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How micro-pathways are transforming Pima Community College

Quote by Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert

This is the first story in the Lab’s Transformation Profile series spotlighting innovative partners in our Community College Growth Engine Fund. 


Pima Community College (PCC) is located in Tucson, Ariz., and serves Pima County with a population of just over 1 million, the second most populous county in Arizona. The college enrolls over 15,000 learners and is a Minority-serving institution (MSI), with nearly 50% of their learners identified as LatinX. The Education Design Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF) is part of the college’s recovery and reskilling efforts to assist adult learners gain the skills they need to get back to work and to help those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pima designed eight micro-pathways through the CCGEF in 2020-21, prompting PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert and Lab Founder + Board Chair Kathleen deLaski to co-author this November 2021 op-ed in AACC’s Community College Daily: Have we found the gateway to transform community colleges?


What is a micro-pathway?

Co-designed with learners and employers, micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials, including a 21st century skill micro-credential, that are flexibly delivered to be achieved within less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage.

Explore all eight of Pima Community College’s micro-pathways in a gallery at the bottom of this post.


The foundation of PCC’s transformation is what Chancellor Lambert calls the “two curves of community colleges.” The premise is that community colleges are transitioning from an industrial curve to a digital curve. The industrial curve is the current status quo defined by structured certificate and degree programs, fall/spring/summer semesters, and where the Carnegie Unit (credit hour) is the driver of learner readiness and educational attainment. All of the processes are built around the credit hour, including faculty time, student financial aid, and accreditation. There has been some transformation at community colleges, but it has been limited by the current system. For example, six- week sessions. This system shows favoritism toward those who can drop everything and go to college and does not address the needs of new majority learners.

The digital economy is the second curve. It is not stable, it is unpredictable, and it offers a lot of opportunity, but it also comes with risks. It is learner-centric. The complex lives of new majority learners don’t revolve around the time-bound structures of the credit hour. As a society, we are in the “transition” stage. Our economy is moving toward the digital economy and skills-based hiring, but we are not there yet.

“We’ve had a decade or more of declining enrollments. Our relevancy is in question. We need to get to know that our first curve model is not going to get it done.”

Chancellor Lee Lambert, Pima Community College


Community colleges will need to adapt to continue to be relevant since the first curve is not going to meet the needs of new majority learners.

Transformation highlights

+ Over 4,000 learners are interested in Pima’s micro-pathways. PCC’s micro-pathways target adult learners and are called PimaFastTrack. The college invested marketing dollars to launch a stand-alone landing page for PimaFastTrack as well as program-focused landing pages in both Spanish and English. The messaging centers on priorities relevant to adult learners: Financial assistance, support, speed, all-inclusive pricing, and simplicity. In addition, PCC outsourced speciality expertise to build an online presence around the value proposition for the eight micro-pathways. This has led over 4,000 learners to complete online interest forms, which exceeds, by far, anything the college has ever seen.

+ Designed for “universal access” to be more inclusive to adult learners. Adult learners may experience barriers with starting their education journey on the credit side of a college. Pima has combated these barriers by offering the micro-pathways as noncredit options. Once learners complete their micro-pathway, they can choose to enroll in a certificate or degree program at that point or at any point in the future. In line with Universal Access, learners also have entry points to the college through dual enrollment (enrollment in high school and the community college simultaneously) or direct enrollment (after graduating high school).

+ Instituted a “universal design” approach to their PimaFastTrack program. The Center for Excellence in Universal Design defines universal design as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people.” For PCC in the context of PimaFastTrack, designing universally means designing with an intentional focus on the needs of adult learners so they can succeed in their goals. PCC delivers micro-pathways through online, in-person, and hybrid formats simultaneously, making them available to learners in the format that works best for the learner.


