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Online internships: the same but different

 

Online internships have their place in a world where remote working is here to stay and where flexibility, accessibility and sustainability are valued. Culture and community can be created virtually.  However physically being in the overseas setting offers its own unique benefits.  

  

Understanding the respective benefits of an international internship overseas vs. online will put you in a better position for advising students – and arm you with options for them they may not know exist. 

 

One of the instant impacts of Covid-19 spreading to Europe in March 2020 was the rapid need for study abroad providers / International Education Organizations (IEO’s) to continue their courses in an online setting. This was as true for those running internship placements as for any other course. Any former musing over the value of online internships prompted an internal call at many providers for all hands-on deck and a move into previously unchartered waters. 

Research on remote working and online learning took centre stage and dispelled any reservations of the legitimacy or utility of online internships. The subsequent - and for many IEO’s unforeseen - demand from both students and site placements in English language destinations such as London and Dublin brought purpose to this sea change.  

After a tumultuous six months around the globe, it is time for recalibration and reassessment:  are online internships something of a mainstay offering or are they simply a stop-gap in these strange times?  

 

The Changing Nature of Work and Internships  

In 2008, FIE’s (now) Chief Academic Officer, Julie Ann Andreshak prepared an internal document entitled The Changing Nature of Work and highlighted the following key areas: 

  • Blurring of professional/personal time and space(e.g. homeworking, flexi-time)
  • Increased worker control over space and time
  • Entrepreneurship/micro-businesses/multiple businesses in one

The internal document included a discussion which would not have been out of place at the start of 2020: 

“The fact is, in a modern workplace supervision often takes place at a distance and through technology. Interns are sometimes asked to bring their own computers to the workplace.  Interns themselves are, on occasion, asked to work from home.  Individual entrepreneurs are often starting or running multiple businesses simultaneously, and there are business complexes that house many start-ups where staff, interns and other resources are shared.  Students are often still expecting a more fixed sense of time and space and tasks that are clearly labelled and defined instead of flexible and fluid.  We need to continue to prepare our students and our partners for these realities.  What new realities might we see in the workplace in the next ten years?” 

The themes that were highlighted were not new back in 2008 and have been embedded as part of the fabric of work culture in many societies this century. The fact is, even in a pre-Covid 19 world, these trends factored into how companies work with interns and highlight what interns should expect in the workplace.    

Yet, educators continue to grapple with the changing work landscape - something which has been given credence by mass home working in the months immediately following Spring 2020.  

Specifically, how far what has been taking place onsite and in-country is compatible with the professional, personal and cultural learning outcomes as set out in the curriculum.   

 

Back to Basics – keeping focus on the goals of an internship 

The advent of Covid-19 has compelled many in the sector to refocus attention on the core of what is delivered in an internship.  Looking at what an internship is in its most basic form and assessing whether the concept of an internship will hold its shape if conducted entirely over the internet - not to mention across many time zones - is a starting point.  The University of Maryland defines an internship as:  monitored work experience that has intentional learning outcomes and goals for students.  Internships: 

  • Consist of educationally enriching projects with learning objectives, quality training and supervision, and regular feedback. 
  • Have assignments and projects that are related to the student's major or career interests.  A minimal amount of an intern's assignments should include clerical work. 

As with any educational delivery, the key is to always allow content to drive process.  And, as the process (the internship placement) does not have any characteristics inherent that require onsite participation, this paves the way to being creative in its delivery.   

All of the ‘must-haves’ of the placement can happen remotely:  this planned, monitored, structured experience with meaningful work and supervision is not tied to time or space.  If there were doubters of remote working as it has developed over the years, it has rapidly become clear that many office jobs and types of work can be successfully executed working from home.   

 

Is Remote Working ‘Experiential’? 

Another test of whether online internships fit into a particular portfolio is whether they are truly ‘experiential’.  At minimum, ‘experiential’ is learning through doing, learning through experience.  FIE’s own definition of what is experiential is as follows: 

Experiential learning is a philosophy and methodology which engages learners purposefully in direct experience, focused reflection, and authentic assessment in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and strategies, clarify values, and apply prior learning.   

Experiential learning can take place almost anywhere – the classroom, the community, or the workplace. The learning is not defined by its physical location, but rather its structure incorporating first-hand experience.  

An internship conducted in an online environment, asynchronously, can align with this definition.  Space and time are not barriers to allowing this opportunity to count as ‘experiential’.  A solid, purposeful, planned and interactive experience is fully possible in an online environment.   

Litmus tests passed.  What are the differences that have created an equitable although not equal experience?   

 

Value Alignment 

The ‘content’ of both online and in-person internships is only half of what rationalizes and legitimises the online option.  An internship provider or a counsellor / advisor speaking to students about internship options will run an online internship most effectively is the goals are rooted in firm values.  

Inclusivity, accessibility and sustainability for instance relate most directly to taking up the opportunity to do an internship from home.  Study Abroad is cost-prohibitive for many students.  Some may not have the time due to family or work commitments to go to another country to intern.  Accessibility needs might mean that certain locations have too many obstacles to participation onsite.  

