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British Journal of Guidance & Counselling

ISSN: 0306-9885 (Print) 1469-3534 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cbjg20

Quality in the content and use of information and


communications technology in guidance
Marcus Offer & James P. Sampson Jr
To cite this article: Marcus Offer & James P. Sampson Jr (1999) Quality in the content and use
of information and communications technology in guidance, British Journal of Guidance &
Counselling, 27:4, 501-516
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03069889908256286

Published online: 16 Oct 2007.

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Date: 28 October 2016, At: 10:34

British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1999

501

Quality in the content and use of


information and communications
technology in guidance
MARCUS OFFER
Department of Professional Education in Community Studies, University of Reading,
Bulmershe Court, Earley, Reading RG6 IHY, UK

JAMES P. SAMPSON, Jr
Center for the Study of Technology in Counseling and Career Development, University
Center Suite A41 00, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Fl32306-2490, USA

ABSTRACT Problems relating to standards of quality in computer-based guidance, including the


Internet, are examined. Particular stress is laid on the need for integration of these resources into a
supportive context, while acknowledging that this may not always mean traditional one-to-one
counselling by a guidance specialist. The value of preliminary diagnosis of needs is highlighted,
together with some principles of design in the content and use of computer-based guidance and
relevant websites.

Introduction
Technological developments, such as multimedia, have increased the power and
relevance of information and communications technology (ICT) usage in guidance
for learning and work. The dramatic growth of the Internet offers world-wide access
to such resources and, significantly, makes this available from any home computer
or digital television set. When we talk about computer-assisted careers guidance
(CACG), we include in that term all use of these developments to support guidance.
The new technology poses an old problem with a new intensity: the issue of what
constitutes quality in the use and provision of guidance by computer, and how to
evaluate it.
What do we mean by quality? The term in this context refers to the achievement of standards in the design and use of CACG, and in the content and process
of guidance. Construing the users needs and contracting with him or her as to what
these are, and how they may be met, is a fundamental mark of quality in guidance
systems of all kinds, whether human or electronic. System developers do this, for
example, when they try to relate the purpose of their system, through feedback and
research, to the needs of potential users; practitioners do it when they try to make
sure that the level of support for CACG use is appropriate to their negotiated
0306-9885/99/040501-16 0 1999 Careers Research and Advisory Centre

502 Marcus Offer &James P. Sampson, Jr


understanding of the users guidance needs. The development of such contracts also
helps to ensure that a system and its use are fit for purpose-another possible
definition of quality-since the enormous diversity of purposes which might be
considered is limited in practice by the initial negotiation between provider and
seeker of guidance, conducted through a contractual, diagnostic process of some
kind.
Yet everything is not up for individual or even interpersonal construction. Some
things are subject to external validation or invalidation-maximum and minimum
salary levels, the institutions that provide a particular course, or the first destinations
of last years graduates, for example. Empathetically offered incorrect data can still
mislead.
So it seems most logical to begin with a discussion of content and design, and
then to qualify that with a consideration of the psychological and organisational
processes that are involved in using ICT as a vehicle for delivery of guidance.

Quality of content-the problems


Reliabiliry and validity
The data provided in guidance should be reliable: not vary, for example, from
occasion to occasion, or according to who is providing or accessing the data. They
should also be valid: for instance, data about occupations should not be contradicted
by the actual experience of those who work in them; and an interest profile should
predict, on a better than chance basis, satisfaction in doing some types of work.
Several potential sources of invalidity exist for CACG information. First, errors may
occur in the collection or processing of the original data. Thus occupational
information in text format may be valid, but the coding process that links occupational information with self-assessment variables could be invalid, resulting in an
inappropriate list of occupations for the user to consider. Second, bias on the part
of the information developer may have influenced the presentation of the data-e.g.
organisations wishing to portray an occupation or institution in the most positive
manner possible (Gati, 1994). Third, the process of translating numerically-based
source data into verbal labels using expert judgement can lead to errors-e.g.
turning average earnings into high, medium and low income levels may be inappropriate (Gati, 1994). Finally, with matching systems that relate individuals profiles to
occupations or other opportunities, the validity of the original profile, and the
quality of the opportunity data, may be confounded by invalidity in the matching
algorithm.
This understanding of quality derives directly from the design and use of
psychometric testing, which is a process many CACG systems offer or claim to offer.
On the other hand, the use of CACG systems as if they were simply extensions of
psychometric testing does not do justice to the iterative possibilities of some systems.
These can be used instead as learning programmes, where repeating the process and
getting a different result each time according to how you present yourself is part of
the learning. This does not excuse the CACG from the need to show validity, but

