Enabling learners in school and further education with equitable access to workplace experiences in industry presents an enormous challenge. Most recently in the UK, this challenge has been set by a new suite of qualifications for 16- to 18-year olds, T-levels, which require learners to carry out an industry placement. Such placements offer the opportunity to experience the world of work and gain insights into possible future careers. But, with variables such as location and family connections within industry, how can access to such opportunities be made truly equitable?
Louis Major is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. He is working with Professor Rupert Wegerif and others to establish a Digital Education Futures Centre at Hughes Hall. In his guest blog, Louis explores the potential benefits of offering internship experiences online. The blog also reports on a project, led by a team at the Faculty of Education in collaboration with BT and Huawei, to develop an evidence-based solution.
By the time somebody aged 11 today is 21, it is conservatively estimated around 400 million people globally will have lost their jobs due to technological advances such as automation. In the UK specifically, around 20% of all workers are at high risk of being replaced by machines. Automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers; in addition to pandemic-related economic contraction, technological adoption by companies is predicted to transform tasks, jobs, and skills as early as 2025.
But it is not all doom and gloom. The same advances in technology will also lead to new employment possibilities, new categories of jobs being created, and the redefinition of many existing roles (World Economic Forum, 2018). However, innovative approaches to education are needed if young people are to benefit from such opportunities, particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Employers are clear about the skills workers need: technical and practical skills alongside transferable skills, such as creativity and teamwork, that help individuals to thrive in any organization. There is also broad agreement that education today should include education for the ‘future’ or ‘21st-Century’ skills and competencies that enable young people to navigate a rapidly changing workplace (Wagner, 2010). This raises important questions: How may we best enable learners to develop such skills and competencies? And, how can such skills and competencies be developed through linking education meaningfully to real-world work contexts?
The idea of virtual internships in education has a rich history, exemplified perhaps most recently through the work of David Williamson Shaffer and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For several years, a team at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research has investigated how virtual internships can provide meaningful work-based learning opportunities. An example of their internship program features undergraduates conducting research, developing and testing prototypes, working with peers, and proposing a design solution. Positive outcomes have been observed. For instance, female undergraduates became more motivated to pursue an engineering degree than those on a traditional engineering course (Chesler et al., 2015), and students more successfully developed the identity and habits of mind of professional engineers (Arastoopour et al., 2016).
In a schooling context, traditional curricula have often struggled to authentically engage young people with the world of work. This has led to policies such as the Department for Education’s Careers Strategy (2017) which requires every student aged 11-18 – at least once a year – to have a meaningful encounter with an employer (including some STEM employers). But more still needs to be done to improve how school students view and relate to the workplace. In particular, more evidence is needed to investigate the potential of implementing virtual internships in schools.
Most work experience takes place during the last years of school. However, by that time ideas about careers have been formed. Research suggests that children decide their future interests surprisingly early – when starting secondary school (Croll et al., 2010) if not before. Take the example of engineering. The images that children have of engineering can be limited and negative unless they actually encounter engineers in their workplace. This is often difficult to organize and supervise given the nature of engineering. However, virtual internships can engage learners with videos of real engineers helping to solve problems, and give them the simulated experience of working as an engineer.
To address this need, research is underway at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education to develop and test a new model of virtual internships. The aim of this research is to determine how virtual internships impact the ways that young people (i) engage with, and relate to, the world of work; (ii) develop key ‘future’ skills and competencies related to dialogue, collaborative problem solving and creativity.
The ‘Virtual Internship Project’ (VIP) is working in two areas of England traditionally associated with low social mobility. In partnership with two global telecommunications leaders (BT and Huawei), the first phase of VIP (April 2019 – April 2020) focused on developing a pedagogy to support virtual internships in schools. Through undertaking design-based research in close collaboration with teachers, an ambitious program was developed to bridge the worlds of education and enterprise. In the program, small teams of learners role-play as interns in real enterprises, developing and designing new solutions or products that respond to current real-world challenges proposed by real engineers. Participation takes around 12 in-class hours with some independent study across at least seven weeks. Virtual internships have been developed for Computing and Design and Technology. Incorporating video resources, work-based tasks, scenarios and assessment criteria used in industry, these are intended to be as ‘real’ as they can be in a teacher-facilitated classroom setting. Over 250 students in four schools have been involved so far.