The flexibility of an online placement means that interns can arrange their work around other commitments to a significant extent. And, the carbon footprint caused by international travel and the daily commute are eliminated.   

 

Remote Internships vs In-person: A Benefit Swap 

In remote working - be that an internship or regular employment - the benefits are many but there are downsides, as well.  The commute (particularly if you are in an urban area) can be stressful and expensive, but it also is a window to the culture in which the intern is living.  The tempo of the city is felt through this shared experience.   Working side by side with colleagues and having face-to-face meetings is often seen as achieving a level of social cohesion - and presents opportunities for cultural learning as it is generally understood.   

  • What about culture 

An internship in the study abroad context will undoubtedly emphasize culture-learning and cross-cultural skills development.  And, that which is learned in an overseas work setting translates into a multicultural workplace in the US.  Hence, even if the study abroad student never worked overseas again, the experience would have great value.  Over the decades, these two environments have merged and the borders have blurred.   

Add to this organizational culture and to that the multiple cultural identities of the student themselves, and what is created is a 3D culture machine with many cogs.  With an online internship, this transnational reality is then realised over digital means.  This layering of cultural contexts is fodder for the development of a myriad of intercultural and digital skill sets.  Hence interns can work not only on developing their intercultural competence, but also their virtual competence.   

According to Wang and Haggerty (2014), Individual virtual competence (IVC) comprises of three areas – virtual social skills, virtual media skills and virtual self-efficacy.  It forms a set of predictors of success in the online work environment.  Unpacking the experience with these lenses and conducting skills assessments can work as powerful tools for preparing interns for the world of work. 

  • A Sense of Community 

Interns working remotely cannot have the same social experience as staff who rub elbows in the workplace.  Being off-site is compounded by being off-time (asynchronous).  Depending on the time difference, there is less time in a day to work collaboratively and interact in real-time.  

Ironically, while education has looked to emulate the workplace for years, offering students opportunities to do ‘group work’ (the bane of many students’ lives, as it happens) students are actually well-versed in working independently and receiving feedback in written form and after the passage of time.  Time-management, self-motivation and autonomy are skill areas that students can hone over the course of an online internship.   

The socializing that is common in offices around the world (although takes place in different ways in different cultures) can and has been replicated via quizzes, conversations or musical activities taking place over the internet.  These activities may not be the same as their face-to-face equivalents but they can promote a sense of community within a work group that is disparate or amongst interns from one provider but working at different companies.   

Mentorship by the educational institution offers an important space for social interaction and development for the intern, allowing them to have help in addressing any challenges or puzzlements along the way, unpicking possible cultural misunderstandings or logistical troubles.    

The faculty assigned to assess the interns from an academic point of view plays a key role in helping the intern process their learning experience, to expand their skills and knowledge during the time at the placement as well as helping them articulate their takeaways.   

The onsite supervisor must take an even more focused approach to guiding and managing when interns and other employees are not in the same physical or temporal space.  

Hence, community does exist in the world of the online internship.  It just looks to be a different animal.    

  • Logistics 

The biggest challenges many students have faced in going online to participate in an internship is being able to create an appropriate working environment within their placement.  The realities of internet connections, and shared spaces with roommates and family members can present obstacles for comfortable and focused working.  

However, as coffee shops, hubs, libraries and other venues reopen, opportunity exists for interns to have the working environments they want and need.  Moreover, as time goes on, a consideration for these needs will be built-in to career-readiness where some or most of the job activity will take place online.   

 

Retraction or Expansion? 

The era of ‘work from home’ has never been more prevalent.  Research data shows that there has been some level of online internship participation for around 20 years.  The events of 2020 mean that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.  Expectations of employees to have some options in working flexibly across time and space are firmly entrenched.   

This type of working certainly does not suit every role and every set of tasks, but work that is project-based and does not require a lot of real-time contact is great material for online internships as it mirrors the world of work as it has now been reimagined.  And, there are certainly benefits of face-to-face interactions even if most of the work can be done off-site.   

As long as a student or their advisor understands that remote and face-to-face internships both have their respective advantages, both experiences will bring benefits if the internship provider has built the programs rooted in robust values.  Hence, internship opportunities whether in the US or abroad that blend the two types of experience can allow the student to select the most rounded experience according to their personal circumstances. 

 

FIE is the UK and Ireland’s expert study abroad provider. We offer immersive study abroad, enabling students to transform life-changing cultural experiences into personal and professional advantages 

We believe international work experience increases employability and enables students to discover the career path they would like to take.  As a not-for-profit organization, all revenue is reinvested into supporting students to flourish 

We offer online internships and traditional internships taken as part of our International Internships Course.  We offer semester and quarter courses, first year programming options and concentrations such as Leadership London and Comparative Public Health.  Our Student Global Leadership Conference every spring attracts students from across the USA, the UK and wider Europe

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