Quality in ICT in guidance 503


reliability-especially tesdretest reliability-may be a less helpful quality standard.
Internal consistency may be of greater interest here (Offer, 1992).
Information development for CACG systems is a joint effort involving a variety
of public and private organisations. CACG system developers may adapt several
government information sources and then supplement these data with information
they develop or purchase from elsewhere. Differences in detail, in time of development and in data structures can then make it difficult to describe many occupations
in a complete and accurate manner (Dietrich, 1996). Efforts by CACG developers
to edit occupational data for coherence and consistency may improve the comprehensibility of the data while inadvertently compromising the validity.
Links with the World Wide Web-problem or solution?
Linking freestanding CACG systems with other data sources via the Internet is
another new practice. For example, occupational and course descriptions in the
Careers Information Database (CID) or the Higher Ideas program (Careersoft)
are now linked to relevant websites for additional information-e.g. a description of
a vets work is linked to the website of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Such links help users avoid the use of sometimes confusing Internet search engines.
The Internet may thus become less overwhelming, less time-consuming, and more
effective to use, but there is a price to pay. While CACG software developers have
some degree of control over the information quality in their respective systems, their
only control over Internet-linked data sources is to permit or not to permit a
connection from their system. The links from these linked sites are even less subject
to quality control by the designers of the original CACG system. There are
professional, ethical and legal issues here for CACG system developers. Of course,
career and educational information can now also be directly accessed on the
Internet, and this raises the very same questions for the developers of the websites
themselves. In any case, the problems of quality control are compounded.
Theoretical issues
An important issue is the tendency to discuss information as if it were a neutral

feature separate from guidance itself. Some people use the terms guidance and
information as if they were separate entities. Guidance is an umbrella term which
encompasses all the activities needed to support an individual in a process of
decision-making in a given context. Informing is one of these activities. It is a major
part of the content, or data, of guidance, and the most common use of ICT in
relation to it. But it is not just that. Informing involves a process of identifying needs,
to decide what data are relevant; of communicating, with all that that implies about
complex and fallible processes; and of constructing meaning, a process which alone
can transform data into information.
This is relevant not just to matching systems (those that compare data about
the user with data about opportunities in order to provide a rank-ordered list of
items that may be of interest to him or her) but to all computer systems which

504 Marcus Offer 0James P. Sampson, Jr

attempt to retrieve relevant information for the user-occupational and course


databases, for example. Hence, it is somewhat artificial to separate content and
process. The quality of both may ultimately be dependent on the users construction, and on the dialectical movement between that and what the system, or the
professional using it as a tool, offers by way of making information out of the data
(however, there are yet other CACG systems and websites that offer very little
content at all-exercises to support decision-making, for instance).
There is a general lack of integration between careers information development
and careers guidance theory and research. As Dietrich (1996) puts it:
Without a framework of information linked to applications, we are left
with beginning with the information that is available, formatting it in a
convenient way, and then training users about what is there and how to get
it. We are forced to leave out guidance on how to select information to help
make different kinds of career-related decisions.
Overall quality suffers when the information elements that are most relevant to
career decision-making are not known, are not available, or are not explained to the
user. Career decision-making tasks need to be conceptually and empirically linked to
specific career information elements. For this reason, Offer (1995a, 1997) attempted
to map psychological tests and computer-assisted guidance systems on to the four
career learning outcomes of the DOTS (decision learning, opportunity awareness,
transition learning, self-awareness) model (Law & Watts, 1977) and three levels of
service from self-help to full adviser support, distributing CACG systems and
tests over a matrix of 12 cells, each related to specific presenting questions by the
guidance seeker. Such an approach is as relevant to the World Wide Web as to
stand-alone CACG systems.

