Mapping the New Learning Ecosystem: Colorado and Beyond

Written by
Taylor Kendal

Mapping the New Learning Ecosystem: Colorado and Beyond

Written by
Taylor Kendal

Mapping the New Learning Ecosystem: Colorado and Beyond

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Written by
Taylor Kendal
On March 17, 2021, Learning Economy Foundation, in partnership with the CO Department of Higher Education, held our monthly C-Lab Pulse.

Beyond offering a range of community updates, we invited a panel of state and national leaders to share their perspectives on the new learning ecosystem. Our panel of experts included:


  • Michael Vente, CO Department of Higher Education
  • Katherine Keegan, CDLE Office of the Future of Work
  • Kristina Moss Gunnarsdottir, US Department of Education OET
  • Bitsy Cohn, Cohn Solutions Group
  • Rana Tarkenton, Denver Education Attainment Network
  • Jeff Wasden, State Business Executives


Having found the conversation to be both inspiring and generative, we wanted to offer a brief recap and reflection. The following is a summary of the key ideas discussed, along with a few suggestions about how we might take such a conversation and make it actionable and impactful. An emergent frontier and new learning ecosystem is taking shape before our eyes, but the edges have yet to be fully defined. Our hope is that those who find their way to this post are inspired to engage as we collectively map the emergent boundaries and borders of the Internet of Education.


Q: What is the practical value of mapping the new learning & employment ecosystem?


Michael Vente: From a state agency perspective, one of the practical uses of ecosystem mapping has to do with consumer protection, and ensuring individuals have as much information as possible when making important decisions about education and employment. Individuals are in a free market when it comes to things like education, so having perfect information is essential for systems to work well and for individuals to have what they need to make the best possible decisions.


To help achieve this, the CO Department of Higher Education works closely with the CO Department of Labor and Employment to manage the Eligible Training Provider List (ETPL), a tool ensuring a canonical resource for education and employment opportunities in Colorado. We also work with partner organizations like BrightHive and Credential Engine to expand, extend, and bring transparency to the ETPL and other consumer-focused tools.


Bitsy Cohn: A lot of my work centers around how we make things operational on the ground. With all of these great ideas, projects, and pilots, the systems required for us to work well together in the interest of the student just aren’t there. While interoperability is a new word in education, the student still doesn’t own their own records (or access is often a privilege). Current system is outmoded in many ways, which translate directly to issues of equity.


How do we credential all learning, so that a person can walk away with opportunity from partial degree completion? How do we shift so that all learning can be recognized? With this in mind, I find the whole digital wallet idea revolutionary in terms of how a student can own their own education. This opens doors to a fascinating landscape of possibility. Technology is creating a common opportunity and language allowing us to come together and discover more that unites than divides us.


Katherine Keegan: Others hit the nail on the head! It’s about figuring out ROI while ensuring consumer protection and equity. How many people are employed to help people navigate the education and employment ecosystem? Even state employees don’t often have the tools needed to effectively navigate this landscape. I’m excited about the potential in providing the helpers in our system more tools to do their job effectively.


Kristina Moss Gunnarsdóttir: I look at the value of mapping through three different perspectives. From the federal perspective, it’s fundamental to understanding how to direct resources. It’s also great for helping us to build a compelling vision and determine who is best fit to invest in which sectors. From my college administrator perspective, I think about the intense siloing that stifles innovation. Robust dynamic maps can provide inspiration and spark conversation across the country. Finally, as a student and from the sociological perspective of organizational change, I don’t think you can change a system without understanding it, mapping stakeholders and what they value, and understanding gaps for the learner/user.


Rana Tarkenton: The lens for this work is about culture change and transformation, but it needs to start with mapping. Objective mapping can take emotion out of the conversation, allowing us to see and break down structures, explicitly name pain points, identify gaps, and get people onto the same page.


Jeff Wasden: Mapping is about determining how we recognize, validate, and assign value. How do employers assign demands and needs to the educator? Ecosystem mapping creates bridges to employers, so they can understand who their future workforce is or might be; leading to a more holistic approach. Current debate between soft and hard skills is changing as we realize all these skills matter as long as we have ways to quantify and validate these skills and work.


Q: What barriers and/or opportunities exist when it comes to taking a holistic view of the education landscape in 2021?


Michael Vente: The biggest barrier has been a lack of sharing of systems. Historically, systems simply have not talked to each other, but as a state, Colorado is excited because folks are starting to align around the value of shared systems. The data trust with CDLE is powerful and game changing. It’s about bringing more people to the shared data table and expanding the work to connect data across systems at the state and federal level.


Kristina Moss Gunnarsdóttir: The layers of challenges that exist run deep. Who is an ecosystem map for? How do we ensure it remains dynamic? How are maps designed in a way that is participatory and accessible to different types of users? We need to work to engage everyone and pick up folks who might otherwise get left behind. It’s critical we center the experience of the learner-worker as we build any new tools.


Jeff Wasden: I agree. There are so many underserved and underrepresented populations that are being left behind in the workforce. Recognizing our own biases and the skills others bring to the table is the challenge of our lifetime. It’s about creating sustainable, living wage employment opportunities where everyone feels validated and respected for their unique contributions. We need to make sure that ecosystem mapping is a process that lives and breathes and gives equal access to all. A national focus on work like this is long overdue and I’m excited to see it continue.


Bitsy Cohn: The business case for higher education is becoming less and less impactful. The idea that education owns learning and knowledge has needed to be flipped for a long time. Education and its significance should be owned by the learner; recognized and valuable to whoever is on the receiving end, be it an employer, a parent, etc.


The past year forced education out of the classroom and from one week to the next there were incredible changes. We should be proud of what was accomplished amid such challenging circumstances. Many had to make massive shifts in thinking, which created lasting disruption around what folks find important. Teaching and assessment strategies were significantly redefined, and we saw huge deviations from prior practices. During this time of unparalleled change, we should seize the opportunity and create a shared vision for the future of education that’s accessible to the people creating it.

Final Thoughts

While it can often feel as though the challenges ahead are insurmountable, it’s conversations such as these that get us excited about what’s possible and the future we might collectively build. Efforts to map the new learning ecosystem are about much more than just taking inventory, it’s about creating a novel blueprint for future generations; it’s about building pandemic-proof infrastructure, both social and technical; and it’s about bringing added clarity to the complex and transparency to the corrupt.


At Learning Economy Foundation, and through ecosystems such as the Colorado C-Lab, we’re taking an active role as next-generation cartographers. Through a range of exciting new partnerships with organizations like BrightHive, Whiteboard Advisors, the Open Skills Network, the T3 Innovation Network, and many others, we hope to further unify an emergent ecosystem and usher a suite of new tools to help amplify the benevolent signals amidst the noise.


For a practical look at the new learning ecosystem, in Colorado and beyond, we encourage you to check out the following projects and resources:



If you have any questions or would like to get involved, please reach out: taylor@learningeconomy.io



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