Cornell Career Services (CCS), the central career services office for Cornell University, has long provided high-quality career development content through printed guidebooks, workshops, and individual advising. In 2020, CCS launched a series of online modules, collectively known as the Career Development Toolkit.
The toolkit offers an up-to-date, Cornell-specific career curriculum in Canvas, the same platform used for academic course materials. The 325-plus pages in 28 self-paced modules include custom games and worksheets that incorporate creative, interactive elements to provide approachable career content.
NACE AWARD WINNERCornell Career Services is the college winner of the 2023 NACE Award for Technology Excellence for its Career Development Toolkit. For more information about the NACE Awards program and the full list of award winners/honorable mentions, see www.naceweb.org/about-us/nace-awards/.
“Recognizing that students and alumni sometimes find career services to be intimidating, we sought to expand our typical resources to build career confidence by delivering engaging content, even when users do not realize they need it and without having to ‘know what to ask,’” explains Jessamyn Perlus, Ph.D., CCS senior associate director.
“Equity was the primary catalyst. We wanted to demystify the hidden curriculum and level the playing field for all of our students.”
In 2020, the shift to virtual services added a sense of urgency to this initiative. CCS was tasked with creating a comprehensive digital career development resource that is available 24/7 and convenient for students and alumni. Topics started with resumes and interviewing and expanded to everything from portfolios to specific industries.
Goals and Format
Dr. Perlus explains that the project had multiple goals:
- Create a high-quality resource explaining career content in an approachable way— The foundation is a career development model emphasizing understanding yourself, exploring options, and taking action. It subtly incorporates evidence-based techniques and theory, such as Holland’s Theory in the Self-Assessment module.
- Establish one source of information to maintain quality control and provide equitable access—By harnessing an existing learning-management system and putting career resources there, CCS breaks down barriers to student access and normalizes the concept of career education as part of the experience at Cornell. In addition, the location in Canvas gives all users access to all content, even if it is not aligned with the user’s academic unit or field of study. CCS sought campus partner buy-in so there weren’t competing career modules in each of the colleges with contradictory information.
- Build custom interactive tools and worksheets and include real student stories—CCS knows students often just “Google” career information. It wanted to break down concepts step-by-step in a manner that was engaging and interactive. By hearing recent, real stories and examples from other students, the career tips become more concrete and achievable.
The starting point is a Career Readiness module with university-specific tips to build each NACE competency. Other foundational modules include:
- Career Exploration;
- Cover Letters;
- Job/Internship Searching;
- Virtual Career Fairs; and
“Staff members created initial modules by building on materials already in existence at Cornell, such as career guides and web pages,” Dr. Perlus says.
“We developed expertise in the Canvas platform and H5P software that were used to create the interactive components. In addition, a staff member with graphic design skills created consistent graphics to create a unified look and feel.”
CCS staff expanded on the initial modules with in-depth content on job offers (including negotiation scripts), and what happens after you are hired, e.g., preparing for the first day, building professional working relationships. Content experts contributed to broad modules for portfolios, pre-law, pre-graduate, international, entrepreneurship, and research.
Industry-specific modules were built in response to requests from students and looking at Cornell’s first- destination data of the top industries, such as finance, consulting, and software engineering.
“These fields are of interest to students across colleges, so by creating central modules, we expand access in an equitable fashion across the institution,” Dr. Perlus notes, adding that CCS has an extensive reviewing process prior to publishing new content.
“We also created dozens of pages in response to student questions such as ‘How do I find inclusive employers?’ and ‘How do I interact with recruiters?’ In addition, students have confidential access to sensitive topics, such as issues specific to undocumented students, criminal records, and workplace accommodations.”
Most recently, the team published Personal Finance, a module that addresses basic information students need for life after college, such as credit scores, budgeting, and loans. These topics, Dr. Perlus points out, dovetail with students making a career decision or negotiating an offer.
In July 2021, after one year, the Career Development Toolkit had 5,100 users and 10 modules. By June 2023, it had 23,500 users.
“This was due to a coordinated effort to obtain campus buy-in from key partners and permission to invite all undergraduate students,” Dr. Perlus explains.
