Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Schools Turn to Digital Tools for Personalizing Career Searches

By Sean Cavanagh — January 11, 2016 9 min read
Seventh grader Mateo Smith, center, researches lyrics from his favorite songs during a session to promote career exploration and other interests at Hughes STEM High School in Cincinnati.
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What factors point students toward a particular career?

Maybe it’s a chance conversation with an adult in the working world—a mechanic, a nurse, or an architect. Or it’s the love of an academic subject and the possibility of making a living immersed in it. Or it’s a piece of guidance offered by a teacher or school counselor, while going over a lesson or a transcript.

Today, many districts are encouraging students to think about career possibilities earlier in their K-12 journeys—and they’re relying on digital platforms to guide that career exploration. Schools are using those online systems to assess student interests and personalities, then feed students, parents, and counselors information about how those inclinations might mesh with potential jobs. The platforms can give students detailed information on everything from descriptions of those occupations to employment data to a map of the academic preparation necessary to reach different careers.

In some cases, the use of the online systems begins as early as middle school—though a very general introduction to careers can start at the elementary grades—and continues through the end of high school.

The demand for online tools like Naviance, Kuder, and Career Cruising has increased as states around the country have approved new laws requiring schools to encourage career planning among secondary students and mandating more detailed academic plans leading students toward graduation.

Whether those platforms and policies succeed in sharpening or broadening students’ career ambitions is unclear. And, as with many ed-tech platforms, the flow of data required to make the programs work has raised concerns in some quarters about their ability to protect students’ privacy.

Many school officials see the tools as mechanisms to engage students in school and help them get a truer understanding of what different jobs are like—beyond the idealized images that come to them via popular culture and other means.

Job Possibilities Abound

Platforms for online career exploration “centralize [the experience] for students,” said Katherine Pastor, a counselor at Flagstaff High School in Arizona, where students use Naviance to help with that planning. Otherwise “it can be overwhelming for students. You’re a 17- or 18-year-old kid, and you go to Google—what do you type in?”

Pastor, recently named national school counselor of the year by the American School Counselor Association, said part of the platform’s appeal is its organizational power. “I have 500 students, and if I have online information in advance, it helps drive the conversation with them,” she said. For counselors, “it makes us work smarter—not harder.”

Seventh graders at Hughes STEM High sort lines from songs to create a poem for the advisory group. The exercise is intended to foster teamwork skills that could help them in jobs or college.

The online platforms used by schools to encourage students’ career exploration typically perform an assortment of other functions. In addition to introducing students to occupations, many guide students’ research into colleges, including helping them manage the flow of applications, recommendations, transcripts, and scholarship information electronically.

Those systems have established broad footprints in the United States and beyond. Naviance, a division of the education company Hobsons, has more than 10,000 clients in the United States and abroad. Kuder, which is based in Iowa, works with 30,000 sites—both schools and workforce centers—in the United States and internationally. Career Cruising, based in Toronto, works with 20,000 institutions, mostly schools, districts, and colleges in the United States and Canada.

All those platforms have tools that attempt to draw out individual students’ academic and personal interests and provide them with a guided review of career options—coupled with structured advice on the academic groundwork they will need to get jobs.

Students who log into Naviance’s site, for instance, take a series of self-assessments on their interests, personalities, and how they think they learn best—tests that typically take between 15 and 30 minutes apiece. That information is fed into the platform, which churns out details on careers that might interest them and suggested academic paths—with courses in math, science, and other subjects—necessary to get them there. That information resides in students’ accounts, accessible to them, their parents, and the counselor or other designated school official.

Naviance recently partnered with the organization Roadtrip Nation, which feeds videos into the platform featuring different professionals talking about their daily work and the path that took them there. CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien, forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, and nuclear engineer Deon Clark are among many whose posted interviews are accessible through Naviance.

The 34,000-student Cincinnati public schools began using Naviance during the 2011-12 academic year. The platform is now incorporated within a broader effort launched by the district, called My Tomorrow, which aims to ensure that all students graduate ready to pursue a career path.

Beginning in 7th grade, all students are required to meet once a week in classes known as “advisory” or “guidance” sessions, in which teachers lead them through discussions about academic and career aspirations, though the discussions can cover broader social-emotional and academic issues, too. Students bring laptops with them, which are loaded with Naviance, and take self-assessments and talk about jobs while using the platform.

Randy Gibson, a science teacher at Hughes STEM High School, leads a group of about 20 students through a 45-minute advisory session every Wednesday morning. (Some Cincinnati schools hold the sessions more often.) Gibson admits he was skeptical of the process at first.

