Expert Viewpoint

Reducing Dropout Rates Through CTE and Interactive Technology

While research from the Association for Career & Technical Education reveals that students concentrating in CTE programs have a graduation rate of 93 percent compared to an average national freshman graduation rate of 80 percent, simply having a CTE program as part of a school’s curriculum is only a start in reducing dropout rates.

To reduce dropout and improve graduation rates, students need — and deserve — CTE programs that are engaging and inspire them to return to the classroom for hands-on training and learning. The learning programs must also enable them to learn job-specific skills and provide direct pathways to future careers or training programs.

Solutions that can help meet this need and enhance the CTE learning experience are virtual and augmented reality. When CTE programs embrace these as part of the teaching and learning process, students are not only more engaged and motivated, but are also directly exposed to training that will set them on the path to job and career success. As a further benefit, interactive technologies can also help students earn industry certifications prior to high school graduation that are critical for job placement and advancement.

Delivering Learning Outcomes with VR and AR

Whether through “virtual reality,” in which students are fully immersed in the content through a head-mounted display or special glasses, or “augmented reality,” in which users supplement their environment with digital content, interactive experiences as part of CTE programs can deliver immediate benefits.

Students are provided hands-on virtual learning experiences that align to course curricula and prepare them for various industry certifications commonly associated with their career pathways. VR and AR supplements programs that require skills like dissection, mechanics, circuitry and more. While not meant to be a substitute for working with real materials, a virtual environment gives students hands-on practice with a skill or technique until they feel confident and comfortable performing it. These skills are immediately transferable to ongoing learning and career training.

Embracing Failing as a Part of Learning

Failing a test or class, or even making a mistake, can be discouraging for students. When frustration mounts and students struggle, students are at an increased risk for disengaging or dropping out.

Using AR and VR in CTE programs offers new avenues to success in learning. Through new technologies, students can “fail forward.” In other words, if a mistake is made the student can quickly and easily try again in a fun, gamified environment. In fact, making mistakes is encouraged, helping students realize that failing is simply part of the learning path. As a result, students are gaining critical training and knowledge, along with soft skills that help them manage setbacks.

Particularly for students at the highest risk of dropping out, this kind of failure safety net can be a game-changer.

The First Steps of a Career Path Prior to Graduation

Interactive learning in CTE programs also delivers equity in learning. This is particularly important in underprivileged schools, or districts whose students may not typically be able to access the most advanced learning and training programs as part of their high school education. Personalized learning experiences in CTE programs expand the opportunities available to students by eliminating consumables, reducing training space and allowing students to practice through virtual and augmented scenarios in a safe environment.

With CTE programs focused on career development, an interactive learning experience enables students not only to have new ways to learn critical skills in a hands-on manner but also to earn certifications in a range of industries.

For example, when learning automotive mechanics, students can practice assembly and disassembly within a virtual shop where safety is guaranteed and practice can be repeated. These experiences prepare them for the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification.

In the area of healthcare, students can embrace self-study experiences, hands-on laboratory dissections, and ECG certification preparation. A recent example is the St. Lucie (FL) Public Schools’ use of zSpace and how it enabled its students to earn industry certifications towards certified medical administrative assistant, certified nursing assistant, certified first responder and certified echocardiogram technician, all prior to high school graduation.

For agricultural sciences, students can use AR and VR for hands-on laboratory dissections for large and small animals and comparative anatomy learning that wouldn’t otherwise be available in a high school classroom setting.

Committing to Program Success

Knowing that CTE is the most highly effective strategy for preventing dropout and promoting students onto successful post-secondary lives, there are a number of different ways educators can approach the integration of VR and AR to ensure it enhances their existing programs.

First, always focus on engaging students in authentic learning experiences that directly correlate to skills and experiences that will benefit them in their future careers. For example, look for interactive experiences that enable project-based learning and other forms of active learning and as a result, meet student needs, academic needs and employer needs.

Next, engage the local business community. How are jobs changing, and what are the skills that students need to be successful? Are there emerging technologies that students can experience through VR and AR to better prepare them for career paths?

To ensure educators are maximizing the learning opportunities of interactive technologies, align professional development efforts to help teachers understand the principles of quality CTE teaching and learning. Teachers and staff need to have the skills to integrate the technological components into the classroom.

Finally, always evaluate! Are the programs and technologies meeting the needs of students, post-secondary educators and employers? Are they generating the results that are needed to ensure future success?

When you think holistically about CTE programs, what schools are looking to do is build a talent pipeline that can easily and successfully transition into careers and training programs. When interactive technologies are a part of the curriculum, students are engaged, stay engaged, and are exploring a specific career goal they can start working towards. VR, AR and MR experiences go a long way in preventing dropouts and developing career-oriented high school graduates.

About the Author

After a career in public education serving as a science and math teacher, elementary principal, high school principal, assistant superintendent and associate state superintendent, Dr. Joe Parlier extended his career in the private sector supporting schools in the implementation of reform initiatives and emerging technology. Dr. Parlier's research interests relate to improving student learning and school performance through a comprehensive emphasis on curriculum, assessment, instruction, professional development, community engagement, leadership, school culture and organizational effectiveness. Dr. Parlier currently serves as the Sr. Director of Education at zSpace and holds degrees from Mercer University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Florida.