The Job: Scale for Skills-First

An ed-tech giant’s ambitious moves into digital credentialing and learner records.

Instructure’s big moves with digital credentials and learner records—can the ed-tech giant help drive adoption? Also, Harvard’s Project on Workforce sheds light on short-term training, with a first-of-its-kind directory of 17K providers.

A Digital Canvas for Skills

Instructure was a player in the skills and credentials space before its recent acquisition of Parchment, a digital transcript company. But that $800M move made many observers wonder if Instructure can develop digital records of skills that learners, colleges, and employers might actually use broadly.

The company’s Canvas is the big fish among learning management systems in the North American market, according to Phil Hill, an ed-tech analyst. With steady growth and a footprint covering at least 36% of colleges in the U.S. and Canada, Canvas reaches millions of students.

Likewise, Parchment isn’t the only digital skills platform acquired in recent years by the Salt Lake City–based Instructure. It owns Portfolium, which allows students to showcase projects and competencies to potential employers. And last year the publicly traded company acquired Concentric Sky, developer of a standard for verifiable, skills-aligned microcredentials.

“These tools help us support the credentialing approaches of our customers and help us build toward a more robust comprehensive learner record solution in the future,” says Ryan Lufkin, Instructure’s vice president of global strategy. 

The ‘Why’ on CLRs: Lufkin says the company is seeing a broad range of colleges making “interesting headway” with nondegree programs. That’s partially due to students questioning the value of the traditional four-year degree, he says, which has been driven by the student debt crisis, COVID, and the job market.

“Schools are looking at ways to offer incremental credit throughout a learner’s journey, finding ways of engaging with students who may have dropped out without completing a degree, and looking at ways they can more easily engage with adult learners looking to reskill or upskill to change careers,” says Lufkin.

Ultimately, he says, the CLR approach will allow students to bring these various learning types into a coherent format for employers.

Instructure seeks a leadership role in working with other organizations to establish common standards for credentials and learner records, to help create consistency. The company collaborates closely with 1EdTech. And last month it helped launch the 1EdTech TrustEd Microcredential Coalition, which aims to increase quality and trust in digital credentials.

The coalition includes reps from heavyweights like Cengage, the California State University system, Google, Oracle, and Western Governors University. It plans to release a framework to set a standard for the transparent information digital credentials need to include about skills and knowledge, and for the interoperability of the credentials.

Employers and Competencies: When asked if Instructure and its growing set of tools can help employers to understand and use skills-oriented credentials, Lufkin says a first step is building trust in nondegree options so companies see that they demonstrate mastery of the skills needed in potential employees.

“Establishing common standards, ensuring credentials are transferable and verifiable where necessary, and creating a platform that allows students to curate and showcase the skills they’ve acquired across their lifelong learning journey are key steps in driving this evolution across industries,” he says.

Corporate HR currently isn’t designed to accept digital credentials or skills data. And experts say making headway with fixes that aren’t employer driven will be an uphill battle.

Lufkin says he’s bullish on the role competency-based education can play in the expanding world of credentials. 

The set of solutions from Instructure and Canvas, says Amber Garrison Duncan, executive vice president of the Competency-Based Education Network, can deliver on a full technology architecture to support CBE and skills-first work, regardless of the type of credential offered—meaning any award for a bundle of skills, including degrees.

However, she urges that the growth of nondegree credentials should not be conflated with the ability to use and exchange them in a digital form.

“As we are learning in Alabama,” Duncan says, referring to the Alabama Talent Triad, “the validation of skills and the evidence of that being provided in a digital record is critical if these are going to be more than just a new way to share a traditional transcript.”

When a major company like Instructure moves assertively into an emerging market such as skills-based credentials, it can create a rising tide and help turn hype into reality, several observers note. But another common scenario is that a set of promising tools gets lost among competing priorities.

Either way, Instructure is worth watching if you care about the skills-first movement.


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Bringing a ‘Hidden Infrastructure’ to Light

The Harvard Project on Workforce is out this week with the first-ever directory of nearly 17K short-term training providers—community-based nonprofits, apprenticeship intermediaries, colleges, and more—across the United States.

Until now, project leaders say, the infrastructure for short-term training “has been hidden in plain sight.”

The Big Idea: The interactive Workforce Almanac begins to make sense of this highly fragmented market. The idea is to help policymakers, researchers, education providers, and funders better understand where government funding for short-term training is going, which communities are well served, and which ones aren’t. 

Nathalie Gazzaneo, co-director of the Project on Workforce, says the ultimate goal is to drive resources to the people and places that most need them—and to the training programs that are most effective. 

“When policymakers and philanthropies, especially local-level policymakers, are making funding decisions, it’s really important for them to have a broader view of workforce training so they can make those decisions more effectively,” she says.

The Details: The availability of training varies widely by state and metro area, and the almanac allows users to drill down on those disparities. 

  • Connecticut, for example, only has six training providers for every 100K workers, while Maine has 32 per 100K.

Some states, including Maine, rely heavily on training providers supported by federal funding from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Others lean more on community colleges or, in places like Massachusetts, on apprenticeship sponsors.   

