The Lab + Credential Engine offer new services for LER pilots See Announcement
news and events

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: 
news and events

How to market micro-pathways: 5 insights to help community colleges reach adult learners

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 in pilots for their 30+ micro-pathways with adult learners as their key target audience.

Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (including at least one 21st century skill) which are validated by employers and lead unemployed, displaced, and low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

Marketing this new class of credentials has not been business as usual for the colleges’ marketing and communications departments.

“Our colleges and systems are utilizing a variety of marketing strategies. With micro-pathways being so new, we may not see the promise of some of these right away,” said Dr. Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. “As a human-centered design organization, we realized that one of the best ways to determine optimal marketing strategies is to ask learners.”

To do that, the Lab hosted three, 45-minute virtual marketing feedback sessions open to learners who were completing coursework in their micro-pathways. There was geographic, occupational, gender, and racial diversity across learners engaged in the sessions.

Below are five marketing insights gleaned from learners in our feedback sessions.

1. Adult learners respond to a variety of marketing strategies.

“I found out about my micro-pathway on Facebook. It was a simple post and very straightforward application that was linked to the post. It was quick and easy.”

“The first time I saw the poster about the micro-pathway, what grabbed my attention as a mom is that I can participate after I pick up my kids and everything. That program is going to be after that. And being virtual is important, too.”

The learners we spoke to found out about their micro-pathways in a variety of ways. Some learners discovered their micro-pathways through digital means, such as keyword searches, Facebook, the college website, or through email outreach from the colleges. Others mentioned physical assets, such as seeing flyers and/or posters nearby or on campus. Some found out through word-of-mouth from their employers or other professional contacts. From what we heard from learners, it is important to cast the net wide when marketing micro-pathways to appeal to different preferences.

2. Showcase learner testimonials and success stories on your micro-pathways website.

“Add success stories, links from YouTube, where people tell about how their program went, what you can expect, the pros and cons, and what types of employers they received feedback from.”

Learners stated that testimonials and/or videos from micro-pathway completers should be included on micro-pathway websites. They shared that it is important to them to hear stories from others that completed these programs to understand how the programs impacted them and the jobs they were able to secure as a result of completing the micro-pathway. This is something to consider as colleges begin to have micro-pathway completers.

3. Partner with employers to promote upskilling to their employees.

“Have a (college) representative come in while we are at work. That is the top way to reach adult working learners.”

With micro-pathways designed to help individuals in low-wage occupations move into median wage or higher positions, upskillers are a key target audience. Upskilling may be with a learner’s current employer. One example is Seattle Colleges’ Health IT micro-pathway, designed with employer partner Seattle Children’s Hospital. The hospital included information in their company newsletter including their offer of paid scholarships. On the other hand, we spoke to other learners who shared that marketing by their employers did not exist and that it has a lot of untapped potential. The learners had great ideas for colleges to help local employers get the word out to their employees, such as creating posters that can be posted in hallways and/or break rooms, providing brochures or flyers to distribute, and having a college representative come talk about the micro-pathway(s) with employees during work hours.

4. Most important messages for adult learners: Affordability, flexibility, and an accelerated timeline (a year or less).

“The timeline – you can finish in a year and get your dream job – some people might think about going back to school even if it’s been a long time. You’re just meeting once a week, I can do that. Micro-pathways kind of say that, but they might now know what a micro-pathway is.”

From the learners, we heard messaging about the very nature of micro-pathways and the design criteria are paramount.

Design criteria are the principles or aspirations that the pathways should meet. They should serve as parameters or guardrails for our designed solution in order to meet the needs of the learners and other stakeholders. The micro-pathway design criteria focused on those three areas include:

  • Can be completed in one year or less
  • Offered in a flexible delivery format
  • Affordable cost
5. Advisors are the critical link between the website and enrollment.

“The website is fluid and has all the information I was looking for. I was able to contact people from the website.”

