The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the massive education inequalities in our society — high among them, a lack of equitable access to technology. It is critical that students have opportunities to build the skills they need for academic and workplace success, and now more than ever we recognize a need for high-quality, digital work-based experiences. During a panel discussion at the ASU+GSV Summit on August 9, innovative leaders in education outlined the steps they took during the pandemic to help students realize their occupational identities and discover what motivates them and drives their passions in a time that felt increasingly disconnected across the education space.
The illuminating discussion included insights from three power players driving change in education: Helen Russell, Founder & Executive Director of Apprentice Learning; Nina Pande, Executive Director of Skills for Rhode Island’s Future; and Jewyl Alderson Clarke, Integrated Curriculum Coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education. These leaders described the new and/or updated programs they rolled out during the pandemic and the respective challenges and successes observed from each.
Providing equitable access to technology: The first major obstacle was getting the proper technology in the homes of students to facilitate these programs. Helen of Apprentice Learning, a career education program for middle school students across underserved schools in Boston, spoke about the need to provide tools like laptops, ring lights, and headsets to help students feel empowered. Next was finding the right companies to work with the students. The virtual setting, Helen said, actually allowed them to utilize partners they wouldn’t ordinarily work with because they aren’t in their immediate geographic area — like a large manufacturing company that makes parts for oil rigs in the Gulf Coast. Providing ample options to cater to students’ unique interests and skills was a great way to keep students engaged in the program.
Connecting students with opportunities that match their interests: Nina Pande, Executive Director of Skills for Rhode Island’s Future — a nonprofit organization that breaks down barriers to economic opportunity by connecting high school students and adults to meaningful job opportunities that match their interests and abilities — described a need to overcome “Zoom fatigue” and ensure that students consistently felt engaged while exploring potential career paths. The question Nina sought to answer was: “How do you replicate a work environment virtually so that it makes sense, and so that students can still learn some of those tangential skills of engagement with adults?” To address this, they provided Google Chromebooks to students and made sure that in addition to being outfitted with the necessary technology, which she noted was not in itself enough to meet workplace needs, there was a safe space in their homes to have these discussions. They also had to ensure that their technology was properly integrated with platforms used by their employer partners, which was an ongoing challenge. “We literally were reinventing ourselves every day on the fly to address new challenges,” she said.
Best practices for students’ interaction with employers: Nina expressed her concern about persisting disparities in access to technology between students in affluent vs. low-income areas. Closing that gap is critical, she says, in ensuring equitable access to opportunities. This should be a primary focus for any educators or school districts that want to implement work-based learning programs.
Jewyl Alderson Clarke, Integrated Curriculum Coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education, pointed to a unique challenge when having students interact with employers: privacy. “When we created synchronous opportunities for students to interact with industry, because it drew students from multiple districts, and they were mixed with adults from industry — now we have to have permission slips signed by their parents, to enable them to actually be interactive,” Jewyl explained. Her team worked with the County Office of Education, who helped to create digital permission slips to ensure the students would have a fully rounded digital experience in meeting with leaders from various organizations.
The implementation was less than perfect at first as they ran into a few technical snafus, which helped them to understand the real needs of both the students and employers from a technological standpoint. Jewyl’s team purchased new video equipment and went out and recorded the necessary information from employers, eliminating the need for permission slips and providing the students with a less interactive — but still comprehensive — view of the industries they were interested in learning about. While it’s not the “level of work-based learning that we really want to see,” as Jewyl states, she still emphasized the value of those entry-level experiences — even if they’re not the most ideal.
Recruiting and retaining employers: In addition to ensuring students have access to technology-enabled work-based learning, there’s also the challenge of building relationships and engaging employers to get involved in these programs. One way Jewyl found success was an “Essential Skills” toolkit they created with their employer partners, with digital rubrics and teacher’s guides to make sure that all involved are equipped with the physical and social tools they need.
As Julie noted toward the end of the session, remote jobs are likely to persist in a post-pandemic world — so these unique programs, while deviating from past formats, set students up for success in navigating virtual work environments after they finish their education, and can provide a baseline level of education in how to conduct themselves and ask questions in professional settings.
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