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Introduction to Skillbase: Online Foundational Learning for Career Advancement

By Molly Welch, Skillbase PM

Harvard Business School/Harvard Kennedy School 2022

“The internet has so many different options for learning, but it's hard to know where to start or how to spend my time if I want to get a better job.”

Around six months ago, we launched the Skillbase project—a tool curating free, high-quality online education resources in foundational skills. In the time since, we’ve learned a lot about the skill development ecosystem, designing digital products for adult learners, and the associated challenges with adoption and scale.

In a series of blog posts, we’ll highlight a few of these learnings and opportunities in the hopes of sharing with other organizations working to support and empower dislocated or low-wage workers. In our first post, we share background on the Skillbase project and our original approach to product development.

What is Skillbase?

three photos of workers in the office

When we first released Skillbase in June 2020, we hoped to serve frontline workers whose employment circumstances had been affected by COVID-19. The pandemic’s economic disruption meant that there were substantial dislocated and idle adult workers who might benefit from the many free online and remote opportunities to “upskill,” or improve their employability skillsets, at home. However, we believed that these workers might be unaware of these resources, unsure of which ones might best fit their needs, or overwhelmed by the many options. To meet this challenge, we set out to aggregate and curate high-quality third party online resources from different sources and package them in one user-friendly digital platform.

Our Target Audience

Our initial target audience was adult workers without postsecondary education affected economically by the pandemic. Our hypothesis was that in a time of massive economic

disruption and uncertainty, foundational or “baseline” skills like English language, digital skills, and career readiness were worth the time investment for many of the workers who were most affected by layoffs and furloughs.

In the months since launch, we’ve realized that this content may have evergreen appeal for many adult learners, and have expanded the scope of our project beyond those directly impacted by the pandemic.

For instance, many learners may be intimidated by commitments to long-term training and uncertain about which fields or coursework are right for them; many may also possess limited financial resources for traditional higher education. But learners might also recognize the broad usefulness and applicability of improving computer or English language skills, or learning more about tools and tactics for a successful job search. We also recognized the well-documented barriers to succeeding in online learning. We hoped that guiding someone who has never learned online before or may not have been in school for many years to take that first "bite" of online learning might give them confidence and preparation to take the next step in a reskilling journey, like enrolling in community college or a longer-term training program.

Our Approach

To generate the Skillbase library of learning resources, we began by researching transferable skills most frequently requested by employers. We found that foundational, "baseline skills" are requested by almost all occupations and industries. In fact, 1 in 3 skills requested across job postings is a baseline skill (Burning Glass Technologies). These competencies include communication and organizational skills, writing, customer service, Microsoft Office, and problem-solving. Research also suggests that low-wage workers stand the most to gain in terms of accessing employment by bridging foundational skills gaps. This aligns with research from our faculty lead David Deming, showing that the labor market increasingly rewards social skills and jobs requiring high levels of social interaction are growing much faster in the U.S. than pure technical jobs.

Our research also highlighted that universities could be well-poised to support workers in developing these skills. Research has shown that US workers, particularly those without postsecondary education, trust colleges and universities’ guidance. For instance, in May 2020, Strada Institute polling found that educational institutions were the second-most trusted sources of advice related to education or training, ranking only behind family. With this in mind, we believe that by working closely with expert partners, we can provide credible guidance to workers seeking to develop skills.

Next, we curated free resources on the internet that map to frequently-requested baseline skills. We developed a rubric to assess learning resources based on prior research about learner needs and effective pedagogy and distribution. The key factors that we considered were cost (free or paid); digestibility; interactiveness; ease of use; platform adaptability; language adaptability; and source reputation. We selected these criteria based on hypotheses about our target user -- namely, that this user would be price-sensitive, time-constrained, primarily mobile from a platform perspective, and may lack postsecondary education.

Original rubric used to assess content for inclusion on Skillbase.

Using this rubric, we “scored” resources according to their alignment with our criteria. Top scoring resources were included on Skillbase.

Our original product design sought to put users at the center of the experience by organizing content into broad thematic buckets (ESL, digital skills, and career preparation) and corresponding learning “pathways” based on users’ goals, competencies, and skills of interest.

Through this approach, we selected and organized 30-60 learning resources per category for our first iteration of Skillbase.

Overview of the content pathways framework and a sample pathway, ESL.

Content Pathways Overview
Content Pathways ESL

Looking forward

Cross-sector partnerships have been key to developing and growing Skillbase. Our partners have enabled content access, user experience refinement, experimentation with messages and implementation, and distribution to new users. We’ve also learned a lot from the product development process, including the kinds of content most demanded from the nearly 6,000 users who have visited the site to date. In a future post, we’ll be sharing more about our research, user learnings and approach to partnerships.

It’s been a rewarding few months supporting Skillbase users, and we’re excited to further expand our reach and evolve our platform to bring foundational learning to more people across the U.S.


Interested in partnering with Skillbase? Learn more about partnerships here

Want to learn more about how we built Skillbase and what we've learned?

Check out our second and third blog posts in the series!


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