Perspective from an instructional designer on learning models, creating digital currency, and competency as a base.

GUEST COLUMN | by Tara Lifland

In our work at the Education Design Lab, we design and build learning model prototypes with all kinds of students.

Our student-centered design process has introduced us to:

-a 33-year old mom at Northern Virginia Community College

-a 20-year old hockey player at Boise State University; and

-100s of others with their own unique stories.

Regardless of where they come from

A few of these learners come from families who have the resources to send them to a brand name college, and social connections to land a first-class internship, but many of them don’t.

Regardless of where the students come from, their age, or resources, they each have a unique skill set that distinguishes them from one another.

“Regardless of where the students come from, their age, or resources, they each have a unique skill set that distinguishes them from one another.

Whether they developed and practiced these skills raising their family, on the hockey rink, or in a traditional classroom setting, these skills might be valuable for a future employer.

Our goal is…

Our goal is to work with employers and learning providers to create digital currency for competency-based hiring at a smaller unit as compared to a full degree.

For degree-seeking students, our three years of pilots show us that a four-month learning community, targeted to teach and practice collaboration or oral communication, helps students extract these skills from their vertical disciplines.

For non-degreed programs, like vocational certificates or coding boot camps, a digital credential may be the closest students get to liberal arts training to gain critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills and differentiate them in the hiring process.

Two sets of problems

We see two problems in this market that signal a need for our work. First is an awareness issue, students don’t realize they’re activating the skills in different contexts. Second, they don’t have a narrative to discuss their strengths in a way that’s meaningful to employers.

The most “in-demand” skills employers look for today are actually not the technical skills, which can either be automated by AI, or are changing too quickly for schools to be up to date in their curriculum.

Employers want students to know how to learn quickly, which translates to uniquely human skills like empathy, collaboration, resilience and creative problem solving.

Learners are practicing and gaining these skills in many facets of their lives, but without intentionality they don’t realize it, and don’t have a way to talk about it with employers.

What one study found

A 2017 study by consulting firm Accenture, Dismissed by Degrees, found that business leaders tend to view a college degree as a “proxy” for hard and soft skills, effectively shrinking the pool of viable candidates.

This opens the door for many students to develop a different type of capital, not based on who they know but what they know, without discriminating where they learned it.

The Lab is using 21st Century Skills digital badges to solve the awareness issue and give students a narrative, along with a verified credential to prove they have these essential skills. Each digital badge in our suite is aligned with a competency statement, which indicates what the badge earner can do.

Embedded proof

Embedded into the meta-data of the digital badge is an artifact, evidence that proves the learner has said competency.

Regardless of where skills are developed, all learners go through the Proving Ground assessment which tells an employer whether they have the skill or not.

These Proving Grounds are illustrated through real-life and work-based scenarios that people actually encounter every day in the workforce. Instead of employers blindly trusting the skills ‘endorsed’ on LinkedIn or written on a resume, the digital badge gives them insight to see the learner performing skills in situations that are relevant to the workplace.

In the new economy, skills will be the new currency.

Throughout a lifetime an individual will develop and achieve unique skill sets from different life experiences (i.e starting a family), relationships (i.e. dealing with a difficult roommate), work, and courses which will help learners gain more capital.

While the process to develop these skills is often intentionally focused on high-touch, face-to-face human contact, the digital badge will offer an edge to students in machine-readable ways as they apply for jobs.

Digital badges will give students a leg up against filters of applicant tracking systems, and help students sustain careers while technical platforms change.

Tara Lifland (@taralif) is an instructional designer and associate education designer at the Education Design Lab. (Tara is pictured fourth from left, middle, above with the rest of her team).