Wesleyan University’s MOOC Approach to Career Counseling

If a student has a specific goal in mind, something they’re passionate about and actively working toward, that they will be more likely to succeed. What we see on the ground, however, is that students tend to fall into career planning traps.

How can career services offices use distance learning technology to help students avoid those traps?

We brought Dr. Sharon Belden Castonguay, Director of Wesleyan University’s Gordon Career Center, on to the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the importance of philosophical career planning in terms of keeping students motivated toward degree completion, and how she’s hoping to scale this understanding with her Career Counseling MOOC at Wesleyan.

Traps in Career Planning

What traps do students fall into when planning their careers?

One is vividness bias. These are students who come in saying that they know exactly what they want to do. For instance, they might say they want to become a doctor or a lawyer, but when you start asking them why they’ve chosen those fields, it’s because those are the careers they’ve heard of or their parents think those are the only acceptable professions. These students are acting on the desires of others, and
they don’t necessarily have the intrinsic motivation to stick it out.

The other trap is choice paralysis. These students feel like they have so many options available to them they can’t possibly sort through them all. In a liberal arts environment, we see that pretty frequently. So helping them through that decision making process and develop their narrative around the skills and interests they’ve developed is a big part of the career center’s role.

“Our primary mission,” Sharon said, “is to train students to manage their careers over a lifetime.”
Consequently, Sharon and her team created a career development MOOC to give learners the mental framework to question their decisions and continually adjust their goals and perspectives. They should come out being able to ask themselves is this the right thing for me today, and what might be the right thing for me tomorrow and into the future.

Developing the Career Coaching MOOC

“This course is our grand experiment to see if we can scale some of the material
that deals with how student’s identities are affecting their decision making,” Sharon told us.

She sees the MOOC as a flipped classroom for career advising. The course doesn’t replace traditional career advice, but it elevates the conversation helping students develop the habits of mind necessary to manage their careers in a job market that’s going to change on them again and again over the course of their working lives.

In terms of the content, the course starts out by introducing concepts like vividness bias
and choice paralysis, and it takes a look at how cultural scripts affect the ways people
define success.

“We then go into talking about identity and how identity consonance and dissonance can affect how one experiences both college and the workplace,” Sharon said.

The students look at the importance of having a growth mindset and learning how to learn. Sharon also encourages learners to question whether they think it’s more important to be passionate about something or to be good at it.

She ends by introducing design thinking as a rubric to begin thinking about next steps, and she provides specific advice about developing one’s narrative and reaching out to people in possible fields of interest.

Wesleyan University’s Coursera Partnership

Wesleyan has been working with Coursera since 2013 and currently offers 25
live courses on that platform.

“I originally spoke to them about my idea probably about a year and a half ago now,” Sharon said.

They told her they thought there was a market for content that would help people in their twenties who were unhappy with their jobs or their career path.

“I really saw those young adults as really having the same problem as we were
seeing with college students,” Sharon told us. “I said that I could create a course that would be equally valuable for an 18-year-old thinking about choosing a major or a 28-year-old who was unhappy with those choices.”

The result was the Career Decisions Course.

The Future of Career Coaching MOOCs

The initial goal of the project was to scale some programming that was already working well on the ground with small numbers of students. “We have now many schools reaching out to us because they’re interested in having online content as a way of scaling their services,” Sharon said, “but they aren’t quite sure how to go about it.”

A lot of schools have been putting their bread-and-butter-content online, like tips on writing resumes or answering tricky interview questions, but this course is fundamentally different and much harder to create from scratch.

“We are actively talking to schools who want to partner with us, who might want to use the course for their own students,” Sharon told us.

Student Feedback on the Career Planning MOOC

For their course assignments, students write short, 500-word reflection papers based not only on the lecture and animation content of the course but also on some specific exercises.

For instance, they have to do a life history interview in which someone interviews them about their lives. Then they write a reflection paper picking apart that

“I found that the essays demonstrate very clearly that students are getting a lot of insight from that content about how their families, their peers, their cultural influences, and their identities have been affecting their decision making,” Sharon said.

Students are commenting within those reflection papers positively about their experience with the course.

“I’m also gratified that Career Decisions has the second highest student rating out of all of Wesleyan’s offerings,” Sharon told us. “It’s got a 4.9 out of 5 course rating right now.”

Career Coaching Advice for Other Institutions

“Doubling down on quick fix coaching might solve your scale problem today, but you’d better beef up your alumni services as well,” Sharon told us.

In the increasingly competitive environment that is modern higher education, helping students make good choices from the outset and making them feel supported by the
university in doing so is an excellent value proposition.

“But we’ve got to get creative about how we can help learners understand themselves and their decisions, and to do it at scale,” Sharon said. “That’s not an easy order, but as current development professionals we have to try. We have an obligation to try.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Sharon Castonguay from Wesleyan University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.