The past year thrust one of the most-celebrated (yet understudied) onramps to the world of work online: internships. What did this experiment in online and hybrid internships teach us? Who thrived and who floundered? What should employers, many of whom are likely to continue to offer virtual and hybrid options for internships, take away?

These are all questions that researcher Matthew Hora set out to answer in his most recent study exploring online internships that arose in the wake of COVID-19. Hora and his colleagues at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research found that according to college student self-report measures, online internships proved underwhelming: online interns reported lower satisfaction with their experience than in-person interns. Online interns also reported lower scores for both academic and developmental value, as well as networking opportunities. I sat down with Hora to talk about how to make sense of and build on this early data. Here’s some of what we covered:

  1.  Studying “edu-fads” as they unfold. “I tend to be attracted by what some call edu-fads. Education fads. Internships qualify as one,” Hora said, explaining what first brought him to studying internships years ago. Like many fads, internships have proven high on hype but short on hard data. “We quickly discovered there weren’t many national datasets on internships. How many there are, how many are paid, what do they look like, how long do they last?” To fill the void, Hora and his colleagues started the National Survey of College Internships study, a mixed-methods study piloted across 17 campuses that is set to scale next fall to 100 campuses. “The idea is to develop a high-quality database at a fine grain level to capture elements of internships to inform how colleges and employers design these programs in the future.” Hora’s recently published study on online internships adds new insights to this growing database.
  1. Identifying attributes of good online internships. Based on the specific data they collected from online interns, Hora and his colleagues found two attributes that appeared to show promise when it comes to building high-quality online options. First, employers need to offer a well-designed problem or project for their interns to tackle. Hora noted that these projects are especially powerful if they address authentic problems they are facing. “It adds a layer of high-stakes which interns can really sink their teeth into. At the end of the day it’s not like I just re-organized a bunch of files,” he said. Second, good online internships require and foster frequent communication between interns and supervisors. “The whole communication thing is so key,” Hora said. “It’s about having a mentor at the internship site that has the time and training to interact with that young person.”
  1. Is there a hidden upside to online internships? Although Hora and his colleagues’ data didn’t paint online internships in a particularly flattering light, he and I discussed if there might be benefits to online options that the survey didn’t capture—namely, access and affordability when it comes to internships otherwise out of reach. “There’s definitely some advantages and potential benefits to the online internship experience that people have been talking about for a while,” said Hora. “I don’t think that our data necessarily speak against them, they’re just going to take a lot more energy, resources, and thought by employers and institutions to realize these possibilities.”

    For example, Hora noted that virtual options can radically expand access to opportunities that may not be on offer locally for some students, such as “a student who lives in a rural area, or not even rural, small cities, where there’s not a critical mass of employers who can host an intern, especially in certain disciplines. It’s very consistent in the literature: if you’re a business or engineering student or if you’re in a field like nursing or allied health or you’re in a profession like teaching where you have to take a practicum… traditionally [those consist of] internships. [But] if you’re in the arts, social sciences, not so much. If you’re in a small city or rural campus, it’s doubly difficult to find a position,” Hora said. “Now if those students can go online and take an art history internship in DC, but they live in rural Nebraska, that’s amazing.” 

That said, Hora cautioned that online internships aren’t necessarily solving access issues, yet. “We have to cultivate the number of positions that are available online because right now there’s a supply and demand imbalance. One of the data points from one of those online networking platforms is there were a lot more students registering for those vendors, looking for an online person. There weren’t enough employers posting positions.” In other words, online internships as a delivery model afford greater scale in access. But based on current market dynamics, ultimately that scale hinges on employers creating enough internship positions to meet growing demand, both online and off. 

Watch our full interview here: