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

The ecosystem of skills is fraught with counterintuitive developments that can hinder learners and force them to build the plane while flying it. But there are systems being developed to mitigate these issues and streamline the process of skills development.
The ecosystem of skills is fraught with counterintuitive developments that can hinder learners and force them to build the plane while flying it. But there are systems being developed to mitigate these issues and streamline the process of skills development.

Holly Zanville recently interviewed Naomi Boyer about higher education’s digital transformation challenges. Part 2 in the three-part series focuses on the implementation challenges in the skills ecosystem.


Holly Zanville (HZ):  In part one, we talked about some key concepts and definitions behind the skills ecosystem. Why is the skills ecosystem such a trending issue?

Naomi Boyer (NB): Many people describe the skills ecosystem as the Wild West, and the ecosystem is fraught with counterintuitive developments. There is a lack of stabilized systems and networks and a fast pace of change. This is akin to building the skills plane in flight and holding it together with duct tape and chewing gum. In general, ecosystems are complex networks or interconnected systems; they are networks of networks. Over a decade ago, Australia defined the skills ecosystem as “a self-sustaining network of workforce skills and knowledge in an industry or region.” Many interrelationships exist within the skills ecosystem, including:  

  • Multiple education providers or similar education and training businesses
  • Industry sectors such as retail, information technology and healthcare
  • A continuum of roles for individuals such as learner, unemployed, underemployed and employed
  • Technology systems of the same and differing types
  • Intermediary data-reporting sources such as state, national, and accreditation bodies

Each of these individual networks presents barriers to individual skills optimization and even greater challenges sharing skills data and information across the many different networks. 

HZ:  Is the skills ecosystem so complex that it cannot or will not serve the many types of organizations in the system?

NB:  For sure, it’s complex, but it’s not broken. I think it is in the process of evolving to realize its potential for the array of occupant organizations in the ecosystem. But to do so, it must be intentionally designed to ensure this emergent skills ecosystem is equitable for all. 

HZ: Where and how do we do this? 

NB:  First, we have to define the terms and understand what we are dealing with. We talked about concepts and definitions in our part one discussion. The concept of a skills ecosystem is somewhat new to many. With anything new, there are wonky words with vague and ambiguous hypotheses of how to operationalize for future success. While I’ve attempted to speak in plain language and limit the jargon, it’s very difficult to eliminate the descriptive terminology of skills. As structure takes shape and comprehensive demonstrated use of the skills learn-and-work ecosystem becomes available, the terminology will become better understood and normalized. Common language is just one area indicative of equilibrium in the dynamic, interdependent, self-organizing, ecosystem process of joining or fitting parts together.

HZ: What comes next in a nurturing strategy?

NB:  Next come the help teams—the support organizations and the provocateurs—the think tanks, researchers and technical assistance experts. That’s the space I work in. The Education Design Lab purposefully and actively is trying to shape the skills ecosystem. Naturally, we’re not the only organization attempting to link and optimize skills in the emergent ecosystem. In fact, there are so many components and complexities to the dynamic relationships with different roles and attributes that it’s difficult to make sense of them all. Lumina Foundation identified many of the players in its Learn-and-Work Ecosystem map of the marketplace for credentials. However, given current market drivers, additional developments have already occurred. I know you’re trying to address this in your Credential As You Go work now.

HZ:  Yes, we’re working with partners to build a digital learn-and-work ecosystem library that will be established as a crowdsourced model. This is important for precisely the reason you bring up—we need a community to keep information about the ecosystem updated. We expect the library will include, at minimum, three types of content: First, the content must be knowledgeable and related to sub-components of the ecosystem, etc. Second, key projects related to the areas of focus for the Library. And lastly, networks or alliances related to the areas of focus.  

NB: There is a lack of information available centrally. The ecosystem is so decentralized and dynamic that a Wiki model is the right approach to helping us keep track of important developments.

HZ: Why do you think so many organizations have emerged in the skills ecosystem, making it necessary for us to map the landscape? 

