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Computer-Based Career Planning Systems: Dreams and Realities.

The authors look back more than 30 years to those who introduced the use of the computer as an important new tool to assist students in the area of career development. To what extent have dreams been realized and concerns allayed? Rapid advances in technology, not included in the authors' vision, have transformed the world into a different place. How have these advances affected the use of computers in counseling? The article concludes with a list of current concerns, along with recommendations for further action and research.

Early in our thinking about this article, we decided to make it not only a summary of facts and findings about the use of the computer as a tool for career planning, from its genesis in 1966 to the end of the millennium, but also a summary of the hopes and dreams of the early developers. We are in a unique position to do both because Harris-Bowlsbey was among the group of first developers, and Sampson is a student of the history, research, and emerging trends of the use of technology to assist individuals with career choice and development.

The development of interactive, computer-based career planning (CBCP) systems became technically possible in 1966 when International Business Machines released the first cathode ray tube. This device, a terminal that could be connected to a mainframe computer by a phone line or cable, could be as far away from the computer as 2,000 feet. Thus, interactive script and data could, for the first time, be sent from the computer to the person at the cathode ray tube, and that person could respond either by selection of a multiple-choice response or by free-form writing. This fact set the stage for the construction of interactive exchanges in support of career planning.

Super facilitated communication among the early developers by means of an annual invitational conference, by editing publications of the early developers (Super, 1970), and by encouraging informal exchanges of papers and results of research and field tests conducted on the various systems. The content of the first part of this article, which addresses the dreams of the early developers, was reconstructed by rereading Computer-Assisted Counseling (Super, 1970), by browsing file copies of papers written by the early developers, and from personal memory.

On the basis of this review of literature and memory, Harris-Bowlsbey describes five dreams of the pioneers in this field. Sampson follows by analyzing the design and use of CBCP systems over the past 30 years to shed light on the degree to which those dreams have been fulfilled and to identify areas of contribution to the field that the developers themselves could not or did not foresee. Finally, we combine our thinking to make recommendations for realizing the dreams of early system developers in the twenty-first century.

Changing How Counselors Do Their Work

CBCP systems had their beginning in the years from 1965 to 1970. During that time at least 12 systems were developed to some level, although not all reached the stage of operation (Myers, 1970). Those systems can be divided into two groups: those intended to use the computer to operationalize what counselors were already doing and those intended to improve on what counselors were doing in some substantial way (Super, 1970). The systems in the first group, illustrated by Autocoun, the Computerized Occupational Information System (COIS), the Education and Career Exploration System (ECES), and the Computerized Vocational Information System (CVIS), analyzed what competent, trained counselors do in their work with students and then tried to emulate or simulate it. The advantages proposed for computer delivery included serving more students with the same number of staff; using the computer to organize, search, and deliver data; using the power of the computer to relate databases of information about students, major s, schools, and occupations to help students make better informed decisions; and making it possible for counselors to deal with higher-level tasks. Super (1970) expressed this dream best with the following statement:

Counsclors who learn how to refer students to computer information or exploration Centers, who know how to make use of printouts, who know how to listen to students who have made or are making use of such centers, who know how to respond to expressions of attitudes and of feelings, and who know how to bring students and opportunities together, will indeed have more opportunity to engage in the more affective and organizing aspects of counseling and guidance. . . . Students and clients will come to counselors with questions and with issues to talk about; the counselor will be able to listen, to ask insight-giving questions, to make interpretative suggestions, to help arrange exploratory and training experiences, and occasionally to suggest more information-seeking or to bring to bear unusual information, for example, atypical strategies for entering or advancing in an occupation. Counseling will move faster, and get further, with larger numbers of people. (p. 107)

Clearly, it was the goal of these systems to use the computer as an important support tool for the counselor and the career planner. Although Super placed his own system, ECES, in this category, ECES actually went beyond what typical high school counselors do when helping students with career planning, specifically by giving attention to clarifying self-concept and to providing an understanding of life stages and developmental tasks.

