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The Benefits of Context-Based Education

By Reyna Gobel

In Arizona, colleges work with industry to help students speak the language of work.

Community colleges have a reputation for outfitting students with the technical skills required to compete in the workforce. But for students, sometimes it’s the soft skills — communicating and critical thinking — that are the catalyst for career advancement.

At the Maricopa Corporate College, part of the Maricopa County Community Colleges, in Arizona, educators partner with local businesses to create custom workforce-development programs, from corporate training to recruitment to retention planning.

In addition to technical skills training, the college offers access to context-based language programs and other resources tailored to the needs of specific employers. For instance, students might enroll in a course that teaches language skills specific to a particular profession or employer.

Administrators say the courses help students — many of whom have the general knowledge but need more specific training — acquire the skills to win competitive employment and advance their careers.

How does context-based learning work? An account representative meets with and recruits local businesses to participate in the program. Employers discuss skills gaps among current employees and take part in workplace assessments. The account representative takes that information back to the college’s dedicated solutions team responsible for identifying areas within the existing curriculum that could be changed or altered to meet the needs of the employer. Instructors then create new materials based on those evaluations. The account executive reaches out to subject-matter experts, including full-time and adjunct faculty, to determine which experts are qualified to teach the new skills.

Courses are offered in both 20-hour and 50-hour formats and usually enroll 15 to 25 students at a time. Classes generally meet once or twice a week for one to three hours. Weekly and biweekly formats give students time to collaborate between sessions. Students take assessments at the beginning and the end of each course, and an employer-specific certificate is awarded to those who complete the course.

What’s the benefit to the college? Administrators say students emerge from the program empowered and are often ready to pursue progressively more advanced forms of higher education. A student might express interest in developing language skills, earning a GED or enrolling in an associate degree program, explains Lee DeLuca, Maricopa Corporate College corporate account executive. DeLuca says corporate training programs are a good low-pressure way to get students interested in pursuing more ambitious academic goals.

Looking to launch a custom corporate training program at your college? DeLuca offers these tips for other community colleges and districts to consider: 

  1. Go with noncredit courses. For training purposes, noncredit courses make the most sense. Any customization of for-credit programs will likely require district approval, and that’s not always easy to get.
  2. Language training is key. Just because they have the technical skills required to do their jobs, that doesn’t mean your students know how to communicate in the field. Consider language skills as part of your overall assessment.
  3. Remember, each business is an individual entity, with its own set of needs. When considering instructors for these context-based programs, make sure you tap professionals who have personal experience addressing the issues you mean to teach.
  4. Look beyond the college for help. For instance, the Maricopa Corporate College contracts with high school language teachers who have master’s degrees to serve as adjunct professors. Don’t be afraid to expand your resource base.


Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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