+ PCC uses Standards of Practice for program development where academic and workforce are aligned using CCGEF’s design criteria. PCC is using the Lab’s micro-pathways design criteria as the foundation for their Standards of Practice for scaling PimaFastTrack across the college. For each of the eight design criteria, they’ve included “design in action” detailing how to address the design criteria, including the steps, tools, and examples from the work they did with the CCGEF. They also lay out the structure and roles for deans, department heads, the workforce team, and contributing team members. The workforce function at the college drives the idea, but the instructional departments carry out the design and development process. The Standards of Practice provide a holistic approach and structure to scale micro-pathways. The inclusion of learner and industry feedback ensures PCC is getting multiple perspectives before finalizing any design. They even include a Design Checklist similar to what the CCGEF design teams used to validate the design criteria prior to launching their micro-pathways.

+ Leadership changes reflect the focus on learners, micro-pathways, and innovation. As shared by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice Chancellor of Workforce Development + Innovation, “We intentionally did a robust pilot vs. a small one for the Community College Growth Engine Fund. It had enough boldness to give us the traction we wanted. We paired that with the vision and expectation starting from the top, which enabled us to deliver and to begin transformation across the college. We framed the decision with our faculty and deans that we have confidence in you – we know you can get this done – and that our learners need this. We have set a tone that we treat learners with dignity and respect, and that we serve all of them in the same way.” This demonstrates the colleges’ commitment to their learners, micro-pathways, and innovation.

Obstacles to overcome

The transformation demonstrated by PCC in only two year’s time is truly remarkable. However, as they will share, there is still work to be done. Two of the biggest obstacles to overcome are around integrating 21st century skills, including badging these micro-credentials, and developing Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR) capabilities. They are still at least six months to one year before these two capabilities will be in place.

“We’ve done things like improve PLA, invest in a registration system for noncredit, which was great, but CCGEF has been a way to bring all of that together and give it a name: Micro-pathways, which we are calling Pima FastTrack. It gave us a cause and a purpose. Working with the Lab provided us with a way to become part of something bigger than Pima – a greater sense of purpose.

Amanda Abens, MC, Dean of Workforce Development and Continuing Education


This article by Valerie Taylor is part of the Lab’s work helping community colleges innovate and transform through the micro-pathways design process. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, download our January 2022 Design Insights Brief, subscribe to our email newsletter for updates, and follow along on Twitter: #Micropathways.

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3 good ideas from the 2022 Rural Community College Alliance Conference

Rural Community College Alliance conference speakers pictured from left: Marcie Moore, Dean of Business, Engineering and Information Technologies, Zane State College; Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund, Education Design Lab; Lori Barber, Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at College of Eastern Idaho; Robert Nye, President of Finger Lakes Community College; Miriam Swords Kalk, Senior Education Designer, Education Design Lab; Todd Sloane, Director, Workforce and Career Solutions, Finger Lakes Community College; and Maureen Isimbi, Associate Education Designer, Education Design Lab.

Dr. Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund at the Lab (and former president of rural Eastern Maine Community College), attended the 2022 Rural Community College Alliance Conference with a few of the Lab’s BRIDGES Rural partners, pictured above. The conference was held Sept. 14-16 at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluff, IA. 

Among the themes during the three-day conference? Skills-based hiring, equity, and the power of partnerships. While the sessions were filled with creative people and ideas, these were Larson’s top three takeaways:

1. How to award academic credit for industry credentials.

The first inspiring idea comes from Michigan, where colleges can build in their own credit equivalencies through the Michigan Transfer Pathways portal (set to launch in April 2023). Learners will be able to go to the portal and enter their industry credentials to see how many credits they would receive. For example, an electric lineworker program requires a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Any learner producing their CDL is automatically granted six credits toward the degree. Gogebic Community College has already created over 100 agreements specific to articulated industry credentials.

