This post is inspired by a discussion with the great team examining and shaping the future of education in emerging markets at Pearson.
In the last post, I discussed how overcoming the waste and exploitation that is currently endemic in the unpaid internship system in the US will require educational providers to more clearly define their overall learning objectives and structure internships to achieve them. Digging deeper into this approach leads to two critical broader questions that we at Kepler – and hopefully others – will be exploring as develop the work-based learning elements of the model: what is the purpose of internships? And what should optimal 21st century work-based learning experiences look like?
The obvious answers to the first question are to learn and facilitate desired employment as I have assumed in my arguments in the last post. But it is useful to unpack these objectives further before designing an internship program. A thoughtful student will pursue an internship for some or all of the following benefits:
- Development of relevant skills through practical experience;
- Build their professional network
- Associate themselves with a professional brand
- Establish a direct pathway to a future job
- Explore a career to determine if they want to invest themselves further in it
- Receive credit towards a degree
For undergraduates, the first objective is arguably the most important and is what most educational providers will likely say is their sole interest. Delving further into that objective, that learning will ideally apply to three critical categories of skills: 1) specific technical skills (e.g., financial modeling), 2) generic cognitive skills (e.g., critical thinking and writing), and, perhaps most importantly, 3) non-cognitive skills such as professional demeanor and communication.
The internship experience can help the student develop those skills through three channels that they are unlikely to benefit from in a normal campus environment:
- Application of their skills in real workplace environments;
- Receipt of feedback on their products from experienced professionals;
- Observation of experienced professionals;
As Carey’s article suggests, many traditional unpaid undergraduate internships offer little or no value for many of these elements. Students end up doing grunt work that provides them with few opportunities to practice meaningful skills and given their bottom-caste status, only a few and fortunate make valuable connections. In my personal experience, the greatest value often comes from the observation of the workplace and the corresponding information to help the student decide whether to pursue work in the field (in many cases the brand on the CV is of limited value as employers know the truth of intern experience).
There were traditionally few alternatives for students interested in work-based learning in a professional environment. However, work is becoming increasingly democratized. Increasingly, anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and relevant skills can seek gainful work experience? Sites like Odesk enable workers to sell their skills around the globe. Imagine if students spent the time they would have otherwise devoted to making photocopies at an unpaid internship contributing to projects through those sites. How would the experiences compare?
Such remote work can never enable students to observe and learn from full professional environments and they would have less opportunity to make connections. On the other hand, they would be guaranteed to have opportunities to hone their skills and receive valuable feedback (employers will only post projects if they value the work and will therefore have quality standards). If they are good, they will develop online credentials and connections that could be equally or more valuable than those they would get from a traditional office internship. And they will be paid.
Traditional office environments, like degrees, will not disappear soon. But the global office-of-one is clearly a major trend in the future of employment so experiences that help students develop this approach to work may be an attractive investment despite the drawbacks. For a new institution like Kepler, the answer may to support both internship approaches. Remote projects could complement well-designed traditional internships for those students who are able to secure them and could be an attractive replacement for the low quality internships or lack of work experience that would otherwise be available to the other students. And clever, strategic institutions could work with partners and students to craft remote projects that could maximize both learning and future employment opportunities for students. We look forward to exploring these and similar opportunities.