“You’re going to get kids talking about careers that are 10 or 15 years off,” he remembers thinking. “To me, it seemed very far-fatched.”

But Gibson’s perspective changed when he saw how the self-assessments engaged students. Some were startled when their assessments suggested they might have a future in an unexpected area, like engineering or biomedicine. Others were surprised when they saw how much, or how little, different careers paid, based on labor data Naviance collects.

“It’s just getting them to think about who they are, and what their [career interests are], and that the thinking should start now,” Gibson said.

Data-Privacy Concerns

Janay Rose, a 7th grade student in Gibson’s advisory session, says the process has brought focus to her ambitions.

One of the 12-year-old’s self-assessments described her as a “present and future thinker,” which she thinks is on point. Janay said she hopes to become a math or science teacher someday. The advisory sessions have reinforced her view that she needs to excel in those subjects, and eventually get a bachelor’s degree, to achieve her goals.

“I think about the future a lot,” Janay said. “To have a dream goal, you have to do what’s expected now.”

School districts’ interest in platforms like Naviance have grown as state expectations for career planning have increased.

Florida, for instance, in 2006 required all students to complete a course in “career and education planning” by the end of middle school. Last year, the state hired Kuder on a five-year contract worth $3 million annually to provide a career-planning tool for schools.

The system, run through a Web portal called MyCareerShines, is being used in a growing number of middle and high schools, and recently began work with higher education. It will also be used in elementary schools, with the goal of giving students a light-touch introduction to careers, said Pamela Northrup, the CEO of the Innovation Institute at the University of West Florida. The institute administers MyCareerShines through a state virtual program.

Kentucky requires students to explore careers and postsecondary options by creating “individual learning plans,” and it hired Career Cruising on a contract worth about $365,000 annually to help administer that program. Career Cruising has contracts for similar work in Delaware, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

The growing number of state mandates for career and academic planning have been “absolutely essential” to schools’ use of platforms like Career Cruising, said Matt McQuillen, the company’s CEO.

While schools’ interest in having students explore careers dates back decades, technology allows districts to help students promote a more “comprehensive approach” to connecting student interests, career ambitions, postsecondary goals, and academic-planning advice, McQuillen said.

But online career exploration has taken hold as schools’ concerns about protecting students’ data privacy have grown.

Khaliah Barnes, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s student-data-privacy project, argued that the platforms should function as “privacy-enhancing technologies” and should not need to collect students’ personally identifiable information. Much of students’ data could be collected anonymously and still provide them with useful information about possible careers and college choices, said Barnes.

“Do the companies need to collect all of this information?” Barnes asked. “The answer as we see it is ‘no.’ ... At the end of the day, whose data is it anyway? It’s the student’s.”

More than 200 companies have signed a student-data-privacy pledge sponsored by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association. Naviance officials said they plan to sign the pledge but need to update their own privacy policy first. Kuder has not signed it, but a company official said the company follows many of its core principles, including not selling student information and not targeting information based on online behaviors.

Career Cruising came close to signing the pledge, and is considering doing so, McQuillen said. The company is examining whether language in the pledge that puts limitations on providers retaining student information would undermine students’ and schools’ ability to use Career Cruising and return to their data as needed.

Building in Flexibility

Technology that introduces students to career options is a good thing—particularly if it pushes them to grapple with academic planning as early as middle school, said Claus von Zastrow, the chief operating officer and director of research for Change the Equation, a nonprofit that seeks to promote learning in science, technology, engineering, and math—known as STEM fields.

Some students become intrigued by engineering, medicine, or other STEM careers well into high school, then realize “they haven’t even tackled Algebra 1,” von Zastrow noted, a gateway course that leads to more-complex math and is often taught in 9th grade.

At the same time, von Zastrow cautioned that any career-focused technology platform needs to be flexible enough to introduce students to “a broad array of potential careers,” rather than narrowing their ambitions. He pointed out that many students’ personal and academic interests—he cited quantitative ability as an example—are valuable across fields, and that industries’ needs for workers with those talents shift. Tech platforms, he said, need to account for those changes.

McQuillen said Career Cruising is calibrated to capture those nuances. It helps students understand the range of career options available to them, he said, and their interests and preferred career paths are almost certain to change as they do more research.

Exploring a career is “very much an investigative process,” McQuillen said. “We’re trying to encourage that through our system” and “support all pathways.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Personalizing the Career Search


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