Learn more:

2. How one Texas promise program uses tech tools to empower learners.

The Red River Promise program at North Central Texas College (NCTC) supports 11th and 12th grade learners from 14 school districts to learn about in-demand careers, get excited about college through pledge rallies, and build confidence and competence. Learners meeting the program requirements are guaranteed their tuition and fees are covered. NCTC has a goal of raising $25 million to support the need in their region to make sure all high school graduates have the opportunity to go to college and earn a credential of value.  They used $4 million of their HEERF federal emergency funds to begin this work. While there are many promise programs, the Red River Promise stands out because of its use of Salesforce dashboards to measure real-time learner progress from interest to registration and beyond. Learners also have access to GreenLight, which provides a learner record to organize and share transcripts, vaccination documents, resumes, letters of recommendation, etc. NCTC shared a learner quote that I thought said it all: “Participating in the Red River Promise doesn’t have to be a plan to fall back on, it can be your plan to move forward.”

Learn more: 

3. How to join the Rural Education Community of Practice

A highlight of the conference was the Lab’s BRIDGES workshop about building a Rural Education Community of Practice, which will serve as a space for powerful thought partnership, collaboration, and collective impact to support all rural learners. The COP is open to anyone working in or connected to rural education. This is truly a ground-breaking opportunity for rural communities and for the Lab!

Learn more: 

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Education Design Lab’s micro-pathways honored in Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards

Celebrating more than a decade of Innovation by Design, the 2022 honorees include nearly 600 projects, products, and services from Nike, Verizon, Microsoft, and others.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 15, 2022) — The Education Design Lab’s micro-pathways initiative – through the Community College Growth Engine Fund – has won an honorable mention in the Learning category of Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards for 2022. 

The Innovation by Design Awards, which can be found in the October 2022 issue of Fast Company, honor the designers and businesses solving the most crucial problems of today and anticipating the pressing issues of tomorrow. The competition, now in its 11th year, features a range of blue-chip companies, emerging startups, and hungry young talents. It is one of the most sought-after design awards in the industry.

The Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF, or the Fund for short) helps community colleges accelerate the economic mobility of new majority learners through micro-pathways.

Co-designed with (l)earners and employers, micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials (including at least one 21st century skill micro-credential) that can be completed in one year or less, resulting in a job at or above the local median wage, and start (l)earners on the path to an associate degree.

“We are honored that the Fund’s micro-pathways design work with community colleges is an honorable mention in Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards,” said Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. “The Fund’s community college partners are experiencing extraordinary impact in designing education for the future of work while meeting new majority learner needs in obtaining critical credentials leading to great jobs.”

“A common theme among this year’s Innovation by Design honorees, which range from healthcare interfaces to autonomous driving technology, is permanence,” said Brendan Vaughan, editor-in-chief of Fast Company. “The products that leaped out to our editors and judges went against our quick-fix consumer culture, while also manifesting a more inclusive vision of design.”

Honorees for the 2022 awards were selected in the following categories: Accessible Design; Apps and Games; Automotive; Branding; Circular Design; Data Design; Design Company of the Year; Enterprise; Experience Design; Experimental; Fashion and Beauty; Finance; General Excellence; Graphic Design; Health; Home; Hospitality; Impact; Learning; Marketing; Materials; Packaging; Pandemic Response; Products; Rapid Response; Retail; Social Justice; Spaces and Places; Sports and Recreation; Students; Sustainability; Transportation; Urban Design; User Experience; Wellness; Workplace; Best Design Asia-Pacific; Best Design Europe, Middle East, and Africa; Best Design Latin America; Best Design North America; Years in Business (On the Rise: 0–4 Years, Established Excellence: 5–19 Years, Enduring Impact: 20+ Years); and Size of Business (Small Business: Fewer Than 100 Employees, Midsize Business: 100–999 Employees, Large Business: 1,000+ Employees).

The judges include renowned designers from a variety of disciplines, business leaders from some of the most innovative companies in the world, and Fast Company’s own writers and editors. Entries are judged on the key ingredients of innovation: functionality, originality, beauty, sustainability, user insight, cultural impact, and business impact.

Winners, finalists, and honorable mentions are featured online and in the October issue of Fast Company magazine, on newsstands Sept. 27, 2022.

To see the complete list, go to

About Education Design Lab
The Education Design Lab (the Lab) is a national nonprofit helping colleges and employers design more equitable career pathways. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and download: Design Insights Brief: Community College Growth Engine Fund Micro-pathways: A Gateway to Community College Transformation.