Quality standards
If these are the problems, what can we do about them? One approach is to set
standards for the development of guidance systems in ICT. In the USA, the
Association of Computer-Based Systems for Career Information (1992) states that
information topics should be comprehensive in scope, have an empirical base, be
free of bias, be current and valid, be clear in distinguishing advice from factual
information, have an empirically valid process for structured search of options, and
have assessments with established validity and reliability. Mollerup (1995) stated
that information in career information delivery systems should meet the criteria of
being accurate, current, relevant, specific, understandable, comprehensive, unbiased, and comparable. The National Career Development Association (NCDA,
1991) developed guidelines to help practitioners examine the quality of career
software, including information quality. In the UK there has been no comparable
national statement, but Offer (1995b) reported to the (then) Department of Employment proposing detailed criteria for judging quality in eight different types of
software relevant to guidance, and these were briefly applied in the Careers Software

Quality in ICT in guidance 505


Journal as the basis for critical discussion of individual CACG systems (Offer,
1995~).
More recent attempts have been made to set measurable standards for websites
and other guidance-related uses of the Internet. The Canadian Labor Force Development Board (CLFDB) has developed a sophisticated rating system of criteria for
judging websites concerned with how the site is constituted, its learning value, and
its quality as a provider of some service. The rating system considers such factors as
visual quality of language, ease of navigation, ingenious use of technology, the
reliability of the information sources, aptness of the information chosen, learning
composition (the extent to which it strives to make itself understood by learners),
and learning construction (its usefulness as a learning site) (CLFDB, 1998).
Caveat emptor: consumer education
Setting standards is not enough: steps are also needed to ensure that they being met.
The future of guidance quality on the Web seems to require urgent monitoring by
guidance professionals of what is on offer, and the provision of a free consumer
protection service that reviews examples of what is available, using rating systems
such as that of the CLFDB, and suggesting what key features users should look for
or beware of. This is a new but necessary role for the guidance professional and
might be undertaken within a national or transnational guidance website. In the last
analysis, however, the essentially uncontrollable nature of the Internet and World
Wide Web now means that guidance professionals cannot guarantee the quality of
data that their clients may access. In the light of this, it is important for careers
education programmes to help information users to be alert to possible problems,
discriminate intelligently and critically between sources of information, and spread
their dependencies widely when acting on the basis of unverifiable evidence. Effective use of personal search agents to retrieve individually relevant information is
another skill that needs teaching, as these new tools develop. Guidance seekers, thus
equipped, will come of age.
Without such education, individuals are unlikely to detect poor quality information in CACG systems, including the World Wide Web. As Gati showed (1994,
1996), CACG system users tend uncritically to accept the information they receive
as valid, irrespective of quality. Crowley (1992) found that client satisfaction with
CACG systems was uniformly high and generally unrelated to the quality or novelty
of the occupations generated for the user by the system. The high face-validity of
CACG systems may result in users more often accepting system effectiveness in an
uncritical way. They may also tend to assume that information is accurate because
they feel that verifying the quality is difficult for them.

Quality of use?

Making infomation out of data


Central to the consideration of informing as an activity of guidance is the interaction
between the client and the data offered. You can take a horse to the water, but you