We heard from learners that they appreciated the ability to reach someone at the college directly through the colleges’ micro-pathways website and have their questions answered. Advisors from the college also played an important role in learner decisions to enroll and start classes. It was clear from the learners who met with advisors that these individuals had a major impact on their decision to take classes and work toward earning the credentials in the micro-pathway. The advisors carefully listened to the learners and helped them select pathways that were in demand locally and aligned to the learners’ interests.

The Lab and our partner colleges are still learning how to best market micro-pathways. As with anything new and innovative, it’s going to take some trial and error. However, we are grateful for the insights provided by our micro-pathway learners and believe this will help to shorten the learning curve.


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.

news and events

The Lab’s Innovation Capacity Assessment

news and events

How Interviews with 100s of Rural Learners are Shaping New Program Models for our BRIDGES Rural Cohort

Since our BRIDGES Rural initiative kicked off last spring, we’ve been asking: How might we strengthen the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities? At the Lab, we always aim to tackle these big, messy, systems questions by starting with learners—learners who are attending our schools of focus, those in the workforce that are interested in or might benefit from re-engaging in college, learners who attended previously but were unable to complete, and potential learners in the greater community. Our work with five community colleges through BRIDGES Rural is no different. Since January, we’ve worked with our cohort to conduct comprehensive research with nearly 500 learners, institutional faculty, and other community stakeholders about their experiences.


What did we hear?

The communities involved in our cohort—spanning Idaho Falls, Idaho; Bangor, Maine; Canandaigua, New York; Marietta and Zanesville, Ohio—and the learners and stakeholders we heard from highlighted the rich diversity and strengths of rural places, underscored systemic and institutional barriers, and identified opportunities that exist to build on what works well. While unique themes exist at individual colleges, much of what we heard can be mapped across rural institutions. And, many of these shared themes in experience are true for learners beyond rural spaces.

#1 Many rural learners value connections to their homes and communities and want to feel this sense of rootedness more deeply at school

Strong relationships and consistent, accessible, transparent communication with faculty, staff, advisors, and other learners can support learners’ success.

#2 Learners need to feel embraced as their whole selves at their schools and in their communities.

Systemic inequities and dominant cultures have shaped vastly different experiences for learners based on race, gender, sexuality, age, and whether they are a caretaker or not. Historic underinvestment in diverse rural communities contribute to some learners experiencing a greater sense of belonging than others do.


#3 Learners want to build family-sustaining careers where they can grow, feel fulfilled, and contribute to their communities.

To make informed choices about their education and careers, people benefit from understanding the opportunities, earning potential, and possible paths associated with different careers in their communities so they can decide what their individual journey will look like and see the ROI of their education in terms of their goals. The fundamental structures of learning experiences need to be redesigned to align with learners’ hopes, goals, and life experiences and to reflect local career opportunities. Rural communities’ colleges can play a major role in preparing community members for in-demand jobs and in working with their broad-reaching networks to support economic growth and well-being.

#4 Learners benefit from opportunities to access learning and support in ways that meet them where they’re at and fit flexibly with their lives.

For rural learners, barriers related to childcare, transportation, distance, finances, basic needs, broadband internet access, belonging, and time can be interconnected in ways that make success in school feel out of reach, frustrating learners’ sense of growth and agency.


#5 Many learners need and want greater opportunities to combine work and learning, and rural community colleges have the potential to be “hubs” that connect community members with learning opportunities that address regional workforce gaps.

Partnerships are essential to this and should exist between multiple stakeholders in rural communities.