About Fast Company
Fast Company is the only media brand fully dedicated to the vital intersection of business, innovation, and design, engaging the most influential leaders, companies, and thinkers on the future of business. Headquartered in New York City, Fast Company is published by Mansueto Ventures LLC, along with our sister publication Inc., and can be found online at

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New service offerings! The Lab teams up with Credential Engine to offer preparation support for Learning and Employment Record pilots

Learning and Employment Records (LERs) – digital records of an individual’s learning and work – have the potential to create more equitable access to employment and education opportunities by equipping individuals with verifiable and shareable data about their skills, achievements, experiences, and credentials. As  states, postsecondary institutions, and employers explore piloting LERs, it is important that pilots are designed with: equitable outcomes for learners as an explicit goal; and that they use linked open data to support interoperability within a skills-based talent ecosystem. 

The Lab and Credential Engine (CE) have teamed up to offer services that will help stakeholders prepare for LER pilots, laying a strong foundation for pilots designed to empower learners in the sharing of  their verifiable credentials and skills as currency towards job opportunities. Together, the Lab and CE bring a blend of human-centered design tools and processes, best practices in data transparency, and technical knowledge that will position emerging LER pilots for success. The partners will work with you so that LER pilots are prepared with a strong use case and value proposition for learners, a plan for incorporating credential and pathways data, and a rich understanding of the human and technological requirements to support an LER workflow.  A description of services for springboarding LER pilots is below. These offerings can be customized and combined with additional services to address specific circumstances and needs.

Download the Full List of Services (PDF)

Learn More About Our Work with Credential Engine

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How Maricopa Community Colleges are keeping up with booming employer needs in Arizona

Four colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) are designing eight micro-pathways in IT and advanced manufacturing. Rio Salado College president Kate Smith says the Education Design Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund is “helping community colleges and industry partners come together and speak a common language – one that is often missing.”


Rio Salado College (RSC) has historically been recognized as an innovative online education provider with flexible programming. Based in Tempe, Arizona, RSC is a relatively young two-year institution that opened its doors in 1978.

A Culture of Business and Education Collaboration with Flexible Programs

Beginning in 1990 under the presidency of Linda Thor, a position she held for 20 years, RSC built a business-oriented, collaborative culture focused on underrepresented learners. That culture included, by 1996 and through today, flexible, fully online, eight-week courses that students could enroll in every Monday instead of waiting an entire semester. In 2006, Thor wrote about RSC’s history under her leadership, noting the importance of building alliances with local employers that included offering easily accessible, short-term occupational certificate programs.

RSC’s culture and thinking fit well as a new participant in the Education Design Lab (the Lab) Community College Growth Engine Fund (the Fund), a design accelerator started just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into future roles as regional talent agents in a skills-based economy. The Fund is currently helping 10 of the nation’s largest community colleges and systems within two cohorts. RSC is one of 10 colleges in the Arizona East Valley Region’s Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), also known as Maricopa Community Colleges. MCCCD joined Cohort 2 in January 2022, along with the Colorado Community College System, Community College of Philadelphia, and Bunker Hill Community College.

RSC and MCCCD’s Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Mesa Community College and Scottsdale Community College are now on a path to create eight micro-pathways in IT and advanced manufacturing.

Co-designed with learners and employers, micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials, including a 21st century skill micro-credential, that are flexibly delivered to be achieved within less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage.

“We’ve invested in the Lab’s micro-pathways as a springboard for creating social and economically mobile pathways,” said Rio Salado College President Kate Smith. “We’re creating pathways that can take individuals to prosperity through something that is short-term and accessible. It’s part of Rio’s core fabric. It’s in our DNA.”

Bridging Two Languages

Smith described RSC’s participation in the Fund as “a wonderful marriage focused on building a very intentional design structure, helping community colleges and industry partners come together and speak a common language — one that is often missing.” The Lab is bridging the two languages of industry and education through a structured approach “to work together with our industry partners to build very meaningful credentials and a pipeline for students to go right into the workforce in high-demand, high-need areas,” Smith added.