506 Marcus Offer &James P. Sampson, Jr


cannot determine how, what or whether it will drink. Careers and occupational data
must not only be available: its use must be supported in a variety of ways. How are
decision-makers going to select information that relates to their needs, and then use
it to effectively solve problems and make decisions?
Can we even assume that individuals always understand their needs? They may
later come to think that they were wrong about their own diagnosis of the problem
and wish they had understood the situation differently, attributing later difficulties
to this earlier lack of understanding. Unless one has an extreme social constructivist
view of guidance, this opinion may be validated or invalidated by brute facts such as
salary level, success or failure in getting a job, or completion or non-completion of
a course. Situations may be understood similarly by the good careers adviser rather
earlier-it being one of the roles of the professional to challenge the possibly
dysfunctional thinking of their clients in terms of their understanding of the clients
own core values, while acknowledging their right ultimately to make mistakes.
For example, a 17-year-old school leaver may believe she needs a job when, in
fact, additional training to get a job with enough income to allow her to live
independently is the real priority. She can download local job openings from the
Internet, but is this what she really needs? And even if she does get the vital job
training information, will she (a) use it and (b) be able to incorporate it into a plan
to reach her goal of independent living?
In any case, guidance clients may be using rather personal maps of the world,
so that conceptually and empirically linking information elements to decisionmaking tasks may not be easy except at a very superordinate level. Each individual
decision-maker may be drawing on different core values that may be quite idiosyncratic (Wooler, 1984). The difference between such personal maps and the public
map of the world of work presented in the average CACG system may be a further
reason for indecision.
Reviewing the information needs of groups of occupational decision-makers,
Boreham & Arthur (1993) pointed out the importance of the personal knowledge
base of the decision-maker, in determining whether information would be used by
them or not. They concluded that occupational data are more likely to be used if
provided in a context which offers: (1) counselling-a personal conversation with
someone who has their interests at heart, and gives them the chance to ask
questions; (2) information based on work experience-either direct experience of
the work (an opportunity to sample it perhaps) or at least an informant who speaks
with the authority of someone who is doing the job themselves; (3) the prospect of
employment-a practical outcome, not just academic information; and (4)a range
of opportunities-the feeling that the choice is not being restricted. This could be
the basis for a set of standards for a guidance service, a CACG system or a
guidance-related website.

Supported versus stand-alone use


A variety of guidance and counselling interventions can be used to increase the
likelihood that individuals select information which meets their needs and apply it

Quality in ICT in guidance 507


effectively to solve problems and make decisions. Such interventions can also help
users to deal with personal issues and misconceptions that can limit system effectiveness. Ball (1990) noted that use of CACG is more effective when accompanied by
recommendations about system features to meet specific needs, when system progress is monitored, when feedback is provided on system use, and when the results
are discussed afterwards. This is particularly relevant to the use of larger and more
comprehensive systems such as PROSPECT (HE).
When CACG systems are delivered in a stand-alone mode without any type of
screening, misconceptions-for example, that a quick and reliable solution to a
career problem is going to emerge-may go uncorrected. Providing CACG this way
also assumes that all users are capable of an accurate self-assessment of their needs
and, more importantly for our purposes here, can identify CACG system features to
meet these needs. While this may be true for some, it is highly unlikely to be valid
for all: ... all clients, and particularly adults, are good at pretending to know what
they want in order to save face (or protect the feelings of their helper), and it takes
a skilled practitioner to know when they need help and when they truly do not
(Hawthorn, 1994, p. 50) (we may add, as before, and to negotiate an agreed
contract with them as to what the needs are, expressed in terms of their own core
values and aims).
There is an implication here that help or support necessarily implies face-toface guidance. However, one can support information in a variety of ways: a CACG
system that stands alone in a careers library is much more supported than one that
stands alone in a youth club, shopping centre, or bus station! If some thought has
been taken to ensure that the occupational or interest categories used in the CACG
system are the same as, or echoed in, those used in the paper-based resources of the
library, and if this fact is pointed out by the system or by a notice nearby, this is an
even more supported situation. If, in addition, the people who use the system have
already taken part in a careers education or group guidance programme, then
support has increased yet another level. Finally, if there is a self-diagnostic menu
system front-ending the use of the CACG system, and an option to call up a
telephone or videoconferencing link with a careers adviser while using the CACG
system in case of difficulties, then support may be complete without any personal
contact with an adviser.
Two recent DEE-sponsored Innovative Technology in Guidance projects
(DEE, 1997) experimenting with guidance at a distance illustrate this point.
Tyneside Careers developed a system which offered a diagnostic process leading to
a recommended action plan regarding the type of CACG that might be relevant to
the user, all offered on access from sites in a public library or community centre in
Newcastle, but with a possible videoconference link to the careers centre for direct
personal advice. The JIIG-CAL Guidance at a Distance project (Closs & Miller,
1997), on the other hand, made a slightly different use of videoconferencing, with
application sharing, where users of their Pathfinder CACG system could get
feedback remotely from a careers adviser: this could be anything from a brief
clarification of a technical point about the use of the program, to a guidance
interview at a distance based on the results of using Pathfinder.

