Back in December 2018, the DfE announced two winners of a £300,000 funding pot open for digital IAG tools that would help young people make more informed choices about their University choice both in regard to provider and subject. Now, in April 2019, both of the tools have launched.
Offering IAG through digital platforms to young people has a mixed track record (we’ll always have the memory of Plotr) but practitioners know they can be a fundamental resource to use with your client base.
The two apps take different approaches to how they inform and advise their users with the Higher Education data now available. It’s worth saying that both platforms are (at the time of writing) still in beta testing so improvements in design, layout and usability will be ongoing and any judgments should be made with that in mind. The first app, ThinkUni is described as a “personalised digital assistant’ bringing together data on universities, courses and financial outcomes that are easy to explore and compare” and is from a team that has a good track record in offering social mobility enhancing schemes through the Brilliant Club. The current site looks fairly basic with text drop down boxes asking users on their preferences on University study (city or campus, course reputation or earnings outcomes etc).
On first impressions, I found there isn’t much to be impressed with here. The very first question assumes that the user knows what subject they want to study so relies on a baseline that simply isn’t there for a lot of young people and then site assumes that the user will be studying A Levels so widening participation also doesn’t seem to be a concern (I’m sure that other Level 3 qualifications will be incorporated into the site at some point but soft launching without them isn’t a good look). The “digital assistant” selling point is also over played with the course suggestion results being much the same as would result from a search using advanced filters on the UCAS search facility. If the user already knows their views on subject, location, course type etc. to input, then why not just go or be directed to the source site? Currently, the “assistant” part of ThinkUni seems extremely inactive.
The other competition winner comes from The Profs, a team who have previously built a Professional Tutor finding platform, and is a much more interactive looking experience. “The Way Up” games tasks users to pick an avatar and make choices on learning and earning routes at each step of their journey.
This approach develops a greater sense of ownership in the process and the results as the user is able to modify the route to reflect their own interests while still following the linear structure of the game. The interface isn’t the most aesthetically astounding you’ll see and I also thought that some of the presented LMI was easy to miss on-screen but, once you notice it, the format does incorporate a significant amount of LMI data into each stage. I also think that the biggest learning gain for young people using the platform might not be regarding their career choice or route but the realistic balance to be found when budgeting monthly in-comings and outgoings.
As a format for simulated learning, turn based, point and click games were also used back in the days of late 2000s Aimhigher University visits when one of the regular activities was a web-based game that allowed secondary school students to take control of a new University student avatar and make choices for their study, work and social life. The implications of those choices displayed in a character health chart which valued balance above partying too hard or studying too much. The user was able to see the realistic choices on offer and the consequences of those choices and reflect on how they would react in that possible environment. So the format isn’t new but the inclusion of the LMI and HE data is.
The “Way Up Game” is designed to have the widest possible capture point so that it includes career routes and choice options for lots of young people. At the more specific and detailed end of the simulation market, flight and even truck driving simulations are PC games that can require high level computers to run with the amount of detail their fan base demands while still offering career learning opportunities. More accessible versions of this format can be found in sector skills funded apps such as Construction Manager from the CiTB. Allowing users to take charge of a construction business, hire employees, pitch for contracts and then take on those jobs all presented within a SIMS type graphical interface make for an engaging career learning experience. Place these alongside digital diagnostic tools and digital communication tool there is a rich variety of online CEIAG resource.
Research evidence on the value of digital and online IAG experiences offers some guidance to both of the creative teams on what could help their products have the impact they are looking for with users.
Two excellent summaries of research in this area are the CEC What Works edition: “Careers Websites” and this recent webinar from Tristram Hooley “Approaches to online guidance”
Neither of the two apps offer any links to expanding social networks or sharing results so building users social capital does not seem to be on the agenda.
The CEC document references research from Dunwall et al (2014) which evaluated the MeTycoon careers game and found that
87% of participants said playing the game had given them new career ideas and 66% said they had shared or discussed the game with friends.
The format of “The Way Up Game” more closely matches MeTycoon so those developers will be hoping for that level of impact with their users. The ThinkUni platform perhaps gains research backing with its slight nod towards the user involving CEIAG professionals in the findings from using the site. The CEC summary states:
The use of careers websites should be integrated into schools’ careers education provision, and may be more effective for pupils when use, at least initially, is mediated and supported by careers and education professionals.
Once the user has contemplated their suggestions, the final screen ThinkUni suggests
This is only a very slight prompt though. The user is not asked, for example, if they wish to email their results to a named individual which could be a CEIAG professional or school tutor so perhaps both developers would benefit from designing accompanying session plans that could enable teachers/CEIAG practitioners to use the apps in group sessions and build upon the learning experiences of the young people in the room. A further step could even be to incorporate “nudge” techniques by communicating to both user and professional so conversations could occur to see if further research tasks have been undertaken by the user. Neither of the platforms require the involvement of CEIAG professionals in the learning journey of the user.
This failure to build in involvement of practitioners places both of the apps well behind more detailed digital offers such as Start Profile. This program combines both personalisation lead by the user lead and exploration of career routes with LMI drawn from LMI for all and the ability for practitioner oversight and involvement. As this ICEGS evaluation of Start concludes
Start builds on much of what the existing evidence base tells us about the efficacy of online products. It brings together information and advice for a young person and allows them to personalise their learning journey. It offers a blended learning technology in which the school can connect the online learning to classroom based career learning. It builds on longstanding career assessment practices by building a personal profile of work preferences, qualities, skills and interests and using this to match users to jobs and learning opportunities based on their suitability and how available those jobs are in the labour market.
Differences do remain though between Start Profile and these two new apps in their data sources. LMI for All utilises a range of sources (detailed on page 10 here) but they (and so Start Profile) do not seem to include data from the Office for Students on HE access, continuation, attainment and progression.
By side-stepping CEIAG professionals both apps purely user focussed offers but this could still offer positive impact. The CEC Moments of Choice research concluded that young people desire the presentation of careers data that:
and it would be fair to conclude that both apps achieve at least 7 of those requirements to varying degrees. Young people can access the data in a method that is convient to them, when they require it, be safe in the knowledge that it is using reliable sources, receive suggested future actions and be able to personalise it. Only the involvment of influencers is missing.
These formats for offering HE focused CEIAG learning are also available in other countries. For example, Australia has Campus Quest which offers users two games, Campus Quest based on a student attending a University campus and E-Study Quest based on a student studying from home.
The graphical interface is slightly more interesting than both of the new UK apps but in particular the 3D presentation is more eye-catching than “The Way Up” game.
For the DfE to offer funding, policy holders must hope that any resulting resources will add value to the marketplace of existing CEIAG digital products either through successfully filing a niche or building upon existing products. For me, currently the two apps (still at testing stage remember) do neither and they also choose to set aside a proportion of the research in this area. It may be more politically satisfying for the DfE to achieve a new CEIAG platform through this process but questions should be asked whether a more worthy platform could have been achieved through the adaption of existing products and how any resulting products are able to fit into, adapt and shape for the positive the current CEIAG landscape supporting young people.