700 Ideas: What Happens When You Have a Holistic Understanding of Community Experience

Each of our five community college partners worked with the Lab to bring together comprehensive data about their learners’ experiences, their institutions, and their communities more broadly. We curated this research into virtual galleries that hundreds of people from across each school’s region explored. Based on what they learned through their gallery walks, the cohort collectively came up with almost 700 ideas to tackle their design question. These ideas range from focusing on holistic support, career development and employer engagement, advising, pathway design, diversity and inclusion, and more. Here are just a few examples:

  • Community-Powered Single Parent One Stop with multi-generational programming and resources, including transportation assistance, financial resources, and academic and career supports.
  • Provide industry-driven micro-pathways in partnership with employers large and small, delivered in a distributed way throughout the region for close proximity to learners and employers.  
  • Establishing a Chief Diversity Officer at the college to promote and celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion across the campus and the broader community, informing learner support strategies, program and curriculum design, community outreach, and policy change across the institution.
  • Embed the college as a strong community presence with expanded student and community engagement outside the classroom through sports, volunteer opportunities, events, clubs, and more. 
  • Appalachian Arts College to re-enliven Appalachian culture and crafts, engage local artisans, and offer learners free tuition for working at the college.
  • Create “Roadmaps to Success” that will help learners to visualize the diverse number of ways to pursue career and personal goals from entry to completion.


Want to dig in deeper?

Feel free to peruse the BRIDGES virtual gallery walks within our community of practice, hosted by our partner Participate:

In March, we released “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency. Many themes we heard from learners in our BRIDGES cohort echoed calls we’ve heard from our work with 100s of learners over the last seven years. This framework dives in a bit deeper to provide tangible suggestions that can better a learner’s sense of growth, agency, and belonging, and in turn, give learners the opportunities and resources they need to meet their goals.


How We Got it Done—Thank You to Our Partners!

Collaboration among the Lab, the BRIDGES Rural cohort, and key partners made these gallery walks and our research possible. Higher Ed Insight, our BRIDGES evaluation partner, compiled and visualized powerful quantitative data for our gallery walks. To complement this with qualitative data, Urban Rural Action helped the Lab team conduct interviews with learners and other community members, which you can learn more about in this Areas of Agreement podcast episode focusing on our collaboration. 


Up Next: Prototyping

Next up, the BRIDGES teams will prototype, test, and continue to iterate on their big ideas, moving steadily toward pilot launches in partnership with their communities. Want to stay up to date with our BRIDGES Rural work? Follow us on Twitter @BridgesRural for frequent shareouts of our BRIDGES learnings and @eddesignlab for general Lab updates and opportunities to connect!

Stay tuned for our series of insight briefs soon to be published about unlocking the potential of rural learners!  

news and events

Through the Voices of Learners: A Spotlight on Delgado Community College’s Single Moms Success Pilot

Faculty and staff at Delgado Community College participate in a gallery walk during a design session where they built prototype programs to increase single mother learner college completion.


In fall 2020, community colleges in the Lab’s Single Moms Success initiative (SMS) cohort began to launch elements of their pilot programs, all while grappling with the operational, emotional, and public health challenges posed by COVID-19. This week, we are excited to share a preview of Delgado Community College’s Single Moms Success pilot program: SMART – Single Moms Accessing Resources Timely. 

Throughout Single Moms Success, Delgado has demonstrated its strong commitment to offering single mothers in the New Orleans region greater educational opportunities to advance their careers and support their families. 

Forty-eight percent of children in New Orleans are raised by single moms, and 58% of single mother families in the city experience poverty. According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), single mothers in Louisiana who graduate with an AA are 43% less likely to live in poverty and will earn $282,760 more in their lifetimes than those who have just high school diplomas, and those with a BA are 72% less likely and will earn $627,954 more throughout their lives than those with just high school diplomas. The relationship between education, career opportunities, and poverty for single mothers and their children has inspired Delgado’s Single Moms Success team to design a pilot program that will offer single moms the support and flexibility they need to persist in school and build fulfilling, family-sustaining careers. 

Delgado’s SMART (Single Mothers Accessing Resources Timely) pilot approach will enable 2,000 single mother learners to make progress simultaneously in their education, careers, and financial support of their families. Initial pilot element rollout began in fall 2020, and the full pilot will launch in fall 2021. 

