COVID-19 and Social Distancing Do Not Need to End College Internships

UW−Madison education researcher authors new guide to web-based alternatives

April 7, 2020   |   By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

WCER researcher Matthew Hora has authored a guide for moving internships online during the COVID-19 outbreak.

WCER researcher Matthew Hora has authored a guide for moving internships online during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Even as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic looks poised to cancel traditional college internships over the next three to four months, a new resource guide for colleges, students and employers developed by University of Wisconsin−Madison education researcher Matthew T. Hora points the way to a host of web-based alternatives for these important on-the-job learning opportunities.

In the guide, Hora suggests that many face-to-face internships can be salvaged by carefully redesigning them as online or micro-internships for students and new graduates seeking real-world work experience or a bridge to a permanent job.

“It is likely that many of the nation’s, if not the world’s, internships will be moving online in the near future,” notes Hora, director of the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the university’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research. “At this point in time, they can provide students with a safe, work-based learning experience that is grounded in an authentic task or project for a firm or organization.”

While inevitably not offering all the same benefits as face-to-face internships – especially hands-on training with specialized equipment and certain aspects of mentoring -- virtual internships done the right way can provide many advantages for students, he says, including:

  • New professional contacts.
  • Introduction to professional norms.
  • New skills development, either technical, inter-personal or intra-personal.
  • Experience in online project management and communications.
  • Financial savings due to no travel or housing costs.

But Hora, an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning in the Division of Continuing Studies, cautions developers of online internships to ensure the experience “is more than a mere short-term project out-sourced to college students.”

His 10-page guide to online internships, titled “What to Do About Internships in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” provides a way to do that, with descriptions of different types of online opportunities, an introduction to some of the organizations that provide them and recommendations on best practices for faculty and employers to ensure the development of virtual internships that are both academically and occupationally meaningful. Best practices also include CCWT’s position that students always be paid for their work, in part to ensure these opportunities, whether online or traditional, are offered equitably.

Online or remote internships can be developed by faculty or university-based career services professionals with their current internship hosts, Hora notes, if those organizations are willing to move to an online-only experience. Or third-party contractors, such as Virtual Internships or Parker Dewey, which specialize in setting up these types of online arrangements, can be consulted to broker the needed relationships between interested students and companies, according to the guide.

Among their main differences from traditional college internships, virtual internships and micro-internships can take place any time of the year and generally involve regular contact with a supervisor or team via virtual methods such as video call, phone call, email and instant messenger.

Micro-internships are especially short-term – ranging from 5 to 40 hours of work on a single problem or task – and they always are paid. Companies from startups to Fortune 100 businesses use this sub-specialty of online internships to get jobs done and possibly identify future permanent employees. Typical departments for micro-internships include sales, marketing, technology, human resources and finance.

When suitable arrangements with a business or organization can’t be made, many faculty members can assign research projects that can be done remotely for students whose academic programs include an internship, Hora says. If an in-person, clinical internship is required for a student to graduate or is mandated by a professional accrediting organization -- such as in the fields of teacher education, nursing, social work or counseling -- those experiences may simply have to be postponed.

Hora says professional associations and certification boards are reviewing how to handle these disruptions now, urging students to consult with academic advisors in their programs as a first step.

The guide also provides an extensive list of web resources, including essays and observations on internships, organizations that provide faculty members with ideas for course-based projects, career tools, third-party facilitators of online internships without specific endorsements, and information about service learning, professional development and problem-based learning.


About CCWT: The mission of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions is to conduct and support 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 mission of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research is 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 Report on Internships during the COVID-19 Pandemic