Western Governors University Maps Curriculum to In-Demand Skills

July 24, 2019 by Remie Verougstraete

Western Governors University Maps Curriculum to In-Demand Skills


  • Western Governors University (WGU) and Emsi are piloting an innovative skills mapping project that translates taught competencies into the skill-based language of the labor market.

  • Led by WGU’s director of program architecture, the project is helping WGU identify skill gaps and design curriculum that is closely aligned with industry needs.

  • Emsi’s consulting team used professional profile data and traditional labor market data to focus their analysis on the skills that are most relevant for WGU grads.

  • Going forward, WGU and Emsi will apply lessons learned from the pilot project to continue improving the skills map, including the use of skill clusters to better understand how skills are used in specific jobs.

A tradition of innovation

As pioneers of competency based education and online learning, Western Governors University (WGU) has a reputation for student-centered innovation. Now, they’re continuing that legacy with a new initiative to gain unprecedented insight into how their curricular content aligns with the skills employers value most.

Kacey Thorne, Director of Program Architecture

The project is led by Kacey Thorne, the new director of program architecture at WGU. As she recently discussed in Inside Higher Ed, “Program Architecture” refers to “a comprehensive network of competencies and skills that are aligned to careers and industry needs.” In other words, she is building a “skills map” to guide WGU’s future growth and help students get the most value out of their programs.

“My role was created specifically from this desire to be very skills-based and closely aligned to industry needs,” said Thorne. “We want to close that translation gap that exists between higher ed, employers, and job seekers.”

To support this work, WGU recently partnered with Emsi’s higher education consulting team on a pilot project that focused on two of WGU’s in-demand, high-impact programs: their business core curriculum and their data management and analytics degree. The goal was to develop an innovative methodology for translating curriculum to skills, and seeing how those skills align with employer demand.

Understanding demand for your grads

Emsi’s first step was identifying the target occupations for WGU’s business and data management and analytics programs. While the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides a general purpose program-to-occupation crosswalk, Emsi’s team of data scientists and economists wanted to produce a more targeted analysis, specific to WGU’s alumni.

To achieve this, the consulting team leveraged Emsi’s profile analytics, a unique data set of over 120 million professional profiles, which helped them identify the actual occupations that WGU grads are now working in. Complementing this with Emsi’s traditional labor market data, the list was further refined to emphasize only those occupations that show robust growth projections over the next 10 years. After manual vetting and a cross-check with the NCES mapping, WGU and Emsi had a list of relevant, high-growth target occupations for the two programs of interest.

From occupations to skills

Target occupations are a solid start, but not detailed enough for the kind of mapping that WGU wanted to create. To dig deeper, Emsi consultants analyzed millions of job postings to detect the actual language employers use to describe their hiring needs. This started with identifying the most frequently requested skills in the target occupations. After additional statistical and manual vetting to prioritize only the most relevant skills, the initial list of almost 20,000 was whittled down to about 1,000 in-demand, marketable skills for each program. This step provided critical insight into the vocabulary employers use to describe their talent needs.

Mapping curriculum

Employer demand was only the first half of the equation WGU was looking to solve. The other half was assessing how their course content aligned with the signals they were seeing from employers. This step presented a new challenge: WGU’s curriculum is defined in terms that may not necessarily have a one-to-one correlation with the numerous skills that employers list in job postings.

To overcome this language barrier between educators and employers, the consulting team used Emsi’s skill taxonomy to translate learning competencies for WGU’s business core and data management and analytics programs into the language of the labor market. Doing so enabled Emsi to map WGU’s learning competencies to corresponding skills that appear in job postings.

The heart of the analysis involved comparing the taught skills represented in WGU’s learning outcomes to the sought skills represented in employer job postings. This provided three key areas of insight for WGU:

  • where WGU curricular competencies are well-aligned with market needs (taught skills = sought skills)

  • where there are gaps between market needs and curricular content (sought skills that did not show up in taught skills)

  • and where there are skill “surpluses” (taught skills that do not appear to be in-demand in the labor market)

Digesting the data

The results were presented to WGU in several formats to help Thorne’s team consider the data through different lenses. For example, Emsi delivered a Tableau file that showed the mapping of WGU’s competencies to skills in Emsi’s skill taxonomy. This helped WGU visualize how their curriculum translated into professional skills, as described in job postings.