A Booming East Valley Arizona

Being based in Maricopa County, with 27 growing towns and cities, including Phoenix, certainly helps that effort. The Phoenix Business Journal recently reported that “Maricopa County added more new residents than any county in the nation last year, continuing a trend that local officials call a credit to the region’s opportunities and affordability.” The U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, estimated that Maricopa County’s population grew by 76,020 people from April 2020 to July 2021, increasing its population to just under 4.5 million.

RSC’s Vice President of Strategy and Advancement Janelle Elias said that as Maricopa County grows, the institutions in the MCCCD increasingly collaborate between themselves and with local employers.

“That’s been a big part of our journey in the design process, leveraging the strengths and assets across our system and with local employers,” Elias said. “The East Valley region is one of the fastest growing areas in technology companies,” she added. “We jumped to number seven in the country over the past few years, and we saw a 6.2% increase in women working in technology. We started to see companies like GoDaddy, Intel, General Motors, and Google come to the valley.”

In addition, Elias points to data and research published by the Arizona Commerce Authority, showing that the state has grown to hosting 5,000 manufacturing establishments. The East Valley region now accommodates companies in “aerospace, defense, bioscience, optics, and photonics. They have come to the valley in ways that we have never seen before,” Elias explained.

Human-Centered Design and a Common-Sense Iterative Process

The Lab assists the design process by guiding the Fund’s cohorts through a year-long effort driven by six milestone achievements that focus on human-centered design:

  1. Examine market demand: Use labor market data and employer input to determine in-demand occupations.
  2. Determine skills and competencies: Elicit skills plus competencies needed by employers.
  3. Design to learner needs: Discover and determine learner needs from direct inquiry.
  4. Test and iterate prototypes: Test and iterate prototype pathways with all stakeholders.
  5. Marketing and business model: Test and iterate on various business models.
  6. Finalize pathways: Finalize pathway components into a digitally discoverable and learner accessible format.

Lab Education Designer Elisabeth Fellowes explained that RSC is now working through milestones three and four of the micro-pathway design process, identifying skills needs with employer partners and prototyping the micro-pathways. Throughout this work, the team has been mapping the current ecosystem and processes that exist across the district in order to determine a system-level approach that streamlines the experience for employer partners and supports collaboration across the district.

“One of the key priorities is to conduct all of this work on a system level,” she said. After Cohort 2 completes the one-year design process, the Lab stays on for a second year with continued support. Following the second year, the Lab and Cohort 2 collects and analyzes impact data to understand the results of the entire project.

What’s next?

Follow the Community College Growth Engine Fund’s design journey by signing up for the Lab’s email newsletter. You can also explore 30+ micro-pathways from the first cohort on the Lab’s website. To get in touch, email our team at

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How to better serve adult learners: 5 ways community colleges align noncredit + credit programs through micro-pathways

The six colleges and systems in the first cohort of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund— CCGEF or the Fund, for short — are piloting their 30+ micro-pathways.

Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

Cohort 1 colleges have focused on adult learners as their primary target audience. Data shows these are the majority of learners that enroll in noncredit courses. They are more likely to be older: The average age of students in noncredit programs is 34 compared to 22 for students in credit programs; more likely to have a GED rather than a high school diploma; and more likely to be students of color*. With that in mind, Cohort 1 intentionally designed their micro-pathways to begin with noncredit programs. This provides adult learners an entry point into postsecondary education and a bridge to higher credentials and degree programs on the credit side. However, this has meant bridging the noncredit-credit divide typical at community colleges.

As stated by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice Chancellor of Workforce Development & Innovation at Pima Community College: “Equity is really at the center of all of this work. Everything we do in higher ed that hierarch-alizes the learner, and even otherizes them, especially when you put “non”-in front of a learner and call them a ‘noncredit’ learner, we have other-ized them. That’s why we have embraced this vision of the new majority learners that EDL has taught us to embrace and bring about in the context of equity.”

Pima and the other Cohort 1 colleges have embraced micro-pathways as a gateway to community college transformation.