  • Across all states, at least two-thirds of the training providers operate outside the federal government’s primary workforce system funded by WIOA.

The directory draws on federal data on postsecondary institutions (IPEDS), WIOA-eligible training providers (TPR), registered apprenticeships (RAPIDS), and nonprofit organizations that offer training and credentials that take less than two years to complete. For now, the almanac only includes provider names, locations, and types, such as whether they are WIOA eligible. 

But as the team continues to build out the tool, it plans to add more specific information on programs, the types of jobs they’re training people for, and how those align with local needs.

“There is a significant mismatch between job openings and jobseekers in this country,” says David Deming, the lead researcher on the almanac and a professor of political economy at Harvard. “Emerging technologies require new skills, and a more integrated approach to workforce training is required to better prepare the U.S. workforce now and in the future.”

Who’s It For: Gazzaneo says that throughout the development process, the Harvard team tested the directory with intended users, including policymakers, researchers, and training providers themselves. The team assumed that education providers would primarily use the almanac as a benchmarking tool—but found that they were just as interested in visibility and the opportunity to find other providers to collaborate with.

A number of the country’s largest nonprofit providers, like Per Scholas, are already experimenting with how to scale up through collaboration. Per Scholas’s community-partner strategy is about cost efficiencies, local trust and insights, and strengthening economies, says Plinio Ayala, the group’s longtime president and CEO.

“There are so many workforce models across the country, and often there is significant crossover in services being delivered,” Ayala says. “I’ve always believed in the ‘stay in your lane’ approach.”

With the new Workforce Almanac, it may now be easier for providers to see their lane. And the Harvard team plans to continue adding features and making updates.

The Kicker: “We’d love to keep hearing from people, from practitioners, about how we can continue to refine the tool to move the field more toward clarity and equity,” Gazzaneo says. “This is meant to be used. And this is meant to see how it can be improved over time.” 

If you want to hear more, the Project on Workforce is hosting a webinar on the almanac. —Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

AI and Coding
“Bodies of knowledge and skills that have traditionally taken lifetimes to master are being swallowed at a gulp,” James Somers writes in his New Yorker eulogy for the “craft” of coding. For the moment, GPT-4 is a worse programmer than Somers, he writes. His friend, Ben, is much worse. “But Ben plus GPT-4 is a dangerous thing.” As coding per se begins to matter less, maybe soft skills will shine, Somers concludes.

Climate and Infrastructure
The Families and Workers Fund, a philanthropic collaborative, has launched a $50M project focused on good careers in the clean energy and infrastructure industries. The initiative will invest directly in scalable training models while also supporting government agencies and community partners on job creation, all with a goal of advancing at least 1M careers. The fund’s total commitments now top $110M.

Skills Engine
As technology drives changes in workplaces, a “skills engine” is needed to identify the skills people have, understand the skills the workforce needs, and close the gap between the two as quickly as possible, according to a report from Reach Capital, which cites a projected doubling of the global corporate learning and development market by 2030. An AI skills-inference platform can help, the report says, quoting the World Economic Forum.

Education Requirements 
By 2031, 72% of jobs in the U.S. will require some form of postsecondary education or training, according to the latest analysis from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And 42% of jobs are expected to go to workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, up from 36%. The fastest growing industries tend to need more highly skilled workers, and jobs on the whole are shifting to require education beyond high school.

California’s Master Plan 
Ben Chida, senior adviser to California governor Gavin Newsom, speaks frankly about challenges the state faces as it develops a new Master Plan for Career Education. “Despite tens of billions of dollars in investment, we are on track for, at best, incremental progress,” he told Eloy Oakley, CEO of the College Futures Foundation, on his podcast, The Rant. “We have 38 months left to do something about that.” Chida is charged with making that change happen, and he talks about both the big picture and specifics.

Apprenticeship
The U.S. could host 830K apprentices a year, compared to just 50K today, according to a new analysis by Multiverseand Burning Glass Institute. That could generate as much as $28.5B in new annual earnings for workers who are otherwise stuck in low-wage jobs. Multiverse, an apprenticeship intermediary, is interested in broadening this training market—and its analysis with BGI identifies 149 occupations that are prime targets for apprenticeship.

Merit America is expanding its approach to offer continued on-the-job training and placement for its alumni through a new apprenticeship program from YUPRO, a skills-first placement firm. Merit America plans to grow fast, including through support from Google’s Career Certificates Fund. The nonprofit training provider built its model around preparing graduates to compete for jobs on the open market, and the apprenticeship will add a dedicated path for employers to connect with its learners.

Job Moves
The University of Virginia has hired Kemi Jona as vice provost for online education and digital innovation. Jona leaves Northeastern University, where he has been assistant vice chancellor for digital innovation and enterprise learning.

GPT-4 created the image for this edition. I’ve also used it for background research to help me ask better questions in interviews. But a draft blurb it wrote missed the mark. (Like many writers, GPT-4 ignores word counts.) How are you using AI?

No newsletter next week. I’ll be back on Nov. 30. Happy Thanksgiving. —PF

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