The transition to remote learning has left educators across the country reeling. For career and technical education (CTE) teachers and administrators, that shift has been compounded by the project-based nature of their programs, the need for specialized equipment, and the focus on in-person assessments. Imagine trying to teach woodworking without a lathe, or automotive technology without a lift. It’s hard to picture—let alone do. “If the goal is to create workforce-ready students, then watching someone else do something is not enough,” explains Angie Koontz, school counselor at Somonauk High School in Somonauk, IL.

So, how can CTE educators and administrators plan for an uncertain future and ensure that students have robust educational experiences and access to materials regardless of location? Sam Johnston, director of workforce and development at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) recommends educators start by thinking about assessment. “CTE teachers are used to designing real-world projects and conducting hands-on assessments. In a remote learning environment, they are no longer able to use those same strategies. As administrators and educational designers, we need to ask ourselves what mechanisms we can create to help CTE teachers design assessments that increase engagement and result in meaningful outcomes for all learners.”

Purposefully Design Assessments for Remote Learning

Strong assessments have three common characteristics, explains Tracey Hall, senior research scientist and instructional designer at CAST. They include relevant applications, information that stimulates thinking, and samples of observable behaviors that help students understand the product they are being asked to produce.

In traditional in-person CTE classrooms, these characteristics happen naturally. For example, CTE programs are designed to teach skills and then provide students with ways to apply these skills. In traditional CTE classrooms, teachers also naturally model workplace-related behaviors, since all CTE teachers have worked in the career field they are teaching. Plus, when teaching in person, CTE educators typically use formative hands-on assessments to observe students’ thinking and ensure connections are being made.

In remote learning environments, CTE teachers can no longer rely on these same natural strategies. It can feel impossible to offer students multiple ways to demonstrate learning since you can’t see what they are doing, and you don’t know what access they have to equipment, the internet, and even time, Hall notes.

One approach CTE teachers can take is to focus on developing more foundational skills, like design thinking or problem-solving, as opposed to addressing very technical or specific skill acquisition. Instead of focusing on training for a particular machine, CTE teachers in remote environments might consider the skill set they would want students to have to work on any device in that shop or in that lab space.

Another focus area for CTE teachers in remote environments could be teaching students how to learn. No matter what career pathway they choose, all students will face novel challenges that require them to do research and acquire knowledge independently. CTE teachers should consider purposefully helping students develop skills related to researching and analyzing information and making decisions with the information they find. Knowing how to learn is an essential skill that can be taught in any learning environment.

Leveraging Technology

Sean Callanan, director of CTE programming in Somerville Public Schools in Somerville, MA, hopes CTE teachers of the future will have digital tools and apps that help them to capitalize on what they are already doing well—tools that facilitate engagement, increase access, encourage choice, and provide mechanisms for meaningful assessments for all learners. “I want CTE schools, teachers, and administrators to be leading the way even in remote learning environments,” Callanan says.

That’s why he has signed on to help research and develop STEMfolio, a fully customizable, universally designed software app that supports the documentation of industry-relevant skills and knowledge in CTE classrooms.

STEMfolio was initially developed and used within a national pre-apprenticeship program funded by the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act in order to help out-of-school young people demonstrate authentic science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and build a portfolio to make them eligible for STEM careers. STEMfolio enables teachers to create assessments—called challenges—quickly and easily. Challenges can be used as formative or summative assessments, but either way, the tool is designed with built-in space for choice around how students demonstrate evidence of skill.

Within the tool, students are prompted to tag programs—social media style—and state specific competencies that they identify and align with the evidence they are trying to show. Finally, STEMfolio is designed to collect all the challenges the student creates in a portfolio, which they can then arrange and share with future employers or postsecondary institutions through an online link or printed document. “We can’t replace hands-on learning, but what STEMfolio gives us is a way to keep that back-and-forth kind of teaching going even in remote learning environments. It supports students’ autonomy and it’s not just an authoritarian way of teaching,” Callanan says. The “comments” feature in STEMfolio allows teachers to address misconceptions in thinking, which happens very naturally in in-person CTE classrooms.

The design of STEMfolio also helps students better understand competencies, Callanan says. Through the program, students naturally connect the competency they are being assessed on with the evidence they show, making it possible for them to transfer understanding and knowledge.

Since STEMfolio was created using Universal Design for Learning—a framework for removing barriers and increasing learning for special populations and traditionally marginalized students—the tool inherently increases student access. This is huge for Callanan. “One thing that was really made clear as we survived the three months of remote learning was the need for access. So many students don’t have the internet, but they can access Wi-Fi at the library or at McDonalds. That’s one of the beauties of this tool. It’s cloud-based and designed native to the phone,” he says.

Callanan is excited to use STEMfolio this school year because he thinks it will help develop more formal collaboration between academic classes and CTE programs. “One of my favorite parts of the tool is the way it can work side by side with academics. We could share a CTE challenge with the math department. For example, engineering students might be designing a floor plan, and then we can ask math teachers to help us design the challenge and give it to their students. I don’t know of any other platforms that do that.”

Looking Ahead: Access and Equity

Of course, STEMfolio offers just one glimpse of what may be to come in the CTE field. Additional resources that CTE directors and educators are considering include virtual reality and online work-based learning. But no matter what learning environment educators are working in or what technology they are using, equity and access are critical.

Looking to the future, Callanan wants to use the experience of teaching during COVID-19 to position the staff at Somerville to be ready for whatever comes their way. “We need to do whatever it takes to make it possible for CTE educators to continue to provide the amazing learning experiences that come through our programs,” Callanan says.

Amanda Bastoni, EdD, is an educational research scientist at the Center for Applied Special Technology.