Program Benefits 

  • Holistic Support 
    • Online + in-person case management 
    • Aunt Bertha for needs assessments and resource referrals
    • Scholarships + childcare vouchers specifically for single mother learners
    • Transportation assistance
  • Single Moms Community + Network
    • Single moms online community in the Delgado app
    • Proactive outreach + resource/support sharing from staff
  •  Learning + Workforce Support Tailored to Single Moms
    • Industry-aligned stackable credentials with opportunities for paid internships
    • Flexible asynchronous online courses
    • Orientation course specifically designed for single mother learners
    • Industry-specific career navigation

What We’re Learning through the Perspective of Delgado Learners

    1. Demonstrating to learners how you care personally about them can impact their engagement, student identity, and so much more.
      “The biggest thing was them knowing that they’re not alone. They have a safe place where they can share. They can come to me in my office hours. I want to promote their success in their education, their life goals.”

      – Shelly Planellas, the course instructor for Delgado’s orientation course design specifically for single moms 
    2. Holistic support and care for learners as whole people needs to happen both inside and outside the classroom.
      “This semester has been so emotionally tough on me. My first day of the Connect Success class, I probably looked like a mess because I had COVID. Then two weeks ago I lost my great-grandmother, who has been with me for my whole life, to COVID. This was the woman I would go to for everything. She babysat me, bathed me as a baby, cooked me sweet potato pie – I’m used to seeing her every day. I told Ms. Shelly I wanted to give up. I’ve never lost anyone. I’ve been part of five living generations together, and I’ve never known grief before. I was so nervous about my grades in handling the grief. This class is what kept me going. Ms. Shelly motivates me, the other students motivate me, we motivate each other.”

      Tarcelyn James, a single mom and nursing student at Delgado, on how Shelly has played a key role in her support system during an intense period of grief 
    3. Making sure faculty are informed about services and resources can support learners’ awareness and access of support.
      “The class turned out to be a class I really needed. There were some amazing people. Shelly was so great. She broke through all my layers. I even cried in the class. It was even just like therapy for me. I think I really needed that. Shelly didn’t let up. Most of my personal information I never tell anybody. Through the lessons and stuff she was teaching us, she gave us the strength we didn’t know we had. I’m a single mother. I have three boys… Different activities we did in the class brought back different parts of my life and made me rewind and process… Another thing with Ms. P – every resource, we knew about it. I’ve been at Delgado since 2017, 2018. I went to school at night, in the early morning. I never knew about any of the resources that Delgado had. Ms. P is everything. That class, I think I took the most seriously of any. I got so much out of that class… I would work from 4am to 1pm. I would take an early lunch at work and either go into the office or in the car so I wouldn’t miss that class.”

      – Tricilla Thomas, a single mother of three boys who is about to earn her Associate’s degree in business with a focus on small business entrepreneurship 
    4. Believe in single mother learners’ huge potential by supporting them to identify their goals, believe in themselves, and connect with resources and opportunities to reach those goals.
      “This class has been a mirror to my life because it made me reevaluate myself, challenge myself, better understand myself, feel more confident in myself… We did a mommy and me team project for Ms. Shelly’s class. Our team name was the ‘Never-Giver-Uppers,’ and our mascot was the eagle because baby, we soar high. We beat the odds.”- Tarcelyn James, a single mom and nursing student at Delgado,


For more information on Delgado’s pilot, and additional learnings and resources for how to engage learners in your community, read our recent release “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency.

Additionally, stay tuned for more updates to come about the Single Moms Success cohort’s progress by following along with our work in the Innovator Network and on Twitter @eddesignlab and #SingleMomsSuccess. 

news and events

New Release: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework

Dear partners and innovators,

We are excited to announce the release of “Walk in My Shoes”: An Actionable Learner Engagement Framework to Foster Growth, Belonging, and Agency.

This actionable framework captures our vision, recommendations, tools, and insights for redesigning a learn-to-work journey that centers learners’ growth, agency, and belonging, featuring learnings from interviews with hundreds of learners for whom higher education was never designed.

