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How Skill Mapping Can Change Higher Education 

  • 8 Min Read

Hear guests of D2L’s Teach & Learn podcast discuss what skill mapping is and how it can help revolutionize education and workforce development.


It’s no secret that higher education is evolving to meet the changing needs of students and the workforce. More nontraditional students continue to join higher education ranks. High school graduates are questioning four-year degrees and checking out other options for pursuing postsecondary education.  

In the working world, employers are turning to upskilling and reskilling programs to address the skills shortage and improve employee retention. But how can students and employers alike ensure that what they’re learning will lead them toward their desired goals?  

One solution is to make a proactive shift toward a skill mapping approach. This technique can make the abilities that undergrad students are learning in class clearer and can better tie them to employability. Skill mapping can also help align the workforce experience of adult learners with degrees and programs that match their expertise.  

In this article, guests from D2L’s Teach & Learn podcast will help explain skill mapping and its role in changing higher education. 

What Is Skill Mapping?

Dr. MJ Bishop is vice president for Integrative Learning Design at the University of Maryland, Global Campus. During a recent episode of Teach & Learn, Upskilling and the Future of Education, she spoke about the details behind skill mapping. 

“As we’re thinking about things like prior learning assessments, transfer credit for prior learning, work-based learning experiences and so forth, we’ve got to begin by understanding what the puzzle pieces look like on the institution’s side of the equation,” said Bishop. “We’ve deliberately built out curricula in a way that we believe trains and supports learning to the point where students are going to be successful in their careers and professions. 

“Once we’ve built out this map and understand all of the skills involved, it gives us the opportunity to begin to understand where we can better align to what employers are looking for.” 

A defined skills map also allows institutions to take the abilities a learner brings with them through work experience and see how those abilities can be applied to their education. 

“When we have that skills map and can understand what you’re bringing to us, we can figure out how that fits into the puzzle much more easily. But until we understand what we have on our end of that equation, we’re less able to do that. We’re making guesses and spending a lot of time evaluating your portfolio,” said Bishop. 

A clear skills map can also help learners avoid taking redundant courses and instead focus on the knowledge they need. “When we have our skills map worked out, we can begin looking at creating more modularized learning experiences that support the learner to get to their goals,” Bishop said. 

Skill Mapping and Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) has taken the educational world by storm. In the instance of skill mapping, our guests believe AI might help simplify the process. 

“We’re doing a couple of pilots with some AI providers to look at the content that we have in our repository and help us understand if it can facilitate some curriculum mapping,” said Bishop. “Can this help us understand where skills are being introduced, practiced, assessed and named to help us identify the holes?” 

The data collected from the AI is being compared with what faculty are saying about where they think certain skills, like critical thinking, are being addressed. This helps to understand the capabilities of the AI and also better understand whether the skills are being clearly named. 

“You say you’re teaching critical thinking skills in this English course, but do you ever talk about it?” explained Bishop. “Is it explicitly assessed in a way that your students are walking away understanding? That’s something employers are looking for.” 

In the same Teach & Learn podcast episode, Bill Hughes, president and CEO of Ed Design Labs, brought up a recent presentation he had attended, during which there were discussions on how AI can be used as an “experience vacuum.” Hughes shared that, in theory, AI can suck in a person’s accomplishments, make sense of them and then map them to skills. 

“You could do a couple of things with that information. You can begin to understand where someone’s skills are and then assess them accordingly,” said Hughes. “You can help them develop their own profile and self-concept. Then you can also start matching the skills to career opportunities or even aligned higher ed courses.” 

Skill Mapping and Employability

Knowing the skills employers are looking for and mapping those to higher education curriculum can lead to better success after graduation. For Bishop, better communication about the skills desired by employers and what should be taught in higher education is a step in the right direction. 

“I don’t want to oversimplify things, but I think, largely, what we have is a communication problem. As academics, we have a tendency to speak in terms of learning objectives and Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs that just don’t resonate with employers. I’m really excited about the growing skills conversation,” said Bishop. 

“As I’m thinking about what that means for skills-forward curriculum design, it’s about figuring out how we retain the things that are important to us. It’s about the way we design curriculum with respect to understanding the course learning objectives and the program learning outcomes. But at the same time, we need to figure out how we can embed skills and use terminology that resonates with the employers inside that curriculum,” she said. 

I think, largely, what we have is a communication problem. As academics, we have a tendency to speak in terms of learning objectives and Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs that just don’t resonate with employers. I’m really excited about the growing skills conversation.

Dr. MJ Bishop, vice president for Integrative Learning Design at the University of Maryland, Global Campus

Bishop also commented on how communication of desired skills can play a role in instructional designers helping students identify which skills they’re learning in the classroom and align them to employer needs. 

“As instructional designers think about hard and soft skills in our curricula, they should be the ones the employers are looking for. Those are the skills that should influence the ways in which we are tagging our content in our designs to help our students be able to articulate what they’re learning in the classroom.” 

Hughes talked about how XCredit—a project developed by Ed Design Labs that uses authentic assessments to help show evidence of soft skills employers care about—can help students better identify skills they’re developing. 

“Your students might be learning all these different skills, but they don’t know what they’re called. They can’t talk about them in an interview,” said Hughes.  

“Through our assessments, we’ve built a competency map for 21st-century skills. There are a thousand organizations that are using it. It’s free and open, and you can build your own courses around it,” he said. “It’s a way to think about the skills that are important in the world of work, and how you can combine those into some of the hard skills you need to learn. As you start rethinking what the unit or module is, you begin to realize there are lots of different applications for it. 

“Modularizing it unlocks a huge amount of opportunity to be much more responsive in the ways that we engage with learners and in the way we support the labor market.” 

Future-Proofing the Workforce With Skill Mapping

Skill mapping also plays nicely with continuous learning. As more learners—both traditional and nontraditional—move away from the four-year degree, attaining higher education needs to be reimagined.  

Dr. Marie Cini, provost and chief academic officer at the University of the People, shared her thoughts on the future of continuous learning during an Upskilling and the Future of Education Series episode of the Teach & Learn podcast. 

“Continuous learning is just knowing that whatever you’re doing today and whatever you’ve learned to do for this place in your life, you’re going to be out of date in a year or two. I think all of us face that,” said Cini.  

People remain competitive and relevant in the market by returning to education to build their skills or learn new ones. If considered through the right lens, combining this continuous education with skill mapping could also lead to a degree. 

“Over time, I’d love us to see a four-year degree be more of a series of modules and learnings that you need throughout your life. Then at a certain point, people in the future get their degree when they’re 45, because a lot of it is life experience too,” said Cini. 

“But you can’t stop learning. You have to keep going back and figuring out what the next set of knowledge is to keep you up to date—and that should be exciting. We really get out-of-date and become kind of boring when we’ve stopped learning.” 

Continuing to Encourage Lifelong Learning

Being able to map a person’s real-world skills to education can ensure proper alignment on their educational goals and support learning outside the classroom. Making a clear connection between the soft skills learned through higher education can help new graduates boost their employability. 

By continuing to evolve the way the world learns, higher education can become inclusive to all kinds of learners, no matter their stage of life. 

Teach & Learn: A Podcast for Curious Educators

Hosted by Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, the show features candid conversations with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 education space. We discuss trending educational topics, teaching strategies and delve into the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today.

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Table of Contents

  1. What Is Skill Mapping?
  2. Skill Mapping and Artificial Intelligence
  3. Skill Mapping and Employability
  4. Future-Proofing the Workforce With Skill Mapping
  5. Continuing to Encourage Lifelong Learning