Career assessments have formed an integral component of the guidance practice in young adult education. Their popularity and frequent use have coincided with an added focus on career development and exploration. Combined with the advances in technology and communication, these assessments have taken residence on the internet across a multitude of formats. Personality tests, career interest surveys and job skill inventories have all developed with the aim of improving decision-making skills and expanding the exploration of career development. However, this rapid preference towards online career assessment comes with disadvantages as well as potential benefits. Utilized and administered incorrectly, these forms of online assessment can have lasting negative consequences for young adults beginning their journey through career development.
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Early studies of psychometric testing in guidance can be found in the United Kingdom through Allen and Smith (1932) and Hunt and Smith (1944). Within these studies, students who sat psychometric tests were compared with those only in receipt of traditional guidance. The studies showed that those who sat the tests had more positive outcomes, but this was measured by ‘labour market outcomes such as longer job tenure’ (Armstrong, 1998). In the United States, Oliver and Spokane (1988) studied the relative effects of guidance interventions such as psychometric testing and found that while having an overall positive effect, individual career guidance sessions, interpreting the results of these tests, were far more beneficial to the client. This study in particular highlights the responsibility of appropriate feedback and guided interpretation of career assessment results. As these tests move towards an online format, serious questions must be raised regarding the responsibility of the administrator in providing guided results interpretation.
The Benefits and Advantages of Online Career Assessment
The benefits of career assessment can be experienced in individual or group guidance practices. In addition to these benefits, the presence of digital and online career assessments can also add great value to any career guidance counsellor. One of the most noticeable positives to online career assessment is related to speed. Online career assessments offer an advantage over traditional assessment by the way of required completion time. Many online forms of assessment take much less time to complete (Prince et al. 2003) which can be an attraction over traditional methods. Complementing this, online assessment can collect data rapidly and ensure equally prompt communication of results to the test takers (Naglieri et al. 2004). This swiftness and promptitude can benefit both the counsellor and the client (who may require immediate findings and interventions) and can certainly expand and enhance service delivery (Osborn et al. 2014).
Another point favouring the benefits of online career assessment is regarding cost. Along with being less expensive to carry out, online career assessments can be less expensive to develop (Prince et al. 2003), offering career guidance professionals the opportunity to create their own forms of online assessment at relatively little cost (In some cases there is no cost at all e.g. Google Forms). Compared with traditional pen-and-paper methods, costs associated with printing are not incurred, thus offering an attraction to all parties (Naglieri et al. 2004).
In broad terms, online career assessments offer improvements in accessibility and convenience. Test scores can be saved easily with minimal effort and can also be retrieved easily in the future by a career guidance professional (Kraus et al. 2010). When compared to traditional methods of storage (e.g. the filing cabinet), the author found this to be an especially significant benefit in the career guidance practice. In a school scenario, students may have completed assessments in many or any of the years of attendance. Accessing the results of these assessments can take considerable time and effort when the use of a filing cabinet is involved and without rigid record-keeping procedures, these results can often be lost or misplaced. Online career assessments offer the function of delivering results to the clients’ own personal email address which can be convenient to those requesting immediate results.
While speed, cost and convenience are all worthwhile advantages, the author found that online career assessments can have direct benefits to counselling. Online assessments can highlight the need for counselling assistance (Sampson et al. 2004). In a school guidance context, rapid findings in career interest surveys and personality tests, can indicate the need for an immediate intervention which may involve a one-to-one counselling session. A student may recognise a strength or preference towards a career sector and realise that they do not meet the minimum subject requirements for relevant courses. An intervention can be staged at this point where the counsellor and student identify alternative pathways or a change in subject choices.
When evaluating the effectiveness of John Holland’s Self-Directed Search (1970), the following benefits were outlined. Clients experienced an increase in the number of career options they considered, an increase in career satisfaction and an increase in self-understanding (Prince & Heiser, 2000). When considering the effectiveness of online career assessment, including advanced expansions of Holland’s Self-Directed Search (CareersPortal: Career Interests Profiler) these three increases have certainly been upheld and even improved. The author has found that in a school career guidance context, students have experienced enhancements in knowledge of options, self-knowledge and decision making, thus supporting the potential benefits mentioned in this paper.
Limitations, Problems and Ethical Issues
‘Application of computers to the assessment and treatment of individuals has, by its very effectiveness and efficiency, the potential to gravely violate human rights through both poor design and improper use’ – Harvey and Carlson (2003).
Although online career assessment has its clear advantages in speed, cost and convenience, there are clear limitations and ethical problems that exist also. Guidance professionals have a responsibility to be aware of these disadvantages especially when working with impressionable young adults.
One of the most popular concerns regarding online assessment, relates to confidentiality and security. In any online test scenario, personal information and results are at risk of hacking and digital theft. While theft can exist in traditional record-keeping methods (filing cabinet), theft of digital information can be carried out while leaving little or no trace of a breach (Barack, 2003). Confidentiality is essential for maintaining accuracy in assessment (Harvey and Carlson, 2003) and breaches in security can undermine the trust developed between clients and counsellors. Confidentiality is also at risk when the test taker has no way to follow their results and trace their use after a test is complete (Barack, 2003). In certain instances, results and personal information can be used for commercial purposes or for creating a data base of clients for future contact and mailing lists. Online tests can be copied and administered by unqualified people (Naglieri et al. 2004) and in some cases can even be funded by organisations that are not professionally affiliated with counselling or psychology. For example, the Oxford Capacity Analysis Personality Test, which is promoted as the most accurate and reliable personality test but is also funded by The Church of Scientology.
