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Using Skills to Build Interoperable Learning Records

A beginner's guide to the LER

November 17, 2020 by Remie Verougstraete

The Learning and Employment Record (LER) is an important, emerging concept that connects to a broad array of issues spanning technology and data governance to public policy and private sector hiring practices. Much could be said and there are many players involved. In this article, we aim to provide a basic introduction to the subject by helping you get up to speed on what an LER is, why it matters, and how you can advance towards offering more skill-based, interoperable learning records at your institution.


 

As the U.S. economy and higher education landscape have evolved, so has the need for a more modern learning record that supports new skill-based approaches to hiring and learning, while breaking down the silos that have historically separated classroom learning from the world of work. This need was evident before the pandemic but has taken on new urgency because of it. In particular, the disruption of millions of individuals’ academic and professional plans acted as a floodlight, illuminating the need for skills-denominated learning records that facilitate more efficient pathways between learning and work.

The rise of interoperable learning records

Fortunately, the past year has seen significant progress in the tools and technology needed to address these very challenges. The ongoing digital transformation sweeping society has extended to higher education, spurred in part by the necessity of online-first work and learning in light of COVID. The result has been a new openness to digital learning records, badges, and other forms of credentialing that transcend the traditional transcript. Meanwhile, maturing technologies like blockchain have boosted the feasibility of developing records that are shareable, verifiable, and secure.

Groups like the Open Skills Network, Velocity Network, and T3 Innovation Network are playing a critical role in moving these efforts forward by convening key leaders, data providers, and technology innovators. Critically, membership in these coalitions spans multiple sectors, from higher education to government to private enterprise. This kind of wide-spread buy-in is essential for developing records that are truly interoperable, retaining their value in both academia and the workplace.

Defining the LER

While the concept of a more comprehensive, interoperable record of learning goes by many names (see below note on terminology), one moniker that’s gained traction recently is the “Learning and Employment Record,” or LER. As of this writing, “LER” is the label adopted by the U.S. Chamber-backed T3 Innovation Network, creators of the LER Hub. It’s also the name used by the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board (AWPAB), a group of 23 members convened by the White House to share expertise and lead by example in the development of new strategies for education and workforce partnerships to close the skills gap. Members include leading representatives from higher ed. (President of WGU, President of AACC, etc.), government (U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Governor of Indiana, etc.), and private enterprise (President and CEO of Wal-Mart, Executive Chairman of IBM, etc.).

A note on terminology (click to expand)

In this article, we use the term “Learning and Employment Record” because, as explained above, it’s a name that has buy-in from major players across multiple sectors of the economy. But it’s important to note that other terms are commonly used as well. For example, the WPAB itself didn’t start using “LER” until June, when they announced that they were transitioning away from the previously adopted title of Interoperable Learning Records (ILRs), which, as they noted in the press conference, was harder to pronounce. There’s also been much discussion about the idea of a Comprehensive Learner Record or CLR. Confusingly, the CLR is sometimes described as if it is one component of a more comprehensive LER (covering the education side while other components handle the employer side) while in other cases the CLR seems to be a species of LER, such that the two concepts are roughly interchangeable.

Takeaway: While the terminology is still fluid, at the heart of all these efforts is a vision for a new kind of record that provides learners, educators, and employers with greater transparency, portability, and skill-based interoperability.

So, what exactly is an LER? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has produced a short video to help answer this very question:

 

While there is no single source of truth for what constitutes an LER, the AWPAB provides perhaps what is the closest thing to an “official” list, at least in the U.S. In their most recent white paper on the topic, released in September 2020, they set out nine key characteristics for Learning and Employment Records:

From “Learning and Employment Records: Progress and the path forward”

From idea to reality

As we can see above, the LER is still more of an idea or concept than a particular product or technology. And yet, thanks to various pilot projects underway across the nation, the idea is becoming a reality. 

For example, the most recent WPAB press conference featured three demos from board members, showing the prototypes they’d developed thus far.

  1. A cybersecurity LER pilot led by IBM
  2. A healthcare-focused LER pilot led by SalesForce 
  3. A retail-focused LER pilot led by WalMart, geared towards store associates

You can read more about the WPAB pilots on pages 10 – 15 of their recent white paper. T3’s LER Hub also includes a section cataloguing 15 additional pilot projects that are underway.

As these projects demonstrate, there are still technological and logistical barriers to mass adoption of LERs. But the pieces are in place and, with a growing number of players in the game, LERs look set to move from the purview of technologists and futurists into the common experience of everyday life and work.

What this means for real people, in real life

So, what do these developments mean for higher education? What does a world look like where LERs are the new normal (to borrow a now-common phrase)? 

If adopted widely and implemented effectively, LERs have transformative potential for learners, employers, and educators alike.

  • Learners are enabled to document and share the skills and competencies they learn (whether through traditional, non-traditional, or employer-based training), even prior to degree attainment. This in turn gives them greater flexibility in transitioning into and out of education and work over their lifetime. Crucially, it also enables greater clarity on how their education connects to work opportunities, and how additional education or training can help them upskill or reskill to advance in their career.
  • Employers get more precise insight into the relevant skills and abilities of job applicants and current employees alike. In turn, they are able to better match applicants and recent graduates with the right openings and needs within their business, and are able to more effectively pair current employees with additional training opportunities from a range of education providers.
  • Educators are able to better serve their learners and employer partners by providing more transparent learning records that surface the work-relevant skills learned in each course or program. Institutions with skills-denominated academic offerings will also be equipped to recognize and award credit for skill-based learning completed at other institutions, even non-traditional or work-based training programs. LERs can even help institutions provide more personalized guidance to incoming students, as institutions match each learner’s skill gaps with the courses that best fit their needs and enable them to achieve their academic and professional goals.

