238: Western Governors University Brings Skills & Labor Focus to New Program Developmen

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How can higher ed be sure that its programs are delivering the skills employers and students want?

Joann Kozyrev, Vice President of Design and Development at Western Governors University (WGU), joins the podcast to talk about taking a skills-based approach to program development.

A new program development approach for an increasingly skeptical audience

WGU bases all its courses on a set of competencies derived from a set of skills. Those skills have been gathered and triangulated from employer and professional requirements. The institution triangulates those against its courses so that all competencies are based on highly valued skills. 

As data becomes more and more available, WGU can become much more labor-market focused on identifying those skills and then bundling them into assessable competencies.

What does that mean in terms of market value? 

When you know the value of a skill in the market, you can tell learners, “This is what you’re getting.” It’s like having a nutrition label on a food package. Learners know what’s in the courses.

People who are either economically or systemically stuck really want to know whether the investment of time and money in a degree is worth it. Unlike the more traditional student, they may have some counterexamples that they’re looking at.

Value is proving to them that the program they’re considering offers usefulness and worth. 

As Joann says, “We want to be able to show them the value of the skills that they gain in that labor marketplace even before they start. For someone trying to make a decision, that’s really powerful.”

How market-responsive is too market-responsive?

This is where the power of instructional design and assessment design really come together. 

Skills can’t be treated in isolation, and while you can track individual skills, you also have to understand the context in which they’re being deployed. WGU’s competencies help with that. 

Consider Excel as an example. There are levels of a particular Excel skill:

  • There’s the ability to make a pivot table. 
  • There’s the ability to know when a pivot table is required. 
  • And there’s the ability to use the pivot table to inform decision-making.

Those are different levels of a particular skill. An instructional designer needs to understand how that maps out over a trajectory towards mastery and which skills are required at particular points over a lifetime of learning.

“We don’t just pull our skills libraries from the labor market,” Joann said, “and we don’t just create competencies from labor-market skills and levels. We also look at the standard-setting bodies, and we tie it against those as well.”

What does a skills-focused degree look like?

Liberal arts students learn many useful skills — emotional intelligence; identifying and influencing cause and effect; media literacy; forming, supporting, and defending an opinion and changing it if new information or data comes to light; and promoting equity.

Employers are hungry for these skills, and WGU has identified them. They have libraries associated with these skills, and they include them in academic programs. 

Next-steps for becoming labor-market focused

WGU is a founding member of the Open Skills Network, which is a group of many people across this space who are interested in making skills interoperable. The network has just launched open-source software called the Open Skills Management Tool to help manage the tagging and libraries that schools are creating. Anyone can join the Open Skills Network, so that’s a good place to learn about this space.

The simplest thing — which any individual teacher can do — is to identify what skills they are teaching and assessing. Shine a light on them. Make sure students know them. Teachers can communicate these skills in their course descriptions and syllabi. Skills libraries are also free and easy to access. 

Finally, as they say in real estate, there are three things that matter — location, location, location. In a skills-based curriculum, there are also three things that matter —  application, application, application. 

It’s no longer necessary to transmit knowledge. Knowledge is everywhere. But we do need to teach our learners to locate, manage, and apply knowledge.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Joann Kozyrev of Western Governors University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.