AI and Skills

Cengage on copyright and AI, and new grants for statewide skills experiments

Cengage describes its take on bringing AI to market while dealing with copyright questions. Also, new grants back statewide skills experiments, and a bipartisan bill on short-term Pell emerges, with one on WIOA possibly following.

Montana State Capitol, photo by Eric Diaz on Unsplash

Publisher’s Emerging Approach to AI

Startups and rebranded ed-tech companies have generated much of the chatter about AI’s potential impacts on education and work. But moves by Cengage and other large, established players in the space are certain to help drive the emerging technology’s actual applications.

Surveys from the Cengage Group, which offers educational content and technology, have found substantial interest in AI tools across higher education.

Many faculty members plan to use generative AI to automate administrative tasks, allowing them to focus more on teaching and engaging with students, says Jim Chilton, Cengage’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. Likewise, 85% of students were excited to test out the company’s AI student assistant.

But the two groups also have shared worries about the technology.

“Both students and faculty have concerns around privacy, plagiarism, ethical use, and accuracy,” Chilton says, “with students primarily focused on immediate privacy concerns and faculty most concerned about student data usage and access to conversation history.”

Cengage is focused on exploring ways that AI can enhance classroom instruction and help personalize the learning experience for students. Along with the wide range of efforts to make that happen, the company created an AI Center of Excellence to guide its strategy and product development. 

Copyright Worries: AI poses serious challenges to copyright law, which is particularly important for the publishing and entertainment industries.

Chilton says Cengage is working to determine a holistic and long-term approach to the copyright issue, which includes:

  • Creating an architecture within its AI engine to ensure that the content Cengage uses is novel and unique to the company.

  • The development of a framework with six dimensions to determine if the content meets criteria for usage before feeding it to the AI engine.

  • Actively scanning the ecosystem to identify those who don’t respect copyright and determining how to handle those instances in the future.

The company also is pursuing several patents. “We believe that we have developed an organizational structure that is unique in the market,” Chilton says.

As Cengage develops its strategy around AI, it’s working closely with others in the ed-tech industry. For example, the company recently signed a framework of principles for the future of AI in education, which was released by the Software & Information Industry Association.

“For genAI applications to be successful in the education space,” says Chilton, “there needs to be collaboration and partnership both in the public and private sector.”

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Seeding a Skills-First Infrastructure

A new group of foundations, led by, is throwing its weight behind statewide skills experiments. The collaborative, SkillsFWD, today announced six grants of $1.4M each for projects that harness learning and employment records. The goal is to encourage the development of a “more equitable skills-based hiring ecosystem.”

Walmart has been investing in a skills-based system for more than a decade, says Julie Gehrki, the company’s vice president of philanthropy. She says SkillsFWD is a major step toward making that system a reality.

“We’re excited to see this create new career opportunities for workers and strengthen local communities—two pillars of our strategy,” Gehrki says. 

The Details: The grantees feature a wide range of geographies and participating organizations, stretching across employers, K-12, workforce boards, and postsecondary education providers. Most feature statewide scale. And universities are at the table for several of the projects.

One of the grants will back the nascent effort by a public-private coalition in Colorado to develop skills-based solutions to its serious shortage of behavioral health workers, which I wrote about last week. That strategy leans heavily on LERs, anchored by myColorado, the state’s free digital wallet.

Alabama’s Talent Triad is also one of the grantees. That complex, multiyear project taps AI as part of a “population-level” attempt to connect jobseekers and employers based on skills. Many experts think the Talent Triad is perhaps the nation’s most advanced LER experiment.

The other awards will back:

  • Accelerate Montana and its validated skills pilot, which seeks statewide adoption of LERs among employers in the construction trades and tech industries.

  • The Central Ohio Talent Network, led by a workforce board, which taps a college and career readiness platform to power early-career talent and employer matching.

  • Arizona State University’s skills-based project to boost student workers through a scalable, LER-driven job marketplace and by reducing barriers to hiring for employers.

  • Connecticut’s Office of Workforce Strategy’s attempt to expand skills-based hiring, use LERs to bridge the skills gap, and encourage equitable and effective employment practices.

“Walmart believes in leading by example in this space, and we’re excited to see these states and institutions taking that same approach,” Gehrki says. 

On the Ground: ASU’s effort is connected to its broader Work+ initiative, which seeks to fundamentally redesign student employment. The skills-based project is about “helping students tell their story,” says Sukhwant Jhaj, ASU’s vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement and dean of its University College.

The university has partnered with iDatafy’s SmartResume to deliver skills-based, portable LERs to students, so they can communicate their qualifications to campus employers and begin building a lifelong learning record that will carry them into careers.

Jhaj says the experiment is a student-success strategy to advance equitable outcomes. “Hiring based on skills will only grow,” he says.

Montana’s project on verified credentials aims to show the potential of validated digital skills to expand access to workforce opportunities across the state, including rural and urban communities, as well as Montana’s eight sovereign tribal nations.

By focusing on the tech and construction trades, it seeks to enable more efficient and effective hiring on somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum, says Paul Gladen, executive director of Accelerate Montana. Part of the goal is to “elevate the recognition that the currency of the workplace is skills,” he says.

With few large employers and plenty of miles to cover in Montana, the collaboration includes a wide range of partners, including industry associations, chambers of commerce, the state’s two-year colleges, and the University of Montana. The project will seek to better align the locations of education and training options with open jobs.

