Using Vision, Collaboration and Technology to Tackle Wicked Skills Challenges

In this conversation style interview, Margo Griffith and Dr. Naomi Boyer, Executive Director, Digital Transformation at Education Design Lab (the Lab), explore how we can all use vision, collaboration and technology enablement to tackle wicked challenges in the skills ecosystem.

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0:00 – Introduction
1:48 – How the Lab is Tackling Wicked 21st Century Skills Challenges
5:30 – Skills and Competency Visibility and Learner Equity for the New Majority Learners
8:25 – Co-design and Collaboration Projects at the Lab Supporting Learners to Earners
14:31 – Verifying and Validating a Learner’s Life and Working Experiences With ‘XCredit’
17:24 – How Others Can Leverage the Lab’s Resources and Build on Their Activities
21:46 – Technology Enabled Human Effort – Underpinning Skills Ecosystem Data

Chapter videos

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for readability)

Margo Griffith – So I’m delighted to have Dr Naomi Boyer with us today. Naomi, thank you so much for being with us. Good morning – it’s your evening but I guess we can say ‘G’day’

Naomi Boyer – I’ll say ‘G’Day’! I’m learning to say ‘G’Day’ with my Australian partners.

MG – You’re doing really well! It’s getting better every time you say it. Let me formally introduce you – Dr Naomi Boyer is an educational strategist and innovative leader with Education Design Lab (the Lab) she has over 20 years of education experience and she’s currently serving as the Executive Director for the Digital Transformation where she’s focusing on the future of work catalysts of 21st century skills, digital micro-credentials, the learner-earner data ecosystem and competency and skill frameworks. Her previous roles have included oversight of all college/university technology as Chief Information Officer; now this involves strategy and innovation, high-quality distance education, unique faculty technology professional development, talent pipeline development aligned to economic interests, global initiatives and the creation and facilitation of continuing education. Dr Boyer has both experience and expertise on competency-based education, leads many non-profit boards and maintains scholarship on self-directed learning. Naomi – thank you so much again for taking time out to talk with us today.

NB – I am absolutely honoured to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

MG – A pleasure. So to start off with Naomi I wonder if you would mind telling us more about the Education Design Lab – how it started, its mission and your role within the organisation?

NB – The Lab does really exciting work and it’s a Lab, so we are a national boundary spanning non-profit that tackles really wicked problems alongside learner-earners and our education and employer partners. We’re identifying models that lead toward the future of work and it’s with an intentional equity lens that we co-design, test and build prototypes to address the major issues of affordability, relevance, portability, flexibility and really important for our conversation today is visibility. So the Lab founder and now board chair, we’ve had some transitions, she was the CEO and President as well – Kathleen deLaski originally was on a board with George Washington University and was amazed at all of the difficult issues that they were dealing with and the lack of institutional response to really quickly innovate to be entrepreneurial to solve the issues. So she and a colleague started up using Human Centred Design Thinking as the basis for the conversation and for the methodology of the Education Design Lab work and some of the first issues that we tackled were around 21st century skills.

So two early design challenges that the Lab worked on were under these questions; we were trying to answer the questions: how might we capture and credential learning outside the classroom in ways that would be meaningful to employers – that was the first one and then the second one: how might we demonstrate in different job markets that 21st century skill credentials have hiring value because we were hearing globally and particularly in the United States that employers would say: ‘We can train for the technical content expertise but it’s these 21st century skills, or depending on what markets you’re in, they might be called ‘durable skills’, ‘transferable skills’, ‘essential skills’, ‘employability skills’, ‘power skills’, ‘human skills’ – I can keep going right? And the one that no one really likes because it seems to demean it somewhat – the ‘soft skills’ – but we call them the 21st-century skills but they’re all the same thing.

