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Shaping the Future of Higher Education: A Deep Dive into the Skills-Based Approach at WGU

by Paola Sanchez, Lead Skills Architect, Western Governors University

Charlotte Morrissey, Lead Skills Architect, Western Governors University


The future of higher education is shaping up to be significantly skills-based. As the world becomes increasingly complex and technologically advanced, the emphasis is shifting from traditional academic knowledge to the application of skills that directly correlate with industry needs. This transition aims to prepare students for the real-world challenges they'll encounter in their careers, ensuring they are not just academically knowledgeable but also practically competent. This approach equips graduates with a more comprehensive set of tools that are directly relevant to their chosen fields, making them more attractive to potential employers and more prepared to contribute meaningfully to their professions. Hence, the skills-based future in higher education stands as a transformative step towards aligning educational outcomes with the evolving demands of the workforce. In this post, learn more about how to approach skills in higher education from OSN founding member Western Governors University.


Western Governors University (WGU) is committed to infusing in-demand workforce skills in every credential WGU offers. Why? Skills help learners who want an education valued in their industry. Learners who can easily verify and communicate that they’ve developed skills that employers value have a competitive advantage as they search for jobs or seek promotions. WGU credential earners can speak about their skills in a language employers understand. They can also prove they built high-value skills for their field because each skill relates directly to competencies that are assessed—a core element of WGU’s competency-based education model. Understanding Skill Components The acronym "RSD" is used to describe all components of a skill. "RSD" stands for "rich skill descriptor," encompassing a bundle of information in addition to a skill statement describing behavior or capability (for instance, "create a long-term personal learning plan"). This information packet includes five main elements: a concise RSD title, a skill category (akin to a keyword), the skill statement, alternate keywords, and additional metadata like standards the skill aligns to or occupations the skill relates to.

Leveraging Skills

Skills Collections are clusters of RSDs organized by occupation, such as registered nurse, or by specialization, like business ethics. WGU’s current Skills Library Collections include business, education, health, information technology, law, and engineering. These collections can be utilized in multiple ways, including informing curriculum, training and development, digital credentials, or job postings.


Integrating Skills

RSDs form a critical part of academic offerings, ensuring that graduates are equipped with the skills that employers seek. A variety of inputs help achieve this, such as industry insights, academic standards, certification and licensure requirements, and the vision of our academic leadership. By incorporating these diverse perspectives, WGU strives to deliver an education that prepares our graduates for the demands of the workforce.

Creating RSDs

Creating and curating RSDs involves several steps:

1. Identifying Skills Employers Value: Skills that employers value in a specific target market or skill set are identified using labor data, subject matter expert input, and industry or academic standards.

2. Leveraging Expertise: An expert panel helps curate and develop skills aligned to workforce needs.

3. Developing Skills Data: Experts collaborate with WGU to create additional RSD information, including alignment with relevant standards and certifications.

4. Validating Skills: WGU surveys a representative sample from the target occupation or specialty area to validate the skill alignments and identify gaps or emerging skills.

What Does the Future Hold?

In the future, WGU will continue to integrate skills into the design and development process of educational offerings. WGU’s Skill Architects are always looking for new ways to improve the RSD development process, such as conducting job skills analyses and exploring the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools. By continuing to prioritize skills development, WGU ensures that learners and workers are well-equipped to succeed in their chosen fields.


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