The Kicker: “How do we meet the trainees where they are?” Gladen asks. “Where can we be a shared service?”

Bipartisan Take on Short-Term Pell

Key members of the U.S. House of Representatives have ironed out partisan disagreements over plans to open up Pell Grants to short-term education and training programs. In addition, several well-placed observers say a bill to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the underfunded and inefficient federal job training system, could follow soon.

Backers are hopeful about prospects for the new Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act. Supporters include the community college sector and a coalition that includes employers and industry associations. But advocates acknowledge that the bill faces challenges in the Senate and uncertainty about whether it can be attached to a legislative package before next year’s election drama sucks up all the oxygen in D.C.

In the past, House Democrats had sought to exclude fully online programs and those offered by for-profit colleges. But Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the education and workforce committee’s top Democrat, dropped his opposition to for-profit participation with a March proposal that included several quality assurance guardrails. The bipartisan bill, which Scott co-sponsored, also would not prohibit online programs.

The consumer and taxpayer protections included in the proposal are similar to those introduced earlier this year by House Republicans, including Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the committee’s chairwoman, who also co-sponsored the bipartisan bill. Experts say the protections set a bar that’s almost as high as those proposed earlier by Republicans. They include:

  • Program completion and job-placement rates of 70%.

  • Holding tuition levels below a measure of “value-added earnings” for completers.

  • A wage floor for graduates three years out that tops median earnings for a state’s high school graduates.

The bill has an unusual spin on the approval process for eligible programs, note Alison Griffin and Noah Sudow of Whiteboard Advisors: all three parts of postsecondary education’s regulatory triad would be involved.

The Education Department would handle the quality guardrails. State workforce boards would be responsible for ensuring that programs are aligned with in-demand and quality jobs. Accrediting agencies would separately oversee programs. Of note, only accredited and federal aid–eligible institutions would be qualified to receive the grants under the proposed bill.

Sources say the flurry of activity around short-term Pell and, perhaps, WIOA, is being driven by a sense of urgency about workforce education.

Congress has watched the big industrial policy investments by the Biden administration. The Education and Workforce Committee seeks to show progress on their end and is hearing from employers and students who want support for short-term training “on-ramps” to jobs. The looming impacts of AI on education and work have added to the urgency, experts say.

While advocates say they have hope that the bipartisan bill will succeed where previous workforce Pell proposals have failed, the clock is ticking in an unpredictable Washington.

Open Tabs

Healthcare Crisis
Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists in the U.S. are seeking to unionize, Noam Scheiber reports for The New York Times. Many are protesting being asked to do more amid staffing shortages. Meanwhile, a visa backlog has postponed the arrival of at least 10K foreign nurses, reports Bloomberg’s Katia Dmitrieva. A hospital system is experimenting with nonhuman fixes, including “virtual sitters” that allow nurses to monitor more patients.

AI and Education+Work
Seven in 10 U.S. employers say hiring workers with AI skills is a priority and that they will pay top dollar to get them, according to a survey from Access Partnership and Amazon Web Services. That’s true not just for tech roles but also jobs in marketing, business operations, legal, and HR. Employers say they’re willing to pay between a 35% and 43% salary premium for AI skills.

AWS has launched a new AI Ready initiative to help 2M people develop skills in the field. It rolled out eight free generative AI courses and is providing $12M in scholarships for 50K high school and college students globally to build a foundation in AI through a new course on Udacity. The company also announced a partnership with Arizona State University, which will run a center to help public sector organizations innovate with AI.

Community Colleges
North Carolina is looking to overhaul its community college funding model to create a more flexible and workforce-friendly system. The new approach would provide additional funds for student enrollments in high-need workforce sectors, including healthcare, tech, and advanced manufacturing, according to reporting by EdNC. Noncredit courses in those focus fields would be funded at the same level as for-credit ones.

Clean Energy
Wind turbine service technician is among 10 growing jobs that pay well and don’t require a four-year degree, according to a list compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor. More than half of the occupations featured are in healthcare. And three job roles—industrial machinery mechanics, forest fire inspectors, and hearing aid specialists—do not require any postsecondary education for entry, but require on-the-job training.

Big(ger) Grants
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $100M in grants to a handful of organizations focused on economic mobility. Opportunity@Work, for example, received $17M for work on improving the labor market data and tech infrastructure for nondegree hiring. The grants mark a relatively new strategy for the foundation’s U.S. program of making larger gifts and providing grantees with more latitude. “They’re much closer to the frontlines of this work,” says Ryan Rippel, director of economic mobility and opportunity at the foundation.

Job Moves
Paul LeBlanc will step down as president of Southern New Hampshire University next summer. Lisa Marsh Ryerson, the university’s provost, will serve a two-year term as president beginning in July. 

During LeBlanc’s two decades at the helm, SNHU has become one of higher education’s most influential institutions while growing to an enrollment of 225K learners. LeBlanc is a force and big thinker on online learning, competency-based education, higher ed policy, and, lately, AI’s impacts. He’s also a good friend. Congrats to Paul on a heck of a run.

Western Governors University has appointed Courtney Hills McBeth as the university’s provost and chief academic officer. McBeth has been senior vice president and chief program officer at Strada Education Foundation and previously led strategic planning for the University of Utah.

Next week will be my last issue of the year, which is hard to believe. But I might send out some Open Tabs and links to coverage from the year for a bonus edition on Dec. 21. Thanks for reading! —PF