Interview with Rebecca Taber of Coursera
Jay Collier: My role is to develop new programs that help people find and gain expertise in digital and computing careers. So, I’m pleased today to be sharing our newest program, the Academy of Digital Sciences which is an accelerated talent development program intended to connect candidates with employers through eight-week blended learning courses
We know there are many people who could be well matched for these opportunities, but they don’t know about them. So, our goal is to help potential candidates discover and explore these careers and competencies, whether they’re going to be entering, changing to a new career, or advancing their current careers. And we launched the Academy here in Maine, first with the focus on the digital sciences and at first, primarily for adults, many of whom who are funded by TechHire, a workforce program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.
In order to meet the needs and schedules of adults who have current work, study, or family commitments, we unbundled traditional learning paths into a collection of courses that help learners find their way to the area that that matches their interests. So, our initial courses are an overview of the fields, oriented toward career groups that are defined by the Department of Labor. And then we direct them toward those areas that are of greatest interest.
We aspire to continue to grow more courses in specializations directly related to the work that our employers are seeking so that student learners can come back and continue, over time, to deepen their skills in new areas. And another piece of the long transition is making sure that we’re aligning the experiences in the curriculum not only to the needs of our very active and appreciative employer partners here in our region, but also to data from the Department of Labor that reinforces the kinds of competencies and experiences that are being sought nationally. And we are just starting this year. We’re in our third session and are already growing by about half during each session and we are happy to be blending online courses from Coursera with applied projects that we mentored here, topped off by introductions to the employers in this region who are hiring and are seeking candidates with the very competencies and is experiences that our students will get.
Rebecca Taber: How are you working to identify the development needs and what employers are looking for?
Jay: Well, we began working with H-1B visa application data, partially because the Department of Labor TechHire grant indicated high demand in those particular areas, but also because over the past five years here in Maine, our top tech-focused employers have also expressed difficulty in finding skilled workers. As we suspected, it wasn’t because there was a lack of people who were motivated or who could be interested, but mostly a lack of knowledge about these careers.
From the beginning, we have been focusing on computing and IT competencies and occupations. We do have a number of large globally-competitive businesses that are focused primarily on tech and we also have here, in a more rural state, a large number of small businesses across all sectors and industries who are also having the same kind of challenges. But what we found across all size employers is that they’re all looking for a combination of hard and soft skills.
In addition to the tech skills, they also are really interested first in knowing that the individual has passion and persistence and a drive to learn continuously. Each of our courses integrates elements of both hard skill mastery and then also personal development in order to be able to introduce a candidate to an employer. And one other point that’s interesting is smaller businesses are looking for people with a broader range of skills. So, whereas our larger businesses indeed do align to occupation codes and job descriptions that are relatively specialized, one of the differences that we have is desire for candidates who have a sense of how things stick together, a kind of systems intelligence.
As a result, our introductory work with learners is helping them identify those skills within themselves and to surface them when they do meet with employers.
Rebecca: How did you design your learning program and what does it look like? So, up until now, we’ve talked about high level, about the needs and the mission and vision of your organization. But walk us through the nuts and bolts for this learning program and how you develop the key elements.
Jay: Sure! One of the most important goals for our programs is to make sure that the learning experiences that students have are really well aligned with what our employers are seeking. But we are also aware, as we’ve learned from other regions, that there is a danger at only looking at what a small number of local employers are looking for because their focus is not necessarily replicable across industries over time. So, we started by getting to know our employers very well and aligned their interests to national and regional competency models. We started with the U.S. DOL Competency Model which really aligned our understanding of the competencies and demands that our employers were seeking in relation to a national sampling.
We then began with an architecture that included strong content mastery through online learning modules from Coursera, as well as an applied project which has a standard cycle that replicates what life is like in an agile development workplace. Students go through a cycle where they identify a problem that they’re passionate about, or something in an app or web service they’d like to improve, and then apply what they’re learning through the online modules to a small prototype that helps them understand how to align a problem with the skills that they’re gaining through the online work. Then, the last piece is introductions to employers which we schedule at the beginning and end of each of session, so learners have a chance to meet a number of employers, just as they are getting started — getting some early coaching — and then they work with professional mentors through the eight-week program and then meet with employers again.
The employers are getting to see not only their competencies but also their growth, how have they changed over those eight weeks? What have they learned? How self-aware are they of their learning? And how much are they demonstrating the very important skill of continuous learning?
Most learners who don’t know much about the fields start with an introductory and essentials program that introduces them to the range of possibilities. The goal is to help them find which career area best matches their interest, that they most excited about. Then they subsequently dig more deeply into those areas that do match their interest. And throughout that time, they’re working with an advisor and mentors who are helping them surface their personal experience, their background, their prior learning with the new learning and integrate it rapidly.
Becca: Can you talk a little bit about how you decided on the length of time these programs would take, as well as the specific ratios of online versus offline learning?
Jay: Yes, definitely. One of the things that we recognize is that learners are accustomed to formal education where they take a, say, three-credit course at a university or community college, and that amount of effort is familiar. That was one factor. Another factor is we wanted to make sure that a person who has family and work commitments already could spend approximately two hours a day or eight to ten hours a week in total, mostly at their own pace, so that they would be able to accomplish success and participate without it being too difficult as a challenge.
We do, however, encourage those who have time to take two courses at the same time.
