What is rapid prototyping, and how does it help workers develop occupational digital literacy?

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, January 14, 2021

Last month, NSC released a brief outlining how workers can acquire industry-specific skills, Boosting Digital Literacy in the Workplace. It introduced the concept of utilizing rapid prototyping to help businesses upskill their workers. But what is rapid prototyping, and how does it help workers develop occupational digital literacy?

The term itself is borrowed from the technology field, though it is often used in design settings as well. Rapid prototyping means to build an experimental model – a prototype – of an idea to enable it to be tested out before investing resources in developing a full-blown product. It’s quicker, cheaper, and allows for greater flexibility in tinkering with and adjusting the model as new information is received.

In the workforce development field, rapid prototyping is used to quickly develop a rough program model that is implemented even as it’s being refined. In this respect, it’s a faster and more iterative process compared to the linear approach more common in higher education’s credit-bearing classes and in some other workforce development settings.

Rapid prototyping is especially suited to programs that incorporate digital literacy skills and other aspects of workforce preparation that are quickly evolving. In these cases, it may not be realistic to expect education and workforce providers to have complete information about employers’ needs or job requirements before launching a training program.

Why is this approach useful?

Rapid prototyping allows a workforce training provider or educational institution to get a program off the ground without waiting for entirely new curricula to be written or a new credential to be developed. Instead, educators can pull together a working model and begin executing it even as they continue to gather information about broader labor market demand, relevant industry-recognized credentials, and employer needs.

Because workforce development programs often operate in a quickly changing landscape, rapid prototyping is valuable because it relieves both program developers and jobseekers of the burden of feeling as though they have just one shot to get it right. Instead, it focuses attention on having a meaningful feedback loop of responses from hiring managers and other well-informed stakeholders to help program staff refine and improve their original approach.

It also allows space for students and jobseekers to provide in-the-moment feedback to instructors about what is working well or poorly about their training programs.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the use of rapid prototyping?

The abrupt shift to online education and other logistical changes driven by the pandemic have highlighted the value of rapid prototyping. As community colleges and workforce training providers are being forced by circumstance to experiment with new approaches and program models, rapid prototyping has emerged as a useful tool to help focus this experimentation in a productive way.

The pandemic has also driven an enormous surge in the need for digital skills among instructors, program staff, students, and workers, while highlighting the significant need for digital skill-building among many of those same individuals. Given the special importance of prototyping in the context of technology-related training, these considerations further affirm the value of the approach.

How can advocates avoid hurdles when implementing rapid prototyping?

As with any fast-moving project, effective organization and clear communication are as important to success as the decisions made on process. Without proper documentation, program staff can be doomed to missing important context or repeating failed strategies. When implementing a rapid prototyping approach, it is vital to keep a record of key decisions made and the reasons behind them.

In addition, program developers should stay in regular contact with marketing, public communications, and student-advising staff as programs grow and improve. Public communications about a training program rely on having accurate information about what the program will entail, how long it will last, what credential it will result in, and how much program graduates can expect to earn. Similarly, advisors or case managers should be well-versed in the details of a training program to help students and jobseekers make wise decisions about whether the program is a fit for their abilities and aspirations. Making sure they are armed with the most up-to-date information will help produce positive results for students, workers, and your training program.