Many in education may be wondering whether 2022 will mean “back to normal” at schools and colleges. Although I’m sympathetic to that—and find myself yearning for mask-free daycare pick-up—I’m even more excited about long-overdue innovations emerging this coming year. Even amidst the exhausting toll the pandemic has taken on the education system, a host of innovative approaches to teaching, learning, and launching students into good careers have continued to blossom. 

Here are five of those innovation trends that I’ll be watching in the coming year:

1. Leveraging pandemic infrastructure could open up classrooms to the real world. 

Infrastructure is obviously a popular word in the policy world these days, and has even started to make its way into some education philanthropies’ priorities. But while infrastructure often connotes big investments and long-term payoff, I’m most interested in a fairly small piece of infrastructure (still with high potential payoff) that got crammed into schools and campuses over the many months of pandemic classes: Zoom. 

In a post-pandemic world, most teachers and faculty are likely delighted to abandon Zoom outright, never to teach to a screen full of faceless boxes again. But access to a simple video conferencing tool (and the ability to navigate that tool as a pedagogical interface) could actually have dramatic effects on how students connect to industry experts and real-world mentors in their coursework. Using Zoom to connect in-person classrooms to the outside world could transform video conferencing technology from a crummy surrogate for face-to-face teaching to a portal to rich opportunities beyond school that so often remains beyond reach in traditional, textbook-dominated classrooms. In turn, teachers and faculty could begin hosting guest speakers and presenters at a far greater rate, fostering industry, peer, and alumni connections that prove valuable to students down the line. 

This use of pandemic infrastructure is distinct from more popular calls to maintain hybrid and virtual course options. But even this more modest version of Zoom in the classroom could extend the durability of Zoom infrastructure built up over the past few years and could have big implications for embedding relevance, relationships, and real-world examples into teaching and learning.

2. Investing in durable skills and durable networks could future proof pathways. 

Speaking of durability, over the past year or so the term “durable skills” has become more popular in the education-to-employment vernacular. It appears to be a cousin to (or a rebranding of) so-called “soft skills.” Everyone from champions of the liberal arts to alternative pathways providers to labor market analysts are touting the importance of ensuring students are mastering these skills. 

But there’s another durable asset that learners and workers should accrue to continue to compete in an ever-changing labor market: durable networks. Networks, as I’ve often pointed out, help learners and workers get by and get ahead. Like a healthy stock portfolio, a diversified stock of social capital buffers the risk of the unknowns. Successfully navigating a changing labor market doesn’t just require skills; access to networks and the ability to turn to different people for supports and opportunities at different times is critical. 

Building durable networks requires a shift that my colleagues and I have written about for a while—treating relationships not merely as inputs to learning and developing skills, but outcomes in their own right, that outlast interventions and continue to offer value once learners matriculate into jobs. Luckily, some programs are starting to measure these outcomes and track them over time. 

3. New student-centered assessments could reveal more authentic skills and relationship data. 

Measuring relationships and networks as an outcome remains fairly rare for both demand and supply reasons. A lack of awareness and demand for students’ social capital outcomes persists in an education market focused on attainment, skills, and knowledge (led, it bears mentioning, by many a leader who got where they are today in part because of who they know). But beyond mindset barriers, there’s also a supply dearth of reliable relationship measures in the space. Some of that shifted in 2021, with our colleagues at Search Institute, Brookings, and Mission Measurement conducting cutting-edge research to measure learners’ and workers’ networks. I’ll be watching how all three build on that work in the coming year.

In 2022, I’m also hoping that even more new measures, and new methodologies, will spring up to offer a fresh lens on measuring the intersection of skills, relationships, and experiences. For example, the LivedX platform is an online portal that translates peoples’ everyday life experiences into credentials by leveraging proprietary Machine Learning technology. That emphasis on students’ actual experiences (rather than just the answers they provide in more simulated testing scenarios) is ripe for deeper innovation, especially in the small but growing field we’re watching of measuring students’ social capital. 

More broadly, I’m keeping an eye on how personal narrative inquiry (PNI), which my colleague Kim Carter of QED Foundation has been diving into, could reshuffle the categories of data we collect on the basis of learners telling and coding their own stories. Especially as more school systems grapple with how to measure broader definitions of success, and colleges abandon traditional admissions test requirements, tools and methodologies like these could radically upend the categories of data that we collect to measure students’ competencies—and their connections.

4. Family-to-family tools could disrupt school-centric family engagement.

Also on the theme of fostering and measuring connections, last year my colleague Dr. Mahnaz R. Charania published a report on the various ways that COVID opened the door to schools reimagining family engagement in more equitable and relationship-centered ways. Building on years of research that shows students benefit from their families and educators being in close connection with one another to share strategies, information, and supports, Mahnaz’s report is clear: tools and models that improve connection, not merely communication, could ground family engagement in productive, reciprocal connections rather than just one-way school-to-family communications.

Her research also points out that some innovations in the field don’t situate schools at the center of a hub-and-spoke model of family engagement, but rather hinge on families being able to connect with and share with one another. I’ll be watching how models like Families and Schools Together (FAST), Union Capital Boston, and ReSchool Colorado continue to push the envelope on bringing parents together with one another to support their children’s academic and enrichment pathways. 

5. Career services for credit? Third-party providers could make a dent.

If family engagement was one of the issues of equity that COVID brought to the fore in K–12 education, then career readiness (and the value of postsecondary degrees more generally) was a core issue for postsecondary players in 2021. It’s not surprising, then, that new career services providers are cropping up. For example, last fall, Kaplan announced the release of Career Core, a shared services model for universities to expand and deepen their career support through asynchronous content and workshops. Models like this mark another frontier where traditional postsecondary institutions may be looking to outsource (akin to online program management providers and third-party bootcamp offerings that made a big play in years past).

Will this shared services market take off? Career services are notoriously underfunded, but that may be changing as career readiness becomes a higher priority in the field. One litmus test for scalability is whether these career exposure and planning modules are offered for credit and therefore make their way into the core of higher education. In some cases, that’s happening: at Wake Forest, for example, Career Core is a credit-bearing experience. A few other providers in the space, like the nonprofit Braven, have also been able to persuade university partners to offer credit for their semester-long career course. How far out that market extends and how much universities are interested in outsourcing these supports and experiences, however, remains to be seen. 

These are five trends I’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming year. If you’re working on something in these domains, or have your own trends that you’re watching, please don’t hesitate to share more in the comments! And happy 2022!

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