As a result of this foundational work over the past eight years, the Lab has co-designed – notice that co-design piece is very much a part of being a Lab and being a human-centred design thinking, tested and scaled a 21st century skills framework that is employer-informed; it’s based with our higher education partners that worked with us to design the framework itself and learner-earners. So learner-earners are central to everything that we do. That framework includes nine in-demand competencies: 1. Critical thinking, 2. Collaboration, 3. Creative problem solving, 4. Oral communication, 5. Resilience, 6. Intercultural fluency, 7. Empathy, 8. Initiative and 9. Self-directed learning. Self-directed learning is the most recent one. We added that in January  of this year and as you heard Margo said it’s my passion, I do research on self-directed learning. I was really excited to bring that to the Lab. Should I keep going Margo or you want me to come up for air?


MG – I would love you to keep going because you know that I can listen to you forever. But there are a couple of points in there that I think certainly resonate in the Australian environment and certainly in the international environment as well, I don’t want to limit it just to an Australian lens. But that notion around skills visibility or competency visibility and the equity piece we’ve spoken about in the past where that learner-to-earner journey or nexus kind of needs a reset from perhaps the degree being the proxy for hiring. Can you tell us a bit about your work with ‘new majority learners’ which I understand is a part of your mission?

NB – Absolutely so central to what the Education Design Lab does is really focused on equity. How can we elevate and remove barriers for those that Higher Education really was not designed for? We know, this is a statistic from the United States – 75 percent of the learners engaged in post-secondary education are not those 18- to 22-year-old living in the dorm. And in order to elevate learners of all different kinds and particularly – when you say the ‘new majority learner’, our systems were not designed for them. These are single moms, these are black and brown individuals, these are folks who are living in poverty, these are veterans and people who are working two, three jobs and have families that they’re supporting.

The Education Design Lab is targeting and focusing on bringing equity to them. Skills can be the currency that can do that because when it’s about what you know and can do. Rather than just a proxy of a credential, it helps to then elevate those who might not have had the opportunity to earn that credential. We’re not saying the credentials don’t matter – they do, but part of the movement that we’re talking about here is around skills-based hiring. So how even in our formal Higher Education programs can we better document the skills that someone has gained? We can say someone has a degree in business but it doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily mastered those skills. They may have flunked that exam that was the most important thing to that employer. So making sure we’re capturing what someone really knows and can do will allow us to target and match up for the workplace. The prototypes that we design at the Education Design Lab are focused on elevating, empowering and we believe it’s a moral imperative to help learner-earners or opportunity seekers have the value of their skills visibility in the marketplace.

MG – If I had pom-pom, I would be shaking them right now. A hundred percent agreed with what you said. I also know that the Lab has been doing some amazing projects as you mentioned that co-design elements around tackling some of these bigger issues. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about some of the projects that you have going on over there?

NB – Yes, we’ve got some really exciting work. What Margo didn’t say in my introduction is that I get to play in all the fun sandboxes so I get to really dig in on issues that are weighty and as I said earlier these are wicked problems. But these are so much fun to unpack and try to really make a difference with. The Education Design Lab has a wide variety of projects along these lines – kind of looking at these things from different angles. And I’m going to just give you some examples of that and we can dig into any of them that might be of interest. So the first one is: ‘Single Mom Success Design Challenge’ which is really about co-designing with colleges and transformational strategies. That’s kind of an important piece. A lot of what we do is talking about organisational transformation, which means it’s deeper than any one’s product: “It’s not a technology, folks. I’m not here to sell you anything.” It’s about really transforming organisations to really drastically improve completion rates for single mothers, for those who are caring for their children. This is not just child care services, right? This is much deeper.

How can we make sure that single moms who do go back to school for post-secondary education are on academic pathways that are going to get them jobs – good paying jobs that will allow them to be better mothers as they continue on that pathway. So that’s one of the projects that we have underway. Another project is called ‘BRIDGES’ or ‘BRIDGES Rural’. This is really focused on rural communities and rural community colleges and how we can look at a Higher Ed institution in a rural community to serve as a critical economic world engine for their learners and their communities, to elevate in that community. Potentially now that we have everyone working remotely – the Great Resignation. People necessarily don’t want to come back to the office. How can we in those rural communities think about bringing those businesses that might allow for remote work as an economic engine to build economic vitality and quality of life for those rural communities? Another project which is really growing by leaps and bounds in the United States is called the ‘Community College Growth Engine Fund’. This is leading the nation and the regions and creating micro-pathways with employers. What are micro-pathways? They’re co-designed with learners and employers. The micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials – keeping them as two or more stackable credentials including a 21st century skill micro-credential and in some sort of industry content – 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. These micro-pathways have to be workplace responsive.

