In recent years, as more states and districts have wrestled with the definition of “college- and career-ready,” alternative postsecondary pathways have multiplied, and career-connected learning has gained steam, a new term has popped up in education: navigation.
Navigation has slightly more expansive connotations than its predecessor, “guidance.” It’s not just about one single, high-stakes decision about where to apply to or enroll in college. Nor does it hinge exclusively on a specific staff member inside of a high school or career office. Instead, it’s become short-hand for a range of big and small decisions and conversations students may be making and having throughout their high school and postsecondary lives as they carve out their place in the world.
Can technology solve our navigation challenge?
This one little word contains multitudes. The world is messy, especially when it comes to making sense of byzantine postsecondary options and opaque career pathways. That messiness casts a long shadow over how much schools and postsecondary institutions can do, especially given punishing student-to-advisor ratios.
In turn, it’s hardly surprising that many are pinning their hopes on technology to expand access to navigation support.
But any bets on postsecondary and workforce navigation tools should account for what current market dynamics and research tell us students need and want. Moreover, it’s critical we remain honest about the attributes of “high-end” navigation supports that offer outsized benefits to those students lucky enough to afford them. Specifically, here are 5 dynamics to consider:
1. We shortchange students when navigation tools index on information alone: One of the main challenges that plagues this space is reckoning with what tools and point solutions can and can’t accomplish. I’d argue that the tools market is stuck because the demand side of the field isn’t setting a high enough bar for quality in its demand for information transfer as the pinnacle—rather than just the lowest tier-of successful navigation and guidance.
Oftentimes, navigation investments optimize for information transfer without trying to scale and improve to the higher tiers of the market. That problem is less about technology itself, and more about a blindspot in how we conceive of what students actually need: we conflate information with connection and support (see Alex Cortez’s recent work for a helpful breakdown between the two).
Democratizing access to information won’t address opportunity gaps. In reality, to navigate through education and careers, young people need guidance personalized to their evolving interests; people who can help them take calculated risks; and, eventually, people willing to take a bet on them professionally.
Innovations grow along the metrics we hold them to. If helping students navigate their futures is too narrowly construed as simply providing them with information, the market won’t evolve to help more students—especially those further from opportunity—gain access to personalized supports, mentors, and sponsors.
2. AI could worsen the distance between more information and authentic connection: I started monitoring this shift long before ChatGPT went viral. With the meteoric rise of AI, I’m even more worried that we’ll see a rise of tools selling more “personalized guidance” in ways that promise to move upmarket, but also move toward a more relationship-poor future for students; and will still amount to a world of haves and have-nots.
Luckily, not everyone is betting on AI as the be-all-end-all advising solution. As Brandon Busteed aptly summarized in a LinkedIn post, “Do you know what students need more than anything right now? Real human support, advising, and mentoring,” he wrote. “My news feed has been utterly dominated by AI stories and hype for the past several months. I’m certain there are myriad applications where AI will help students. But when it comes to advising and mentoring, AI is still—well—getting its AIss kicked.” If you don’t buy his argument, look no further than researcher Matthew Kraft’s state-of-the-art analysis of the impact that school-based mentors have on college-going: students with in-school mentors were 10 to 25 percentage points more likely to attend college than their similarly-situated peers without them.
3. Students may navigate careers based on preferences for, or access to, specific relationship types: Simply pointing out that ‘relationships matter’ is not enough to build a better market. Luckily, there are other insights into why and how students enlist relationships to support their decisions that can help. For example, researcher Joe Ferrare found that first-generation students tended to lean into one of five career search ‘strategies’: 1) Personal DIY (i.e., google searches, alone), 2) strong ties (i.e., family, close mentors), 3) informal weak ties (i.e., community and workplace ties), 4) university-based weak ties (i.e., professors, etc.), or 5) non-university, institutional weak ties (i.e., high school teachers, etc.) (for his description, see minute 25 of this video). Ferrare’s finding is fascinating, not only because it shows different forms of social capital in action, but especially because students tended to use just one of these strategies, not multiple.
Research like Ferrare’s suggests that our typically one-size-fits all approach to interventions will fail. If you’re creating tools for the navigation space, you’d likely want to design them differently either to cater to different subgroups who use distinct strategies or, alternatively, to try to nudge students to employ multiple strategies and diversify their approach.
4. Relationships can function as a renewable resource: The more we understand navigation to be an ongoing endeavor—rather than a series of discrete decisions—the less appealing and sustainable a ‘point solution’ approach should become. One of the reasons relationships matter is that they can function as a renewable resource, rather than one-and-done.
This is much harder to replicate the more tools lean into information and don’t foster connection. A chatbot-enabled guidance model, for example, dramatically drives down the cost of delivering accurate information or targeted advice. Business models deploying chatbots tend to get their start in areas of nonconsumption—where a student’s alternative is nothing at all or, at best, an aimless Google search for information. And all such models hinge on a technological core—algorithm-based outreach and response—that positions them to scale quickly. Against these metrics, chatbots offer the discrete benefits that a relationship with a human might offer at a single point in time. They are not, however, reliably scaling access to relationships or offering the benefits that relationships stand to deliver over a longer time span.
5. From navigation to life design: If we widen the aperture of navigation slightly beyond personalized advice, it’s easy to see that students’ ‘decisions’ are inextricably linked to their experience. That’s why I’m especially interested in Life Design work afoot at institutions like Johns Hopkins University (JHU) that thinks of the entirety of students’ journeys as an opportunity for exploration, risk-taking, and making sense of their purpose, passion, and goals. In addition to radically expanding access to experiences like internships and study abroad, the Life Design initiative focuses on relationships. “Life purpose cannot be planned or predicted,” Dey explained in his TEDx talk. “It is lured out of hiding with the help of mentors and the right mindset.” To that end, every student is assigned a mentor, often a JHU alum working in a field related to students’ interests. Dey sees mentors as serving a few key functions: encouraging students to explore and take risks; mitigating those risks by offering wisdom, warm introductions, and even financial support; and role modeling for students what a career journey can look like.
That model requires much more than a new tool that dispenses more timely advice; rather, it’s a rethinking of the core of schooling, and a shift to acknowledging that, in our current model, exploration and risk-taking are luxury goods.
As lofty as that sounds, it’s true to the reckoning that feels overdue as ‘navigation’ continues to ride a hype-cycle among education advocates and philanthropists: defining what luxury or the highest end of a market like navigation looks like is a critical exercise to keeping us honest; not only about what it takes for young people to thrive in a complex world, but also where technology focused on transmitting information alone can and can’t take them on that journey.