“Staff report that the modules serve as a structured starting point and a powerful supplement to advising conversations. Faculty have assigned modules as part of their coursework, from landscape architecture to first-year seminars.”
Each module ends with a link to an anonymous survey. Feedback indicates users are pleased with the resource. Dr. Perlus says that CCS staff have limited access to analytics in Canvas and are exploring ways to extract data and explore trends to improve marketing and continue providing effective and approachable online career support.
Dr. Perlus presented to dozens of stakeholders in departments, administration, student services, academic advising, and the career community to get buy in.
“We will continue to invite all incoming undergraduate students to the toolkit and build up graduate student use,” Dr. Perlus says.
“Our hope is that students who found the modules useful will share their own stories to further augment the sections. We also continue to have a lot of interest from our alumni who want to share their expertise and contribute feedback on modules. We have been able to integrate it into this work, which has been very rewarding.”
She hails the work of various members of the Cornell community—including CCS staff, faculty, alumni, academic departments, campus offices and organizations, students, and others—on this initiative.
“It has been an amazing team effort,” Dr. Perlus says.
“The range of stakeholders who have been willing to share their time, expertise, and feedback have all contributed to the success of the Career Development Toolkit.”
Among the lessons the CCS team has learned in developing Cornell’s Career Development Toolkit is it always takes longer than anticipated to create a new module. For example, it is currently working on a module about its career management system.
“We thought that would be so easy because we all use it every day and already have a page on using it,” Dr. Perlus says.
“However, it has been taking months because we're trying to make the module interactive and fun. We need to create step-by-step screenshots and to record a demo. We need to cross-link it with all the other relevant modules, so we do a lot of checks and balances and get a lot of eyes on it. We also ensure that it’s inclusive by including sample student names that represent different backgrounds and feel approachable. It is an extensive process.”
The team also needed to understand that the format of the toolkit does not necessarily work for everyone.
“We want this to be a supplement that's going to work for some students and that will allow us as advisers to better use our time with one-on-one sessions or workshops,” Dr. Perlus explains.
“It's not a magic wand that's going to just impart career development on everyone. Some students really love the interactive aspect; some don't and would rather have conversations. We learned that it’s really about having options.”
Dr. Perlus shares several other recommendations for creating a toolkit similar to Cornell’s Career Development Toolkit:
- Start with what you already have—Every career center has resources on resumes, cover letters, interviewing, networking, and more. Cornell CCS launched its Career Development Toolkit with just four modules and kept building it from there. You don't have to have it all figured out; just start with what you have and know.
- Hold student focus groups and get feedback as you build—During student focus groups, when students took control of the screen and clicked through, they scrolled past text about CCS philosophy and how welcome they are. Instead, they were interested in the pictures and graphics. The students helped CCS staff see how they use the toolkit and what is important to them. It’s never too early to get the students involved.
- Dedicate some time to learning—Learn about your topics and about the process to create and develop modules, such as best practices for web accessibility or HTML. There are many free interactive trainings that you can participate in. This may seem intimidating at first, but start with the basics and grow your knowledge and capabilities.
What’s to Come?
Dr. Perlus says that more toolkit modules are planned, prioritizing those that cross departments, such as public service careers. Many offices chose to reduce or sunset their content and redirect students to the main toolkit, often offering resources such as worksheets or examples in the process.
“We dedicated substantial time to marketing and updating the modules, continually adding concrete examples,” Dr. Perlus explains.
“We plan to incorporate management of modules into staff job descriptions to keep resources up to date. Modules are now a required part of new staff and peer career adviser onboarding so they not only can refer students to the resource, but have a centralized set of information and philosophy of a career approach.”
She says this innovative technology project leveraged existing resources, such as free trainings, university tools, and staff time to build a centralized and comprehensive resource. Because of this, the extra costs were minimal, and any institution could create a similar model.
“With input from alumni, employers, faculty, students, and subject-matter experts, the Career Development Toolkit exemplifies collaboration across a decentralized system,” Dr. Perlus says.
“It is a testament to the excellence of the end product that the career community now considers the toolkit the key source of online career development content at Cornell.”