508 Marcus Offer &James P. Sampson, Jr


Stand-alone v. supported, then, is a continuum, on which we can elaborate a
range of increasingly supported or autonomous situations, not all of them requiring
face-to-face human intervention. Nevertheless, stand-alone use of CACG systems is
still seen as a threat by some advisers. Watts (1 993a) noted that some careers service
staff had concerns about stand-alone use of CACG systems over computer
networks. He questioned whether such concerns reflected staff self-protection in a
time of declining resources or a genuine desire to protect individuals from the
misuse of systems. The new home market in education may increase such threats.
Already major computer-based information systems in the UK such as ODYSSEY
(formerly the MicroDOORS occupational database) and UK Course Discover
(ECCTIS) can be made available in home-user versions. The World Wide Web
offers access from home to an even wider range of resources that can subsume all the
learning outcomes of guidance a t some level.

Diagnosing readinessfor CACG use


Perhaps the key point is: what level of intervention is appropriate and for whom?
Some individuals may need support from a practitioner to benefit from CACG use,
while others will not. Research on individual differences in career decision-making
suggests that some people have more difficulty than others with such decisionmaking (Peterson et al., 199 1; 1996). Individual characteristics that make decisionmaking difficult make the use of careers guidance resources, including CACG,
difficult as well. Some individuals have a high degree of readiness to make decisions
and use guidance resources effectively, therefore requiring minimal or no assistance
from a practitioner. Others have a low degree of readiness for effective decisionmaking and resource use and require practitioner support (Sampson & Reardon,
1998). Several factors have the potential to limit individuals readiness for effective
use of a CACG system: (1) limited verbal ability, (2) goal instability and dependence, ( 3 ) social and enterprising interests, (4)limited knowledge, confidence, and
motivation, (5) negative career thinking, (6) anxiety and depression, (7) barriers to
career choice, (8) intuitive decision-making styles, and (9) misconceptions about
CACG. The challenge is to avoid under-serving individuals who need support and
over-serving others who need little or none (Sampson, 1997). Gati et al. (1996) also
discuss issues related to the lack of readiness and the initial diagnosis of individuals
problems before using CACG systems.
Several screening measures have been created to help identify an individuals
readiness for career decision-making and use of career resources. These instruments
typically measure either factors associated with career indecision or the state of
career indecision itself. Data from such screening, combined with individuals
responses to open-ended questions about career and employment choices, can be
used to make an initial determination of decision-making readiness. Individuals with
high readiness can then be referred to self-help services, those with moderate
readiness to brief staff-assisted services, and low readiness individuals to individual
case-managed services (Sampson & Reardon, 1997).

Quality in ICT in guidance 509


Menu systems as selfdiagnosis
Diagnosis need not always be a time-consuming process requiring specialist skills.
For example, a simple menu-a list of items of CACG software, with a brief
description of their content-enables a basic level of self-diagnosis: the user knows
what is available and may be able to make a choice as to what s h e needs in order
to get what is wanted. A more complex menu system enables the user to match
themselves against frequently asked or typical questions, each signposted to a
relevant resource for the answers. A further signpost for those who want none of
these options may be a videoconference link button, or the address of a guidance
centre, or a recommendation to talk to a careers counsellor. The deluxe level may
be full psychometric diagnosis of needs or readiness.
This model fits the general guidance strategy advocated by Watts (1996)
involving an initial intervention to assess needs that would be met free of charge,
with subsequent counselling services provided on a fee-for-service basis. The advantage of this is that screening costs can be covered by the income generated by the
supplementary services, paid by government in the case of low-income groups. This
general approach could include the delivery of CACG services.

Human intermentions and ICT-not

either/or?