Other systems, best illustrated by the Information System for Vocational Decisions (ISVD), developed by Tiedeman (1970) and his team, and the System for Interactive Guidance Information (SIGI), developed by Katz (1971) and his team, had intentions beyond those already described. In each case the developer, who had developed extensive theory about the nature of decision making, intended to embody the steps of that decision-making theory in the computer-based system in such a way that the system's users would learn the theory by repetition and gaming and eventually incorporate the theory into their thinking. At that point, as Tiedeman put it, they could throw away the prosthetic device (i.e., the computer) and make choices under their own power. In the case of ISVD, the decision-making process was Tiedeman and O'Hara's (1963) seven-step decision-making paradigm. Tiedeman (1970) expressed his dream in these words:

A system such as ISVD can help inquirers convert impersonal facts or data to personal information, and may thereby lead them to comprehension of epigenesis in their individual patterns of career development through analysis, practice, and understanding of decision-making development. (p. 24)

In SIGI, the decision-making theory was M. R. Katz's (1971) application of the classical utility model of decision making, multiplying probability of reaching a desired alternative by the utility (or value) assigned to it. To implement this model, it was necessary to do extensive research to identify the most salient work values and to develop procedures whereby students and adults could prioritize them. Because counselors do not typically teach students or clients such models, it can be said that these systems had a potential intention of replacing the counselor for the individuals capable of benefiting from a self-help, career-planning resource.

At the end of the twentieth century, the work of the counselor had changed in that computers were used by counselors to foster the career decision making of adolescents and adults. Although there have been no comprehensive national studies that indicate the extent and nature of counselor use of CBCP systems, evidence does exist that these systems are being used in practice (Helwig & Snodgres, 1990; Howland & Palmer, 1992; Sampson, Shahnasarian, & Reardon, 1987). Despite often limited funding for career resources, counselors continue to lease or purchase CBCP systems. Several of the pioneering systems have evolved over time and are still being used, and numerous additional systems have been developed (Sampson et al., 1998). Descriptions of CBCP systems are regularly included in introductory career counseling textbooks. Ethical standards and competency statements in career counseling have been revised to include the use of computer applications (Sampson, 1998). CBCP systems, or elements of CBCP systems, are als o commonly available on the Internet. These developments indicate that CBCP systems have become an established resource in the delivery of career services.

The initial dual nature of CBCP systems (i.e., use in counselor-supported and self-help modes) is evident in practice. Many of the well-established CBCP systems have counseling manuals and curriculum integration guides (Sampson et al., 1998) to help counselors, teachers, librarians, and other staff to integrate system use with individual and group counseling, workshops, and courses offered within an organization. Increasingly, self-help versions of these systems, intended to be used without counseling assistance, are being developed. In a recent evaluation of a CBCP system that was available in both networked (self-help) and staff-supported modes, Watts and Jackson (1999) found that the networked version of [PROSPECT.sub.(HE)] provided increased user access and greater opportunities for integration with other career services, while being viewed as equal to the staff-supported modes in helpfulness. Standards of practice (National Career Development Association, 1997) indicate that self-help systems need to be designed specifically to operate in this mode, need to be validated for this use, and need to indicate the circumstances when counseling assistance is typically needed.

An unforeseen development has been the creation and possible widespread use of inexpensive, unvalidated career-planning software (Sampson & Reardon, 1991). Evidence of the proliferation of these systems can be seen by the number of advertisements that exist and by anecdotal reports that we have received from counselors indicating use of these systems. Although the typical low cost of these systems makes them appealing when financial resources are limited, it is disappointing that counselors are willing to purchase systems without adequate documentation of their validity. The inescapable conclusion is that counselors are either unaware of, or are unwilling to apply, existing professional standards in the selection of career resources.

Systematizing Career Planning While Also Personalizing the Process

Related to the first dream of changing the way counselors do their work was the second dream of developing a standard, although customizable, process for the delivery of career-planning services. Whether the Parsonian (Parsons, 1909) model or one of the other decision-making models already cited is used, the assumption has been that there is a standard process, which can be defined, that a career decider should pursue. That process includes learning about self through assessment, identifying occupational options, learning in detail about those options, valuing and prioritizing options, making tentative choices, and making a compatible educational or employment plan for implementation. Developing a computer-based system implies that the process can be subjected to engineering-type design and captured in computer code.

