PHOENIX – The "learning community” has been one of the more trendy concepts at this week’s American Association of Community Colleges annual convention. Though some institutions view learning communities differently, most define them as groups of courses, culled from many disciplines, organized around a central theme.
Two representatives from San Juan College -- in Farmington, New Mexico, near the “Four Corners” region – shared some of the success stories of a variation they have deemed “embedded instruction .” In one of the models offered at San Juan, students enrolled in workforce training courses also have the ability to complete their required English courses in a paired and team-taught environment.
Andi Penner, instructional designer, said the program has proved an effective match for both the English and career education instructors. English instructors, she noted, are not always attuned to the needs of those in workforce instruction; similarly, those in fields like automotive technology do not always appreciate the benefit of writing instruction.
Prior to the introduction of this program, professors at the institution had noted anecdotally that poor student performance in a general education course like English tended to be indicator of similarly substandard performance in a skill-specific area.
“I have students tell me all the time, ‘I’m bad at English, but I’m great in my field,’ ” said Karla Hackman, English instructor. “But then, I have their automotive instructor tell me that the ones who are failing English are also failing their automotive course.”
Yet another obstacle, Penner noted, was that most students who leave these career-oriented programs prior to completing an associate degree or another work credential are likely not to have completed any English instruction. She added that these short-term job seekers, more eager for employment than a credential, often do not see the value of English courses.
In this environment, with poor retention and graduation figures, San Juan began offering these paired English and workforce instruction courses two years ago – though it has had other “learning communities” for about 8 years. Unique to this program is that the English instructors actually come to the shops, labs and workplaces of these career education students to teach. Penner even joked about wearing a hardhat and goggles on a few of her trips to one course about natural gas compression.
Those at San Juan argue that these students, many of whom would not name English as one of their favorite subjects, are more engaged in this hands-on environment. Though students logistically take these as two separate courses – earning credits for both – they are taught in an interwoven fashion. Penner noted that some prefer the English instruction to come before the technical instruction and some after. Others even switch back and forth during the course of the class period.
The college’s School of Energy  embeds this type of English instruction within its courses for petroleum tech/lease operators, natural gas compression, and industrial processor operators. The college’s School of Trades and Technology  embeds it within its courses for automotive and diesel technology.
Instead of catering English instruction to these types of students – this is not, say, “English for mechanics” – the courses are customized to use the lexicon and background material of these professions in written assignments. Hackman, for example, recalled assigning her automotive students to compose a work order for the parts and service necessary for a job they were doing in their mechanical class. Both instructors, she said, often graded these assignments together and learned a great deal about their students in the process.
“Knowing how to write about something improves your understanding of it,” Hackman said. “Some [workforce education] instructors can tell when their students don’t understand a concept because they find through these assignments that they fully write about it.”
As San Juan has only been offering this program for four semesters, there is little data to track its impact on students. Still, Penner said preliminary data indicate that there is a higher course completion rate in both English and the other workforce courses among these students and that their semester-to-semester retention rates are higher. Also, among automotive students, she noted that more students are enrolling in English courses than had been prior to the introduction of the program.
Penner argues that as more employers make explicit their expectation that prospective employees earn degrees, more students will see the value of finishing general education courses like English. BP, for example, insists that its entry level works have at least a two-year degree. Those who wish to work without one can only be contract employees.
Despite these early signs of success, Penner and Hackman both acknowledge the program still faces a number of challenges. Penner noted that most students in these workforce instruction courses are used to collaborating in hands-on and technical ways but find the concept of academic collaboration “foreign.” As a result, she said, instructors sometimes have problems with “classroom management” in this environment, teaching English perhaps while in an automotive shop.
In addition, Penner noted that sometimes instructors from the different disciplines have differing expectations of the same students. She noted one instance where a workforce instructor was harsher on his students’ written assignments than was the English instructor. Some of these same instructors, she also noted, prefer more segregated times for their instruction, taking away from the embedded intent of the pairing.
Ultimately, however, Penner said that most instructors were beginning to appreciate the idea. Also, she said those critics who worried whether English skills learned in this environment would transfer to other environments have begun to believe.
Those in the career education fields at San Juan offered Penner the following praise for the goal of this program, “We just want to make them shiny when they get out there on the job market.”