Two high school models reveal how virtual internships can still provide work-based learning’s most critical asset

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Oct 21, 2020

The emergence of COVID-19 halted students’ access to traditional work-based learning pathways—and in-person opportunities to learn about different industries, build professional networks, and receive guidance about their career trajectory. While virtual internships are emerging as a promising alternative for accessing new skills and knowledge, their ability to help students build professional networks is being received with a healthy dose of skepticism. “Many internships are about the networking, not the work,” Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the career site Glassdoor told The Washington Post this summer. “…It’s easy to preserve existing relationships online, it’s hard to build new relationships remotely.” 

Chamberlain is not alone in fearing that networks fade when internships migrate to the cloud.  Even as schools and employers find creative ways to shift students’ internship experiences online, replicating the social aspects of internships in a virtual environment is hard work. But while it’s easy to focus on what gets lost online, virtual internship providers can confront quality concerns head-on by starting to measure what is gained. Fortunately, some organizations are doing just that: measuring and monitoring connections—or social capital—that students forge in the course of virtual internships.

 

Measuring what matters: Internships as pathways to social capital

The shift to online is surfacing an often invisible currency of high-quality internships: students’ social capital. Social capital describes the benefits that people accrue by virtue of their relationships or membership in social networks. For students, this means their access to, and ability to mobilize, relationships that help them further their potential and their goals. 

Groundbreaking research on the drivers of economic mobility suggests that social capital strongly predicts whether students will move up the income distribution ladder. In other words, access to opportunity depends on professional social connections, not just on formal education. In a labor market where an estimated half of jobs come through personal connections, internships become an essential pathway for building students’ social capital, and therefore, access to opportunities over time. 

As internship offerings expand to include virtual platforms, measuring the quantity and quality of students’ connections will be critical to ensure that students are making headway on this otherwise hidden asset. Two particular models currently operating both virtual and in-person internships stand out in their measurement approaches. 

Big Picture Learning: Relationships, Relevance, Rigor

A nonprofit that supports a network of high schools, Big Picture Learning aims to diversify and expand students’ professional networks through interest-based internships. Grounded in the core values of relationships, relevance, and rigor, and well into its second decade, Big Picture Learning utilizes an edtech tool it built in house called ImBlaze to curate and track students’ internship experiences. True to Big Picture Learning’s emphasis on student-directed learning, students themselves populate the database with connections in their own lives, and through outreach to local businesses that pique their interest. From there, the tool allows educators and administrators to verify the quality of various opportunities and track a students’ journey to and through the internship experience in real time, including when the student checks in or out of the internship site, to help ensure that both students and internship hosts are having a valued experience. 

Some Big Picture Learning partner schools use the platform to ask internship supervisors and mentors about the extent to which they are opening up their networks to the students they work with. For example, one school asks mentors, “Did you introduce your young person to someone in your professional network today?” 

Partner schools also recognize that simply putting relationships within reach without building students’ capacity to maintain them may inadvertently shortchange them from activating these relationships when they need them the most. To uncover the extent to which their students are building these skills during their internships, some partner schools ask mentors, “What personal or professional skills did you see the student use or build today?”  

Future Focused Education: Explore, Experience, Expand

A nonprofit, Albuquerque-based school support network, Future Focused Education, offers students paid work experience with local employers in partnership with local high schools.  Their X3 internship model offers students opportunities to explore, experience, and expand their career options by enabling them to build a reservoir of relationships they can mobilize over time. Future Focused Education also uses the ImBlaze platform to capture when students check in and out of the internship site in real time. Through separate surveys, students also respond to a host of questions to ensure they are building high-quality relationships, as well as a network, through their mentors. For example, all students are asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “My…internship provided me with contact information for at least two adults I might reach out to again.” Since these internships are accessed through schools, ensuring that students are building high-trust relationships with school-level staff can buffer them from challenges faced on the internship site and help maximize their experience with mentors. To understand the quality of relationships students are building with school staff, Future Focused Education also asks students to agree or disagree via survey with the following statement: “During my internship, I felt comfortable reaching out to my school coordinator if I had questions or concerns.”

As the saying goes, we measure what we treasure. And we know that innovations, like virtual internships for students, will improve on the metrics we hold them too. Deliberately measuring the number of new connections forged, and the diversity and quality of those connections can ensure that virtual internships are delivering on what students need to succeed in the workforce: a professional network that they can rely on.  

Below is a sampling of survey items used by some schools in the Big Picture Learning network and by Future Focused Education for measuring students’ social capital in the context of their internship experiences. 

Source: “The Missing Metrics” report, Appendix

Mahnaz Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.