As learners come to experience and expect the benefits of LERs, it will become increasingly important for institutions to offer them. And while the prospect of building a full-fledged LER may seem daunting, there are attainable steps every institution can take to start moving towards the kind of skill-based interoperability that is at the heart of what makes LERs so powerful. We turn our attention now, to the topic of how.

Defining Interoperability (click to expand)

In case you’re not familiar with the term, “interoperability” is basically a fancy way of saying, “plays well with others.” In the context of LERs, it refers to a record’s ability to share information (both sending and receiving) with other entities, beyond the institution that issued the record. It’s that property of a learning record which allows it to be equally digestible to an institution’s LMS and an employer’s ATS.

Achieving interoperability through skills

As we’ve seen, skills are hardly the only ingredient in an LER, but they are an essential one. In particular, they play an important role in enabling the interoperability that is so central to the vision for LERs. This flows naturally from their ability to function as a common language shared by job seekers, employers, and now, educators. As LERs facilitate conversations between employers and learners, skills supply the vocabulary that enables them to communicate.

We see an example of how skills factor into LER efforts in the T3 Innovation Network’s one-pager, which outlines three key pillars to their vision. The third is to, “Empower individuals with a validated record of their skills and competencies in a way that all employers can understand.” 

Along similar lines, the September white paper from the AWPAB includes an entire sub-section on page 6 titled, “A shared language of skills,” which affirms, “skills have emerged as a common vocabulary and an important currency that add value to learning achievements, work experience, and other credentials issued to an LER.”

And the previous white paper from September 2019 (back when “ILR” was still the acronym of choice) observed succinctly, “For ILRs, skills are the atomic unit of credentialing” (pg. 20).

For colleges and universities, this means that beginning to articulate course content and learning outcomes in terms of work-relevant skills (“skillifying”) is a key step towards interoperability. Not only because it lays the foundation for participation in future LER initiatives and projects, but also because it provides immediate advantages that help to closely align your academic programs with both the supply side (learners looking for work) and the demand side (employers looking for people) of the labor market.

Kacey Thorne, director of skills architecture at Western Governors University, recently provided an overview of how this process works at WGU. Jump to 6:40 in the below recording to hear Thorne describe how skill-mapping is enhancing effectiveness in areas like program development and career advising, or skip to 9:50 to see how skill mapping plays an integral role in WGU’s overall LER ecosystem.

 

How Emsi can help

As a partner in many of the associations and initiatives mentioned earlier (OSN, T3, Velocity, and others), Emsi is a major supporter and data provider backing the development and progress of LERs. As a company, our mission has always been connecting people, education, and work — and LERs are an important, tangible way to make that vision a reality.

To that end, we’ve developed an open skills library that captures the evolving lexicon of skill terms (including certifications, hard skills, and soft skills) used by today’s employers in job postings, and by working professionals in online profiles. In developing this library, we prioritized several key characteristics that make it optimal for inclusion and use in LERs:

  • Machine-readable data – Skills and their associated metadata are available in JSON format via our free, open skills API. And each skill in the Emsi library has a unique, machine-readable skill ID. This is critical to interoperability, since it means that Emsi skills can be incorporated into a wide variety of other platforms and tools that may be included in an institution’s LER tech stack. It also facilitates powerful integrations with platforms like Badgr, a leading provider of digital badges and micro-credentials. Through this integration, institutions can easily embed credentials with Emsi skills, equipping learners with a transparent, shareable record of the skills associated with their learning achievement.
  • Real-world foundation, expert curation – To create and maintain our skills library, we’ve gathered over 30,000 skills from hundreds of millions of online job postings, professional profiles, and resumes. We also meticulously clean and fact-check each skill before adding it to the library. Updates are made every two weeks to ensure the library continues to capture the ongoing conversation between employers and learners about the skills they have or need.
  • Connected to the labor market – The skill library is not just a list of terms. Each skill is connected to relevant labor market insight, including the top job titles and companies posting for that skill, the job postings trend line over the last twelve months, and even specific, live job postings requesting that skill. Some of this data is available on public skill pages that also include an open-sourced definition from Wikipedia, along with related skills that frequently appear in similar job postings and profiles. All of this context helps learners and educators see and share the market-relevance of each skill.

Hope on the horizon

In the midst of a challenging year, accelerated progress towards more comprehensive, interoperable learning and employment records is a silver lining. It demonstrates the capacity of educators, employers, and policy makers to adapt and innovate for the good of individual learners, and the broader economy. 

While there are still technical and operational barriers to be overcome, there is a growing consensus that real change is on the horizon. As the LER movement grows, we have reason to look forward to a more efficient, equitable learning-and-hiring ecosystem for all. 

If you’d like to learn more about the Emsi Skills Library and how institutions can use it to adopt the common language of the labor market, please fill out the form below and we’ll be in touch.

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