Each of the early developers had a process in mind and defined it quite precisely and implemented it in their respective systems. In CVIS, for example, Harris (1968) and her team used Roe's (1956) classification system to create that structure. Because Roe's system organizes occupations by eight fields of interest and six educational entry levels, information from student records (specifically rank in class, results of an interest inventory, and students' stated educational goals) was used to identify possible options, provide information about them, provide discrepancy messages as needed, and develop a 4-year high school plan and choices related to further education. Later, DISCOVER used ACT's World-of-Work Map (Prediger, 1981) as an organizing principle. Each developer, however, also recognized the need to program flexibility and customization into the system so that users with different needs, capabilities, and goals could receive different levels of information, get different messages, follow different ex ploratory routes, and develop personalized action plans. In so doing, they hoped to be able to deliver a standard, although customized, approach to millions of career planners, thus assuring a standard level of service for all.

By the end of the twentieth century, CBCP systems had converged in terms of the features that were available and the flexibility that users had to access features that met their needs (Sampson & Reardon, 1991; Sampson et al., 1998). Flexible access to assessment, search for options, information delivery, and action planning are common features of almost all CBCP systems. The uniqueness of various CBCP systems has been maintained through the application of different theoretical foundations for assessments and linkages to occupations.

As developers, practitioners, and researchers gained more experience with CBCP systems, issues of personalizing the process of using the systems became clearer. Previously, some aspects of CBCP systems were confusing or complex. Counselor intervention was often needed to help users successfully negotiate system features. With improvements in system designs over time, less counselor intervention was needed. Despite improved system designs, however, some users still needed counseling support to link system features to their needs, to make sense of what they learned from systems, and to take action to implement their career plans (Sampson, 1997b). In general, individuals with low readiness for career decision making need more support to benefit from career interventions (Sampson, Peterson, Reardon, & Lenz, 2000). Regarding CBCP systems, several factors have contributed to the need for counseling intervention for some users. These factors include limited verbal ability, goal instability and dependence, social and enterprising interests, limited self-knowledge and occupational knowledge, limited confidence, limited motivation, mental health problems, career choice barriers, and misconceptions about CBCP systems (Sampson, 1997b). Although CBCP systems have contributed to systemizing and personalizing the career-planning process for users, some users will need assistance with using the system to personalize career planning effectively

The speed at which the Internet has dominated the delivery of self-help career resources has been largely unforeseen. As we talk with counselors about their use of career resources, most counselors report that they are providing their clients with access to Internet sites to supplement the print and multimedia career, educational, training, and employment information they have traditionally provided. Responding to this trend, CBCP system developers have added links within their systems to selected Internet Web sites that relate to specific user needs (Offer & Sampson, 1999). Examples of links from CBCP systems to external sites include a professional association Web site for a particular occupation, a postsecondary institution Web site that offers education or training for specific occupations, and job banks listing position openings for specific occupations.

Making the Career-Planning Process More Engaging

Important as career exploration and choice making are, it is not always fun or even interesting. Furthermore, reading the printed page is far from actually experiencing the occupation. Each of the early developers recognized this fact, and given the severe limits of the technology, they attempted to make the process more engaging. In the early system called COIS, Impelleteri (1967) used slides to illustrate work tasks and audiotapes to allow users to hear the sounds of the typical work environment as well as comments made by workers, using separate devices under computer control. In ISVD, Tiedeman (1970) used slides to show pictures of college campuses and invested much effort in developing natural language capability so that the user could communicate in his or her own language rather than being subjected to multiple-choice menus. In ECES, Super (1969) used work samples and interactive (question and answer) occupational descriptions to engage users. Both Tiedeman and C. M. Katz (1969) used gaming approaches (to learn about career development and to prioritize values, respectively). In CVIS, Harris (1970) attempted to engage students initially with a game of tic-tac-toe with the computer and with a self-evaluation questionnaire that related to the user's school record to date.

Clearly, the early developers were aware of the need for multimedia approaches, now so common, and the value of graphics, audio, video, color, gaming, simulation, and a high level of interactivity. Although all of those features are now available in a cost-feasible way, the natural language capability so desired by Tiedeman is still not available in a cost-effective way.

Today, the use of still pictures, video, and intuitive graphic interfaces in CBCP system designs has become common (Sampson et al., 1998). Offer (1997) noted that the interactivity afforded by multimedia could be an important factor in motivating younger learners to use career resources. The enhanced interactivity of multimedia-based career information, in comparison with traditional linear text-based career information, helps keep learners focused and engaged in learning (Sampson, 1997a).

