An analytical approach to edtech in HE careers services

Higher education institutions’ career and employability services are evolving from bounded, standalone services towards being members of ‘connected communities’, pursuing projects in ‘coordinated collaboration’ with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders.

This has required a shift in career and employability service priorities from the traditional intensive individual career counselling and guidance towards efforts to work at greater scale with cohorts, such as contributing to the curriculum or delivering large-scale career education programmes and services that work alongside it.

The paucity of support material freely available online and the consistent narrative of ease of use do not assuage concerns about appropriate access to and proficient use of these tools by career practitioners, other university staff, employers and students.

The spectre of the white elephant of digital tools looms large and is presented in this context as a hyper-modern, elegant solution to problems encountered by practitioners, students and employers. This is especially true for the rapid adoption or expansion of digital technology in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Careers services in the digital university

There is a growing ecosystem of career and employability edtech providers, with several dominant platforms offering comprehensive suites of products alongside numerous smaller niche providers.

The ecosystem can be viewed as an example of wider conversations around the emergence of the ‘digital university’. Our focus brings together conversations about the development of the digital university with conversations in the field of career guidance about the development of digital tools.

We looked at four digital tools which are career development-oriented solutions which purport to aid or in some cases replace the delivery of careers services in universities. The aim was to shed light on the nature of the contemporary dynamic between technology and higher education in the context of careers and employability support.

We are also interested in the relations between technology solutions and their marketing texts through examination of the discourses that are at play in the promotional materials of products and services that align with our identified typologies.

Why a critical approach is necessary

Our findings suggest that careers services edtech promises to enhance, rather than replace, the work of career development practitioners. However, we note that the marketing materials of these tools play a part in increasing anxieties and insecurities that careers services have about their resourcing, influence and impact and tend to perpetuate rather than challenge common ontological assumptions about 21st century careers.

Recent changes such as using big data, engaging with external edtech firms and automating aspects of delivery are not just practical changes driven by a desire to innovate delivery but are representative of how power structures operate both externally and internally to universities.

This should give us concern that the involvement of edtech in careers services does not offer straightforward benefits for staff or students. It is easy to overlook that digital technologies are often created for profit and so the models and schemes that edtech companies employ are in turn affected by this remit.

These strategies often involve presenting ontological conclusions about the identities of professionals and students as well as the nature of career itself. This means that careers services are not merely picking up a product off a shelf but ending up entwined in the ontological conclusions that edtech are engaging in.

This does not necessitate higher education professionals refusing to use them or looking to remove technology from their practice, but all of the above discussion shows the need for critically informed conversations about the place and value of edtech in higher education careers work.

There is a danger that practice can become hyperactive and about change just for the sake of becoming more digital. We have aimed to analyse and critique the relationship between university careers services and edtech in order to develop new insights into the relationship between technology and career development. This can also serve to problematise wider concerns such as the place of edtech in the nature and purposes of higher education.

For example, CareerHub as a platform can be seen to frame how careers services measure success. With its focus on quantitative data, measuring attendance at events, appointments, number of views of vacancies, etc, it encourages careers services to think of success in the same terms as they use the platform. The technology ends up framing what quality looks like and how it is assessed.

CareerHub doesn’t force evaluation to happen in a certain way, but its efficiency (recording quantities of interactions) inevitably encourages a particular way of thinking.

The need to engage with edtech

Our analysis has allowed us to see changes in higher education career development delivery from a sociological perspective, considering the potential of careers services delivery to be enhanced and challenged by digital tools, rather than just by embracing them without deep engagement with their implications for career development relationships and pedagogic interactions.

We urge careers professionals to activate their own agency in their interaction with digital tools by consciously selecting, adapting and integrating edtech into their practice.

Elizabeth Knight is a research fellow at the Centre for International Research on Education Systems at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University, Australia, and is a professional career development practitioner and researches equity of access to and outcomes of tertiary education. Tom Staunton lectures in career development with the International Centre for Guidance Studies, based at the University of Derby, United Kingdom, where he has a particular interest in how digital technology is changing individuals’ careers and how career support is offered. Michael Healy is head of career development and employability at Career Ahead, where he leads the design and delivery of career development practitioner training and professional development programmes.