a useful model, exploration of direct delivery within non-credit structures can be more readily responsive to the local needs of learners and employers. BadgedToHire will continue through 2021 to further expand the delivery of these credentials through additional models and further substantiate direct relationships with employers across each of our partner institutions.


Partnered with Goodwill Industry International to Co-design a Field Guide for Testing Tools + Resources at Local Goodwill Locations

Affinity mapping key learnings from a multi-part gallery walk with the Goodwill Opportunity Accelerator Workgroup.

Goodwill Industry International serves more than 25 million individuals worldwide and has aided more than 230,000 people in training for careers. Like many of our partners, Goodwill has witnessed a shift in workforce demand and launched the 2020 Goodwill Opportunity Accelerator in response to provide curriculum, tools, and resources for local Goodwill stores to best serve their employees. In support, the Lab launched a Summer of Design program to work with the Goodwill Opportunity Accelerator workgroup to curate a Field Test Guide for testing tools and resources to best serve program participants, and ultimately, the thousands of people that Goodwill serves through career training.


Partnered with UNCF + 22 HBCUs to Strengthen Career Outcomes + Lifelong Learning Experience for Their Learners

Left to right: LeMoyne-Owen College’s first iteration of their prototype for an online program focused on 21st century skills development. A flashback to pre-pandemic convenings with faculty from our first UNCF Career Pathways Initiative ACCELERATE cohort.

Since April 2018, the Lab has collaborated with UNCF to accelerate the development of programs that will strengthen the capacity of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly Black institutions (PBI) to meet students’ career development needs now and in the future. UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) is a comprehensive effort to support 24 of these colleges and universities as they pursue institutional transformation to enhance career outcomes for black and brown graduates. Over the last year, the Lab has doubled down on its work with UNCF to: accelerate the launch of CPI pilots with an initial cohort of 14 institutions, kick-off a second cohort of eight institutions, and reimagine the potential of HBCUs as liberal arts innovation centers with four colleges and universities seeking to strengthen a culture of lifelong learning. Early next year, we’ll share a series of insights briefs from our work with the initial 14 schools, alongside additional learnings from our continued partnership with UNCF. 


Scaled UpSkilling Pathways to Reach 100+ Goodwill San Antonio Incumbent Retail Workers

San Antonio, Texas, is the second fastest growing city in the nation and its 18.6% poverty rate is the highest among the 25 most populous U.S. Metropolitan Areas. Lower-wage jobs dominate the job market and a mismatch of skills and employer needs is a barrier to social mobility. In May 2019, we launched UpSkill SA! in collaboration with Goodwill San Antonio, Alamo Colleges Online, Palo Alto College, and SA Works to design, test, and launch two upskilling pathways that position incumbent frontline retail workers with the skills necessary to advance to higher-wage, middle-skilled jobs: SkillsBooster and Certificate Plus. In response to the pandemic, both SkillsBooster and Certificate Plus needed adapting to meet emerging learner needs. Each welcomed a second cohort, scaling the pathways to a total of more than 100 learners. 


Introduced a Learner-centered Guided Pathways Model with Washington State College System

Community and technical college leaders joined us in-person in January to dive head first into learner-centered design.

The guided pathways model has long been used by institutions seeking to better the experience of their transfer students. However, it has long-needed to be reimagined through the lens of the learners it seeks to serve. Earlier this year, we partnered with the Washington state college system to ask: How might we co-design a more informed guided pathways model that centers our learners and their unique needs? And, how might these pathways integrate with non-transfer specific pathways? The Washington state system institutions are currently implementing their reimagined models.







So, in the very small department of silver linings, we see one opportunity. A growing collective will to not “return to normal.” As we reflect and look forward, join us in asking: How do we not return to normal? Share your vision for the future of learn-to-work with us on Twitter @eddesignlab.

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