CACG may therefore in some sense replace expert human careers guidance in
certain circumstances and for particular people: it depends on what level of service
is envisaged, at what cost, and whether users are decided, undecided or indecisive, as well as on a range of economic and political factors. It also depends on
what is meant by replace. If we include the Internet under the heading of CACG,
we might well see expert careers guidance being delivered this way-by e-mail,
Internet Relay Chat, video- and audioconferencing, and so on (Sampson et al.,
1997)-perhaps as a preliminary stage to a face-to-face contact. This is especially
true if the stand-alone system provides clear indicators of the circumstance where
contact with a practitioner may be useful. Half a loaf may be better than no bread.
It may be all one needs at the time, or an aperitif to the main course-the first step
in a longer-term process.
Such stand-alone, unsupported resources may actually provide support that did
not exist before, to back up the informal guidance that has always gone on in the
home: parents, friends, peers, relatives, etc. all have an input, and they may be
supported in new ways by CACG purveyed, for example, across the Internet. As
in the case of the Tyneside Virtual Careers Centre described above, videoconferencing can allow the user to seek help from a remote counsellor during use of a
CACG system. Intervention during the use of self-help learning resources may
encourage an individual to seek needed services that they were previously unaware
of or had avoided. In addition, two-way videoconferencing may eventually be
used to deliver counselling services to clients in geographically remote locations
(Sampson et al., 1997).
CACG as an alternative to needed human intervention may be a second-best

5 10 Marcus Offer &James P. Sampson, Jr


option but the key emphasis here is on needed. The decided individual may not
need human intervention; the undecided may need very little. But some careers
advisers, frightened for their jobs, sometimes try to hang on to the assertion that
CACG cannot replace human guidance. With the arrival of the Internet, it may do
so in practice whether we like it or not. In any case, even expert human guidance
may sometimes be as prone to poor quality and invalidity as any CACG system.
Being human and professional does not give immunity from prosecution for
negligence or incompetence.

Quality standards for use?


As with content, standards can be set for the process of delivery and use, and this
is one response to the problems discussed here. Professional standards have evolved
in the United States to address potential problems associated with CACG system
use. The Association of Computer-Based Systems of Career Information (ACSCI)
has developed standards for entities (typically state-level agencies) that adapt and
deliver CACG systems to schools, colleges, libraries, agencies, and organisations.
Specific standards exist for information use, information quality, and evaluation.
The ACSCI standards (Caulum & Lambert, 1985) state that: Any student or client
should be oriented to the system prior to usage and should be given follow-up
assistance after use. In terms of evaluation, ACSCI further suggest that qualitative
and quantitative evaluation data should be collected on an ongoing basis to ensure
that system use is congruent with client needs and organisational goals. Professional
organisations in counselling in the United States have developed ethical standards
which stress the need for practitioners to ensure that in using computer applications
clients have a level of support available that is congruent with their needs (Sampson,
1997). The most recent standards are the NCDA Guidelinesfor the Use of the Internet
for Provision of Career Information and Planning Services (NCDA, 1997), which
include requirements on credentialling of counsellors and ethical standards for
contracting with clients.
Ineffective CACG usage patterns have been categorised as follows: (1) CACG
as a replacement for needed human intervention; ( 2 ) CACG use that is disconnected from other guidance services; (3) routine CACG use that ignores variations
in user needs; (4) overwhelming users and staff with too many CACG systems; and
(5) CACG use in situations where it is inappropriate for user needs (Sampson,
1996). Limited availability of CACG systems for all citizens, and poor system
implementation, were also noted as problems (ibid.).

Potential contributions from improved system and website designs


The fears of professional careers counsellors about unsupported use may be reduced
by the realisation that CACG systems themselves are evolving in ways that may
improve information use. System customisation and enhanced help options have the
potential to make system use simpler and more effective.
System customisation allows practitioners to select system features that are

Quality in ICT in guidance 5 11

appropriate for the level of staff support available to users. For example, where a
system is offered on a stand-alone basis without screening (e.g. over a computer
network at a public library or at home), access can often be restricted to the
information files alone, without the assessment and search portions (typically the
most cognitively complex aspect of a CACG system). Some suppliers have made
their software systems also available in component parts so that the database can be
used separately from any assessment or complex search programme. Over the World
Wide Web, similar boundaries can be drawn.

