Interview: Degreed's Co-founder and Executive Chairman on jail breaking the degree
For him, lifelong learning is the mantra that organizations and individuals should follow. He believes that “Education is too important to stay the way it is” and that there’s a better, smarter way to help people hone their skills for the future, to measure their progress as they develop, and to communicate their readiness — both to the current and the future employers
With a mind and a heart set out to change the traditional concepts of learning, acquiring skills, and measuring them, David Blake, Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Degreed, is on a mission to restructure the learning environment.
David is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Degreed, a platform to discover, learn, and certify the skills people need for the future. Prior to Degreed, he consulted on the launch of a competency-based, accredited university and was a founding team member at Zinch (acquired by Chegg). David has been one of the top 25 EdTech Entrepreneurs for a lab created by Teach For America and NewSchools Venture Fund and hosted at the Stanford D.School.
You have been quoted as saying that you are first an education reformer and then an entrepreneur. What prompted you to get involved in the learning space and how has this journey been?
I often say I became an entrepreneur by necessity. The only way I was going to be able to create the change in education I wanted to see was by creating a solution rather than waiting for others. Just so happens that a company is the most efficient way to organize such efforts and raise the required capital to instigate that change.
One of the catalysts that started me on this journey towards creating Degreed was a conversation I had with a woman, in her late 50s, at an event. As we were discussing life, successes and failures, she mentioned that she wasn’t educated because she never had the opportunity to go to college. It was sad to know that she evaluated her self-worth as equivalent to having a degree. Numerous conversations like that one inspired me to work towards finding a way to make all of our lifelong learning and skills matter, regardless of how or where we develop them.
In 2008, you were part of the founding team at Zinch, a social network connecting students with university admission offices. Now you have Degreed. Tell us about Zinch and what nudged you to start Degreed?
Zinch’s motto was “Students are more than a test score”, which I believe in deeply. High stakes and standardized testing have their purpose, but they are rife with systematic biases and unintended consequences in our system of education. I think it’s critical we look at people for who they are, give them credit for the things they are best at, and make them most unique. Today, we have the technology to help us do that at scale. Zinch helped students reflect more on their whole selves to universities and for universities to discover and recruit students on parameters beyond just their GPA, test scores, and zip code.
It was a great service but it was ultimately helping students get into universities — a system I believed needed fundamental help. I was eager to move to the heart of the issues facing higher education and lifelong learning and that motivated me to start Degreed.
You want to “jailbreak the degree” and address the systemic issues in education, in particular, academic credentialing. How are you doing that?
Our mission at Degreed is to ‘jailbreak the degree’. The verb “to jailbreak” means “To get out of a restricted mode of operation”. The verbiage comes from our goal of becoming more inclusive of how we define and value learning. Right now, when you ask anyone “tell me about your education”, they will inevitably tell you what degree they have or where they went to university. In reality, a college or a university degree is the only credential that we have to communicate about our skills.
So when we say jailbreaking the degree, we're talking about a more modular approach, the ability to capture everything you learn both inside the academia and university, professionally as well as informally, and then creating the ability to track and measure it all comprehensively and holistically — all of which Degreed does.
Degreed has the world's largest ecosystem of open learning resources — over 3 million courses, videos, articles, books, podcasts from nearly 1,400 sources. Degreed also allows its users to develop and certify the skills they are developing throughout their lifetimes. As a result, organizations and their people can discover, share, and track all their development, however and wherever they learn.
Learning has transitioned from a one-time, standardized setting and has evolved to 24/7 process. And this too will change eventually. How can learners, employers or a platform like yours keeping up?
We live in a world where the knowledge base is shifting rapidly yet the career lengths are extending. This has supported the shift we are seeing in the need for real-time, on-demand learning and skill development, and the ability to have a more flexible set of offerings. I believe we will only see this demand grow as people need to reskill and upskill themselves at an increasingly faster rate.
Emerging technologies like AI have made continued learning more important than ever. Stephen Hawking says that AI could be “either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity”. This has led people to believe that people are either expendable or that they will relearn and update their skills sets. In all this, a university degree no longer cuts it — lifelong learning is the need of the hour.
But still a traditional degree stamp matters on the resume and especially at the workplace. Do you think this need to change?
I believe the market wants to speak the ‘language’ of skills but it can’t, so it is left to speak the ‘language’ of college degrees. But speaking about the skills and abilities by referring back to a degree alone becomes quickly outdated as one develops new capabilities and skills over the course of one’s career. We live in a world where new jobs pop up every day, and where the half-life of skills is only a few years. Degreed was built to measure the skills that people have in a way that legitimizes and certifies what they are able to do today, not what they learned 10, 20, 30 years ago in school. The best part is that it doesn’t matter where or how a person developed those skills — they are all relevant and should all count. The solution applies to both individuals and companies. If a person knows the skills he or his team lacks, he could better plan for developing new skills and solving the skills gap. Degreed believes that giving everyone access to learning on any subject levels the playing field and opens up tremendous possibilities for many people who didn’t have opportunities in the past.