Learner engagement and satisfaction of its underlying drivers have repeatedly been shown to predict persistence and retention, academic performance, completion rates, student satisfaction, and career outcomes. As a result, people’s engagement as learners can affect their economic mobility for the rest of their lives, impact key metrics for learning providers, and shape regional economic growth. 

Decades of research in psychology and behavioral science have shown that three key drivers—growth, belonging, and agency—have an outsized impact on learners’ engagement, success in reaching their goals, and well-being. Yet these are rarely discussed amid higher education’s ongoing crises. Leveraging core principles of Self-Determination Theory and the Lab’s seven years of work with learners and leaders in higher ed, our team has articulated a learner engagement framework, with accompanying insights and examples from our work to co-create new models with colleges and other learning providers.

Download the framework here.

news and events

Four Insights from Employers: How Learning Providers Can Design Industry-aligned Pathways

A completed T-Profile by an employer partner


In January 2021, the Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF), a national initiative to build 18 employer-validated micro-pathways that connect low-wage and entry-level workers to in-demand jobs, hosted design sessions in which the cohort of six community colleges engaged directly with local and national employer partners from four industries; Allied Health, Construction, Information Technology, and Manufacturing. During these design sessions, employers helped to identify and prioritize skills to support the cohort’s design of pathways using the Lab’s T-Profile tool. The T-profile is a skills profile that allows employers to be honest and precise about the ideal combination of skills they are seeking for specific job roles (in a way that is not articulated in a job description) and institutions to understand exactly what they are looking for and can do to prepare learners. This approach to working with employers is crucial to designing the industry responsive pathways we seek to build through CCGEF. 


4 Key Insights from Employers:

1. 21st Century Skills are Most Critical that Learning Providers Develop—For Employers, They are the Hardest to Train for

“If you came to me with the 21st century skills, I would invest in training you on the technical side. But I don’t really have a way of training for these 21st century skills…”

Employers emphasize the need for strong 21st century skills development training as foundational, but noted how difficult 21st century skills are to train for. After completing the T-Profile exercise, employer partners indicated the importance of 21st century skills training. This theme rings true across employers in various industries, including health, IT, and manufacturing, and employer partners the Lab has collaborated with over the past seven years. 

2. Use Skills Profiles, like the T-Profile, to Align Skill Needs with Employers

“As an employer, these types of tools help us articulate our needs to local training providers. It’s very easy to use…and then translating it up to, hey, we need these things, can you help us train our people or upskill, train our future staff or upskill, our current staff?”

Skills profiles, particularly the T-Profile, are a useful tool for employers and institutions to align and hone in on skills as they work together to build micro-pathways—we know that establishing a shared language is trickiest when employers and institutions collaborate. Employers noted that using the Lab’s T-Profile tool allowed them to best articulate training needs and do some of the translating work for them.

3. Responsiveness is Key—Revisit Skills Profiles with Employers Often

“Being flexible, being agile as a learning organization, to be able to take what the industry is telling you and quickly put it into a credential package [is important].”

Employers need institutions and training partners to be flexible and agile to keep up with and appropriately respond to their changing needs. By using skills profile tools and engaging employers actively in the design of credentials, institutions can respond to employer needs to best prepare their learners for the workforce. 

4. Check for Internal Employer Alignment by Bringing More than One Employee to the Table

“We saw the one example: The same job and people are viewing a difference [in the skills identified], there’s a lot of subjectivity in this. So trying to tie that subjectivity down so it’s more consistent, probably helps the organization as well.”

Skills profiles can also help companies align internally. A theme that the Lab has been hearing since the launch of CCGEF is lack of alignment within organizations. Employers have noted that there is often a disconnect between the HR department and hiring managers within the same company. The two T-profiles below demonstrate this disconnect. Two employers at the same company, using the same job description completed the T-profile tool differently. In order to design pathways that meet the needs of employers, these needs must be aligned within employer organizations.

