Kemi Jona & Nikki James, Northeastern University (IUSE Award #1725941)
Since 2017, the research team at Northeastern University has been developing a virtual internship and team project model. The original focus of these efforts was to broaden participation in experiential learning for non-traditional and underrepresented students. When COVID-19 caused the rapid transition to remote work and learning, the team realized that the virtual internship model they had been developing could be leveraged to address obstacles to experiential learning presented by the pandemic.
Increasing Experiential Learning Opportunities via Virtual Internships
At the beginning of the pandemic, the research team rapidly adapted their implementation process and opened access to the virtual internship and team projects model as an alternative or replacement to decreasing experiential learning opportunities. The research team focused on training new faculty and providing platforms for universities and community colleges to share their practice as they implemented the model. As a result, 16 institutions serving undergraduate STEM students are at various phases of implementing and scaling the use of virtual internships and virtual team projects to provide much needed experiential learning and real-world projects for their students.
Implications Beyond the Pandemic
The increased use of the model over the past year has afforded the research team the opportunity to better understand implementation challenges, how to maintain the efficacy of the design, and examine which specific mechanics of the model are driving the outcomes.
Key takeaways from implementing virtual/remote internships:
- An internship or capstone project is a complex activity network that is labor intensive for teachers and coordinators to implement and support. Technology (i.e., machine learning and real time learning analytics), if implemented intentionally, can decrease the complexity and labor intensity for the coordinator or teacher, enabling them to support more students and teams without decreasing the quality of the experience for individual students.
- There are elements of value that are lost when transitioning to remote and virtual experiential learning, but there is also value to gain. For example, data breadcrumbs can provide real-time insight into what is happening in each industry partner/student collaboration. Additionally, virtual/remote opportunities can open access to careers and opportunities for students regardless of their geographic location, access to transport, or ability to travel.
Our findings suggest that the learner’s degree of agency while participating in Virtual Internship (that is, the extent to which a learner has agency over the project and the learning they extract from it) is significantly impacted by their teachers’ perspective and subsequent moves in taking up this innovation.
Helpful practices that can be applied by other institutions include:
- Creating an open-source library of various STEM projects that give students project options and ideas that are useful for a variety of businesses and achievable for students in an internship.
- Structuring virtual internship and team project designs that provide students with step-by-step guides for project completion and skill development.
- Establishing strong feedback loops, using technology, from the industry partner or internship host.
- Implementing just-in-time learning content that helps the intern or project team connect the dots between what they have learned in the classroom to how they can apply it to their industry project.
- Crafting a learning analytics dashboard that provides real-time insights for the faculty or internship coordinator so they can effectively support students and industry partners when needed.
- Constructing a professional development course designed to support educators and coordinators in the set-up, implementation, and pilot of a virtual internship or virtual team project.