The exploratory research undertaken through VIP reveals the potential for using virtual internships to successfully link schools and the world of work. Of note are the high levels of teacher and student engagement observed, and how facilitating virtual workplace experiences can offer a vehicle for the development of future skills and other competencies as part of regular classroom instruction. VIP also establishes the feasibility of virtual internships in helping to address priorities of career education, particularly in areas of low social mobility.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, education stands at a time of unprecedented challenge. Recent progress in closing the attainment gap for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds risks being reversed in our ‘new normal’. As with so many aspects of our lives currently, implications of COVID-19 for education present significant challenges. However, the crisis also presents opportunities as we look to rebuild. For instance, it offers a chance to revisit and question basic assumptions about the purpose and nature of education that may have previously been considered impractical at scale.
Virtual internships appear well poised to respond to some of the challenges presented by COVID at a time when productive encounters with the world of work are likely to be very limited. Motivated by current issues facing education, and given many schools have of necessity become more capable of working digitally, the VIP team is exploring how to develop online virtual internships that can personalize and adapt to learners’ needs and preferences. Taking the program fully online offers the potential for hybrid delivery that enables both in- and out-of-school study; the adaptable nature of virtual internships may flexibly support teachers and students via a mix of online and offline – synchronous and asynchronous – activities and resources. For instance, when teachers and students are socially distanced in class or accessing learning from home.
My team’s research so far indicates that virtual internships may offer one way to address issues of inequality relating to priorities for careers education in areas of low social mobility. Areas of the UK where schools do not have easy access to high tech industries for work experience are now able to link up virtually and work as part of a team solving real-world problems.
The VIP team’s use of virtual internships is quite focused. A range of 'scenarios' have been developed for Year 7s and 8s (11-13 years) in Computer Science and Design and Technology. These scenarios engage the children in real-world challenges set by BT and Huawei. They have been found to be motivating and to lead to improved general competences such as problem-solving, innovation, and teamwork. This is a 'proof of concept' for an approach to education which could expand to cover other areas of the curriculum and, indeed, other educational settings (for instance supporting the new T-Levels).
Some argue that the current education system is not good at preparing students for the real world. Virtual internships offer a chance to address this problem. Many areas of the curriculum could be taught using real-world challenges in partnership with real-world enterprises. In this way students would understand the purpose of their learning. They would also learn how to develop positive workplace behaviors such as collaboratively solving problems and creating solutions.
Abstract maths lessons could be combined with the (simulated) experience of working with the Met Office analyzing real statistical patterns that impact on weather and subsequently our lives. Chemistry could be applied by working (in a virtual internship) with companies to create products that save lives. But the same approach could be applied in diverse areas such as exploring ancient sites with archaeologists, writing with journalists, learning about global citizenship issues as an intern with an international charity. Indeed, prompted by the outbreak of COVID-19, we have already seen Europe’s biggest engineering project begin to provide first-hand experience of life in the workplace virtually.
The ambition of the team at the Faculty of Education is to explore whether a virtual internship approach could be generalized and then scaled to have an impact on global education. The project aims to build a platform that can marry teachers with enterprises of every kind and support partners in developing virtual internship scenarios that cover a wide range of skills and subjects and also address real word challenges. The team’s ideal would be a future in which any student, from anywhere in the world, particularly those from marginalized areas and groups, could join up with world leading organizations to experience learning that enables them to make a positive difference to their own lives and the world.
Arastoopour, G., Shaffer, D.W., Swiecki, Z., Ruis, A.R., & Chesler, N.C. (2016). Teaching and assessing engineering design thinking with virtual internships and epistemic network analysis. International Journal of Engineering Education, 32(2).
Chesler, N.C., Arastoopour, G., D’Angelo, C.M., Bagley, E.A. & Shaffer, D.W. (Winter, 2013). Design of a professional practice simulator for educating and motivating first-year engineering students. Advances in Engineering Education.
Croll, P., Attwood, G., & Fuller, C. (2010). Children's lives, children's futures: A study of children starting secondary school. A&C Black.
Wagner, T. (2010). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don't teach the new survival skills our children need–and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.
World Economic Forum. (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018. WEF.