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The name game

Date: Friday, October 8, 2021

What’s in a name, really? Ask this to any of Iowa’s 15 community colleges who are working on branding their work-based learning courses, and you’ll get the same answer: a heck of a lot.

A collaborative project on branding and common course numbering began two years ago, bringing together leaders from each of the community colleges to discuss the best ways to measure and promote their work-based learning programs. Although all of the institutions are committed to and offer various work-based learning opportunities, such as job shadows and internships, each school has often had their own standards for course prefixes and numbers. This variation in how things are named has caused some difficulties in showing the current and accurate status and successes of work-based learning programs as a whole.

“One of the issues we’ve had with our courses is when there are requests from legislators or other partners on how work-based learning is going,” said Chris Russell, education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “It can be difficult to track because there are so many disciplines with different prefixes and course numbers. We want to brand the work-based learning courses, so these questions are easier to monitor, and we can confidently say how many students have been affected.”

To assist with branding, the cohort of community colleges has started to implement the uniform course prefix “WBL” for their work-based learning programming. It provides a consistency that helps with collecting necessary data, guaranteeing college credit is earned for students and increasing the college’s overall capacity to provide work-based learning courses.

“This is a good idea simply because it puts us on all the same page,” said Stacy Mentzer, vice president of instruction at Iowa Central Community College. “Community colleges do so many great things for Iowa. By all of us using the same prefixes, definitions and standards, we can better show what we’re doing and what our value is to the state.”

Like many other community colleges in Iowa, work-based learning has always been a priority at Iowa Central. Mentzer reports that work-based learning and the WBL prefixes have been incorporated into their career academies that link high school career and technical education to education programs post-graduation. The WBL prefix makes it easier for students to identify where work-based learning opportunities are available during their course work, and a uniform approach across all community colleges can potentially simplify future credit transfers.

Students can enter into internships and other hands-on, work-based learning opportunities to build professional skills and further explore what career path may be best for them. These types of career exploration activities can help a student save time and money by quickly identifying if their current career path trajectory is right for them. It is a pathway for success through experience.

“It’s a chance to get a taste of how it works in the real world,” Mentzer said. “Work-based learning can increase the opportunities for students to experience different industries and tasks.”

Similarly, Indian Hills Community College has been busy with their own work-based learning objectives and implementation of the WBL prefix.

“We started with low-hanging fruit,” said Daniel Terrian, dean of career and technical education at Indian Hills. “We converted obvious courses, such as student development and administration management classes that deal with employability skills as well as internships within the health sciences career academies, to the WBL prefix.”

Terrian said that the college’s commitment to work-based learning and common course numbering and prefixes benefits not only students but also Iowa’s businesses seeking a strong workforce. Businesses can see first hand what subjects students are learning about and can work with the colleges on curriculum and what skills they are particularly looking for in entry-level workers, which is a bonus for all parties.

“Business and industry both gain from work-based learning,” he said. “The common WBL prefix shows all of the opportunities where employers can work with students. The employer then has the chance to make connections with the student during their job shadow or internship and potentially hire them after graduation.”

Work-based learning opportunities help connect students with education and training for successful careers and align with Gov. Reynolds’s Future Ready Iowa goal of having 70 percent of Iowans with education and training beyond high school by 2025.

Both Mentzer and Terrian agree that work-based learning and the WBL uniform branding initiative is worthwhile. This combined endeavor from Iowa’s community colleges will provide an efficient way to review work-based learning’s shared successes, best practices and areas that need improvement. But both understand, it takes an effort.

“This is a big task, a time-consuming one,” Mentzer said. “We started slow. We’re tackling it one thing at a time but making it a priority.”