We’re shocked that many colleges, rather than just having at least two of those credentials I talked about, are putting three, four or five industry certifications as well as 21st century skills; they’re packaging those up in less than a year – these are alternative opportunities. And then attached to that we have another project called the ‘Data Collaborative for Skills-based Economy’ where we’re studying the labour and wage impact of these innovative models whether we’re talking about bridges or single moms or community or the micro-pathways, what are the skills insights we can gain and how can we learn about the impact for the learner-earner as far as elevating their meaningful work as well as their wage but the communities that they’re serving as well. So we’re getting into that side of things. And then a couple of projects we’re working on with digital micro-credentialing. So ‘BadgeToHire’ was built on the success from a project we had – ‘TeeUpTheSkills’ and Margo you might have mentioned that –  the ‘T-profile’ is a tool where across the top of the ‘T’ are those durable, ongoing skills and I can send you a visual for this but it’s the skills that go on over time – they’re durable. The ‘T’ is not our thought leadership. That’s coming out of the 1990s’. Down the base of the ‘T’ are those skills that go more in depth. The others are cross-domain, they go over time and there’s more breadth to them. Down the base of the ‘T’ these are the technical skills and certifications that are required and they change quickly over time.

We know technology shifts and people need to adapt their skills to be able to stay conversant in whatever that job role is over time. Those go down the base of the ‘T’. So we’ve designed a tool to work with employers to gather what their ideal job role employee looks like to fill that need with the combination of those skills right and so ‘BadgeToHire’ is all about how can we evaluate the value of 21st century skills micro-credentialing as a hiring signal for career readiness, particularly when we’re talking about those who are underserved learners or those new majority learners. Just today I was delivering a workshop with my colleague in Polk County School District (I live in Polk County, Florida) where we’re testing out the 21st century skills digital micro-credentials with high school students to see if 11th and 12th graders who receive the digital micro-credentials see a benefit on their resumes and the local businesses hire them given their skills even in high school and to see whether this is viable in that environment. I think ‘XCredit’ might be really valuable to talk about here Margo? Do you want me to mention ‘XCredit’?

MG – I definitely want you to mention ‘XCredit’ – please expand.

NB – So ‘XCredit’ is really exciting because if we’re talking about changing the models, turning them upside down and thinking about it  differently. ‘XCredit’ is one of those projects that’s definitely doing that and it’s about targeting and validating a learner’s life and working experiences as currency for the future opportunities and the award of 21st century skills. Let me unpack that a little bit because notice I said “validating a learner’s life”, ‘XCredit’ does not stand for academic credit although colleges and universities could choose to give academic credit sort of like a prior learning assessment for digital micro-credentials but ‘XCredit’ is about what I know and can do, how I can validate the skills that I have without going through a formal learning experience. Maybe I gained them in the military, maybe I gained them through work experience and life and informal learning opportunities right? So it’s about validating a learner’s life and working experiences. So the project includes multiple forms of validation and a full skills ecosystem from skills recommendation to verified credentials in a learner wallet. So much like you all have on your immunisation record and you have your wallet that you can show your immunisation and it is as a verified credential. We’re working to build an ecosystem where the digital micro-credential from this validation goes into a wallet and then can be deployed in the job marketplace, in the talent marketplace.

We’re also developing auto-graded assessments that are scalable, rigorous and quality. We’re using technology to validate 21st century skills and there are a couple of different assessment tools that we’re using to do that. One is in a simulation and a chat text-based format because they’re all performances. We’re not talking about multiple-choice bubble questions here – we need to see these 21st century skills demonstrated so we have these simulations. And then we’re also using technology with an extended reality that allows for both it can be done both on the oculus and the desktop. But it’s all about in our first use case that was really a military use case.

