Virtual Reality and Trends in K12 Career Exploration

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It’s never too early to start planning for your career. K12 schools are on the forefront of preparing the next generation of workers in every industry. But helping students understand their career opportunities and pathways is a huge challenge for the hardworking professionals in these schools. We call this process career exploration (CE).

While many students (and educators) still think that the “traditional” four-year college pathway is the main (or even only) way to secure a successful career, attitudes are changing. Counselors and CTE instructors are showing students (and parents) that lucrative, non-college career pathways are viable options. Jobs in the skilled trades (and a variety of other vital roles) provide upward mobility and strong earning potential — without the immense debt that many college degrees can carry.

Spreading this message is an uphill battle, which is where virtual reality (VR) career exploration comes in. We brought together an amazing panel, which included two K12 instructors who use Transfr in their schools (Candy Parker, Business Teacher at Granite City School District and Julie Godfrey, Career Tech Director Shelby County Schools) and Superintendent Scott Feder for a robust conversation about this vital topic. Read on to dig into the most important highlights!

Challenges in career exploration for K12 schools

The US Department of Education estimates that 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. The goal of CE is to drive student interest in career education before they drop out. Helping a student find a path to graduation and a well-paying job before they lose faith in the educational system will give them a better future with upward mobility and hopefully a stronger sense of purpose and satisfaction in life.

So what challenges are we looking to overcome to make this better future happen? For starters, while K12 career exploration is mandated by most state Departments of Education and school districts see great value in offering a multifaceted CE program, staying current and securing the resources to deliver a truly valuable CE curriculum isn’t always feasible or possible for a district to do on its own.

Additionally, students seldom understand the wide array of career opportunities available today. While young people have always sought fame as celebrities, modern social media has made the path of glitz and glamor seem much more accessible than it truly is. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that current CE solutions offer little student engagement that could dissuade them from this unlikely path. These offerings mainly focus on preparing students for a four-year college, so many students see no relevance.

“We’re really good at college,” says Scott. “Our counselors are good at college, parents want college. But when we say that, that’s not going to work out for every student. What I’m looking for is, how can we get all students, especially career-bound students, to see themselves as potential success stories?”

Unfortunately, school counselors receive limited training, resources, and information to provide truly effective CE and are ill-equipped to educate students about modern career pathways.
With the large caseloads counselors have little time to support students with career exploration and course selection, focusing instead on student mental health (which is vital!) and college preparation.

However, some K12 schools are changing this script. VR career exploration plus a suite of support services is helping change minds about non-college career paths.

How K12 schools are using VR for career exploration

Since joining Transfr, I’ve interviewed over a hundred school superintendents, assistant superintendents, school counselors, principals and students asking what a comprehensive career exploration program would look like. The overarching answers I got were that it should have a high volume of occupations to explore, be easy to navigate, and look visually appealing. It also needs to show students a job’s salary and skills as well as the pathway to get there. Finally, it should really give them a chance to explore.

“I teach a career exploration class for 9th-12th grades,” says Candy. “We use career interest assessments at the beginning and end of the semester. We also reach out to incoming 8th graders using the VR headsets. The students get to see which careers they like and a lot of them decide to sign up for vocational classes. They love the headsets.”

VR can be part of a comprehensive approach to CE that presents students with a wide range of career options and engaging activities, including real-world experiences and scenarios. Bringing in professionals from an array of different careers can be an important part of a VR-supported CE program, helping students learn more about jobs they may have gotten a taste of in a simulation:

“Our goal is just to plant as many seeds as possible for career exploration,” says Julie. “Students just don’t know what they don’t know. We’ve really concentrated on bringing industry in to expand their understanding of opportunities in a given setting. In a hospital, typically, they might think of a surgeon, radiologist, etc. But by having industry come in and talk about the different jobs that they have, I think those things have helped.”

Shifting ideas about non-degree career pathways

Every student needs a Career and Academic Plan. This plan serves as a strategic roadmap, outlining an individual’s goals and objectives for their educational and professional development. For decades, most students’ plans have focused primarily on college. Student (and parent and educator) ideas on what a “good” career looks like are changing slowly and now more schools and students are designing Career and Academic Plans that include CTE training for skilled trades and other occupations, outside of the college track.

“VR has been a great tool for our kids because they only know what they know,” Candy explains regarding career choices. “Some of them just think they’re gonna be a teacher, a nurse, you know, things like that because that’s all they’ve ever known. But Transfr has really opened their eyes. We go through all sixteen career clusters.”

Connecting student interests, VR career exploration, and old-fashioned career guidance from an actual human being can help create robust Career and Academic Plans that really work for students and assist them in getting on career pathways towards jobs with upward mobility.

“Our career coaches help students work on a four-year plan,” says Julie. “VR has been great. Students will talk about which sims they loved or something they didn’t like. It’s been enlightening for us to know that VR is really useful.”

Candy echoed those sentiments regarding VR career exploration in the classroom:

“It’s been great. Nothing but positive. We love it.”

Want to delve into VR career exploration?

Ross Kasun
Ross Kasun
Dr. Ross Kasun is a Product and Strategy Specialist for Career Exploration at Transfr. Prior to joining Transfr, he served as superintendent for school districts in New Jersey for 17 years and was awarded 2023 Mercer County Superintendent of the Year and 2017 New Jersey Superintendent of the Year. In March 2018, Dr. Kasun shared his thoughts about education in a TEDx Talk. Dr. Kasun was selected by the White House to attend the Future Ready Summit in Washington, D.C. for his efforts to infuse technology into daily practice.