Skip to content

WGU Skills Architecture

Mapping curriculum to workforce needs

May 18, 2023

This article is from an interview with Joann Kozyrev, Vice President, Learning Design & Analytics at Western Governors University. Kozyrev is also a budding futurist and has recently completed a specialization from The Institute for the Future and a Metafutures certificate from The Center for Futures Intelligence and Research at Tamkang University. In this story she talks about how the work of WGU’s Skills Architecture team run by Sr. Director Kacey Thorne and Acting Provost Sarah DeMark is used to map curriculum and competencies to workforce needs in WGU degree pathways. This story also contains excerpts as noted from the research article “Enabling Pathways to Opportunity Through a Skills Based Architecture” for The Journal of Competency-Based Education, March 2021, that Kozyrev wrote with Dr. Sarah DeMark.

The Foundations of Competency-Based Education

Throughout its 25-year history, WGU has built degrees and credentials on a model of competency-based education – a model that, simply put, measures actual learning vs. seat time in a university classroom. It provides a way to assure there has been learning as each student must meet set competencies within a course or program, proving mastery of pre-determined knowledge and skills.

These competencies are mapped throughout each course in the learning journey. A bachelor’s degree may have 120-130 or more clearly defined competencies a student must prove they know through performance assessments and projects. The competencies sit on a foundation of 10x that many specific, individually articulated skills.

“We use skills as the foundation for all of the competencies that we create, or revise, and then we use the competencies of each course as the foundation for all of the assessments we create, which are the measure of the learning,” said Kozyrev. “We start with skills at the base to ensure that our curriculum adds value toward our students’ careers and lives.” 

Meeting Employer Demand for Market-Relevant Skills

 “The world is getting better at understanding the market for skills,” said Kozyrev. “With our business intelligence systems, we can accurately see growing demand or declines for very specific skill sets. This is also why, in addition to our skills mapping, we are working to create more modular content so that as any one aspect of our curriculum becomes dated or loses relevance, we can pull that out and plug in an aspect that has great and growing relevance.”

Learning in a Knowledge Economy

Over the last few years, there has been an outcry from employers to find job candidates for unmet demand for key skills. The media frequently publishes stories about employers stressing the importance of skills among candidates in the hiring process. These range from technical skills such as data literacy to an increasing call for ‘human’ skills such as communication, critical thinking, and collaboration.  “A few decades ago, having a college or university credential was enough for a student to show a potential employer. A student was set for life. But in today's increasingly complex knowledge-worker society, students will graduate into a skills-based hiring ecosystem, and WGU is preparing them for that,” said Kozyrev.

The Mechanics of Skills Architecture

For skills mapping to be successful, the various data sources must be interoperable and able to ‘talk’ with each other. Originally this was not the case as data across the University’s information systems were not standardized or normalized. WGU is now using JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) a code that allows machines to store and read queries that is also easily readable by humans. 

In The Journal of Competency-Based Education (DeMark, Kozyrev. March 2021) the authors share the mechanics of skills architecture as follows:

“To achieve the interoperability required in order for this initiative to have a broad economic impact at scale, WGU has created a data syntax standard called Rich Skill Descriptors (RSDs) for our libraries of skills along with associated technology to create, manage, improve, and share the skills libraries.

Rich Skill Descriptors are machine-readable, searchable data that include the context behind a skill, giving users a common definition for a particular skill, and achieving skills interoperability in credentials, education and training opportunities, job profiles, and learner records. For example, in the field of instructional design, an RSD may be “Write storyboards to communicate the intended text, visuals, and interactivity of learning products.” This RSD is then tagged to occupations, such as through O*NET codes as well as tagged to different standards bodies, such as Association of Talent Development (ATD) or International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)"



There are now more than 20,000 skills articulated in the WGU Skills Library, housed in more than 100 skills collections including such topics as WGU Power Skills (team collaboration, ethics), the WGU Social Emotional Learning Collection (self-awareness, situational control, emotional relationship recognition), WGU Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collection (supporting the worth and dignity of others, cultural dynamics) and the Technical Skills Collection (focused on business and technology) and many more. Many are now available to the public here via the Open Skills Network.

What the Student-Facing Side of the Work Shows

“I believe having the competencies visible in every course helps the students see the value in each course while providing them a manageable amount of data for the human brain to process,” Kozyrev said.

By keeping the competencies front and center, Kozyrev believes it helps students speak to what they know and can do in cover letters, interviews, and later throughout their careers in a way that matters to employers or clients. Additionally, it helps students understand the relevance of all courses, not just those related to their specific area of interest.

Kozyrev is also actively engaged with WGU’s Career and Professional Services team to build re-useable career competencies that can be built into the curriculum.

