WCER Researchers Studying Surge of Online Internships during COVID-19

Study will be among first to tackle 'black box' of student experiences with virtual work-based learning

May 29, 2020   |   By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

As COVID-19 triggers a surge in online internships, little is known about how they affect students' grades and job prospects.

As COVID-19 triggers a surge in online internships, little is known about how they affect students' grades and job prospects.

Education researchers at the University of Wisconsin─Madison are using a new rapid-response grant from the National Science Foundation to rigorously analyze how online internships are influencing academic and career outcomes for a growing number of students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $145,000 award will fund a six-month, mixed-methods study examining college student experiences with online internships in two high-profile ways:

  • Through a look at ‘micro-internships,’ a popular sub-specialty of web-based internships that are very short-term, focused on one task and brokered by a third-party vendor.
  • By studying if and how companies in the prized and competitive science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are shifting their internships to online versions. 

College students and new graduates have flocked to online internships this summer as many traditional face-to-face internships were cancelled in response to the health crisis.

But unlike traditional internships, which have a long history of documented research proving their benefits for students, little is known about how online versions affect students' grades, job prospects and social development. And that’s a disturbing omission, given the steadily increasing use of remote internships by students, colleges and companies since the 2010s, plus a big jump of necessity in the last few months, says Matthew T. Hora, principal investigator on the NSF grant.

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Matthew Hora

“How-to guides for designing remote internships are appearing on the internet like mushrooms after a spring rain,” notes Hora, in a new 23-page review of academic and practitioner literature on online internships he prepared to help guide the new study. “It is no exaggeration to state that the field of higher education is engaging in a massive experiment, in which students are completing online internships with limited evidence to support their usefulness, or their effectiveness in contributing to positive educational or career outcomes for college graduates.”

Hora and co-PI Zi Chen plan to help fill that knowledge gap even as online internships become the “central modality” for work-based learning during the COVID-19 pandemic – and perhaps after it, with the potential for web-centered internships to become a “cornerstone of experiential learning” in higher education, Hora says.

"As more college students pursue online internships, which remain a veritable 'black box' of an educational experience, the educational research community will need to closely scrutinize whether online forms of work-based learning are effective, equitable and truly educational," says Hora, director of the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the university's Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the School of Education.

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Zi Chen

Hora’s review of 35 existing studies and several additional reports and how-to guides about online internships from scholars, career professionals and companies who’ve offered them found few “robust empirical studies,” potential confusion over terms and widely varying practices.  

Known interchangeably as online, virtual or remote internships, web-based forms of internships vary widely by length, hosting arrangements (employer or third-party broker) and degree of adherence to national standards for learning. As a result, different types of internships have unique strengths and weaknesses that are important for students and colleges to understand, such as the quality of assigned tasks and mentoring, the connection to students’ academic work and the degree of socialization into professional cultures.

Existing research also identifies four elements important to developing successful internships for students and employers: good pre-internship orientations for students, sufficient technology, effective supervision and a knack for self-regulated learning.

In general, better overall awareness and potential skepticism is warranted, Hora finds.

“Understanding differences among types of online internships is a critical first step,” he says. “Higher education should be wary about the label of ‘online internship’ being applied to any type of work-based learning experience that also happens to take place in a virtual environment.”

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Student-centered recommendations for online internships from CCWT Director Matthew Hora's new review of academic and practitioner literature.

Hora ends the review with a series of resulting recommendations tailored specifically and sequentially for students, higher education professionals and employers. He also suggests areas of inquiry -- to be tackled in part by the grant-funded study – that need more research, including equity issues, professional network development and factors around internship length.

The grant to Hora and Chen comes from NSF’s Rapid Response Research program, through which the agency is able to quickly process and support research that addresses an urgent need. Earlier program iterations funneled money to scientists to advance understanding of the Ebola and Zika disease outbreaks and to develop methods to contain them, and in response to natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and emergencies like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The NSF rapid-grant awards for COVID-19 are funding dozens of projects designed to bolster national response to the viral outbreak. Hora and Chen expect their project will expand higher education’s knowledge about online forms of work-based learning and provide practical insights for colleges, employers and students on how best to design and operate online internships.

Funding for the NSF grants is provided through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) approved by Congress in March in the last of three bills enacted so far to address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and spur coronavirus research.

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About CCWT: The Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions conducts and supports research, critical policy analysis, and public dialogue on student experiences with the transition from college to the workforce to inform policies, programs and practices that promote academic and career success for all learners.

About WCER: The Wisconsin Center for Education Research conducts studies designed to improve educational outcomes for diverse student populations, impact education practice positively and foster collaborations among academic disciplines and practitioners. It is one of the first and most productive education research centers in the world, helping scholars and practitioners develop, submit, conduct and share grant-funded education research for more than 50 years.

CCWT Review of Academic and Practitioner Literature about Online Internships