By Chris Percy
Visiting Research Fellow, University of Derby
Before COVID-19 spread across the world, it was rare for young students to participate in careers activities in a virtual format. It was standard practice for career talks to be delivered with students in person. But the virus – and subsequent lockdowns that shutdown large sections of society, including schools – changed everything. Suddenly lessons needed to take place online. Teachers were delivering classes through monitors into their pupils’ living rooms. And career talks became virtual. Thus, the pandemic afforded researchers a slim silver-lining – an opportunity to study the impact and popularity of online careers activities.
Already there is evidence suggesting virtual career talks can have benefits. Indeed, a major analysis of 7-11 year old students in England found that online interactive classroom career talks can be as effective as in-person talks. Naturally, there’s some nuance behind this headline: virtual talks have some benefits that in-person talks don’t have and vice versa. Virtual talks can cost-effectively increase the volume of provision, provide a video tour of workplaces, and engage employers from further afield and sectors poorly represented locally. However, they struggle to compete with in-person talks in terms of bringing a kind of vividness and energy to career discussions, which can be hard to replicate online.
In my view, this shows that schools should not focus on a singular method. Instead, they should take a dual approach – and mix in person and virtual elements to careers guidance. A government-funded programme of careers activities, run by Education & Employers Charity, was launched in England in September 2019. It aimed to reached tens of thousands of children in hundreds of primary schools across the country. Unfortunately, the programme was barely underway when schools were forced to close in March 2020. All career talks came to a halt.
Over the following year, schools had to adapt. Between periods of opening and closing, teachers and the operational team managing the programme began to hold virtual career talk sessions with students, as well as in person talks. Often, video conferences were used in an interactive format to ensure children could ask questions. After each type of event, teachers and students were questioned about their experiences. This provided input for a comparative evaluation.
The findings were interesting – and showed a dividing line between students and teachers. For children, reported levels of engagement were unchanged, regardless of whether the event was in person or virtual. Similarly, there was no difference between how children made decisions about their potential future career paths.
Teachers were also positive overall. Over 80% reported high or extremely high impact for each of virtual live events (n=34), pre-recorded events (n=45), or face-to-face events (n=103). Teachers did, however, express greater levels of uncertainty for remote events. Fewer teachers felt confident in reporting virtual events as having an “extremely high” impact than face-to-face events, perhaps reflecting a need to see more of these types of event in action before forming a strong view. Nonetheless, 33 out of 34 teachers who took part in virtual live events said they wanted to continue using them for ongoing career provision.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that children engage in such career guidance events differently. Some students, who were shy or disengaged at in-person events, seemed more involved at online events – drawn to the faces on the big screen. Others had the opposite reaction, favouring personal interaction with the people in front of them. Similarly, while some volunteer speakers preferred virtual environments because they reduced travel time and costs, others preferred getting out of their workplaces and into the schools.
The findings show that virtual career talks can be an effective way to help students decide their future career pathways. This gives confidence that the future direction of career advice in primary schools could be improved via a blended approach, using the strengths of each format. By combining elements of in person and virtual events, we can inspire more children to learn about the possibilities of the future. It also introduces younger students to the multi-channel world that is fast becoming the new normal. Ultimately, while in person meetings will remain important, this comparative study argues that virtual activities must not be ignored.
For more information about the OECD ‘ Observatory on Digital Technologies in career Guidance for Youth’ (ODiCY), visit: www.oecd.org/stories/odicy
About the author:
Chris Percy is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Derby and independent consultant working with such organisations as the World Bank, ILO, King’s College London, and the Royal Society. His primary research interests in the education field focus on using large datasets, econometric analysis, and financial modelling to better understand career pathways and school-to-work transitions.