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What do learners want?

Why did MOOCs create such a stir a few years back? Why are bootcamps all the rage now? We are all looking for potential shortcuts to career success for the learner who doesn’t have access to or time for traditional learning. At least that’s the vision. (The current reality is that much of the early demand for MOOCs and boot camps has come from college degree holders, who feel they need retro-fitting.)

These trends are still nascent. But the rise of competency-based education is fueling speculation that the stackable, flexible, “stop-in-stop-out” degree or other meaningful pathway to the first career or second-third-fourth career is coming soon to a fiber optic line near you. Are we ready?

Collectively, we have not done a good job of articulating how this should or will look from the students’ or employers’ point of view. In design parlance, we call those design criteria. There is some design work ramping up to develop sub degree credentialing so that students can have the “credit currency” to build their own “stack” of coursework, certificates and experiences to prepare for one or more careers. See the Lab’s blogs, like Who Needs Micro-Credentials Most?, or Connecting Credentials and Lumina Foundation’s Beta Credential Framework, or Connecting Credentials’ Credentialing Engine. But for the learner’s journey from first course to career-worthy credentials, we haven’t gotten very far past imagining how boot camps might extend beyond coding or how MOOCs might be delivered for credit.

It is daunting. The Lab decided a year ago to start visualizing possibilities with a design challenge in one city and one sector: How might we create visible, flexible, alternative academic and training pathways within the Washington DC hospitality industry? We have learned a lot about at least what learners and employers want, and what is missing from the ecosystem. At first, you ask yourself, “If employers in the fastest growing industry need workers, and unemployed learners need jobs, why can’t we just put them together to make the up-skilling happen?

Learners have no idea what pathways are available to them short of getting a degree. They have no idea that their work experience and life experience might be credit-worthy.

In the current system, we encountered students’ (both 18-24 year-olds and older) confusion and apprehension with what will prepare them for success, training provider concern to align to the most critical skills, and employer frustration with the employee preparedness and retention.


What Do Learners Want: Make Pathways Visible and Flexible


Learners have no idea what pathways are available to them short of getting a degree. They have no idea that their work experience and life experience might be credit-worthy. Any new pathway for “opportunity youth,” 16-24 year olds who may not currently be working on a degree, include: Training programs, apprenticeships should be helping me toward a degree, because, at least today, that’s how I and my family measure my success. School or training must be low cost, must be flexible in hours, location and portability to other geographies and schools.

Adult students still working on the high school equivalency (age 25+) care less about a college degree and more about the shortest path to marketable skills. A recent National Skills Coalition report outlined that over 30% of low skill workers who want to participate in up-skilling faced logistical barriers like time or resources.


What Do Employers Want? 

21st century skills? And, by the way, could someone else pay for this?


The employer, though at times overlooked in more traditional educational settings, is the key for these types of pathways. Their involvement in the design, curriculum, and placement is critical for success. We confirmed that there is both a flexibility on hiring into entry-level roles without a college degree, but also that there must be clear pathways to gaining the critical workplace and 21st century skills, the importance of acknowledging prior learning, providing access to education, and gaining experience through internships or apprenticeships that set employees up to be successful. The bad news is that employers are reluctant to fund training programs as they see too much turnover.


Pathways are Worth the Investment


Despite the short lifespan for many of today’s alternate pathways, early signs point to improvements in retention that suggest investing in training is worthwhile for employers. Several for-profits are jumping into the corporate training aspect of this market as this is where the money is until the feds approve more bite-sized uses for student financial aid. Guild Education focuses on providing employers with college credit training programs for their workers and Degreed offers employers a slightly different twist, retention-oriented learning and development as an employee benefit.

Both startups and established education providers alike are building a footprint in this space. Taking an ecosystem approach in the technology “skills gap,” TechHire has partnered with local government, training providers, and employers to align skill development to local workforce needs. Praxis’s model targets startups focused on entry-level training and apprenticeship placement to offer alternative pathways to individuals who do not have credentials. BEST (Boston Education, Skills & Training) has created an employer-partnered training in hospitality that is gaining momentum and attention.

Our partners at the Lab have been the American Council on Education and SUNY Empire State College (focused on credit for prior learning). They are approaching this opportunity on behalf of learners who may not be in thoughtful companies with benefits. They are bringing to the forefront the impact (both around employee training, development, opportunity, and retention) that educational pathways and service providers can have in concert with employers.


Let’s Get Visual


At a January convening of 40 expert stakeholders from the community, we gathered reactions to four model concepts with pathway visualizations we created alongside with input from a dynamic and diverse set of subject matter experts representing hospitality, education, policy and community based organizations stakeholders. Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive and reflect excitement around the potential impact of implementing connected pathways models in DC, and beyond. In fact, 90% of participants rated every model as “possibly viable” or “very viable” for a local pilot, and 72% of participants suggested that model concepts were viable for other industries or cities as well. You can download the document which summarizes these learnings below.

The feedback suggests that bootcamps and MOOCs are a piece of the design. Those forms of postsecondary education got us all thinking that college could be reinvented for those who can’t afford the traditional coming-of-age experience.  And we’ll leave you with the common questions all the designs hoped to address:

  • How can you get credit for skills you bring to the table?
  • How can you get credit for what you learn on the job?
  • How can you test out 1-3 careers without betting the farm with your education dollars?
  • Can your career and education goals be achieved in the same place? Or on the same journey?