The use of multimedia in CBCP systems, however, presents problems as well as possibilities (Sampson, 1997a). The high cost of multimedia development may limit the funds available for creating other, more traditional, types of information needed for career decision making. The validity of multimedia-based career information can be compromised by time-sensitive video images that are quickly out-of-date and occupational stereotyping that is reinforced by inappropriate visual images.

Another approach to making the career-planning process more engaging has involved using CBCP systems in the context of social interaction. Some individuals use interaction with others to help them process information in solving career problems, and they may benefit from interacting with counselors and fellow clients while they use a CBCP system. These individuals may also benefit from counselors modeling information-seeking behavior using CBCP systems and the subsequent counselor reinforcement of client information-seeking behavior (Sampson, 1999b).

Fostering Acceptance and Adoption

As with any innovation, the use of computers for career planning was embraced by some counselors and counselor educators immediately and scoffed at by others. Many counselors expressed concern about dehumanization of the counseling process. Others criticized the potential perception of the computer as a "wise being" that had a set of follow-the-logic answers. Still others feared that the computer would eventually replace career counselors, or at least reduce the need for their services. Whatever the range of attitudes of the professionals who viewed the early systems, their developers hoped and worked to deliver quite opposite results. They hoped that if the computer took care of the repetitive data-processing tasks, the counselor could interact with the student or client at a different knowledge and awareness level, one that would demand a higher level of counseling skills. Developers dreamed that more people would get more help with career planning, and get it in a standard, theory-based way. They predicted outcomes such as increased self-awareness, increased decision-making skill, greater crystallization of vocational choice options, greater occupational knowledge, and overall increased career maturity. Most of all, they hoped and dreamed that counselors would embrace the computer as an invaluable tool and that its use would spread widely and quickly.

To involve counselors, developers took different routes. For example, the developers of one system, Autocoun (Loughary, Friesen, & Hurst, 1966) studied how counselors do educational and vocational guidance and simulated it. Counselors participated as a team in the development of CVIS, which not only had a wide variety of capabilities for students, but also supported counselors through the computerization of student records and transcripts, handled making and changing schedules on-line, and made it easy for counselors to access databases directly rather than going through the more lengthy approaches to identify options that students followed. EGES and CVIS provided reports for counselors about individual student use so that counselors could follow through with individuals after their use of the systems. ECES made extensive efforts, and with success, to involve parents in the career-planning process as well.

The majority of counselors have now accepted that computer applications are appropriate for delivering career assessments, information, and instruction to most clients. Evidence of this acceptance can be seen in the continued willingness of counselors to lease and purchase CBCP systems. The fears that computer applications would dehumanize the delivery of career services have not materialized, because it seems that some type of supportive services are often available (Helwig & Snodgres, 1990; Howland & Palmer, 1992; Sampson et al., 1987). It is likely that the realization that some individuals need counseling support to effectively use CBCP systems has helped counselors recognize that there is a need for a human element to GBCP services. The concern that CBGP systems would be viewed by clients as providing a simple answer to complex career problems is in fact a problem (Osborn, Sampson, Peterson, & Rush, 1997). However, this perception is similar to the common client belief that career assessment results can provide "the answer" to clients' career problems. Counselors have likely used similar strategies for coping with these two related client misconceptions. The replacement of counselors by CBCP systems has not occurred to the best of our knowledge and is no longer cited in the literature as a concern.

Research evidence on the effectiveness of the use of these systems has very likely further enhanced counselor acceptance of CBCP systems. Evidence indicates that CBCP systems improve the generation of occupational alternatives; enhance occupational knowledge; and improve career decidedness, career maturity, and vocational identity. In addition, both users and counselors report that they had positive experiences with using the computer and that they saved time (Sampson, 1997a). It seems that CBCP systems are effective for repetitive data collection, processing, and dissemination. However, there is no evidence about the way that counselors use the time that they have saved by having computers complete repetitive, data-intensive tasks (Sampson, 1986). For example, are counselors seeing more clients for a shorter period of time? Are counselors exploring career issues in greater depth? Are counselors dealing with issues not covered by CBCP systems?