What are the skills that you have and how can you communicate those out in a way that’s been verified and validated so that employers can say: “oh this person has shown and demonstrated that they have these skills and they match up with the skills that I’ve listed in my job descriptions to put them to put it together.”So those are just a few streams of work. We have multiple cohort variations of products that have emerged from the work so I can probably go on for a long time. I’m sorry I probably talked too much there Margo.

MG – Absolutely not! It blows my mind that the Lab has a relatively short period of time doing so many different projects with such great impact. I’m blown away by the scope of what you’re doing and what you’re achieving. In my head though, it’s probably the question that people watching this will say is: “how can we leverage what you’re doing; to really be able to do similar projects, what tools, what resources, how could we also do it in our environment as well?”

NB – We’re a Lab right? So we’re experimenting. This is why I say it is fun stuff, we’re trying things. It doesn’t all work. We don’t go into our challenges or our projects with all of the answers. We do not have all of the answers. But just about everything we’re doing could be scaled and shared with the Australian market and my colleagues there, I have great friends like you Margo that are living halfway across the world and we know that we find time and manage to make it work with our distances and our time changes. The work that we do – ‘scalability’ happens to be one of our design criteria that we adhere to. The issues would be for your audience as to how much of it relates to what they know in their world in their context and thinking about how we take our lens – my lens is very U.S. driven and as much as I try not to be egocentric, it is very common for us as Americans to be such. So I think we’d have to play and try. Most of these projects that I’m talking about could have relevance if you’re facing some of the same challenges in New Zealand and Australia

MG – And I know we are so that was hence part of the why I ask that question. Regarding the project around rural communities – the BRIDGES project, we’ve got the same geographical challenges here. We are a big country with a very sparse population, but you know the education opportunities in rural areas are limited and so I see enormous potential around a lot of the projects that you’ve started. For us it’s also around military and transition and taking, not just military, but even the non-formal education experiences and being able to represent and recognise those as well. So yes I see a lot of similarities whilst there will be differences culturally but at the base we have the same issues, we have the same challenges just on a little bit small scale. I think the work that you and the Lab are doing is phenomenal. I really wanted an opportunity for people to understand that and to hear about it. Thank you so much for taking the time to really unpack those for us today.

NB – As you were mentioning rural Margo, I think COVID has been so disastrous and difficult and it’s been a terrible thing for so many but I’m hoping one of the positive things that might emerge is that the lack of internet infrastructure in many of those rural communities that were otherwise unserved, I’m hoping globally that we’re able to increase the access to broadband and to other technologies because in order for many of these things to really roll out in a way that’s going to impact those communities the most, they’ve got to have access and we’ve got to figure out ways to mitigate the digital divide and the technical limitations. The travel becomes onerous and very difficult to get individuals that either don’t have transportation or so far to get there or the services are not provided, we’ve got to optimise the technology to help the human advancement along in this movement.

MG – Hundred percent and I might just take that point as well. A lot of the things that you’ve been speaking about today – there is kind of a yin and yang isn’t there? You know the movement around skills has to be underpinned by their digital enablement. You mentioned a few things today: digital wallets, even the alternative reality content that you’re doing. Can you talk a little bit about … your view around the skills ecosystem and the requirements for the technology enablement to underpin that?

NB – Yeah really great question so the Lab, and I’m going to say I’m completely invested in this philosophy, believes that the ability for an individual to have visibility into career trajectories and be able to capitalise on making their own skills what they know and can do visible – that’s really important –  visible to the talent marketplace is a moral imperative right? That drives us. So by not facilitating this effort, we then support the previous standard of a degree pedigree in social networks that will reign over and provide the basis rather than truly empowering opportunity seekers to be able to showcase again what they know and they can do, which makes them eligible for job roles that match their skills. So I believe there’s like six steps to enhancing an individual’s digital discoverability and some of this moves into the technological, so, but it moves us closer to a connected skills ecosystem.