NB:  Because of the barriers and lack of common language I mentioned earlier, we have too much space between education and the workplace. Organizations have emerged to help the species in the ecosystem navigate the dense system of networks for all stakeholders. Most importantly, learner-earners have the potential to transform society. Great care is required in designing learner employment records (LER) to allow for the seamless movement of skills data within the labyrinth of networks that are required to get to this final state and remedy the current state of fragmented networks.

HZ: Let me interrupt for a moment—how are you using the term learner-earners

NB: The Lab tends to use the term learner-earner to mean working learners, students and employees. Learner-earners represent the new majority of learners, the 75% learning processes that higher education was not really designed for. Our organization uses learner-earner because our methodology targets the end user—the learner-earner—not just the enrolled degree-seeking college student. We’re seeking to co-design meaningful opportunities with learner-earners that will position them for a better life.

HZ: That clarification is helpful. Let’s go back to the reasons for the complexity of the skills ecosystem.

NB: A second issue at play must be solved: the layered complexity of the human and technological networks in the ecosystem. The technology should align with human needs but also have the potential to reimage the previous manual and disconnected flows in the learning-earning continuum into a more simultaneous, spontaneous and ecological process. This level of systemic change requires coordination, collaborative standards, advocacy and innovative design. In the confusing, vulnerable and ambiguous space between, there is a search for sensemaking—and networks are producing networks producing more networks and so on. 

Using the language of ecology, what really happens in an ecosystem is an interdependence of networks with many diverse entities interacting in multiple, simultaneous and complex ways. For the skills ecosystem to centralize around vibrant interdependence, participants need to see the value as well as understand how to connect the human and tech systems. The human—and in this case the learner-earner as the design imperative—is the centralized common element that stretches the margins and pokes holes in the boundaries that have limited the full potential of skills.      

HZ: How is the Education Design Lab trying to help these ecosystem components function better?

NB: The Lab is an educational, non-profit organization that uses human-centered design to co-construct models with cross-sector partners to address portability, affordability, relevance, flexibility and visibility in the learn-earn system. The Lab prototype portfolio includes a library of 21st century skills digital microcredentials  and micro-pathways to integrate  both technical and high-demand 21st century skills, as well as many additional models targeting equity issues and learner-earner success. The learner-earner remains central and crucial to the process and resulting products. We work as an intermediary between education and workforce, engaging multiple stakeholder perspectives such as learners, education providers, employers, industry associations, standards bodies, philanthropic organizations, tech vendors and non-profits. Innovators at the edge of all of these organizations are engaged in a marginal skills movement; however, progress in the skills ecosystem ultimately will require traversing boundaries and establishing both internal and external data passages to express skills and achievements. The flow of information within the skills ecosystem is more than important; in fact, the Lab contends it is a moral imperative. Individuals must own their achieved and validated skills in a digitally visible format, to share and promote what they know and can do for job opportunity and improved economic vitality. Often, the individual learner-earner becomes inconsequential to technology and infrastructure in the skills ecosystem dialogue. This ultimately diminishes the true potential of skills empowerment.

HZ:  This sounds like a complex process, to develop skills-based digital microcredentials and micro-pathways within the evolving skills ecosystem.

NB: Our design approach helps operationalize it. We use several lenses to catalyze the skills ecosystem. Although the skills economy emerges, key design criteria are used to empower, protect and establish trust for and with the shared promise of equitable access to meaningful work. The Lab sometimes functions as an active or tangential member of the organizations and work groups attempting to give the larger skills ecosystem shape and meaning. Some of the groups that work in this ecosystem are the Competency-Based Education Network, the Open Skills Network, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and Credential As You Go.

All these groups act as communities of practice with different structures and purposes. Some are open to all with a shared affinity to their mission; others are membership based with associated fees.

HZ: Let’s stop here and pick up in part three with the benefits of the ecosystem of organizations figuring out how to fly this plane well. 

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