Sampson and Bloom (2001) spoke about overworked guidance professionals becoming overly dependant on career assessment tools. This point was previously emphasised by Engels et al. (1984) when they spoke about the false sense of security offered by rapid, low cost and convenient technology. In a school guidance context, teachers who have a dual role as a subject teacher and counsellor, must be aware of the potential pitfalls of becoming too reliant on online assessment tools for convenience and time-management.
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Another issue surrounding online career assessment is validity. Attractive graphics on a website or mobile app can often hide issues such as validity and quality (Sampson & Makela, 2014). It is of vital importance, that a guidance professional is aware of the validity of the tests they promote and the ones available to clients. Counsellors must be aware that technology and online assessment is only as reliable as the people who developed them (Engels, Caulum and Sampson, 1984). Oliver and Zack (1999) surveyed twenty-four no cost internet sites that promoted career assessments. They compared these to the guidelines set out by The National Career Development Association (NCDA) and found that these sites offered limited validity, confidentiality and almost no information about the developers. A lack of developer identity would certainly raise concerns regarding validity and would raise further concerns about their qualifications and reasons for developing the assessment online (Sampson et al. 2003).
Naglieri et al. (2004) actually highlights the importance of validating and identifying the test taker and even suggests using a license or a passport to do so. Approaching the limitations of online career assessments from the client’s point of view is significant also. Amir et al. (2008) shares the views above and states that confirming credibility of a client’s response should be the first step in ensuring validity. They suggest analysing test completion time as one of many ways of discerning whether a client is credible or doubtful. Sampson and Makela (2014) raised the point of client career readiness in assessment. The author has found that in his own practice, readiness is a key factor to consider before any online assessment is performed. If a client shows low career readiness, they will most likely experience difficulty before, during and after the assessment. This difficulty can sometimes exacerbate a client’s feelings of unpreparedness and create anxiety and stress.
In any form of assessment, feedback and results interpretation is of vital importance for progression and future development. In online career assessment this is equally as important but is often very brief, generic and sometimes contradictory. Only some online tests provide personalised interpretive feedback (Gati and Asulin-Peretz, 2011) and often only provide minimal interpretation such as a score or a percentage value. In a school guidance context, career assessments and personality surveys are often used prior to students picking their senior cycle subjects. These tests and surveys sometimes provide a percentage suitability value to a specific subject and the author has found that this can often be problematic. For example, one of these tests could indicate that a student has a high percentage suitability with a particular subject. After a year of studying this subject, the student may find the content difficult and may experience anxiety of stress related to an inadequacy brought about by supposed suitability. Furthermore, the parents/guardians of this student could hold a school responsible for suggesting that their child select this subject by presenting a high percentage suitability value. Tests like these and other forms of online career assessments should be posted with a prior statement clearly defining the boundaries and limitations of the results and feedback (Naglieri et al. 2004). The oral interpretation and explanation of these assessment results is largely lacking in an online assessment scenario. Furthermore, a counsellor in a traditional setting, can continue to explain and interpret results but this is not possible with career assessments carried out online and in the home environment (Barack, 2003). A professional would also need to be aware that online forms of assessment would not consider emotional background details (Naglieri et al. 2004) and students exposed to negative results would be at risk of exacerbating their problems.
When considering the limitations, problems and ethical issues discussed in this paper, the professional counsellor must accept responsibility for evaluating the use of online career assessments, especially with young adults. Martin (2010) explained that guidance professionals should be aware of the ethical pitfalls associated with technology in guidance and our responsibility to ensure that the core principles of guidance are upheld. As Harvey and Carlson (2003) stated, responsibility is non-transferable, regardless of the technology we employ, and we should take measures to ensure our clients do not fall victim to the issues and problems discussed.
Online career assessments have the capacity and the ability to enhance the school career guidance practice. The ethical issues and limitations discussed should not discourage their use, but instead, foster a sense of responsibility and awareness when utilizing this technology in practice. Guidance professionals should educate themselves about the potential pitfalls and show due diligence when exposing young clients to them. As mentioned, they can improve efficiency and more importantly, they can indicate when counselling interventions must be made. The author has found that in his own practice, online career assessments have certainly improved students’ career decision-making skills, knowledge of options and has enhanced self-knowledge also. In their simplest form of effectiveness, they encourage students to begin their journey of career exploration and development. Online career surveys could be incorporated into the transition year syllabus and promote early consideration of subject choices, matriculation, third-level education and future career opportunities. While career guidance classes are currently absent in transition year in the author’s school context, there is the potential to alter current planning and promote its development in this year. In conjunction with online career assessments, education and training for students and parents could be incorporated into future use. Effective training could enhance metacognitive processes and develop a lasting awareness of the limitations and problems discussed. Gati and Asulin-Peretz (2011) state that counsellors can make contributions in developing and improving the results of assessments and can use their own judgement to evaluate validity. By educating students and parents, this same principle can be brought into the home environment. Both parties can show awareness of the problems and use their own judgement when evaluating results. Understanding the nuances in the application of online career assessments is something that clients and counsellors should both share (Sampson and Makela, 2014). Implemented appropriately and with diligence and awareness, online career assessments can enhance the career guidance practice and expand career development for counsellors and clients alike.
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