“We’re just beginning. As far out in front as WGU is on this, we’re doing about 10% of what might be possible as we evolve our machine-learning models. We’re getting closer to being able to match students to jobs and let them know when you apply for this job to consider highlighting these elements of your curriculum. This is possible because of the machine readability of the skills underlying the competencies that make up the WGU curriculum. There are many other potential applications as well. So much of the potential is still emerging,” she said.

In addition to the marketplace guideposts skills architectures create for students, skills mapping is effective to help maintain and map alignment with accreditation, and licensing standards and requirements, both highly complex topics.

Promising Relevance in Learning Pathways

At WGU, the North Star is the triad of Equity, Access, and Completion. Skills architecture is being used to support that by ensuring the curriculum is being designed with a required ‘Guaranteed Quality and Relevance of Pathway’ stated in the University’s strategic plan where key aspects are listed as ‘skills denominated, relevant to learner’s jobs, and packaged in the right currency.’ With a keen focus on those students with no degree and a career or job that does not provide pathways to economic advancement and mobility, (aka Rising Talent) this work can serve to prepare students for jobs that will directly and quickly improve the lives of students who complete WGU degrees.

Skills-Based Modular Course Construction for Scale

From an equity perspective, building a curriculum with this model can provide the university with substantial cost savings and a reduction of time in course creation, and these savings can be passed on via lower tuition. Embedded in WGU’s DNA is fiscal stewardship to keep the tuition as affordable as possible so more students can find their pathway into social and economic mobility.

As a recent example, (pictured above) Kozyrev points to the new Systems Thinking course at WGU. “We were building a new Systems Thinking course that can be used for our four colleges/schools. There are three primary competencies and modules. One module is an Introduction to Systems Thinking, with content akin to describing the tools of system thinking in a more generic fashion that’s not industry specific. (The dark blue module in the diagram on the top left.) The other blue module is Applying Systems Thinking where the student shows they can take the tools in small, contained case studies and apply them to different wicked problems. The third module includes the course’s performance assessment, and it is contextualized to a wicked problem that is specific to one of our four fields of study – business, IT, health, or education,” she explained.

“Because this is a general education course that will be used across all colleges, this new modular build allows the student to learn in the version of the course that is contextualized to what matters most to them by pulling from a wicked problem in their area of study.


For example, the third module for an IT student may have a wicked problem around what to do with old code, whereas, in Health, it might be around the challenges with Electronic Health Records. There are two big wins in doing this. One – we ensure students are learning measurable skills they will need in their careers while contextualizing the learning in their area of interest.

Instead of building 15 modules (image above, right side) we only build seven, which is a significant cost saving that helps offer affordable tuition. The second big win is when we build courses this way, not only can our curriculum pivot, but the student can pivot as well. We are seeing a greater number of students who come in undecided about their final area of expertise.

If a student takes this course in IT and then later decides to pursue a Business or Health degree, we can look and see that they still mastered the skills and competencies of Systems Thinking. It’s a simple thing, but by being intentional on the front end of the build, we can save ourselves and our students time and money while also ensuring they have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. And, since no one can precisely predict what jobs will be available to students in as little as 15 years, we can also create new content for the one industry-specific module if what we have becomes irrelevant and new wicked problems need to be added,” said Kozyrev.

The Future of Work

The future of work is a topic that Kozyrev finds intriguing. “One of the interesting things about the futurist studies I’m engaged in is it gets you out of your day-to-day thinking where you are consumed with what has to happen today, tomorrow, or next week. You train your brain to look at systems and processes and ask, ‘If I keep doing this and it gets amplified, what will it look like in 10 years?’ It’s interesting to think about the future of work, and the future of learning analytics.”

She continues, “With the advent of AI all knowledge workers are faced with the question ‘What is work, and why do we do it?’ I wonder if the future of work is going to evolve into a question of sustainability. How can we use the tools we have to map the purpose movement which is clearly underway? And, how can we map the skills movement for greater sustainability?”

“When we look at work and history, we had hunters and gatherers whose work was for survival," she added. 

"Then we had a Farming Revolution where the work was for husbandry and the growth of the family farm or estate. Then we had the Industrial Revolution which was about using machines to build efficiencies and scale."

"It’s exciting to think about how we might use our knowledge and skills, with humans working alongside machines and AI, to next make work a Sustainability Revolution, sustaining ourselves, our societies, our health, and our planet," said Kozyrev.


Recommended Articles

Take a look at other articles from WGU. Our articles feature information on a wide variety of subjects, written with the help of subject matter experts and researchers who are well-versed in their industries. This allows us to provide articles with interesting, relevant, and accurate information.