Two T-Profiles completed by two employees at the same company


Next Steps for the CCGEF Cohort

Over the coming weeks, the CCGEF cohort institutions will continue to complete skills profiles with employer partners for each of their selected micro-pathway occupations. Using the skills identified during these profile sessions, design teams will build a curriculum and pathways. Employer co-designers will continue to be actively involved in the design process to ensure that curriculum prepares learners for current workforce needs. 


Follow this work on our Twitter @eddesignlab with the hashtag #CCGEF

news and events

vsbl Platform Creates Hope for Rapid Adoption of 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials

Describe something as visible, and it means it can be seen. 

Describe a person as visible, and it means they are recognizable. 

Visibility is generally a good thing. It engages our senses and provokes our thoughts. It enlightens us. It gives us something to work with. We appreciate visibility.

When we launched a beta pilot of our vsbl platform in early 2020, our goal was to make learners visible; seen and recognized for the skills they have. In the midst of a global pandemic, over twenty 2 and 4-year institutions and organizations signed on to offer the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials (our first product on the vsbl platform). Learners who successfully completed the rigorous learning experience would earn a digital badge, a micro-credential that demonstrates competency and an intentional effort to acquire the most in-demand employability skills. In what will be a historically tight job market for years to come, our pilot partners, located in the US and abroad, recognize it is mission critical to provide learners with the opportunity to acquire 21st century skills and to offer a portable, digital credential that verifies their skills and makes them visible to the world.  Skills rather than degrees are the currency of choice for employers, and 21st century skills, in particular, are in even greater demand as companies seek to build a nimbler, resilient, interculturally fluent workforce. 

We are increasingly concerned that if we do not democratize 21st century skill acquisition and make it feasible and affordable for all institutions and organizations to do this with more intention, then learners of all kinds, but especially those who have been historically excluded from opportunities, will be passed over for by employers. 

Join the movement to make learning and 21st century skills visible. 1200 colleges have signed up for our 21st Century Skills Toolkit over the past three years and now we are ready to scale delivery of these Micro-credentials. 

How vsbl works

The vsbl platform was designed with our partners in mind. You need flexibility to offer the experience in multiple ways. You need dependability so the technology is not cumbersome. You need answers to your questions, help with your ideas, and support along the way. 

During the pilot, we focused on all of these areas. We successfully tested our ability to connect the vsbl platform to existing Learning Management Systems (LMS) through Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), which enables the content to flow seamlessly into systems like Canvas, D2L, Moodle, and Blackboard.  In some cases, our partners did not have an LMS, so we hosted their learners directly on the vsbl platform–a feature often needed for employers, high schools, and community-based organizations or institutions seeking to engage non-matriculated learners, like incumbent workers. We were even able to test our mobile application which we knew would be vital for learners who are using their mobile devices as the primary way to connect to the Internet.  For those with connectivity issues, the content was made available to be downloaded and accessed offline.

Three of the Lab’s Eight 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials


Once connected, pilot partners were able to access learning modules from one or more of our eight Micro-credentials and enroll their facilitators in a brief interactive online course to familiarize them with the modules and accompanying technology. Facilitators earned badges upon successful completion of the training.  

The most common integration of the content was directly into an existing course. Like nutritional supplements, faculty would layer in the 21st century skills, turbo-charging their course and providing their learners with a recognizable credential and a more complete learning experience. 

We recognize that every organization is unique. vsbl offers the flexibility to integrate the modules in whatever way you see fit.

  • In some cases during the pilot, the modules were offered as a co-curricular standalone learning experience and in one case as a substitute for internships lost to COVID.
  • One of our international partners used the Critical Thinking course as an “education-to-employment initiative” to create employable engineers.

  • Pilots were conducted across multiple academic departments including engineering, nursing, and accounting, as part of other liberal arts courses and through Career Services. 
  • The skills offered (in order of interest) were Critical Thinking, Resilience, Intercultural Fluency, Empathy, Oral Communication and Initiative. 