A typology of websites
The design of a website itself, and what it is linked with, also has a bearing on the
quality of its use. Sampson (1999) talks of integrated sites-used to deliver
information and to advertise careers centre resources-as opposed to independent
sites, to which the former may be linked to extend the range of resources and
services available to the user.
However, a guidance services website has potentially at least five different
purposes, representing alternative priorities in the creation of such a resource.
Creators of guidance websites should think about the precise mix and balance of
these elements that fits their purposes and the needs of the target group. Of course,
the alternatives are not mutually exclusive: a comprehensive website for guidance
would include all of these elements, rather like the so-called maxi-system in the
world of stand-alone CACG. The five purposes are:
0

The funnel website receives and attracts visitors who are then funnelled into
existing off-line services. This may be justified for a commercial organisation
whose purpose is to increase sales, but for a resource-strapped public service the
economic implications must give pause for thought.
The diversion website is the mirror image of this. It aims to take pressure off the
guidance service by linking users to alternatives, including other websites where
they can get help without increased load on services already in short supply. It
implies both a genuine understanding of referral as a proper guidance activity
(with well-thought-out links to clearly identified and checked-out target sites)
and good local or national partnerships or networks between guidance-related
organisations. Good practice assumes that the organisations referred to are
happy to take the diverted visitors and can help with their needs. It also implies
a self-help diagnostic system so that visitors can decide for themselves which
referral link to take up. The referral may also be to paper- or ICT-based
resources of the organisation itself or of others, obtained off-line.
The on-line guidance site greets the visitor and offers help on the site itself. This
may be in the form of relevant information to meet standard presenting
questions, or self-awareness-raising activities such as interest inventories that
can be downloaded and completed off-line, or a job seekers/employers database. The visitor may also be offered the possibility of interacting with selected
resources from the guidance services range-typically CACG systems that are

5 12 Marcus Offer &James P. Sampson, Jr

also available off-line. This kind of site mirrors the possible uses of CACG in a
guidance centre, or in a maxi-system such as PROSPECT (HE). It could be
combined with the diversion purpose, and offer only some of the services
required for a complete guidance programme, or offer services only to visitors
in specific groups (e.g. those diagnosed as sufficiently vocationally mature not
to need individual guidance help from a specialist). Again, some careful thought
must be given to how the diagnosis is made in order to avoid misdirection,
time-wasting or worse.
The forum website aims to put people into contact with other guidance seekers
and visitors to the site, on the (client-centred) principle that people engaged in
tackling similar problems have valuable experiences and ideas to exchange, and
that all help for guidance seekers does not have to come from experts. Such
groups may be moderated or unmoderated. The process could work effectively
with, for example, the unemployed or other groups who may be able to get help
from each other if put in touch. This may be an extension of existing group
guidance activities-moderating such a self-help group can require similar skills
to those of the traditional group facilitator. Use of CACG systems in this mode
can be linked to on-line discussions between the CACG users (or to a member
of guidance staff, once the particular CACG system has been used). The forum
builds not on the World Wide Web so much as on the intercommunicative
possibilities of the Intemet-often missed by guidance organisations that see it
only as another source of information. Again, some diagnostic facility to help
those who do not know which group to join, and some (self-) referral for those
with problems that cannot be accommodated on-site, would be a minimum
back-up structure. This mode has been tried quite extensively in the USA with
self-help therapy groups. There is no reason to suppose that it could not serve
equally well, with less risk, in the guidance field, especially in the light of the
current interest in informal guidance. One would need to guard against
sharking-the predatory visiting of such discussion groups by private counsellors and commercial organisations seeking paying clients. Others issues include
security and confidentiality.
The distance learning website is akin to both the on-line guidance site and the
forum in some ways, but takes a more instructional stance than the former while
integrating this with the use of off-line resources. The Internet is used alongside
printed texts, CD-ROM, video and other multimedia resources, which may be
sent out via ordinary postal services, and used with or without on-line activity.
The tutoring, feedback, and interaction with other learners take place via the
Intemetle-mail. So does the distribution of updates to the off-line material.
Material with a relatively short shelf-life may also be supplied via the Web. Such
a site is particularly suited to the delivery of careers education material, or to
support to a group of job-seekers or returners to the labour market or those in
a remote location. It requires all the supporting structures of a normal distancelearning programme, and is clearly not exclusive to a guidance context. The
Web offers some significant additional advantages over traditional distancelearning structures.

