Over the past few years, evidence about the profound link between social capital and economic mobility has expanded through both research and practice. Opportunity Insights’ study on economic connectedness and LinkedIn’s study on weak ties and job-getting are some examples At the same time, we’ve seen the rise of practice-based evidence, through efforts of leading organizations like Basta and Climb Hire, and technology platforms like People Grove and Handshake publishing impact reports on how users’ networks are contributing to interviews and job opportunities.  

Despite these growing proof points, efforts to improve education lean on mental models, theories of change, and investment strategies that routinely ignore the social side of opportunity. I think that’s because in most conversations about education innovation today, skills are the “what”, and tech-enabled efficiency is the “how.”

That’s not a bad thing per se–skills matter and technology holds immense promise to deliver personalized content and experiences that build skills. But a “skills-plus-tech” algorithm has missing variables for ensuring students have the support they need and the opportunities they want. 

Against that backdrop, this year I’m watching innovations that explicitly humanize an environment where skills and AI will likely dominate the mainstage.

1. Innovations making career-connected learning more student- (versus employer-) centric. I suspect this year we’ll witness yet another election cycle lacking any serious conversations about how to improve schools. That said, career readiness may be one of the last-standing bipartisan issues in education, regardless of which party comes out on top. With that in mind, I’ll be watching innovations that put students at the center of career-connected learning.

In recent years I’ve come to believe that most career-connected learning models are over-indexed on employer demand and under-indexed on students’ needs. To date, much of our work has focused on how career pathways models can more effectively and equitably integrate social capital into their approach. Although we’ve learned a lot, there’s still a long way to go in treating social capital as a key feature of career exposure and experience for students.

We’ve seen that employer-centric approaches to building and assessing career pathways focus almost exclusively on in-demand skills. In turn, they tend to minimize the role of networks. That’s because networks benefit individuals more than they benefit corporations. Put differently: employers need skilled individuals to fill jobs. But individuals need more than just skills. They also need networks, and myriad at-bats, in order to learn skills, grow confidence, enjoy job options, and build successful careers. 

In that vein, this year I’ll be watching career-connected learning models that take a student-centric formula more seriously, like Portal Schools, Life Design, and Backrs. Although  different on paper, these promising models share some common attributes: they’re unapologetically networked and aim to center the student experience in bold ways—grounded in purpose exploration and discovery, deep reciprocal relationships, and real-world experiences aligned to students’ interests. I’ll also continue to read work from researchers like Matthew Hora, who delves into the experiences students themselves say they want and need in the course of work-based learning to make it worth their while.

(Post-script: While I’m on this soap box, conversations about the struggles of disenfranchised men who’ve stopped participation in postsecondary education and the labor market dominated headlines in 2023. As a woman, I sometimes cringe at interventions proposed to “catch men up.” But innovative career readiness models grounded in fostering a sense of purpose and connection could be the ingredients to a targeted universalism approach that addresses troubling gender gaps in education and work without pitting men and women against one another in a zero sum way.)

2. Models that expand brokers, not just information, to grow student support, navigation, and ROI. In our own research on social capital in schools, understanding what schools can and can’t do has started to crystallize: teaching students content and skills (how to communicate, build relationships, and maintain relationships) comes much more naturally to educators and advisors than brokering access to new networks on behalf of students. 

I think that’s related to two distinct phenomena. First, it takes social capital to build social capital. In other words, if an educator doesn’t possess a diverse network of industry professionals or mentors, the idea of brokering connections may feel daunting or impossible. Second, and more troubling, schools’ organizational models and core competencies are anchored on building knowledge and skills—brokering connections is neither supported nor incentivized across the education enterprise. 

A good broker, however, can be the difference maker between successful and middling education models, especially with the value of education itself under mounting scrutiny. Great examples of effective broker roles do exist, but they aren’t really a category of innovations in their own right. Instead, promising approaches are buried in the giant and amorphous category of ‘student support’ or ‘advising’ and flourishing inside smaller-scale mentoring programs beyond schools

Probably the most significant recent development in this space is unprecedented public funding to scale CUNY’s ASAP model, which has demonstrated breakthrough results in helping students from low-income households successfully graduate from college. While some might see ASAP as a series of retention interventions, its core model is a reliable web of supportive brokers surrounding students: advisors with manageable caseloads (who host required, rather than optional, advising sessions) who broker support, supplementary employment specialists who broker employment opportunities, and part-time tutors. 

But across both K-12 and higher education, such a deeply networked approach to support and advising remains the exception, rather than the rule. And with high hopes pinned on AI as a surrogate for human capital-intensive guidance, I worry that we’re moving in the wrong direction to more systematically and sustainably investing in brokers who can support and connect students to opportunity. 

Innovations that scale brokers mark a potentially a new wave of disruptive innovations not focused on expanding access to academic content, but on opening more doors to experiences and connections. This year, I’ll be looking to better understand innovations and public policies that hone in on supporting more brokers in students’ lives. These brokers can take many forms, but besides Americorps dollars, there are a dearth of organizational models or public dollars that reliably support brokerage. 

That said, some tools and models that link K-12 schools to ‘real world learning’ (i.e., CommunityShare and District C) and the expansion of coaching interventions (i.e., ASAP, but also InsideTrack, Career Spring, and others) in higher education may offer clues into what it looks like to codify, support, and scale brokers. Figuring out the business models and enabling policies that sustain these models is key.

3. AI-powered tools to multiply, rather than replace, human conversations. In a similar blog last January looking at the year ahead, I wrote that core to social capital is what entrepreneur Rebecca Kirstein Resch aptly termed ‘well-resourced conversations.’ I love her phrase, because it captures how conversations are the medium through which social capital gets transmitted (relationships = social, resources = capital). Conversations are also the building blocks of relationships. The more we converse, exchange, and build trust, the steadier our relationships become, and the more relationships can serve as a renewable resource over the course of our careers and lives.

Anyone who’s spent time on ChatGPT has now experienced a radically new form of a ‘well-resourced conversation’: a back and forth with a polite little bot aiming to please, with encyclopedic knowledge and impressive analysis capabilities. 

But to see the darker side of AI-powered conversation, look no further than the dramatic rise of virtual romance. In other words, AI’s conversational capabilities stand to deliver not just academic rapport, but also simulated intimacy.

I suspect that most discussions about AI in education in 2024 will be about efficiencies gained, not connections lost. That’s a huge blindspot at a time when young people are already reporting troubling rates of loneliness.

My hope, however, is that investments in promising teaching, learning, and advising tools that engage students in conversations with chatbots could be matched with investments in exploring ways that AI could scale conversations with humans. With that in mind, this year I’ll be studying AI-powered tools that can help schools mitigate the costs and frictions of finding, forming, and maintaining connections.

(Another post-script: There’s a huge policy play here. Current arguments about how to regulate social media giants to protect the safety and wellbeing of children and teens are vitally important; but these debates need to widen their aperture to consider what’s next. Chatting with a bot will be the new “social media.” We’re behind the eight ball when it comes to the devastating effects this could have on human connection, social skills, the future of intimacy, and the wellbeing of entire communities built on reciprocity.)

What are you seeing, building, and hoping along these three dimensions? Please share your thoughts!