Below are five of their accomplishments in aligning noncredit and credit.

1. Noncredit micro-pathways courses + credentials articulate to credit programs.

For CCGEF, Cohort 1 colleges put the onus on themselves to align competencies and assessments to ensure credentials and courses completed in noncredit programs are credit-worthy, rather than learners having to prove themselves through additional assessments or other Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) activities. This was accomplished through articulation of mirror or mirrored courses (which are the same courses offered in credit and noncredit), industry certification crosswalks and equivalency agreements.

2. Learners can enter and exit micro-pathways at their own pace.

Cohort 1 noncredit micro-pathways provide an on-ramp to a credit career pathway and the opportunity to earn higher credentials. Learners can move along the career pathway at their own pace, and enter and exit at different points along the pathway as their career goals dictate. For example, many learners can move into employment after completing the micro-pathway, but can choose to return to earn a higher- level credit certificate and/or degree as their personal and professional career goals dictate. These pathways and entry and exit options were communicated to learners in advising, on institution websites, and through infographics.

3. Colleges are developing a culture of ‘a learner is a learner,’ regardless of where the journey begins.

Cohort 1 design teams have worked to overcome the typical division in support services offered to noncredit learners. Two of the colleges have established formal advising programs for learners who start on the noncredit side and others are doing this on a more informal basis through faculty members who oversee both noncredit and credit pathways. One college has set up a co-enrollment process with their local workforce system to ensure learners have access to tuition assistance and wrap-around services — services that would normally only have been offered on the credit side. Colleges are also providing noncredit learners access to work-based learning opportunities and scholarships, with new funds established specifically for CCGEF learners.

4. CCGEF colleges launched a Data Collaborative to better understand learners.

Cohort 1 launched the Data Collaborative with partners Brighthive, the National Student Clearinghouse, Urban Institute, and Credential Engine. Cohort 1 wants to learn more about their noncredit learners, including whether they matriculate into credit-bearing programs or disconnect from the college after completing noncredit courses. The Data Collaborative’s goals are to yield valuable information about learners, credential completion, employment and wage data, among other items.

5. Colleges are scaling their noncredit and credit alignment through micro-pathways design.

For each of the Cohort 1 design teams, micro-pathways have served as a way to innovate around noncredit and credit alignment. Most of the teams have been learning and iterating on a handful of programs but have plans to scale across the college. For example, Prince George’s Community College designed and launched three micro-pathways and added a fourth early in 2022. Pima Community College launched eight micro-pathways and added another, with plans to scale even further during 2022.

What’s next?

The progress Cohort 1 has made is tremendous, yet if you ask any of the design teams, they will say there is still more work to be done. They would like to see more resources to support noncredit advising models and a greater focus on marketing to noncredit learners. The Lab is grateful to have partnered with our six colleges and systems and their dedication to serving new majority learners.

To learn more about Cohort 1 and the Community College Growth Engine Fund, download: Design Insights Brief: Community College Growth Engine Fund Micro-pathways: A Gateway to Community College Transformation.

This article by Valerie Taylor is part of the Lab’s work helping community colleges innovate and transform through the micro-pathways design process. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, subscribe to our email newsletter for updates, and follow along on Twitter: #Micropathways.

* Citation: Xu, D., & Ran, X. (2015). Noncredit education in community college: Student, course enrollments, and academic outcomes. Community College Research Center, 2015. Available: 
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XCredit Phase 1: Explore the skills ecosystem with Andrea

Meet Andrea. She’s 24, single, and has three cats that she adores.

Andrea is currently serving in the Navy and plans to transition into the civilian workforce in the next few months. She wants to get a good job after her six years of service without going back to school for a degree. She would love to work in IT and make her way toward a management role so that she’ll have the financial stability to start a family.

While in the service, Andrea gained a lot of skills, such as leadership, problem solving, and technology skills, and she wants her next employer to see all of the value she can bring to their workplace using those skills.

