Last month Reach Capital, in partnership with the Transcend Network, released a new market map profiling the rise of work-integrated learning tools in postsecondary, defined as “experiences that integrate academic learning (higher education’s core competency) with practical workforce skills.” While work-integrated learning is hardly a new concept, the analysis offers a helpful update on the state of the space.

At first blush, these tools hold immense potential to better ensure that students graduate armed with the skills employers are demanding and with better onramps to good jobs. That’s exciting for those of us who have long called for improving the ROI of increasingly pricey college degrees.

But it’s easy to celebrate the budding forms of work-integrated learning tools without getting sufficiently crisp on the actual functions they ought to play along the broken value chain between higher education and employment. Because of the vast and complex gap separating learning and work, there’s a danger that work-integrated learning tools could become complex, expensive solutions big on hype but short on outcomes. Getting clearer on the myriad problems they are actually designed (or not) to solve could help prevent that race to the bottom.

Making sense of market categories

Reach’s own market map offers a product categorization across four domains in which they’re seeing tools and services crop up: (1) course development (2) micro-internships and externships (3) student experiences and (4) curricular projects.

These categories effectively describe the types of products and services on offer—in other words, the forms they take. But tools and services within these categories appear to be designed to produce a variety of outcomes that actually span different categories. Some course development tools, for example, are focused on skills development, others on exposure. Some curricular projects are focused on short-sprint, off-the-shelf work simulations, others on matchmaking students and employers.

Sorting these tools around their desired functions, rather than their forms, could reveal meaningful market categories. Though it may sound like an academic exercise, defining the outcomes that work-integrated learning companies are being asked to produce—by employers and institutions—has big implications for the product architecture that new companies pursue and their corresponding price points.  

Only by defining outcomes will the integration key to work-integrated learning be feasible. Integration makes sense as an innovation strategy because it affords control over more moving parts of a value chain that drive performance. Mere modular or point solutions may not be enough if certain aspects of the education-to-employment pipeline—such as assessment or exposure—–are not clearly understood. Today, the interfaces between higher ed and employers remain ill-defined and unpredictable, which hurts students and employers alike. 

In industry after industry, when interfaces are broken or unreliable, firms have to integrate across those interfaces—or work in close partnership with firms that do—in order to improve performance. Many of the companies featured on Reach’s market map appear to be stepping in to attempt to do the latter, acting as an intermediary weaving together postsecondary players and employers. 

But integration and affordability trade off against one another. The more integrated a solution, the costlier and harder it is to scale.

To make integration worth the cost, the nature of said integration should align around a clear, desired outcome. If your outcome of interest is not driven by a particular part of the value chain your product architecture integrates across, then integration will be more expensive, but not more effective. So while products that integrate learning and work sound good in theory, getting really precise around the goal—or goals—at hand will be critical to ensuring that integration pays off. 

Defining success should define product architecture

Given the dynamics between integration and cost, mapping the market along the particular outcomes providers are looking to produce could lend additional clarity to customers, investors, and entrepreneurs on which products are actually designed to accomplish what.

The ingredients for preparing students for work are admittedly complex: they can include hard skills, soft skills, networks, and work experience (experience may be a proxy for some mix of skills and networks, or just some insurance policy that students have honed basic work habits that employers won’t have to impart themselves). Getting more specific, these outcomes of interest could include:

  • Exposure to industries, particular jobs, and particular companies not otherwise on students’ radars (and for companies, exposure to students otherwise not on their radars)
  • Access to job networks and connections in particular industries and companies otherwise out of reach (for advice and/or referrals)
  • Work experience (short or long), regardless of specific skills and networks gained (for credit or pay)
  • Validated skill development, assessed through standardized measures not specific to an employer
  • Employer-specific validated skill development, assessed in employer-specific or employer-approved ways

That’s just a quick sample of the sorts of discrete outcomes that appear to matter to expanding students’ work prospects or bolstering employers’ talent pipelines. A work-integrated learning company could, of course, accomplish multiple outcomes or specialize in one. But each of these outcomes merits companies’ tackling (or leaving alone) particular links in the complex value chain connecting learning and work.  

Through this outcomes-oriented lens, companies that appear to be similar in terms of form might actually be expected to perform drastically different functions. For example, within Reach’s “micro-internships and externships” category, some companies, like Paragon One, offer a full-stack experience to students and companies, including overseeing and assessing students on companies’ behalf. Others, like Parker Dewey, don’t actually validate students’ skills or learning, and instead act as a marketplace where students and employers can find one another for short, gig projects across a wide array of industries. In other words, two companies in the same product category appear best-suited to very different functions. 

This framing could also tell investors what companies will be good at, and help customers make smarter decisions about what they’re buying. An externship platform with integrated assessments but a narrow set of deep employer partnerships might be better suited to addressing skills gaps but not optimized for career exposure. An experiential learning course software tool with flash mentoring but no assessments might be better suited at diversifying students’ professional networks, but not suited for validated skill-building. 

Beyond integration for integration’s sake

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone saying that learning and work aren’t desperately in need of tighter integration. But integration for integration’s sake isn’t the answer. 

The distinctions among the outcomes work-integrated learning tools optimize for will make more of a difference than the forms each tool takes. Down the line, they will reveal where more modular, affordable solutions could arise, where different work-integrated companies can push the frontier of performance, and what problems in the complex gap between learning and work they are best poised to solve. Making these outcomes more transparent to customers could also help avoid an arms race for expensive solutions attempting to solve all of the problems higher education and employers face. Different students and different employers will define performance differently. Many companies performing many different functions is likely necessary, and a good thing in a highly fragmented, complex market with multiple types of customers.

Getting clearer on the functional results these tools are aimed at producing will shape what aspects of the value chain companies need to integrate into their products and services.  Otherwise, many companies attempting to perform all functions, without clear benchmarks for quality on each function, could be a recipe for expensive—but underwhelming—results.