New Connected-Growth Platform inspires Learning through Small Group Journeys and Stories of Impact

Key Points

  • Most humans are motivated by relationships, purpose, and naturally grow within communities of interest. 

  • It is time for new models of learning that go beyond content (which is necessary but not sufficient) to position learners as producers of real-world impact.

Lifelab studios
Lifelab studios

In an age of tremendous innovation, transforming societies, and globalized relationships, our opportunity to unlock human potential has never been more in reach. However, few learning platforms have harnessed these innovations to make real change in how we approach learning. Instead, most technological solutions tend to adopt transmission approaches of learning — turning paper pages into pdfs, positioning content as facts to be memorized, and treating learners as isolated consumers of other people’s ideas — even though that goes against everything we know about learning.

Most humans are motivated by relationships, purpose, and naturally grow within communities of interest. It is time for new models of learning that go beyond content (which is necessary but not sufficient) to position learners as producers of real-world impact, within a small supportive community, where learners are seen, valued, and validated for the great things they do. This happens best in contexts where learners feel safe, where their stories matter, and where they can inspire one another with how they are using their learning to make a difference in their lives.

There needs to be a different way of thinking about unlocking human potential, one that treats knowledge as fundamentally linked to practice, people as having rich potential, and any designed innovation as just one component – rather than the sole focus – of an empowering ecosystem. New models of learning are needed, and these models should inspire learners, connecting them to relatable peers, and as part of small groups where they are seen, valued, and validated for their efforts. The focus needs to be less on what I need to know, and more on where I want to go, what I need to be successful, and who is going to help me succeed.

A Different Sort of Growth Platform

Emerging during the pandemic, LifeLab Studios, an Arizona State University spinout, is committed to powering personal growth through small group journeys. Backed by 30 years of learning sciences research, this small team of learning scientists, educators, platform engineers, and social entrepreneurs have successfully launched a mobile-first, social-growth platform,  

“ harnesses the power of relationship, choice, and reputation, along with insights from the gaming industry, social media, psychology and what we know about how people learn,” said LifeLab Studios co-founder and CEO Dr. Sasha Barab.

It is time for new models of learning that go beyond content (which is necessary but not sufficient) to position learners as producers of real-world impact, within a small supportive community, where learners are seen, valued, and validated for the great things they do.

Tom Vander Ark

Barab argues: “What is needed are learning systems that more resemble how people learn outside of schools, focused on goals that matter to them as part of small communities where members share and support each other with the goal of being successful in life.”

Research in the learning sciences has found that people learn better when they are interested, curious, passionate, and engaged, and when they feel safe, welcomed, and valued. “However, most learning management systems have placed the cart before the horse, neglecting the interests, needs, experiences, and struggles of the learner altogether,” said Barab.

The platform brings together what we know about human learning, motivation, relationship, and innovation to offer a platform that:

  1. Powers small group journeys where members grow with relatable peers;
  2. Focuses on real-world goals with content supporting member progress.
  3. Values member stories about how they are using what they are learning;

In contrast, an obsession with content transmission and easy to assess prompts has led to an ineffective design of many platforms and programs. It is time to put learners and their goals first, and surround them with the relevant peers and supportive champions invested in their growth.  

“A learning system that treats content as more important than the learner, and what they can do with that which they are learning, is both ineffective and demeaning; potentially undermining the motivations, backgrounds, struggles, and voices of those the system should be designed to serve,” said Barab.

Similar to other sectors that have been transformed by the platform revolution, the growth industry must harness the power of platforms to position learners as consumers and producers, learning from each other as they share lessons learned in ways that build collective wisdom. Learning systems need to leverage connection algorithms and provide engaging feeds designed to connect learners to the ideas, people, and stories that are relevant to them. They need to recruit the authentic motive of the learner, supporting their goals and highlighting their stories as meaningful and authentic knowledge.  

Where is Being Used

The platform is being used with great success in a wide range of industries and organizations, including professional organizations, schools, faith communities, juvenile corrections, and as part of recovery. Notably, its founding team is committed to its use among vulnerable populations to increase equity and opportunity for underserved groups.

Professional Organizations: supports personalized small communities for professional development, connecting members in common growth goals, within their building or across states. The platform supports teachers across California, Texas, and Utah around human trafficking awareness, to build protective factors for their classrooms, and inspire one another with shared practices. also supports new teachers in growing skills.

Schools and Universities: Secondary schools and colleges use in advisory systems to develop a sense of direction and purpose while building social and emotional skills. The platform can be easily incorporated into core courses particularly those aiming at a broad set of competencies and where collaborative inquiry is valued. Digital credentials can be awarded for demonstrated skills, local validation, and even as a means of earning college credits through Arizona State University. One innovative high school developed Microcerts being offered to other schools. is fast and easy to use for short courses–intersessions, capstones, electives–and themed events. A Jesuit high school created a voting day event to engage students in ‘doing’ Democracy, resulting in hundreds of shared stories and school MicroCerts.

Juvenile Corrections: In partnership with Maricopa County, supports the growth of justice-involved youth in building key protective factors to avoid recidivism. As youth chart their own skill building paths, officers and other youth provide feedback as part of an emerging national commitment in juvenile corrections to support positive change. Learners earn micro-credentials that demonstrate their positive change to the judge, their family, employers, and themselves.

Recovery Community: Within the recovery community, there is a wealth of research demonstrating the importance of small groups when supporting personal change. Imagine, going to a 12-step meeting, reading the “Big Book” and then being able to transform one’s life. Instead, augmenting existing programs and experiences, is used by partners to provide small group journeys focused on overcoming substance abuse, chronic wellness, and general skills focused on living a flourishing live as part of a connected growth journey.

Faith Communities: Many faith communities leverage the power of small groups to promote growth. amplifies this strategy with a diverse library of experiences on faith, purpose, and relationships for adults and youth. The platform extends learning and engagement across the week as members connect and grow. Learning is personal, where each member has voice, and collective. Congregation leaders receive meaningful data about impact and needs.

Learn More

Lifelab Studios is part of a growing movement of triple-bottom line studios in which there are multiple drivers beyond financial returns (i.e., social impact, knowledge generation, financial return). Check out LifeLab Studios to explore more.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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