Elements of a Successful Virtual Internship

Virtual internships are appealing to both students and employers, and because of technology, it is entirely possible for students to complete an entire internship in their sweats and sneakers. That’s both good news and bad news! The good news is the flexibility, and the bad news is that the student doesn’t gain the experience of working in a professional setting.

Some of us in the internships and career services field are skeptical about virtual internships. Over the past few years, at least a dozen questions were posted on the Internship-Net listserv asking others in the field how they manage virtual internships. My internship colleagues and I responded with several ideas about how to sniff out the legitimate opportunities from the scams. Mike True, director of the internship center at Messiah College and the founder and moderator of the listserv, provided some great suggestions for how to structure a virtual internship so the student achieves the maximum benefit from the experience.

I, being a pack rat, had saved all the emails generated from the Internship-Net listserv, and I synthesized the numerous responses, boiling it down to a manageable list. Combining similar ideas that people wrote and adding a few new ones of my own, I created a one-page document, “elements of a successful virtual internship,” that I sent back out to the listserv. A few colleges used these guidelines, and the results were published in the book “InternQube: Professional Skills for the Workplace” by Michael True.

When thinking about how to make virtual internships a viable experience, it’s really no different than what we should expect with an internship in general. Common elements include a meaningful work experience, specific learning goals, and mentoring and feedback from the site supervisor. And, as internship coordinators, we need to do some due diligence on the organizations employing our students.

Whether you are a student, an employer, or a college staff person looking to set some policies, I hope the following criteria will be of benefit. For students, this gives a good checklist of what to look for if you are asked to work in a remote setting. It’s great to have freedom and flexibility, but make sure the employer structures your work experience so you get the most out of it. (Related blog post: “Getting the Most out of Your Internship”)

As you explore the legitimacy of employers and the quality of their virtual internships, consider the following attributes:

Legitimate organization with nothing to hide

  • The organization must be an established, legitimate business or non-profit. Poke around the internet and see what shows up. Find out if they have a physical location, website, employees and/or a history of offering paid employment, listed telephone number, and a tax ID number. The college may choose to authorize a virtual internship with an individual, but that individual needs to agree to a thorough background check.
  • The organization or individual must agree to a site visit from a representative of the college. This site visit may or may not actually occur, but the organization needs to respond favorably to this request.
  • The organization needs to comply with employment laws. In particular, employers must comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and follow the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines for paid versus unpaid internships as outlined in Fact Sheet #71.

Meaningful experience

  • The organization must agree to structure the position so it meets the criteria of a bona fide internship as outlined by NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers:
  1. The experience must be an extension of the classroom: a learning experience that provides for applying the knowledge gained in the classroom. It must not be simply to advance the operations of the employer or be the work that a regular employee would routinely perform.
  2. The skills or knowledge learned must be transferable to other employment settings.
  3. The experience has a defined beginning and end, and a job description with desired qualifications.
  4. There are clearly defined learning objectives/goals related to the professional goals of the student’s academic coursework.
  5. There is supervision by a professional with expertise and educational and/or professional background in the field of the experience.
  6. There is routine feedback by the experienced supervisor.
  7. There are resources, equipment, and facilities provided by the host employer that support learning objectives/goals.
  • To comply with #5 through #7, a virtual internship should include:
    • Use of a company intranet or virtual workspace on a server, or an online project management or document-sharing tool, such as SharePoint, Google Docs, or a similar system. This will allow the supervisor to go online and monitor the work which is to be completed. The work is stored in the “cloud,” not on a single PC, so it is always available to those who need it.
    • A regularly-scheduled report in which the student provides information to the internship site mentor and the academic advisor, such as hours worked, challenges or problems encountered, progress toward learning objectives, and any questions they may have.
    • A weekly virtual meeting on Skype, Google Hangout or a similar technology. This meeting will be used to provide more personalized feedback to the student and correct any issues.
    • If the virtual internship is in the local area (a reasonable drive from campus), the employer needs to meet with the student at the employer’s location or a public place (e.g., coffee shop, restaurant) at regular intervals. This face-to-face meeting is a time for project planning, review of progress made, feedback and mentoring.

Involvement in the organization

  • The organization should make the virtual intern a part of regular operations as much as possible; for example, including them in face-to-face opportunities such as company meetings or client visits.

Clear expectations and outcomes

  • The organization and student (with advisor approval) need to agree on a clear, detailed position description which covers all expectations and outlines what will constitute a successful internship.
  • The student must provide the faculty advisor or internship professor with the outputs of the internship (e.g., written materials produced, analysis completed)

Some colleges might still shy away from virtual internships, but we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water.” As long as the right checks are in place, and students are learning something valuable, I am all for it.

Thanks again to Michael True and all the career services and internship professionals who provided input through Internship-Net

Rich Grant ● www.richcareer.net

Rich 2011Rich Grant has a background in business planning, freelance writing and higher education. Rich was recently the director of career services at a small four-year college in Maine and is currently filling an interim role as a career adviser and internship coordinator at a private college. He serves as the president of two professional associations. Find Rich on LinkedIn and Twitter, and become a regular visitor to his blog where he imparts his words of wisdom once or twice a week.

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