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Sharon Belden Castonguay


Colleges and universities offer no shortage of resources for students looking to make a smooth transition into a healthy career -- résumé help, cover letter templates, internship opportunities.

But sometimes practical help isn’t enough. Sharon Belden Castonguay, director of Wesleyan University’s Gorden Career Center, often sees students confused about what to pursue after graduation, and later dissatisfied with their early jobs.

Liberal arts colleges like Wesleyan increasingly have to fight a reputation as struggling to produce work force-ready graduates. The problem is acute in the current environment, Castonguay says, but the same was true at profession-oriented universities where she worked before.

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In 2013, she introduced an intensive one-week face-to-face workshop on the subject, but it proved “difficult to scale” and was available only to current students, not alumni who might have already strayed down a path that doesn’t work for them.

A few years later, a meeting with representatives of the online learning platform Coursera convinced Castonguay that there might be a market online for a philosophical exploration of career development.

In May, Castonguay launched on the Coursera platform a massive open online course entitled Career Decisions: From Insight to Impact. The course is still a work in progress, and the extent of its potential impact has yet to be determined. According to Castonguay, early signs suggest students like the course and feel they’re benefiting from it.

The certificate that results from completing the course is free for Wesleyan students and costs $49 for learners outside the institution. An abbreviated free option without a credential is also available.

After the four-week course had an initial pilot, the institution in July advertised the course to all incoming first-year Wesleyan students. Approximately 300 of this year’s incoming class of 800 students enrolled in the course. Roughly half of those enrollees have actually engaged with the materials, according to Castonguay, and 19 have completed the course.

"This is not surprising since there’s currently no stick or carrot in terms of whether students choose to upload reflection work for feedback versus just doing it on their own," Castonguay said. She is contemplating making completion a requirement for receiving internship credit or priority registration for Wesleyan extracurricular programs with limited space.

Beginning this winter, returning students will also get notified of the option to enroll in the course. The university is also planning to market the course to recent alumni, with marketing materials set to roll out in the next few months. Castonguay thought Wesleyan’s upcoming seasonal alumni magazine would be a fitting venue for the course’s rollout to that audience.

“I see the biggest need for the content for those within 10 years out, those who may be unhappy with their first jobs or careers,” Castonguay said.

Students starting to think about careers and graduates dissatisfied with their professional trajectories might seem like distinct audiences, but Castonguay believes they share some key interests. “It’s really the same core issue, which is not taking the time to do introspection, the self-analysis necessary to make intentional decisions,” she said.

The course offers no career assessments, but instead preaches self-awareness and mindfulness while encouraging students to allow for serendipity. The fluid nature of the job economy and rapidly advancing digital technology will likely keep young professionals bouncing from one workplace or even profession to the next.

“Whatever you choose to do you’re probably not going to do for very long in a dynamic economy,” Castonguay said. “If they understand who they are, they can persuade others that they can help their organization make an impact.”

Another section in the course aims to help students develop a sense of personal identity and make decisions about what constitutes meaningful work for them.

Castonguay hopes students end the course armed with tools of self-analysis. She gives them two final project options: a “mind map” or a reflection paper. To her surprise, most students so far have chosen the reflection paper, and the results have exceeded her expectations. Because she hasn’t included peer grading as an element of the course, she’s the only person who reads the exam responses, allowing students to get “very deep, very reflective, very personal.”

The institution hasn’t conducted official qualitative student evaluations for the course, but it has offered students an option to submit feedback. Most responses so far have been “really grateful,” according to Castonguay.

The course will eventually culminate in a half-day Choosing Good Work program hosted by the institution’s office of religious and spiritual life. Topics for that program include cultivating mindfulness and navigating religious and spiritual perspectives on work and ambitions. While it's still in the development stage, Castonguay eventually wants to add a podcast as well.

Twelve learners outside the institution thus far have rated the course an average of 4.92 stars on the Coursera platform -- a higher-than-usual start for a new Wesleyan course on the Coursera platform, according to Jeffrey Goetz, assistant director for instructional design in Wesleyan’s Center for Pedagogical Innovation. More than 50 percent of non-Wesleyan learners end up completing it, and most students that drop the course do so before the first assignment, according to Goetz.

"This is quite a high number for us," Goetz said.

Several other institutions have expressed interest in adopting the course for their students. Castonguay believes the course will be particularly valuable to institutions with high ratios of students to staff, and she is in the process of negotiating a discounted rate for students from other institutions.

“We’re hoping that we can pilot that idea with a few schools, and then look into whether it makes sense to customize content, market on a broad scale, etc.,” Castonguay said.

Reactions From Observers

Georgia Nugent, president emerita of Kenyon College, thinks MOOCs might not be the most fruitful medium for the kind of career support Castonguay is offering. After “Inside Digital Learning” asked her to take a look at the course, she reported back that she found the didactic lecture format and opportunities for reflection underwhelming.

“Especially because this is about personal development and individual learning about one’s own identity, I would think that you would want to figure out a way to involve more interaction,” Nugent said.

Despite her criticisms of the execution, Nugent applauds the goal of the course, which fits with her belief in the “full-service model” of higher education that extends beyond a student’s graduation.

“If you go to a great college, that should always be a resource for you throughout your life,” Nugent said.

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