Originally posted on the Learn & Work Ecosystem Library Linkedin page.
JANUARY 11, 2023 — The launch of the new Learn & Work Ecosystem Library on December 1, 2022 raises key issues around the use of digital resources. Particularly notable are issues of accessibility and transparency in the education and workforce space through open access to information. Currently, nontraditional education and work pathways are under-covered in the media, and often bewildering to newcomers and veterans alike. The Learn & Work Ecosystem Library centralizes and connects the complex jargon and hundreds of initiatives and alliances related to this space.
The communications failures that exist now stem from how decentralized and convoluted the learn-and-work ecosystem is. Existing research, definitions, initiatives, and alliances lack a permanent place to live that is equally accessible to all. Practitioners, funders, journalists, policymakers, and researchers – to name just some of the key players in the ecosystem – have had to rely on in-crowd networks and special investigations to make any progress on expanding their knowledge base. Regional institutions and local programs may be so siloed in their own capacities that they miss similar initiatives in other states or areas that they could learn and benefit from.
The expanse and variety of the internet means there are many places to go to both give and receive information. We have community boards and forums, such as Reddit or Facebook Groups. There are also open-access social media channels to engage with broader conversations on a topic and call out for more information.
One place where these conversations have historically happened on social media is Twitter. With the new leadership and structural changes at Twitter, many have wondered where we will go if the platform does eventually cease to exist as we have known it. Twitter has been an excellent, if controversial resource, for researchers, academics, and journalists looking to expand their knowledge base and learn about programs and initiatives relevant to their focus. It has arguably been most helpful as a place for a community to compile information.
The new question emerging for many of us now – where else can academics, workforce leaders, instructors, and policymakers of all levels come together to discuss higher education and workforce development and learn from one another?
Could the Library become a solution for the void? For project lead Holly Zanville, this is a “way down the road” question. Zanville also wonders who would step up to provide a new information-sharing platform.
“There’s a big question mark out there about how will we share information,” said Zanville.
A similar conversation and need sparked Zanville and the team’s creation of the Library. They wanted to build knowledge about the ecosystem that went beyond project-based resources and showed more of the full picture. They knew it couldn’t belong to just one organization, and wanted an open site for accessibility. The goal was a system that could be updated to maintain accuracy, but also archive dated information.
Weathers is a strategic communications expert in the higher education and philanthropic space. Zanville, Weathers, and a small team from The George Washington University researched the education and workforce landscape to see what was working, and what wasn’t.
One place where information is pulled from the community and synthesized is community wikis. Modeled after Wikipedia, these sites are built to compile information about a niche subject – for example, the television shows, The Bachelor or Game of Thrones. There are backstories, character profiles, and plot summaries at these community wikis. The wikis include an established topic, information that is neither static nor fixed, an interested audience (often known as super fans), and active contributors.
The Ecosystem Library is designed to be a community wiki. Similarly, the higher education and workforce development community is as dedicated and well-versed as these fans. What makes these wikis? It’s support from the very community they cater to. This means engagement to make each post up-to-date and comprehensive. It’s less about huge numbers of commenters or posters, and more about the quality of the community built around the wiki. There is a shared responsibility among knowledgeable communities to support and sustain resources like these through distribution and continued population.
The concept of a wiki implies multiple stakeholders. “To be ‘community owned’ means that people in the community have to come forward,” noted Zanville. The commitment to the values of community and accessibility is driving our work: the team understands the importance of digital resources especially right now and knows better than to waste time on a static website when things are moving so quickly. One of the librarians on the Library Advisory Board warned the development team early: “If you’re building a static website, don’t waste your time. It’s a wiki or nothing.” Zanville notes, “that’s become our watchword – it’s a wiki or nothing!”
Clearly, the lack of organized and searchable information in the workforce and education space is noticeable. Think tanks like The Brookings Institution, Urban Institute, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and New America have produced well-used collections of synthesized information – think New America’s public opinion polling dashboard – but they have not embraced the common ground of ideas and connections that the Library is striving for. In the fall of 2022, America Achieves and the What Works Plus Collaborative launched the Catalyze Registry connecting funding and initiatives, which touches on the work the Library is trying to tackle, but its focus is more narrow.
The education and workforce development space is immense and daunting, especially to an outsider or someone new to the arena. It ranges from blockchain to credentialing, to online learning platforms. While components run the gamut, so much of this work is interconnected and reliant on other pieces. From policies to programs, to partnerships, to positions, each relies on the work of another.
“We know we’re facing currency and accessibility issues,” Zanville notes. The infrastructure of the Library means previous work can be collected and placed in the continuum of policies and progress, allowing users to comprehend how each puzzle piece fits and what is active now. The Library can also be a directory to other resources, so the learning doesn’t start and end with what’s available on the Library page. In this sense, we want to become air traffic controllers – send folks to other sites where there will be relevant, more detailed information than the Library can contain.”
“Context is very important,” Zanville adds. “Putting initiatives in context of one another shows how interdependent this ecosystem is. Higher education is no longer in a silo – tech specialists, intermediaries, and business leaders all are invested in this space meaning that there is potential for a variety of Library users.”
Like any healthy ecosystem, the education and workforce ecosystem is highly interconnected. Potential users, audiences, and contributors include practitioners, researchers, journalists, funders, industry leaders, and educators. Each user will bring to the Library different, rich backgrounds, and assorted needs. While users are unique individuals, the ecosystem is increasingly interdependent in part due to advances in technology.
With the Library, one feature that was important to incorporate was the connection between definitions. In addition to the overviews of each definition, the entries link to related initiatives or definitions.
This part of the Library will be invaluable to journalists and those building in the workforce and education space. Zanville explained that she gets calls from journalists just trying to find out who to even speak to on a subject. While a reporter may know what issue they want to write about, because of the lack of a centralized information bank, they may not know all of the initiatives created to address this issue. Or, they may have heard of a program or initiative, but not what came before it or initiated it.
With the slow death of local news taking with it many beat education and labor reporters, and the shifting of social media sites, how will we communicate with each other going forward? How can we effectively disseminate information about the spaces we are in? Additionally, many news sites that are great resources on education and workforce are behind necessary but dissuasive paywalls. This limits information access to many.
As the Library drives its new information car onto the crowded Internet highway, one of the questions to ask is what will a marker of success look like? Zanville has some ideas about what she will look for. One will be, will community members come forward with corrections? If they do, this will show real-world engagement, with folks coming forward to engage with the work through additions and corrections. And there are so many potential users: career counselors, students, researchers, journalists, and educators. “When it comes to the Library, the more the merrier, Zanville underscores. “It’s the perfect, low-stakes opportunity for previously divided sectors to work together instead of compete for air space.”
Right now, Zanville is hoping for needed dialogue about communications issues in the learn-and-work ecosystem. For the Library team, a robust conversation, information collection and curation, and disagreeing would be a good thing. It’s important to remember throughout this process that the Library is an open concept – one reason Zanville likes the term “library.” We don’t have control of the entries. Our view is, take the information you need for your own use when you come to the Library. And if you don’t find what you need, let us know. This is a wiki – it’s meant to be community owned.”
By: Elin Johnson is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Open Campus.