21 Century Learning Ecosystem Opportunities: Research and Findings

Because centering working learner voice is a priority of this research, we spent much time analyzing data to better understand who frontline service working learners are, how they want to learn, and what their goals are when they engage in learning.

We identify characteristics of learners, who are unique and engage in learning for different reasons. We share the six persona we developed to help understand working learner experiences. We consider how learners’ identities are essential to customizing learning offerings and supports.

Our findings point to four characteristics of working learners that are especially important: individuality, agency, self efficacy, and learner preferences.

It is important to not essentialize working learners. No two learners are the same; they have unique needs, goals, and desires. The data also show that working learners are agentive. They make decisions based on their unique circumstances, so should be given choices that best meet their needs, goals, and desires. Working learners are also self-efficacious. Each individual has the capacity to learn, and all learning is a growth process. Finally, because of the unique needs and preferences of working learners, education providers and employers need to listen to learners’ desires and goals and design learning with their needs in mind rather than presenting one-size-fits-all programming.

A challenge of presenting what we learned about working learners was the need to describe them as more than the single archetype, a depiction common in articles and reports. Each working learner is unique with respect to their goals and preferences, prior education, and access to learning opportunities. To represent the variety of learners, we created six persona.

Each persona is a composite description, which supports the transferability of our findings. Each persona: 

  • was built through an empirical qualitative process and represents many participants 
  • is a story that illustrates a broader perspective and describes a type of working learner participating in an employer supported education and training initiative 
  • includes not only characteristics of multiple working learners, but also how they like to learn, and their goals. 

Discussion of these persona unfolded across a series of convenings with interested parties who offered helpful feedback.

The racial reckoning in the United States triggered by the murder of George Floyd along with the racial and socioeconomic disparities made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic were important occurrences that took place during the context of this study. In response to them, we widened our lens and used Critical Race Theory (CRT) to understand the experiences of working learners during these trying times.

Using CRT analysis, we considered how race/ethnicity, language, and gender may have contributed to the differing experiences and opportunities offered to the working learners we interviewed who were Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. We asked whether language discrimination played a role. We questioned whether or not formal or informal employer-supported education and training initiatives and mentoring was offered. We asked whether gender or race was a factor. Although our data did not allow us to definitely respond to these questions, our analysis pointed to the role that systemic racism and other forms of discrimination play in how individuals experience learning and job advancement.