Customer story

WGU reduces data curation and governance time from weeks to seconds

United States
Customer since

Western Governors University (WGU) is on a mission to make higher education available to everyone no matter their background or circumstance, and is using data as the driving force to make the learning experience fast, smart and successful for students. The university developed a Data Governance Center based on Collibra which enables huge improvements in productivity and intelligence. Now WGU is starting to use Collibra to take data governance to the next level so that it can give students personalized and targeted support to make their journeys even more effective.


Deliver a personalized learning experience

WGU endeavors to be the world's most student-centric university. Established in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors, the online, nonprofit, higher education institution  now serves more than 140,000 students nationwide and has more than 300,000 graduates in all 50 states.

Using data to assess each student’s performance, success and educational trajectory is the key to achieving the goal of opportunity for all. However, WGU wants to go further by using data to personalize the learning experience, make it smarter and help deliver better outcomes. For example, the University is analyzing processes and results to personalize learning and guide future students on how best to study to achieve success. 

WGU was established in 1997 to expand access to high-quality, affordable higher education and now serves more than 140,000 students nationwide and has more than 300,000 graduates in all 50 states. 

Formerly, the university had struggled to make the best use of its data. “The problem was we could not get our arms around the data,” said Garth Gehlbach, Head of Data Governance at WGU. “We could not find what we needed or what information we had. When we did find it, it was difficult to understand and we did not know if it was reliable.”

Data was largely confined to departmental silos and there were limited enterprise-wide views. Finding data to create a report and perform business analysis took a long time and often took several iterations to get it right.

Gehlbach knew WGU had some great data assets. They just needed unlocking and to help achieve that, he needed the right solution.

Following its due diligence, WGU decided to partner with Collibra. One main reason is the flexibility of the Collibra platform to adapt to the education environment. WGU has to comply with regulations like FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) which governs access to educational information and records, as well as standard regulations for data like Personally identifiable information (PII). 

Gehlbach also wanted to add customized education-focused attributes and relations to their data. “The flexible data modeling in Collibra means we can add attributes and relationships to data to understand what are the things that will delight students and make the learning experience tremendous.”


Collibra: best for browsing data

WGU is using Collibra Data Intelligence Platform as the foundation of its Data Governance Center. This integrates with several associated application data stores. 

“One of the great features of Collibra is the browsing experience,” added Gehlbach. “Other data catalog tools can do searches, but Collibra is the best I have seen at browsing. I can look at a large set of data, apply one or more filters and get the relevant results, with extensive context, all at-a-glance.  Google-like searches, on the other hand, tend to show a long list of results with very little context, and don’t provide a natural way to refine what you are looking for.”

WGU has developed the Collibra application in phases, describing the process like a grocery store where the value is based on what is on the shelves: the goods or content. Gehlbach set up groups of key contributors and stakeholders, and turned them into champions of data governance for the whole University. Departments have submitted over 1,400 business glossary terms and Collibra now holds over 850,000 assets, which represent technical schemas, business and governance context, and relationships.  With this substantial population of content, Collibra is fulfilling its purpose of being the system of truth for enterprise metadata and providing a robust Data Context Graph that enables Data Citizens to find, understand, trust, and curate data. 

Collibra is used typically by analytic groups who curate data sets for predictive models such as which course and learning method to recommend for a student. Gehlbach and his champions are encouraging more business users to access Collibra. But the biggest draw is the success that existing users are experiencing with Collibra.

I get excited about Collibra, but I have users coming to me and saying this is the best thing they have ever seen. Some users have even said that had they had a solution like Collibra at their previous job, they might not have left. Collibra makes a big difference.
Garth Gehlbach
Head of Data Governance


Delivering huge productivity gains

“Collibra has helped make great progress in capturing and enriching our metadata,” explained Gehlbach. “Now we can look for data based on a business concept like student retention or student drop rate, and look for and find data related to those concepts. That has been a really big step.”

“Collibra is excellent at enabling WGU to find, understand, curate and trust data, and to do so very quickly,” said Gehlbach “What's more, Collibra can manage information about data-related products, such as metrics, reports, and analytical models, which enables Data Citizens to leverage existing data products and collaborate with colleagues in developing new data sets and products.  

Gehlbach also mentioned that because all the relationships and descriptions can be viewed at a glance in Collibra, users got to answers not just faster but often on their first attempt. Another significant productivity gain is using Collibra to link physical metadata (schemas) and business and governance context to a Universal Logical Data Model, which both simplifies the Data Context Graph and provides an added dimension of precision and power to filtering and searching. With Collibra, for example, we can not only identify PII, but also easily discern between PII that corresponds to an employee versus a prospective student, and apply the right policies.

Establishing a single source of truth

Establishing a single source of truth is a key objective of data governance. “Having a single source of truth for one application is simple, but then you are back to the silo problem,” added Gehlbach. “With Collibra, we can capture knowledge and build a network of metadata relationships. Now you are getting to the power of effective data governance, and it is coming from a place that is reliable, trusted and has enterprise scope. That is essential for anyone who wants to exploit their data effectively.”

One of the true tests of whether a solution is successful is the user experience. “I get excited about Collibra, but I have users coming to me and saying this is the best thing they have ever seen,” extolled Gehlbach. “Some users have even said that had they had a solution like Collibra at their previous job, they might not have left. Collibra makes a big difference.”

Now Gehlbach is exploring how Collibra can support more advanced data governance. He wants to use Collibra to manage future data and capture the requirements for data that does not yet exist, and do so in a structured, relational way to drive one of the University’s visions for a more personalized learning experience. As Gehlbach describes, “It is using Collibra to capture and manage the complete lifecycle of data from concept and inception through to implementation, and deliver on our goal of improving the student experience.”