21 Century Learning Ecosystem Opportunities: Research and Findings

The 21 CLEO research findings were developed using a set of methods derived from qualitative research, goals grounded in our values, and the belief in the importance of community connections. Methods include the processes or the how-to of research. How we approached the research was driven by our goals or reasons for conducting this type of research. Our values or belief systems also informed who we interviewed and whose voices were foregrounded. We encouraged collaboration by connecting with a wide range of interested parties and creating opportunities to meet and discuss what we were learning.

Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) were frameworks that provided us with insight into how working learners and key stakeholders articulate and perceive their experiences within a system wherein racism is endemic. Theoretical triangulation, which is the process of using more than one theory, was used to better understand data from learners and support providers. Because we have always sought to move our work into the realm of social action, theoretical triangulation became a way to be true to our goal of moving beyond descriptive research and inspire positive change.

Our research drew on four processes used to arrive at the findings presented in this report.

Participants included 17 working learners and 16 adult education instructors, support service providers, and employers from across the United States. We focused on the retail, hospitality, restaurants, and healthcare industries. Data collection included a questionnaire, an initial round of interviews, a follow-up questionnaire, and follow-up interviews with selected working learners. Data analysis included inductive coding viewed through a Cultural Historical Activity Theory lens and rounds of a priori coding drawing from Critical Race Theory. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze the follow-up questionnaire. Findings were shared with an advisory group made up of working learners and interested partners to ensure accuracy of the findings.

COVID–19 travel restrictions prevented the type of data we could collect and our findings should not be generalized to all employer-supported education and training initiatives. We mitigated the study limitations by using iterative data collection and by drawing on multiple theories and the expertise of four experienced researchers from different backgrounds. We maintained a high level of transparency throughout the research process and regularly shared emerging insights and sought feedback from experts in the field.

 Four goals drove our research process: listen to multiple voices, examine data systematically, share findings regularly, and build capacity.

Listen to multiple voices: We gathered insights from different perspectives by working with advisory groups to examine and interrogate insights from our data analysis. This helped to draw from different perspectives, including critical perspectives, to promote a wider examination of the 21st Century workplace ecosystem. 

Examine data systematically: Data analysis included a careful and thoughtful process for interrogating initial conclusions and linking them with corroborating evidence. Findings represent an examination of issues from multiple perspectives to explain phenomena in an objective manner using data as evidence.

Share findings: Our dissemination process involved pushing out findings widely and broadly as they became available in order to prompt discussion and inform the field. Our blog series provides a readable archive of our insights across the project’s lifespan. 

Build capacity: Outcomes and findings from our research were generative and can be used to create collective networks of interested parties aimed at exploring shared goals focused on centering working learners’ voices and advancing adult learning initiatives.

Research is not a value-free endeavor. As part of our efforts to be transparent in how we conducted the research as well as sharing our insights and findings frequently throughout the project, we have also sought to be transparent in the set of beliefs that ground our research.

We believe that research should be an inclusive process. Therefore, we engaged interested parties (e.g., employers, workforce development professionals, researchers, learners) in the process through multiple meetings throughout the four years of the project as well as through the final convenings in which we shared our findings and sought feedback. 

The research was designed with the belief that it was necessary to foreground the perspectives of learners. For that reason, democratizing voices was of paramount importance.The use of the 21 CLEO blog in addition to frequent meetings demonstrates our belief in equitable discourse. We created opportunities, such as the convenings, for all voices to be heard. Through the blog posts, the convenings, and participation in conferences and other gatherings, we sought to encourage cross-sector networks that would listen and act on what we and others were learning. These networks have built a positive momentum toward making real and lasting positive change within the world of employer sponsored education and training initiatives.

This research grew out of the need to connect threads of work across researchers, practitioners, educators, policy makers, and other parties interested in education within workforce development. Connected threads of work can seed new partnerships that endure and together move the field forward. The 21 CLEO project fostered important connections that drew attention toward elevating the voice of working learners.

Throughout the project, we sought input from interested parties by sharing our initial insights, emerging findings, and ultimately our summary findings. We created opportunities to connect, reflect on the emerging insights, discuss what was being learned and ask new questions, and share what we learned with the larger community. The interested parties with whom we worked were particularly knowledgeable about approaches to employment, education, and training. Their insights and experiences helped us shape our findings by encouraging rethinking, reflection, and revisions, which led to reimagined conclusions. Ultimately, these discussions and input led to a high degree of confidence in the research findings that have been shared iteratively across the four years of the project.