Quality in ICT in guidance 513


All of these strands may be woven together into one site, but all have elements of
quality and standards implied by their purposes and built into their design.
Evaluation
Standards, whether for content or use, imply evaluation. Evaluation is standards in
action. Jackson (1993) observed that there has been a general lack of evaluation of
CACG systems. While evaluation and research data have shown CACG systems to
be generally effective in facilitating career decision-making in adolescents and adults
(Sampson, 1996), recurring problems with CACG system use have been noted in
the literature. Hawthorn (1994) pointed out that there are a number of examples of
services which, in the name of empowering their clients, offer unmediated access
to computer-assisted guidance systems, without any systematic evaluation of
whether or not the client actually found it helpful, and certainly without checking
whether it actually was helpful (p. 50).
A review of studies cited in a CACG research and evaluation bibliography
(Sampson et al., 1998a) shows a decline in the number evaluating system use,
beginning in 1991. A review of citations indicates that more evaluation is completed
when a CACG system is relatively new and there is a need to establish the initial
effectiveness of the system. It also appears that more evaluation is conducted when
public-sector funding for a CACG system requires evaluation as a condition of
receiving funds. Sampson & Norris (1993) found that only 1% of the total
funding for career information delivery systems in the United States was allotted to
evaluating their effectiveness.
Some resources are available to aid practitioners, system developers and researchers in conducting research. Many CACG systems and websites collect statistics of usage. Some record user responses to simple evaluation questions (Sampson
et al., 1998b). Comprehensive evaluation models (see Watts, 1993b) are available to
guide the evaluation process.
Although there have been evaluations and reviews of individual CACG systems
in the UK (the evaluations of the PROSPECT (HE) system being a notable
example), guidance services themselves have not generally shown as much concern
for evaluation. Customer satisfaction is often in practice all that is evaluated, but
given the observations above, user perception data needs to be supplemented by
independent expert analysis in order to fully establish the effectiveness of CACG
with various populations.
Conclusion
Quality needs to be ensured in more than one way. Quality of content may require
clear, widely agreed standards for the collection, collation, validation and presentation of data, but the advent of the Internet means that these must cover websites
as well as free-standing individual CACG systems, and combinations of the two.
However, the new developments mean that attention to the implicit fifth learning
outcome of the DOTS model of guidance-autonomy-is
no longer simply an

5 14 Marcus Offer &James P. Sampson, Jr


optional extra. Guidance seekers will need to become autonomous, critical users of
the data provided, capable of testing what they are told for relevance, and looking
for corroboration of its validity and reliability. Helping them to develop such
faculties is an important task that guidance professionals can tackle in various
ways-by setting standards, and publishing regular reviews and evaluations, but also
by education in turning data into information.
One key condition of quality use is that guidance seekers access resources
appropriate to their needs. In all CACG system use, users are offered a contract,
implicit or explicit, with the developer of the CACG system and with any professional who uses it as a tool. This involves a process of mutual construction of
roles, needs and purposes-a process that can be built in more or less to a computer
program or a website even where it is not mediated by guidance staff. This is one of
the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for its quality. Brief screening strategiessometimes even self-administered-can be used by practitioners and clients to
estimate the level of support that individuals will need to select, and effectively use,
ICT-based resources. The arrival of the Internet, and the consequent home-based
use of CACG, urgently requires that we make a self-diagnostic package available
on the Web (perhaps linking results to other specific, kite-marked sites). Appropriate
referral, in either case, to self-help, brief staff-assisted, and individual case-managed
services, increases the likelihood that limited guidance resources will be costeffectively used by the largest possible number. However, that referral, like the
diagnosis, may increasingly have to be built into the design of the systems themselves, whether a website or any other computer-based guidance resource, and
triggered by the activities and choices of the users rather than by the direct
intervention of the human professional.
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(Accepted 30 April 1999)