Visit Modern Campus

Flying the Skills Plane with Duct Tape and Chewing Gum: The Design Challenges—Part Three

Although certain design criteria enable stakeholders to adopt an emergent skills ecosystem, there is a lot left to do to properly stimulate the skills economy.
Although certain design criteria enable stakeholders to adopt an emergent skills ecosystem, there is a lot left to do to properly stimulate the skills economy.

Holly Zanville recently interviewed Naomi Boyer about higher education’s digital transformation challenges. The final entry in the three-part series focuses on the benefits of the skills ecosystem for higher education’s digital transformation. The following is drawn from a transcript of their conversation.


Holly Zanville (HZ): What do we have to commit to get the results we want? How does the skills ecosystem benefit if we do this work well? 

Naomi Boyer (NB): The first benefit will become evident when the design criteria enable stakeholders to adopt an emergent skills ecosystem. There is much to learn and more work to do to stimulate the evolution of the skills economy. Four areas of design criteria, if endorsed by the participating community, can advance the ecosystem to a dynamic, synergistic, interdependent network of networks. Each design criterion is critical for the skills community to endorse to realize the skills equity potential. 

  • Equity. Skills-based hiring has the potential to minimize barriers that limit access to jobs for those with skills. The language of skills and eventually the technological tools offer the promise of verifiable credentials and skills, guided processes to present information and expanding talent pool diversity for in-demand jobs. New technology can assist, but the standard resume and traditional job description have limitations and bias threaded throughout. Without intentional protective measures, we are likely to replicate existing barriers as new solutions are designed.  
  • Openness. The word open should have a simple meaning. Unfortunately, many participating groups are using the term in different ways to describe different things. There are many definitions of the word open that are pertinent to the work-learn continuum: open standards, open educational resources, open source and open systems. Ideally, common, agreed upon open standards with data that is accessible, machine readable and humanly consumable to be optimized by tools will be established. Skills openness requires more permeable system boundaries that connect and consume data and information with common standards across the ecosystem. 
  • Pervasiveness—access and ownership for all. Access to and ownership of a person’s own skills must be available to everyone. I believe this is non-negotiable. Skills access, shared through data interoperability, is the key to addressing some of the equity issues previously noted. Through the transmission of learning records to learning wallets, individuals gain access to a skills currency to be expended and maintained. Currently, a few education providers like Central New Mexico Community College, and employers, like Walmart, are offering these opportunities , but if access is dependent upon an institutional skills strategy or an individual’s engagement with a participating institution, then many will be left behind. The emerging skills models lead to greater learner-earner visibility.
  • Learner-earner agency. We can build systems, structures and processes, but if the individual person doesn’t know how to engage or won’t make the choice to do so, then it is all for naught. Structures must be designed to move from learning compliance to those empowered to select learning opportunities, curate learning experiences and assessment, accept and activate digital credentials and records, and appropriately promote, share and maintain verified skills data. Essentially, learner-earners will need to demonstrate self-directed learning to intentionally develop and showcase what they know and can do.  

HZ:  What would a skills strategy look like for organizations?  

NB: There are several action items organizations of all types (e.g., education providers and employers) can take to begin on a skills journey. Some tasks rely heavily on human intervention; others are supported by tech solutions. The end deliverable will be customized to align with institutional vision and purpose. Five tasks are especially relevant for higher education institutions but speak to all organizations: 

  • Skill statements. Break down academic credentials, learning experiences and job roles to tangible, demonstrable competency or skill statements, listing the knowledge, skills and abilities that express learning outcome expectations or demonstration of skills in work function. These can be broad occupational frameworks created by industry groups, accrediting bodies and licensing or certification boards, or they can be adapted to an organization’s academic credentials and position descriptions. 
  • Organize the skills. There are multiple ways to do this, but it is critical to establish frameworks to organize these skill statements and formats in ways that allow for tracking, reporting and sharing within and between organizations. 
  • Deploy skills in learning, work structures, and advancement processes. Linking skill statements to learning activities (work-based and those provided by education providers) makes it possible to track the skills addressed in learning experiences and assessments and report the skills mastered. Within the workplace, this relates to mapping skills lists to job descriptions, performance evaluations and career progression options for upskilling, reskilling, and outskilling.
  • Capture and document skill achievement. Creating a way to document achieved skill requires more detailed information (meta-data) than previously reported on a traditional academic transcript or in work and training records. Digital credentials are one way to make achieved skills visible. Another is comprehensive learning records (CLR) or learner employment records (LERS), which can include information about achieved digital microcredentials, skills and experiences (i.e., internships, work experiences, service and engagement, etc.).
  • Transmit and share. A core element of the skills process is transferring accomplished skills directly to the learner, rather than being owned and hoarded by education providers and employers. Even though the offering or awarding party maintains and validates the records previously described, the earning individual should have the right to collect, store, share and promote their achieved skills. They are, after all, inherent to the individual; the earned degree, certification, training or mastered skills aren’t the property of the organization that provided the opportunity.  

HZ: What will we accomplish if all these actions are taken?   

NB: Organizations that take all these actions are setting themselves up for the advancement and improvement we believe is necessary in the skills ecosystem. If we can do this, we’ll be flying the well-crafted skills plane. We can minimize the need for duct tape and chewing gum to hold the parts of the skills ecosystem together. There is an urgency to rethink traditional ideas about the learn-and-work continuum, but we can coordinate efforts to elevate and sustain the flight toward a diverse, equitable talent pipeline.