University of Wisconsin–Madison

Supporting Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Educational Representatives

Guest contribution from Debora Jeske

Over the course of the last few months, many students have had to find alternative internships and employment. This has meant that many Career Services departments and especially internship coordinators have had to quickly review, update, and extend their support and guidance. It has been my pleasure to be able to support several colleagues in different countries with their transition. As a consequence of these discussions, I have decided to summarize some of my thoughts for educational representatives worldwide who are looking for a more comprehensive introduction to the topic.

The following post outlines my recommendations to educational representatives supporting employers and students seeking virtual internships.

Getting started

When it comes to virtual internships, and specifically e-internships with employers, universities and colleges have the task of educating three different groups about these learning experiences. First and foremost, this means all the relevant educational representatives that are employed in the higher education. Second, their students who may become virtual interns. And third, the various kinds of employers that offer internships.

Creating a common understanding among all educational representatives

Getting started requires university representatives in various offices to have a common understanding of what virtual internships are and what they require. There is some confusion due to the use of other terms such as remote internships or computer-mediated internships. In the current blog, I refer specifically to the term e-internships: Virtual internships that students take up with an employer, rather than simulated work experience in virtual environments. This distinction is important as there are different forms of virtual internships, which may cause confusion for employers and potential interns alike. Thankfully, several resources have been published in 2020 and in previous years which provide useful guidance (see CCWT resources for more information).

To ensure a common understanding of what virtual internships may offer, it is important for all educational representatives to jointly discuss what kind of internships they feel would benefit their students the most. For example, traditional internships have different characteristics compared to virtual internships, especially e-internships. Organizations that offer such internships may be more diverse, remote, smaller and may offer internships of varying quality and length. Furthermore, the technical requirements for such internships, (that is the need for students to have and acquire the appropriate skills (especially digital skills, communication skills and online awareness) have implications for how well students are prepared during their studies.

Several groups within higher education may need to be briefed and consulted to ensure that as many students as possible are informed about and can access virtual internships. This includes lecturers as they often discuss career opportunities in class or as part of graduate schemes in their disciplines. Colleagues in career services and in disability support services, internship coordinators, alumni association representatives, campus and business ambassadors will need to learn about virtual internships, understand good practices, and be enabled to make appropriate recommendations to their students. In addition, research active faculty may also be able to offer virtual internship opportunities in collaboration with other research institutions in their own and external institutions (which may include commercial labs, research organizations, and community-based groups).

Ensuring students have access to advice

Identifying shared goals, potentially compatible or combinable resources and contact persons across faculty, research groups, and administrative support offices ensures that there is a robust support infrastructure available to students.

Some aspects may need a more concerted effort among multiple educational representatives simultaneously. For example, while career services and internship coordinators are often the key advisors when it comes to internships, it would be helpful if students could additionally consult their lecturers, alumni, and departmental representatives to review potential internship offers (pre-screening). Similarly, many different representatives may be required to ensure that all students receive digital skills training in classes, that they are continuously encouraged to network (e.g., by identifying potential role models) and take part in career explorations (e.g., by conducting informational interviews). These steps will ensure that students can seek support from numerous representatives, learn how to manage their online profile, build their network during their education, and are sufficiently skilled to make good internship selection and application choices.

Organizing appropriate guidance for students

Having created a common understanding, students can then be provided with the appropriate guidance such as the pros and cons, their options, and potential recommendations for their interviews. Furthermore, students may need some technical assistance to ascertain which technical requirements and software they have (in terms of their own laptops and smartphones) and what kind of hardware and software they can access (or borrow). Making licenses available and opening tutoring on specific software packages to interns from different faculty may ensure that students without the hardware or software knowledge are able to apply for internships that may require them to have their own hardware or software.

As it stands, most higher education institutions will be well situated to provide guidance. Colleges and universities, and often Business Schools too, tend to have guidance that can be repurposed, extended, and updated (especially when it comes to career development, internships, technical assistance, networks). Many internship coordinators keep testimonials from interns about their experiences, which can enable students to connect to those interns who have completed traditional or virtual internships with specific organizations in the past.

Making existing resources available to students and internship providers

Another opportunity exists in terms of reviewing the use of existing training resources (which may be specific to departments or staff). For example, many staff training sessions focus on health and safety training, ergonomics training for healthy posture and working, time management training, and similar. Other examples include introductory training around GDPR or CCPA (consumer privacy and data protection regulation) or how to manage work life balance. Making these available to students getting ready for internships, means resources can be made available to students at minimal cost. In addition, many departments may have online modules that could be helpful (e.g., modules that cover employment contracts, sales pitches). Making these resources available to students – rather than restricting them to staff or departments – before or during internships may reduce the advisory burden for educational representatives, but also company representatives.

Making more resources readily available will benefit higher education institutions in other ways. For example, many smaller employers, non-governmental organizations (such as charities and community groups) may hesitate to hire potential interns because they lack the necessary training resources and experience for internships. If educational institutions can provide interns with access to many of these resources, many smaller internship providers may reconsider their stance.

Educating and preparing potential internship providers

The move from traditional to virtual internships raised questions for many employers. While most organizations know what they can gain from traditional internships, they may not realize that many benefits can similarly be produced in virtual internships. Prior research has shown that virtual internships present unique mentoring opportunities for staff and offer another avenue to identify potential future hires. In addition, interns can deliver strategic insights for development and change in the organization by providing external expertise, a different perspective and skill set. This sets the stage for a mutually beneficial knowledge exchange and organizational learning experiences. Many experts have produced appropriate guidance to help employers reap those benefits when they become internship providers.

A number of educational institutions as well as internship platform providers have created handbooks as well as internship templates for contracts, applications, and similar for employers who have fewer resources (such as small and medium enterprises) or organizations that have no prior experience with internships. Educational representatives (e.g. from the career services, the Business Schools or Law Schools) may play a critical role in creating these resources by outlining the main elements for key documents. This might include the template for an internship contract, an outline of a potential learning agreement (outlining what training the intern will receive and what skills the intern aims to develop), and confidentiality agreements. Further documentation could help students and interns to understand the requirements for internships completed for academic credit (workload, hours, supervision, documentation, timelines and helplines or contacts).

In addition, it may be worthwhile to organize templates for students and employers that require both to do a tech/software check. This may be critical in those instances where students need to use their own hardware or software. Learning more about their own tech will enable interns to assess basic hardware or software compatibility. By conducting these checks, internship providers are also able learn about what kind of software license or even hardware they need to purchase for their internship schemes.

Using feedback loops to ascertain students’ and employers’ internship experience

While these handbooks or templates will assist employers interested in becoming internship providers, this documentation will likewise communicate three specific messages: First, internships are learning experiences, so they need to include opportunities for learning and support. Second, internships should feature opportunities for interns to network, receive feedback and build career-related skills and connections. And finally, employers have a duty of care for interns as for their employees. These messages will be reinforced by regular monitoring of internship experiences and evaluation rounds. Testimonials will provide further insights. Regular quality assessments can moreover generate insights that can be fed back by educational representatives to employers, providing them with suggestions for improvements and praise as they get ready to host their next internship round.

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About Dr. Debora Jeske

Debora is a work and organizational psychologist in Berlin, Germany (PhD 2011, Northern Illinois University). In addition, she has worked in education in the US, UK, as well as Ireland where she is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at University College Cork. Debora has researched virtual internships for almost ten years in various countries and continues to collaborate with practitioners and academics on a number of projects related to remote work, e-HRM, as well as learning and development at work.

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