Algorithms: what we know so far about their impact on student decision making

If there’s one thing we learnt in August, it’s that algorithms have their limitations. As Ofqual and the government try to recover from what can only be described as exam results disaster, we look forward. This blog post will discuss the impact of algorithms in career decision making and the role of the Careers Calendar.

computer algorithm


Firstly, what is an algorithm? In computing, the word algorithm means “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations”. But with the rise of social media and online marketing, algorithmic decision systems (ADS) have become part of our everyday lives. ADS often rely on the analysis of large amounts of personal data to infer correlations or, more generally, to derive information deemed useful to make decisions.

Algorithms aren’t perfect. Not by a long shot. Algorithms are continually evolving, attempting to work out the kinks and provide the best user experience possible. This means they are never accurate, and marketers have to constantly adapt to keep up with changes in social media advertising. Algorithmic decision systems are capable of ranking posts based on criteria that the average person will probably never truly understand. Entrusting ADS to make or to influence such decisions raises a variety of ethical, political, legal, or technical issues. Great care must be taken to analyse and address them correctly. If they are neglected, the expected benefits of these systems may be negated by a variety of different risks. There is the potential for discrimination, unfair practices, bias, limited access to opportunities, manipulation and more.

Twenty councils around the UK have stopped using algorithms to make a number of decisions. The Guardian found that one council stopped using an algorithm to predict which children were at risk of neglect because it wasn’t working. Another two stopped using one because it showed evidence of bias and discrimination towards people applying for benefits. While algorithms seemed like a great way of speeding processes up and taking potential human error out of decision making, it seems that we are now beginning to lose faith in them.

Councils have stopped using algorithms

How this affects career decision making 

Decision making for any product is based on several variables, and career decision making is no different. Academics have studied extensively the variables that contribute to career decisions which might include social, economic, political, religious, and cultural variables. Algorithms are disrupting these variables, influencing decision making subliminally. Social media plays a huge part in this, as targeted ads and posts all come from algorithms.

Because of this, we can infer that: 

Students using social media will have a limited view of the opportunities available to them if social media is their only source of information for making career decisions. 

But, students might be savvier than we think. 

We’ve hosted three placement students at the Careers Calendar in the last twelve months, and we asked them how they made their decisions to study at their respective universities. All three had said that they chose not to go to a particular university because their marketing was too aggressive. It made them appear desperate and insincere. Their algorithms are targeting the right people, but they are too intrusive. This shows that universities have a long way to go in understanding the impact of their social media strategies.

Do you ask students to what extent social media marketing and algorithms have played in their decision making?

What can career professionals do to ensure rounded student career decision making?

Educating young people about how they manage careers information is essential, as well as teaching them on the role of algorithmic decision systems. Furthermore, helping students to understand labour market information (LMI) is also crucial. Although LMI is a dry subject, bringing it to life with resources and stories can be incredibly helpful. In fact, helping students to join the dots between developing markets like green technology and the jobs that might emerge will help them to:

a) have confidence in the future jobs market and

b) understand the relevance of opportunities within the context of their career decision making.

students studying

In addition, career professionals can also ensure that students are getting the full picture. They can host careers events, encourage engagement with a variety of employers and universities, and use a careers platform that doesn’t rely on algorithms. Social media can be a big part of your marketing plan, but we need to let students go beyond it and open them up to all opportunities. They need to see everything, not just those that have an ad spend behind them.

We will never let an algorithm decide a student’s future. 

Does the Careers Calendar use algorithms?

No. We personalise the experience based on student needs. The Careers Calendar doesn’t use algorithms and is 100% impartial. The Careers Calendar aims to break down the barriers to higher education and employment that school students often face. 

We believe in presenting every relevant opportunity to every student. This means that if they are interested in engineering, for example, they can see every single opportunity in that field, from university courses to apprenticeships. Our platform allows students to see what they want when they want, and they have access to everything. 

We will never let an algorithm decide a student’s future.

Want to give your students access to real, impartial information? Sign up here. 

Hungry for more? Tune into Careers Calendar Live, our monthly webinar series dedicated to careers engagement.

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