The actual skills gap analysis was delivered via Excel, in two versions:

  1. A spreadsheet where relevant sought skills were divided into six categories based on how frequently they appear in job postings for target occupations. The sheet was also color-coded based on whether the sought skills were aligned with WGU’s existing course content, or represented a “gap” in WGU’s curriculum. This provided a quick way to visualize skill gaps in the context of whether a given skill appeared in postings millions of times vs hundreds of thousands of times vs tens of thousands of times etc.

  1. The second spreadsheet compared taught skills vs sought skills for each target occupation individually. Again, color coding was used to indicate gaps vs aligned skills, as well as the frequency with which skills appear in postings for a particular occupation. This format provided a quick way to assess skill gaps in light of the relevance of specific skills for specific occupations.

Applying the insight

Though this analysis was largely a proof of concept for future work, it’s already having an impact on the two programs analyzed in the pilot project. For example, the findings are informing a refresh of WGU’s business programming, helping ensure that the courses and competencies they include are aligned to skills that are in high demand in industry.

Thorne also sees the skills map enhancing WGU’s ability to help students market themselves to employers by understanding and articulating the skills they develop in their courses. Using her own education as an example, Thorne pointed out that an English major might not make the connection that a course in 19th-century American literature was preparing them to analyze an argument and defend a claim using different sources of information—transferable skills that are valuable in any work environment.

“It’s helping the students see what those skills are that they’re building,” said Thorne, “because that sometimes gets overshadowed by the academic context in which they’re learning those skills.”

This interoperability of competencies and skills is a two-way street: Thorne also sees the skills map enhancing WGU’s ability to award academic credit for professional work experience and industry certifications. This could prove especially significant for non-traditional students by providing a faster (and more affordable) path to completion, one that doesn’t require them to take classes covering material they’ve previously learned on the job.

“If they’re coming to WGU already equipped with those skills, we want them to have credit for that. I think the impact to students is huge,” said Thorne.

Lessons learned

WGU plans to build on this early success while making adjustments based on the lessons they’ve learned so far. For instance, Thorne said they discovered that starting with academic programs is not necessarily the best approach to the skills mapping work. Instead, they plan to start with an industry sector, then move down to different functions within that industry, then focus in on specific job titles and the skills those jobs require.

By taking an industry skills-based approach rather than an academic program-based approach, they hope to let industry needs drive program development and review more than ever.

“Our intent is that this skills map effectively becomes the operating system on which all of our academic programs are built,” said Thorne.

Ultimately, the vision is for their programs to be so well-aligned to industry needs that the skills employers value most are the learning outcomes for WGU’s programs—and students get maximum return on investment from each and every course they take.

Competency-to-skill mapping Tableau visualization

Adding context to skills

Another key takeaway from the project has been the importance of context. As WGU dug into the findings, it became clear that some skills could mean different things depending on the job postings in which they appear. For example, skills like “data analysis” or “communications” could appear in job postings for a marketing director role at a non-profit, as well as a financial analyst role at an investment bank. Although the skills are the same, they are likely to be used differently in each setting.

Moving forward, WGU and Emsi plan to address this by implementing skill clusters, or groups of complementary skills that appear alongside each other in job postings. By considering skills in their broader context, WGU will have better insight into how those skills are being used in a particular role. This insight will help WGU provide the contextualized learning that Thorne referred to in her interview with Inside Higher Ed—ensuring that students can translate classroom learning into workplace value.

Transforming higher education

While the skills-mapping project has plenty of exciting implications for WGU, Thorne also highlighted the positive impact it could have broadly. A comprehensive skills map like the one they are developing can serve as a lingua franca, creating a common language for educators and industry. As a consequence, colleges and universities across the nation can play a central role in helping learners at all stages of life to capitalize on their experience and prior learning, while also identifying and filling the skill gaps that hold them back from achieving their goals.

“I see the potential for this skills mapping effort to allow true interoperability between different learning experiences,” said Thorne. “I think the transformation in higher ed that we could see from that is significant.”

Kacey Thorne shared more about WGU’s recent work at Emsi2019, our ninth annual users’ conference, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Learn more about Emsi’s solutions for higher education, and please contact us to explore how our data can serve your institution.