While Andrea is a fictional persona, she represents the goals and characteristics of the learner-earners – or (l)earners – the Education Design Lab aims to serve.

Over the past 18 months, the XCredit team at the Lab has explored the design question: How might we validate and credential existing skills to make (l)earners more visible in the talent marketplace?

In collaboration with our partners, the Lab spent XCredit’s first year prototyping an interoperable skills ecosystem to help military-connected individuals like Andrea, as well as unemployed and underemployed civilians, move toward the careers they want.

How does it work? Follow along as Andrea validates her skills within the XCredit ecosystem.

Andrea’s journey

Andrea begins in a platform for military-connected individuals to connect their learning and experience to customized career and education opportunities. Within this tool, Andrea is presented with her Learning and Employment (LER) record, a document that tracks her experience, training, and competencies. Near the bottom, she sees her military experience has already been translated into a number of validated 21st century (or soft) skills, including those associated with Critical Thinking, Oral Communication, and Creative Problem Solving.

Along with her validated skills, Andrea sees that she has the option to validate additional 21st century skills by taking a few digital assessments.

When she clicks the “Submit to XCredit” link within her LER, Andrea passes into the Lab’s central “Ecosystem Hub,” where she’s greeted with a banner reading, “Welcome to XCredit!”

Within this Hub, she sees her skills profile, which lists all her validated skills, along with all the relevant assessments she’s able to take.


Looking at which skills she hasn’t yet validated, Andrea decides to begin with the “Listen Actively” assessment, a part of Oral Communication. She navigates to this section and launches the “Listen Actively” assessment, which moves her into an extended reality environment.

As the XR assessment loads, Andrea realizes she has the option to either click her responses with her mouse or speak her responses directly into her computer’s microphone. She loves how this option engages her as a human being, tapping into her empathy and engaging her soft skills.

Ten minutes later, she’s done. Andrea scores well on the assessment, and when she returns to the Lab’s central Hub platform, she sees her skills profile has automatically been updated, the “Listen Actively” skill now validated.

In her skills profile, Andrea sees that she only needs to pass one more Critical Thinking assessment to earn a Critical Thinking micro-credential, so she navigates to the Critical Thinking section of the Hub.



She clicks on the assessment, titled “Question Assumptions,” and this time, a chat-based simulation assessment launches in a new window.


After reading the assessment scenario and what she’ll be measured on, Andrea clicks “Play.” She then chooses an avatar that represents her, and completes the assessment by making choices in the chat-based simulation that follows. When she reaches the end of the assessment, Andrea sees her scores from the assessment pop up and is excited to see that she has validated this final Critical Thinking skill!

After Andrea navigates back to the Hub, she sees a notification that she has been awarded the Critical Thinking badge, so she opens her email. She can’t believe how quickly the micro-credential was awarded — right after completing the final assessment!

In her email is a message with a link to claim her badge, so she clicks the link and is redirected to the badging platform. Here, she claims her micro-credential, which identifies all of her validated skills.

Andrea feels a rush of pride, knowing that she’s being recognized for skills she gained in the service. She assumes this is the end of the process, but a pop-up informs her that there’s one more step she can take.

A digital skills wallet has been created on her behalf, and she’s encouraged to add her new badge to this skills wallet. Unsure of what exactly this is, she adds the badge to her wallet, where she learns that she’s able to pull in other learning and employment records to create a more complete picture of her skills.

Now, prospective employers will see that she’s validated one of the critical skills they’re seeking when hiring new employees.

Andrea is now ready to apply for the jobs she’s targeted, knowing employers will recognize the skills she gained in the service.

XCredit: What’s next?

During Year One, our instructional designers created sub-competency assessments and industry capstones measuring users’ critical thinking, oral communication, and creative problem solving skills. Through user testing, jobseekers and hiring managers alike evaluated the authenticity of the experience and the value users found in the 21st century skills micro-credentials. And after an externally conducted equity and bias review, the team addressed potentially problematic aspects of our assessments, including but not limited to an examination of representation of who held power and how people in simulations, especially people of color, were positioned.