That’s a really important point. It is the inner interconnectedness. So job roles and academic programs need to identify associated competencies rather than just learning outcomes right or job functions. It’s human work to do this – this is a human element, not the technological element. There are some technologies out there now to help, some templates but essentially employers and academic institutions need to associate their programs with competencies because it comes down to … – and when I am using ‘skills’ and ‘competencies’ – I’ve been using them interrelated. ‘Competencies’ have skills, knowledge skills and abilities dispositions, multiple areas. ‘Skills’ can be more behavioural and specific but we’ve seen in just normal nomenclature, they start to merge together. So that’s human work in the first step I said. The second one is the compilation of these competencies into an open digital competency frameworks and open skills.

Examples of this would be CTID which is a Credential Engine standard case which is one one edtech. There are others whose frameworks – Rich Skill Descriptors are around skills. But having an open schema to talk about these competency frameworks allows information to be shared across organisations and departments and technologies. So this is human work to compile them but it’s facilitated by technological tools i.g. the adoption of a standard, the utilisation of technology systems to be able to compile those competencies into open digital competency frameworks. So in the third piece we now have to take all these competencies and these frameworks and the skills and link them in the learning experience or the earning experience so whether that’s through an up-skilling and linking of those skills into a job role or whether it’s as part of a master’s program or a technical program, we now need to link all of those things together into the learning experience and tying the skills and intentionally communicating to the individual what is being learned, how it is being assessed and what is being accomplished is key. So this could engage technology systems like learning management systems, student information systems, HR training systems, development and advancement employer systems, transcription systems and portfolio systems but all these are how the technologies we can use to start to connect those pieces to the learning experience or the achievement experience through the workplace as well.

There’s three more steps and I’ll try to go as quickly as possible so the fourth one is the rest solely on the organisation, this is the last one that our organisation-focused because then we’re going to move into the learner-focus and it’s the documentation of the achievement. This can be done through digital micro-credentials, we talked about the 21st century skills digital micro-credentials. There’s tools called Comprehensive Learner Records or Learner Employment Records – our means of transcribing those skills into a formal record that can capture, validate and verify what that individual has achieved. From there, those one through four are really the responsibility, the onus is on the organisation. When we get to five and six, we’re in the space of the skills ecosystem system that begins to shift to the learner-earner. This is the collection and the skills gained across job roles, learning organisations credentials types and personal like assertions – what I say I know and can do. Maybe it’s not verified but that’s where we hear, that’s where those terms I was using earlier about learning wallets and other tools for cataloguing and disseminating the compilation of the best of who I am. So that I can put it together and through, this is another kind of vocabulary term out there, ‘self-sovereignty’ –  I’m in charge, I have agency over what I know and can do and I can share it with others that I choose to in the job talent marketplace and specifically with employers.

So that’s when we start to shift over to the individual who has responsibility in this space but there are technological systems underneath that are facilitating that human agency. And then we get to the last piece which really isn’t the last piece but this is where the resume of the future comes in that will allow every individual to showcase the best me in the talent marketplace and use that directly as a signal with employers to either find me or for me to send it out. Ultimately this final step in the process, or in the skills ecosystem that’s emerging, leads to what we have to tackle and I don’t think we’re there yet but I’m jumping in, I want to deal with this one too – this is going to be my next project is called ‘Last Mile to Hire’ – how do we get it out of my skills records showcasing the best me into those employer records so that we can traverse it and/or for up-skilling and internal mobility and advancement within an organisation. Those are the six steps.

MG – Amazing. I was going to ask you as a final question what would be your advice if you had the magic wand but I think actually your explanation around the six steps has way more clarity, way more utility for us to take that on board. Naomi you’re amazing. Thank you so much. I don’t think there’s a better place to end than that and I really look forward to everything that the Education Design Lab is going to be doing now and into the future. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today, appreciate it.

NB – Really honoured to be here and delighted. I think partnerships like the partnership we have with Edalex and the Bean Centre are going to be essential for us really not just to do this in our own local environments but to start to elevate skills across the globe.

MG – Wonderful thank you so much Naomi.

NB – Thank you Margo.

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