The millennials in the workforce are altering the demand and consumption of a more self-directed, peer-2-peer, and personalized on-demand learning. Do you think this has been a crucial factor in learning and education?
Everyone has individual preferences for how they like to learn and develop a skill; that’s why Degreed allows individuals to verify and measure any skill, at any level, regardless of where they learned it. We believe “what you can do” matters more than “where you learned that skill”. Degreed isn’t about solving for any one generation. It’s about empowering anyone to learn in the way they want to, no matter the age.
What is a possible path for education in the future where AI, immersive technologies, and several new design paradigms could change education forever? What are the five years of data telling you about learning?
What we’re working on right now, specifically related to data, is figuring out exactly how learning leads to skills and how those skills lead to jobs. Once that information is working together, we will have a complete map of how different jobs are related, what the common skills are, how to develop those skills, and the best content needed to start learning them. It’s a complete map that democratizes skill development to give everyone access. Degreed is an open ecosystem connecting learners with the top content providers and technology solutions. Right now, the new learning resources are “islands” and do not work together or connect learners to other people learning the same things.
How does your platform solve the challenges of interoperability and differentiation?
Nobody becomes an expert from just one source. We build our skills over time, stitching together a variety of experiences, including courses, books, videos, search, trial and error, and mentoring. The problem is that most of those resources (the content as well as the systems, people, and work experiences) are isolated. They rarely work together and they can’t interact or share data. As a result, they don’t give anyone a useful picture of their learning activities or, more importantly, their skill-sets. Degreed takes a very open and diverse view of “content”. We connect all internal systems that the content users have paid for to millions of free and low-cost resources from thousands of sources. We integrate all that to give you a simple, unified front door to discover and access it all —and the connections to track it all.
Education is undergoing a major shift that is taking the power out of the hands of the average universities and putting it in the hands of the learners. Where are the employers in all of this?
According to Modern Workplace Learning, 9-out-of-10 L&D professionals would prefer to spend most or all of their time enabling people to be continuous learners — not creating, delivering, and managing training. But that’s not the L&D many employers are used to. Our role has traditionally been to supply training and usually in standardized formats like events, classes, courses or programs. And we deliver them every once-in-a-while in a central location. The role technology has traditionally played is to do all of the above more efficiently while cutting costs and increasing reach. But today, success for employers looks less like supplying training and more about enabling learning. It’s more continuous, embedded in everyday work, and is more personal — driven at least as much by workers and managers as by the L&D function. The business world is transforming rapidly— everything that can be automated is getting automated. But the workforce training process hasn’t kept up with the pace of change. We are entrenched in the knowledge economy where we are required to learn and apply new knowledge daily.
What do you think is the future of the corporate workforce when it comes to building a knowledge network, which also creates a culture of knowledge-sharing?
The most advanced L&D teams are building totally new capabilities to drive resilience, agility, and innovation. They’re using technology, together with data, to create the conditions for continuous learning: diverse, always-on, and precision-targeted at business and individual skills gaps. The future, which is already here, is about empowering all employees and managers (not only L&D and HR people) to curate their own learning experiences with whatever resources they need, and connecting everyone to each other (and to insights and feedback) for exploration, guidance, and coaching. There has been a complete lack of innovation in the learning space along with outdated infrastructure which made this space ripe for disruption.
L&D in organizations had and still has credibility issues because there has been no real innovation in a vast majority of enterprises. What do you have to say about it?
There’s a bit of a trust breakdown when it comes to the higher-ups in the HR teams telling employees what they need to learn and when they need to learn it. We encourage L&D teams to think like marketing teams — to take a ‘learner’-first approach — give them access to the content they want to learn from, whether it’s Lynda, YouTube, or Podcasts, and let them lead their own learning experience, and build trust from there.
In the age of digitization, automation, and acceleration where critical skills and expertise will be imperative to succeed, what are the guiding principles that can enable employees to build the skills?
Learning is complicated and messy. It’s not enough to offer support to your employees on their learning journey; you also have to create the right environment for employees to take ownership of what and how they learn. There are seven principles that can help employees build the skills, which are also mentioned in the book I have co-authored with Kelly Palmer, The Expertise Economy. These are: Making learning a competitive advantage; Embracing personalized learning; Combating content overload; Understanding the power of peers; Succeeding with the right technology; Analyzing your employees’ skills with data and insights; and Making skills and expertise count.
However, above all, success requires that organizations adopt a new mindset when it comes to skilling their talent, their most important asset. It demands that leaders start thinking of their employees as complex, unique individuals who should be in control of their own learning and careers. Finally, it dares you to let go of outdated and traditional ways of closing the skills gaps in your workplace and to embrace the new challenges ahead in the expertise economy.