Virtual Internships are not just a fad

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Are virtual internships just a second-best option to cope with the current crisis or a unique opportunity to provide long-lasting impact? Before jumping to the conclusion that virtual internships and e-service-learning projects are a current fad, let us look back at such programs before the pandemic. Not only do virtual internships and e-service learning projects have a history, but they have been implemented by universities, companies and leading organizations with amazing results for years!

NASA and other US Departments have 
virtual internships since 2009

One long standing innovator in virtual internships, you will be surprised to know, is the US Department of State with one of the  largest virtual internship programs in the world! Its Office of eDiplomacy created the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) in 2009 that is considered one of the most innovative programs for aspiring government workers.[i] The Office of eDiplomacy is a part of the State Department that focuses on using technology to make diplomacy more effective. Through the VSFS program, students apply to pursue projects in one of 21 government agencies including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Each year, hundreds of students work on projects such as finding innovative ways to promote renewable energy at NASA or designing a global innovation platform for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). If cutting edge organizations such as NASA have been employing virtual interns since 2009, you can bet there is something of value there.

Virtual Internships are not just for business students  

Virtual internships are usually associated with business students. But innovative online internships in fields such as theatre have also been taken up by students before the crisis. One example is a Shakespeare and Theatre studies student at the University of Birmingham who undertook a Literary Liaison Virtual Internship with Silk Road Rising, a Chicago based non-profit theatre and video company. Her main goal was to promote a key play “Mosque Alert” to theatre companies in the UK, US, and Canada, and to English-speaking theatre companies in continental Europe[ii]. The student stated, “I enjoyed the cultural exchanges I experienced working with Silk Road and learned a lot about the social and political structures of a large US city (Chicago)…..I benefitted from working in a collaborative way and felt that the project was truly a joint venture.”[iii]

Studies going back to 2015 have found that students consider virtual internships to be beneficial. One study (that explored how virtual internships are perceived by European students) found that students feel it as an important and innovative approach by offering an effective way of applying students’ academic knowledge in a modern corporate environment, regardless of the intern’s physical or financial limitations[iv]. Students believed the requirements of virtual internships are not very different from real-life internships but emphasized that constant communication and regular feedback between the company, intern and university was crucial[v].

E-service learning has been 
used by Universities

E-service-learning is another innovative learning program that has been used successfully in the past by universities and students. Service-learning is a method of learning through active participation in organized experiences that meet community needs[vi]. E-service-learning occurs when the instructional component, the service component, or both are conducted online[vii]. A service-learning project based on virtual exchange in the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED, Spain) in 2015-16 provides an interesting example. The project involved Spanish students from UNED’s Faculty of Education enrolled in fourth-year Social Education Degree and African students from the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) of Porto Novo (Benin) who were enrolled in second- and third-year teacher-training courses for Spanish-language teachers[viii]. The project aimed to strengthen the proficiency of Spanish language teachers in Benin through collaboration with Spanish students. It also provided Spanish students an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of educational cultures, realities, and teaching styles. The students from Benin found these online classes to be very rewarding and would even like to continue learning in this way. One of the students wrote to his teacher, “Thank you for this experience. I was unsure about participating because I didn’t feel confident about my fluency… but Marta [a Spanish student] was a real ‘facilitator’ ”[ix] One Professor points out “E-service-learning has also added new opportunities for busy students to help domestic and overseas NGOs, as well as local governments in other states. Students help with everything from disaster planning to food waste and hunger issues.”[x] Designed carefully and with clear intent, virtual service-learning programs can be a powerful instrument for change.

These examples provide a clear case for virtual internships and e-service-learning, not as second-best options, but as programs that can provide affordable opportunities for students and create impact for organizations.

References:

  1. https://sgsup.asu.edu/virtual-foreign-service-internship-program-us-federal-government
  2. https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/employability/careers/documents/public/internships-document/Julia-Hammond-Virtual-Internship-PDF-440KB.pdf
  3. https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/employability/careers/documents/public/internships-document/Julia-Hammond-Virtual-Internship-PDF-440KB.pdf
  4. Medeiros et al, Using Virtual Internships as an Innovative learning technique, 2015 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), 2015
  5. Medeiros et al, Using Virtual Internships as an Innovative learning technique, 2015 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), 2015
  6. Waldner et al, E-Service-Learning: The Evolution of Service-Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population, E-Service-Learning: The Evolution of Service-Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population
  7. Waldner et al, Waldner et al, E-Service-Learning: The Evolution of Service-Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population, E-Service-Learning: The Evolution of Service-Learning to Engage a Growing Online Student Population
  8. https://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/578/331
  9. https://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/578/331
  10. https://theconversation.com/social-distancing-is-no-reason-to-stop-service-learning-just-do-it-online-137034
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