Overall, nearly 400 learners participated in the pilot and close to 200 badges were awarded, demonstrating that being present is not enough to earn the badge. Learners needed to successfully complete the four end of module assessments, called Proving Grounds, which challenge learners to prove they know how to activate the skill when called upon. 

See additional use cases of the Lab’s Micro-credentials.


The vsbl learning experience

Grounded in learning theory, the interactive online modules challenge learners to apply what they are learning to the real world, to reflect on and question their experiences, old and new, and to assess their skills through a series of performance based simulations and activities. This format makes it stickier for learners and helps them understand and articulate their skills on a much deeper level. 


Learners in South Africa access the Critical Thinking course within vsbl.


Start making your learners vsbl today!

We are at a critical and exciting juncture in the history of learning. Education will either shy away from the moment and continue to uphold the status quo or respond to the moral imperative to course correct and help learners level the playing field to demonstrate what they know and become discoverable to employers.

Micro-credentials are gaining steam as a way to provide shorter-term learning that is more responsive to what the workforce needs. The technology and structure of digital badges enables learners to be more machine-readable by applicant tracking systems and discoverable by employers, through skill tags, which can be a gamechanger for learners who do not have a network to give them a leg up in the hiring process. For six years, we have been leading the charge on designing rigorous micro-credentials with employers and educators. We have poured our knowledge and expertise into our 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials, testing and iterating and are now proud to be able to offer vsbl, a best-in-class solution to the skills gap. 

 Key features of vsbl:

  1. Comprehensive online modules grounded in our nationally-recognized and globally utilized 21st century skills competency framework 
  2. Ability to connect to a learning management system for an integrated learner experience
  3. Access to employer-validated, performance-based assessments and rubrics that provide the learner with a self-assessment balanced against the perspectives of “others” such as peers, supervisors, and mentors
  4. 21st Century Skills Facilitator training for consistency of delivery
  5. Mobile compatibility to meet learners where they are

The buzz about vsbl is building and the Lab’s team is standing at the ready to help you launch your 21st Century Skills Micro-credentialing initiative. As a thank you to our Innovator Network, whose support helped the Lab arrive at this exciting moment, anyone who signs up by April 30 will receive an additional 50 badges at no cost.

Contact us to take advantage of this limited opportunity or to learn more (


Get started with vsbl today!

news and events

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.

news and events

Rescuing Internships During COVID: A Virtual Model for the Masses

The Creativity for COVID team and student participants.

The value of an internship is undeniable. They provide students with “real-world” experience, help build their networks and, in some cases, result in a job offer. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers to offer internships virtually; a scenario that just isn’t feasible for many employers who are still weathering a storm of economic uncertainty. This means that internships will become even more selective and fewer students will be served. So, unless we change the model, over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of students will face a historically tight job market without marketable experience and skills. 

This summer, the Lab gave virtual internships a makeover when it launched Creativity for COVID—a 6-week remote internship experience that allowed four local employers to serve 100+ Washington, DC public school students. The model, which focused on solving the employers’ immediate challenges, was so successful that we believe it is the best way for high schools and colleges to democratize and scale internships, not just in the age of COVID but for the foreseeable future. We are pleased to see at least one DC- area university pick up the model this fall after seeing it in action.


How it worked:

  • We asked employers to provide us with a “design challenge question”
  • Instead of focusing on the experience gained working for an employer, the Lab trained students in creative problem solving and human-centered design
  • We coupled this asynchronous online learning with expert facilitation to help students apply a disciplined process to the employer’s challenge
  • Students worked in teams of up to 12, collaborating virtually on stakeholder interviews, empathy mapping and prototyping solutions
  • Students pitched their solutions to employers
  • Students who successfully completed all elements of the program were awarded a digital badge to recognize the rigor of the experience


How our model is different:

Students as consultants, not interns

Consultants are utilized to help organizations solve their problems, but can be costly. During this COVID moment, businesses, whether thriving or struggling, have had to solve some critical challenges on tight budgets. They need consultants, and students can help. The notion of outsourcing challenges existed pre-COVID (e.g., see Parker Dewey and Mindsumo), but this moment calls for more than a hackathon or “best idea wins” approach. It requires that students be trained in the art of creative problem solving and human-centered design, so they can provide employers with legitimate solutions. This model empowers students to be problem solvers, which many students had never experienced. Said one student, “…I never thought that I would be able to find a solution to rebuilding DC and making it creative.” 

