A Time To Every Purpose: Integrating Occupational and Academic Education in Community Colleges and Technical Institutes

Publication September 1992

Recently there has been a shift in favor of emphasizing more general or “academic” skills over the specialized or “vocational.” Partly this has come from the business community, pressing for certain competencies it thinks necessary for a more productive workforce. Within occupational education, recent federal legislation requiring the integration of vocational and academic education has reinforced the trend. However, there has been little guidance about what such integration might be, especially for community colleges and technical institutes. To fill the gap, this monograph describes various approaches to curriculum integration at the postsecondary level and is based on a survey of practices in community colleges and technical institutes across the United States.

The results indicate a variety of approaches to integrating occupational and academic education:

  • Model 1: General education requirements

The most frequent form of integration is the requirement of general education courses for certain occupational students. In most institutions, students are required to take several such courses; typically, general education courses are not modified in any way to suit the interests of occupational students, requiring students themselves to integrate material and perspectives from the academic courses. A few institutions provide some guidance for their occupational students about which general education courses would be the most valuable, and one has developed general education objectives that are then incorporated into other courses (both vocational and academic).

  • Model 2: Applied academic courses

Another common approach to integration is the development of academic courses with applications in occupational areas, like technical writing, business math, or agricultural economics. Occasional debates about who teaches such courses reveal the underlying tension about the relative balance of occupational and academic elements. Often developed as a way of serving the needs of occupational students more precisely, applied academic courses are generally taught to occupational students only and reinforce the segregation of occupational students from others.

  • Model 3: Cross-curricular efforts: Incorporating academic skills in occupational programs

The best-known cross-curricular effort is “writing across the curriculum,” in which all instructors (including occupational faculty) are encouraged to incorporate more writing into their courses–either as a way of teaching writing or as a way of reinforcing other learning. Other similar efforts–communications across the curriculum, humanities across the technologies, and a reading across the curriculum program–have been developed at smaller numbers of institutions. While it is unclear how widely such initiatives are incorporated into occupational classes, they have the potential for incorporating more academic content into occupational programs.

  • Model 4: Incorporating academic modules in expanded occupational courses

Some occupational instructors have introduced modules based on academic disciplines–history or ethics, for example–into their occupational courses to broaden the perspectives of students. Such efforts are focused on specific courses and are more episodic and less sustained than are institution-wide efforts like Writing Across the Curriculum.

  • Model 5: Multidisciplinary courses combining academic perspectives and occupational concerns

A number of institutions have developed multidisciplinary courses, often with external funding, that take the perspectives and methods of academic disciplines and incorporate broad occupationally oriented issues. For example, some explore literature (both fiction and nonfiction) to explore themes about the role of work for individuals and society; several examine the history of technology and its effects on society; and others investigate the ethical issues surrounding work and technical change. Many of these courses are true hybrids, and almost all have been developed by occupational and academic faculty working together. Most such courses have drawn upon the humanities rather than the social sciences, perhaps because of support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Unfortunately, past experiences suggest that reliance on special funding is potentially dangerous because such courses may vanish once funding is withdrawn.

  • Model 6: Tandem and cluster courses and learning communities

Another approach has been to develop two or three (or more) complementary courses that students take simultaneously. This practice allows instructors to reinforce material from at least one other course, to present similar issues from different perspectives, to develop common examples and applications, to develop projects undertaken simultaneously in more than one course, and to rely on another course to teach necessary prerequisites; consequently, students have stronger personal relationships with other students, facilitating collaborative teaching and learning. While tandem and cluster courses need not involve vocational education, many examples include both occupational and academic courses and provide a structure which facilitates the integration of occupational and academic content.

  • Model 7: Colleges-within-colleges

Colleges-within-colleges are in many ways expanded clusters, in which students take all their courses together. Although this approach has the same potential for integration as do cluster courses and learning communities, it is also much less flexible because students must be committed to taking all their courses in a program together–often impossible, especially for older students with employment and family obligations. Colleges-within-a-college are quite rare: Within the institutions we interviewed, one college-within-a-college failed because of the inflexibility of scheduling required, while another is still in the planning stages.

  • Model 8: Remediation and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs with an occupational focus

Several colleges have developed remedial or English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to teach basic math and English, or ESL, simultaneously with introductory material in an occupational area. In theory, such approaches can provide greater motivation to students with occupational goals and may be more effective teaching strategies because they provide a context for instruction; indeed, several such programs have documented higher grades and lower dropout rates in such courses. While this approach is different from the others because it concentrates on relatively basic skills, it presents a way of responding more effectively to the surge of postsecondary students requiring remediation or ESL.

These eight approaches differ not only in their methods and content, but also in their conception of integration and in their ambitions. Some make minor modifications in existing courses, while others (especially clusters and learning communities) restructure community colleges in novel ways. Some rely on students to make the links among occupational and academic content, while others make faculty responsible for integrating content. Some continue to stress academic content, using occupational material to contextualize such learning, while others are true hybrids of academic perspectives with occupational issues. Each of them has potential benefits for students, faculty, and the coherence of postsecondary institutions, though the differences among them should be clearly recognized.

While there are many innovative approaches to curriculum integration in community colleges and technical institutes, several are quite rare, and those who have developed novel approaches report a number of barriers to integration. These include pervasive disciplinary specialization, the status difference between occupational and academic instructors, the lack of leadership supporting curriculum reform, the lack of resources for release time and planning, and the development of the community college as an archipelago of independent divisions, each serving an independent mission. However, the examples of institutions that have embraced integration efforts indicate that these barriers can be overcome with sufficient commitment from administrators and faculty working together.

A final and crucial issue is whether integrating vocational and academic education is worth the time and effort necessary. There are several a priori reasons for thinking that integration will benefit postsecondary students. Several approaches are ways of developing more student-centered curricula, which are better suited to the needs and interests of occupational students and have advantages in motivating students. Most will increase the general and academic competencies of students, preparing students for occupations in a world of changing requirements. Some integration efforts also include material related to occupational alternatives, providing a vehicle for career exploration, and others include opportunities to explore the political and moral issues that are widely cited as important components of education but often ignored.

Other benefits are indirect. Integration efforts provide natural ways for faculty to collaborate and, particularly, to break down the isolation between occupational and academic instructors. Some approaches–particularly tandem and cluster courses and learning communities–provide structures that facilitate more coherent programs, helping students avoid the “milling around” that is so common in community colleges. Finally, integration can help bridge the distinct islands of activity within the community college, providing a way of moving toward a true community of learners.

Grubb, W. N., & Kraskouskas, E. (1992, September). A time to every purpose: Integrating occupational and academic education in community colleges and technical institutes. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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