Moving forward with Phase Two, the XCredit team has ambitious goals.

  • We’re expanding the catalog of available 21st century skills credentials from 3 to 9, and the number of assessments from 23 to 110.
  • We’re seeking ACE accreditation for all assessments so that credential earners are also eligible for college credit when validating their skills.
  • We’re layering in additional skill validation methods and opportunities, further leveraging individuals’ lived and working experience in new and innovative ways.
  • We’re conducting two research-focused pilots on our assessments and prototype ecosystem to enable early proof points, iteration, and improvement.
  • And we’re expanding the ecosystem to incorporate further entry points and connections with external hiring systems, to help our users connect their skills to employment.

We, and Andrea, are just getting started.


This article was written by XCredit team members Casey Andree and Dr. Tara Laughlin. Follow our journey at

Want to get involved? Email us at

Special thanks to our Year 1 XCredit partners, whose tools are featured throughout Andrea’s story above.

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Video: BRIDGES Rural Summer Convening at Finger Lakes Community College

Our BRIDGES Rural team has had a busy 2022, visiting our partner community colleges across the country.

That tour culminated in a final Summer Convening on July 19-20, when members of our college design teams gathered in Geneva, New York, to talk about their pilot projects and next steps forward (including the Rural Education Community of Practice, which is open to all).

We are so grateful to all of our college partners; our funder, Ascendium; and especially our friends at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC), who hosted the Convening.

While we were in the Finger Lakes region, we shopped at Wegmans (best grocery store ever?)  … and sipped rosé and riesling made by student winemakers at FLCC’s Viticulture and Wine Center.

We also captured a few highlights from our scenic visit … which featured a boat ride on Seneca Lake!

Watch the video:


To learn more about our multi-year BRIDGES Rural project, start with our project page.

Details about the college pilot projects are explained in BRIDGES Rural Design Insights Part 2: Designing + Piloting a New Approach to Economic Agility in Rural Communities.

news and events

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.

news and events

A new chapter for the Lab: Bill Hughes is now President + CEO

Letter from outgoing CEO Kathleen deLaski

I am so pleased to mark today, August 1, 2022, by handing the management reins officially to Bill Hughes, new CEO of the Education Design Lab.

Bill has already enriched our lives since joining as President last October. He brings wide and deep experience in ed tech, digital transformation, organizational change management, and even micro-credentialing, which as a new field and a signature strategy for the Lab, is very lucky for us. And most importantly, he has a huge passion for rewiring the broken pipeline between school and work that has left 60 percent of American adults without the “golden ticket” … a college degree.

The timing is very good for this transition, as the Lab is at a crossroads. As I describe in my reflection essay, which charts the Lab’s first decade, we have ridden the reinvention-of-college wave from problem statement to ideation to prototyping to piloting and now, many, many groups have formed a movement in support of skills-based learning and hiring.

As the field matures, the Lab is growing and finding increased demand for our exploration design work as we learn with our partners that unbundling college is not enough. New paradigms are emerging that reshape the relationship between school and work, between instructor, coach, learner and technology, between learning institutions, employers, and public agencies. I am excited to still have a seat at the table as Board Chair and senior advisor, because I don’t want to miss the next chapters supporting Bill and our uniquely thoughtful and fabulous team, and our amazing partners and funders.

Letter from incoming CEO Bill Hughes

I am honored Kathleen has entrusted me to lead the Lab through this transition from groundbreaking start-up to an organization that fully realizes its potential for impact and transformation at the intersection of learning and work. I look forward to expanding and applying the Lab’s discoveries and learnings in an evolving skills-based ecosystem that is more important than ever before.

We must reimagine the pathways to opportunity in America, because neither citizens nor employers benefit from the status quo. There are too many talented yet underemployed or unemployed people, and too many unfilled jobs in growing industries. There are not enough affordable career pathways, and where they exist there are too many barriers to make them accessible for a large number of citizens.

As the Lab moves forward and expands our impact, we will continue to be the skilled and trusted innovation partner the sector has come to rely on. I look forward to helping write the next chapters.