Creativity for COVID featured three main components: an online educational learning experience, expert-led facilitation of student teams, and limited employer participation. 

While we designed this for high school students, this model can be implemented by colleges or universities to the benefit of students, employers, and the institutions themselves. Graduate students or faculty members trained in design thinking can provide facilitation at a ratio of 5-15 students per team.


Download the empathy map to view in full-size.


Employers as clients, not hosts

At a minimum, employers need to provide a design question for students (i.e., the problem they’re trying to solve). 

“This virtual internship program is a bright spot during a very tough year. We know we will be inspired by what the students envision for our industry’s future.” – Claire Carlin, VP Partnerships & Alliances, Destination DC Executive Director, American Experience Foundation 

They can be more active if they choose, participating in the student teams’ research, prototyping, and the culminating pitch day. The re-delegation of responsibilities and roles means that employers are able to be meaningfully involved for around one to two hours a week without the need for intensive oversight. Instead of worrying about keeping a handful of interns busy, a single employer can leverage the brainpower of dozens of students. More students equals more ideas. One Creativity for COVID employer, Destination DC, DC’s tourism board, served over 70 students through this model!

An industry-recognized micro-credential, not bullet points on a resume

An introduction to human centered design gives students a disciplined problem solving approach to follow rather than using loose brainstorming. Learners gained valuable skills and were exposed to what life inside their client’s organization might be like through their projects. Assignments like stakeholder maps, stakeholder interviews, and empathy maps gave students deeper and broader insight into the industry than traditional internships. Students who successfully completed the program end up with a range of design artifacts, experienced a professional pitch, and earned a digital micro-credential (a.k.a. badge) to bolster their LinkedIn profiles and stand out from other students. Students recognize the value of earning a credential in design thinking. When asked about outcomes of the experience, one student noted, “If they [employers] see that I have a credential or my design thinking [experience] they’re more likely to hire me because I have more experience.”



Things to consider if you’re running a similar remote internship

Students’ access to technology and their surrounding environment must be considered when designing a remote internship.

This model hinges on students’ access to technology to participate fluidly in a remote setting and an environment conducive to collaborating with classmates and professionals. While work arounds can be put in place, it is important to understand what students are and are not able to do. For example, don’t just ask about Internet access because that may be by mobile device, which would make learning very challenging. Understand as much as you can about your learners’ access to technology, capabilities with digital tools, or physical environment to inform design and support students and facilitators during the internship. 


Prioritize hands-on, guided learning time over self-guided learning.

In a remote setting where face-to-face interaction is already limited, prioritize guided and group learning over individual or self-guided learning whenever possible. Providing examples, visual demonstrations, and hands-on experiences through video calls is an effective way to provide engaging learning experiences.


Critical thinking, ability to manage ambiguity, and collaboration are the most important skills to have and develop in a remote setting.

Being able to manage ambiguity when approaching a complex challenge is essential. COVID has taught us all about the value of being able to think on your feet, and it is heightened in a high-stakes remote environment. Collaboration can be difficult remotely but it is core to this model. While students may have participated in group projects or played on athletic teams, a remote internship requires them to be disciplined, empathetic collaborators. 


Supportive facilitators have a profound impact on students’ experience and learning.

Facilitators are an integral part of this model, acting both as design thinking guides and professional mentors to students. One learner explained that she appreciated being able to talk to her facilitator about the concepts she did not understand and how she was very supportive, which helped her navigate a remote learning environment. The time that learners spend with facilitators should be prioritized and maximized throughout since they were the most impactful relationships.