Although questions about acceptance of CBCP systems seem to have been resolved, the adoption of systems remains problematic. Implementation problems have undoubtedly detracted from the effectiveness of CBCP systems. Implementation difficulties have been documented in the areas of planning, integration of systems into career services, training, and staff anxiety and resistance (Sampson, 1997a). In a study of the implementation effectiveness of a CBCP system, training and staff collaboration were identified as key factors contributing to effective implementation in high schools (Sampson & Norris, 1997). More careful attention by counselors to systematic system adoption is needed to ensure that the positive outcomes identified in this article are consistently realized.

Reducing Costs and Improving Capability

The early systems were expensive to develop and expensive to deliver. A mainframe computer at the time of development of these systems cost approximately $9,000 per month to lease. It had from 48K to 64K of memory and a variable number of tape devices that could be used for data storage. The mainframe of the late 1960s could potentially support 15 workstations simultaneously. Not only at the beginning but also during most of the lifetime of computer-based systems, the hardware has been significantly more expensive than the software. Even when predictions began to emerge that at some time software would become more expensive than hardware, it was difficult to believe. So early developers tried to achieve cost feasibility by pointing out how many other functions in addition to career guidance, including batch-processing functions and instruction, a mainframe computer could perform on a 24-hour shift. They also built cost-feasibility models on data regarding how many additional persons could receive services bot h from the existence of the system itself and from the spare hours that counselors would have to provide service to more individuals.

The costs of CBCP systems have declined; at the same time there have been dramatic increases in the capabilities of CBCP systems. At present, hardware costs are relatively stable, whereas software costs are variable across systems with some system costs still declining. Although anecdotal reports that we have received from counselors indicate that some organizations have so little funding for career resources that CBCP systems are not being used, the majority of organizations have enough funding to lease or purchase one system.

One area of growing uncertainty is the source of funding for the ongoing development and delivery of CBCP systems on the Internet. A mixture of license fees, user fees, and government appropriations currently covers the cost of system development and delivery for systems based on personal computers. Although the cost of delivering a CBCP system on the Internet is relatively low, the cost of developing quality, up-to-date information remains high. Because some career assessments and information are now delivered free of charge over the Internet, many developers are concerned that adequate revenue will not be available to develop quality systems because of the expectation that using the Internet should be free. Currently, many system developers also provide organizations with assistance in integrating CBCP systems into career service delivery through implementation manuals, customer service, and training. These resources help organizations in developing career services for those users who need a supportive env ironment to effectively use a CBCP system. This capacity to help organizations to better integrate CBCP systems in practice is unlikely to be duplicated by an Internet-based, CBCP system that operates on small profit margins in a distant location. It is ironic that a lack of adequate funding may result in better user access to inferior assessments and information delivered on the Internet (Sampson, 1999a).


In light of the dreams and realities already discussed, the following recommendations are made to improve the availability and effectiveness of CBCP systems:

1. More research is needed on the extent and nature of client and counselor use of CBCP systems. The effectiveness of self-help and counselor-assisted use of CBCP systems for various types of users also needs investigation. The use of inexpensive, unvalidated CBCP systems should also be explored.

2. The extent and nature of client use of the Internet from CBCP systems need to be examined to determine the most effective way to use this latest innovation in technology.

3. The use of multimedia elements in CBCP systems needs to be evaluated to determine the best way to maximize the benefits from expensive technology.

4. Best practices in CBCP-system implementation need to be identified, described, and disseminated to create a context for effective system use in self-help and counselor-assisted modes.

5. System developers, policy makers, and counselors need to explore stable funding options for CBCP systems on the Internet that will maximize access for users but not compromise system quality.


The dreams articulated by early developers of CBCP systems have been at least partially achieved and are as valid today as they were in 1966. Fully achieving these dreams has more to do with applying career theory, conducting research, and implementing systems based on good professional practice than on any advances in technology.

JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey is executive director of the Career Development Leadership Alliance in Finksburg, Maryland. James P. Sampson, Jr., is a professor and is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Technology in Counseling and Career Development at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Appreciation is expressed to Janet G. Lenz, Robert C. Reardon, and Sandra M. Sampson for their comments on initial drafts of this article. Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, 1600 Green Mill Road, Finksburg, MD 21048 (e-mail:; Internet:


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Title Annotation:historical view
Author:Sampson Jr., James P.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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