To determine how to allocate the estimated time per course, we looked at the relationship between content mastery and the application of those skills essentially split that down in the middle. We have actually 60 to 40 relationships between the time that we estimate learners take on the online modules and the time that they’re involved in our weekly learning events and assignments. We offer two weekly live events that are focused on helping learners understand and surface their stories, what brought them to where they are now, what they aspire to for the future and how their learning is related. Again, all of this is in anticipation of having a really productive and meaningful conversation with a future employer.
So our goal is not to dig deep as much as it is to provide the first taste, like stepping stones toward a deeper knowledge and, above all getting to know professionals that can help them find their paths.
Becca: Are the online and in-person elements the same for all individuals? Do you change that based on individual needs?
Jay: Well, that is a really good question. We have the self-paced content instruction which is curated from universities through Coursera. And then we have mentoring and support with a professional adviser that works with learners from their first inquiry all the way through to introductions to employers. And that can be either call, virtual online, or in-person.
Learners also have a professional mentor they work with during the eight weeks of the course itself. Then, the last piece is that we have learning labs at standard weekly times. So, we have many learners who can come to our learning hub for those labs in person but can also participate virtually. So, the pedagogy and the structure of the overall course and experience remains consistent even though each of those pieces, but then the learner can choose the appropriate channels that work best for them.
Becca: Excellent. I really like how you are making adjustments accordingly and measuring the success of this new form of talent development.
Jay: Yes, exactly! So, since we’re on eight-week cycles, we are able to make pretty continuous improvements. And as we began in a pilot mode and are now ramping up, during each cycle, we learn directly from our learners and employers how we’re serving their needs and how we can serve them better. Are we preparing learners in a way that employers find a valuable prequalification for them? Are learners gaining the best experiences they can? For instance, before they start, we do a find-your-fit survey to discover their goals: whether to learn about or change to a new career or to enhance and get a promotion in their current career or to advance to a new field. Then, we use those learner goals to advise them throughout.
We pay attention to what the individual learners and employers need, both anecdotally and also through rapidly evolving survey tools. And our goal is a successful introduction of learners to employers because, even though the number of graduates from traditional two and four-year computing and IT is growing, it still doesn’t meet the need. So, they are very interested in meeting our non-traditional learners. And in our first cohort, one of our learners was hired for a paid internship here in Maine. As in other parts of the country, paid internships are in many ways considered a new entry-level job for computing and IT and they give employers an opportunity to find out if there’s a culture fit, to find out if the candidates have the best-fit skills. And we get feedback from the employers about the particular skills that made that candidate attracted to them.
Becca: What opportunities do you envision to expand your work?
Jay: We started with the idea of being scalable and replicable right from the start. So our structure, our learning pedagogy is common to all of the courses we are offering. And from the beginning, we’ve envisioned identifying other high demand careers and also workplace essentials including communications, collaboration.
We also started with just one hub on one of our campuses and we’re already reaching out and starting to develop learning hubs, we sometimes call them “huddles,” in other locations where our geographically-distributed learners can gather. We see expanding in both those directions to new areas of high-demand competencies and then also to new geographical locations.
Becca: I absolutely love that phrase, learning “huddles.” That’s a new one. That’s terrific. Can you share what lessons you’ve learned that might be helpful to the audience?
Jay: There was one really surprising lesson that reminds us why we’re doing what we’re doing. Sometimes a learner will hear that computing and IT occupations are high demand and high pay, and will try out the field … and then find out rapidly that it’s not right for them. They are happy to learn this before they make a commitment to a longer program, having made the discovery is a small amount of time. Actually, it really benefits their growth and their own development. So, this particular lesson reminds us to always pay attention to the individual learner as much as we possibly can and make sure the learning is aligned to their needs and not the other way around.
Becca: Success is not just someone actually succeeding in this program, but maybe discovering their greatest potential and passion where they can develop is in another area. Great!
What is the biggest drawback or obstacle you have encountered when trying to implement change in communities?
Jay: I think the answer to that question depends on which community we’re talking about. Given our close alignment with training development and talent development programs for employers, and we have found that this model is relatively new. We’ve had a fantastic experience working with many collaborators here in our state, working across workforce development and nonprofits and educational institution, and it has been heavy lifting, in terms of a brand new model for intake assessment, training, and placement. It’s possible because we are small enough here to know people beyond just their sector identity and by keeping the learner at the center.
Rebecca leads the Government & Nonprofit Partnerships team at Coursera, with the goal of transforming lives through access to world-class education. The team develops and oversees workforce development partnerships with public and social sector partners, including efforts to promote skill development for populations such as transitioning service members, opportunity youth, refugees and underemployed adults. Prior to Coursera, Rebecca was the Education Advisor to Governor Jack Markell (Delaware), in which capacity she developed state education policies and worked closely with the Secretary of Education to implement Delaware’s education agenda. Previously, Rebecca was an Associate at McKinsey & Co., where she advised private and public sector clients on strategy, human capital, and organizational development. Rebecca holds a B.A. in Political Science from Yale University, an MA from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Jay Collier joined the University of New England in January 2016 to develop the pilot for a new, innovative initiative designed to enhance computational thinking across disciplines. Collier has been leading and promoting learning and technology initiatives for higher education, K-12, and public media organizations for over 25 years, including Project>Login at Educate Maine, Dartmouth, MIT, and Bates College, and as a consultant to Harvard Law School and the Maine Department of Education. He has spoken on education and technology at professional conferences in the U.S. and Canada and was a member of Leadership Maine.