As community colleges are called upon to prepare workers for a changing economy, they are increasingly turning to a new model of education that brings career opportunities into sharper focus. Working alongside academic and business leaders in Massachusetts, EDC is bringing this approach to thousands of adult learners throughout the state.
EDC’s Barbara Treacy thinks that linking academic and career skills, called a “contextualized approach,” can improve success rates for community college students.
“Adult learners want their course work to be relevant to their lives,” she says. “A contextualized approach can help students retain what they are learning while it motivates them to stay in school.”
However, more than half of the students who enroll in community colleges must take remedial, or developmental, courses before beginning the course work they want to pursue. These offerings in English and mathematics are intended to prepare students for success.
But Treacy believes that developmental education needs to change. Developmental courses seldom help students earn credits toward their desired degree or certificate, while they do add to students’ financial burden upon graduating. More importantly, developmental courses are often the beginning and end of a student’s college experience.
Working with the Massachusetts Community College Workforce Development Transformation Agenda (MCCWDTA), a consortium of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts, Treacy is searching for a way to make developmental content more successful. This summer, she and her EDC colleagues brought together community college faculty, adult basic education instructors, industry advisors, and course developers to write a set of 24 curriculum modules that link academic and industry skills.
The work was funded by MCCWDTA, which has a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to transform community college education.
The modules offer instructors a way to link academic skills to realistic scenarios in the health care, advanced manufacturing, and information technology fields. In one module, students examine how clear communication between health professionals is essential to delivering appropriate patient care. In another, students apply fractions, decimals, and percents as they analyze the finances of a small business.
“These modules are aligned to the kinds of jobs and skills that community college students need,” says Treacy.
Teaching through context
A former developmental math instructor, Treacy remembers the struggles that many of her students faced.
“Students were often surprised to learn that they needed to enroll in developmental courses before they could progress on an academic or career program,” she says. “In addition, many students placed in developmental education often did not need a whole course, but rather a way to address specific gaps.”
Faculty at Adult Basic Education programs across Massachusetts, in addition to the state’s 15 community colleges, will pilot these modules this fall. A full rollout is expected in the spring.
Many educators believe that a heavier emphasis on career training can keep students engaged and enrolled. David Coleman, dean of humanities at MassBay Community College, likens contextualization to a vendor offering free bites of food at a mall. Contextualization allows for a taste of an industry—a low-risk way to figure out if it is for them.
“One of the key things we all know is that if we don’t make it real to adult learners—if we don’t connect it to them and where they are at that moment—we’re going to lose them,” says Coleman, who spoke during a recent panel discussion at EDC sponsored by MCCWDTA. “What I like is that contextualization gives them that sample.”
Kirsten Daigneault, Coleman’s co-panelist, agrees. “We’re showing them that the light at the end of tunnel is not English 100,” says the English professor at Quinsigamond Community College. “The light at the end of the tunnel is the completion of their certificate program.” And with that certificate, comes a chance for employment.
While the modules are not a replacement for actual job-training programs, they are a first step towards making a community college education more engaging and applicable. The biggest measure of success may be whether these modules inspire students to dive into a career path that they once considered was beyond their reach.
Daigneault believes this is possible. ”Many of our students come to our programs not looking for a job,” she says. “They want a career, where they can get up and look forward to going to work every single day. They want that dream. And these modules can show them a taste of that dream.”
Originally published on October 18, 2012