Providing high school and college students with work-based experiences has been proven to improve their career prospects. Several thought leaders in the industry have documented the positive outcomes that work-based learning can provide. The challenge has been getting more employers to provide these opportunities and encouraging them to support greater numbers of students. An analysis by Strada Education Network (where I serve as a trustee), shows that internships improve career and life outcomes for students, yet they are unevenly available. To make more Work Based Learning (WBL) experiences available to students will require more employers offering many more internships. GG4L, an EdTech startup, has taken on the challenge of building a successful model for how this can be done.

There has been a lot of innovation in the education to career marketplace. The IT industry has been a leader in developing career pathways for individuals. Job openings in IT have exploded over the past decade, with almost one million open positions, just in cybersecurity. To address this demand, many IT industry leaders have developed certification programs in a range of areas. These certification programs range from entry level to advanced and are frequently delivered virtually. They provide sequenced credentials, like stepping stones, to allow learners to develop their employable skills methodically.

The growth in these programs has opened new pathways for learners, allowing them to quickly prepare themselves for high paying jobs. Leading employers, like IBM, PWC, and Accenture, have publicly committed to hiring individuals that have prepared themselves through these programs, frequently removing the need for a four-year degree.

We use 1EdTech integration standards to provide a cloud-based integration service to schools and vendors. The company has developed partnerships with Google, Amazon, Coursera and many others to distribute their IT training programs to high schools. The GG4L integration platform makes deployment easier for these vendors and school districts. Over the past few years, GG4L has deployed programs such as Grow with Google and Coursera Career Academy to hundreds of schools. These programs provide high school students with an opportunity to earn badges in highly sought-after career areas, such as cloud, IT support, and many others.

As relationships were developed with the career staff at school districts, we frequently heard about their need for greater employer engagement with students. Employers were very willing to participate in career seminars, to coach students, offer advice, and many other activities. However, districts constantly struggled to get employers to provide internships and apprenticeships in sufficient numbers to meet student demand.

We decided to take on this challenge and see if we could deliver a work-based experience to students that they would value, and to do it at scale. As a startup, we confronted many of the issues that all employers face. Student workers are not additional labor, but are students. Staff time has to be allocated to train, direct, and provide reflection to student interns. Corporate security needs to be maintained, particularly around sensitive customer data. When we explored the standard internship model, it was clear we also would be limited in the number of interns we could support.

However, as a technology company, we felt there had to be a new model that would bypass these problems and offer the potential for greater scale. We assembled a team led by Wally Reeves, former CIO of Houston County School District in Georgia, to define and deploy a new model for a virtual internship. Our goal was to leverage technology to provide the key elements of an internship through digital means. And if successful, prove an approach that could be replicated by other employers and districts across the country.

The first step was to define a credential for a Certified School Passport Administrator (CSPA). School Passport is the integration platform used by hundreds of EdTech vendors and thousands of schools. As a foundation, the CSPA would provide students with an appreciation of enterprise software and its use. IT departments support enterprise applications at scale, usually supporting hundreds or thousands of users. A business or public sector organization has a much broader range of needs for an enterprise application than students might encounter around a personal computer or smartphone. Enterprise applications require access control – who are the users and how do we verify their access. Data management is much more complex, as is the need for cybersecurity. Large numbers of users inevitably generate support issues, so diagnosing problems and supporting users is an ongoing challenge. Finally, enterprise applications provide a range of reports to key users across the organization. We set out to define a program to give students a deeper perspective on these aspects.

The Coursera Career Academy platform provided a basis for much of the virtual internship. An initial syllabus was created that highlighted these specific areas, as well as provided a “sandbox” for students to apply what they were learning. Content was crafted into manageable chunks to let students learn at their own pace. The activities highlighted the key elements of enterprise software management.

Students were able to configure software, assign user rights, create reports, and other activities that are part of an IT job. To make these experiences more relevant, we also recorded a series of virtual meetings within GG4L on these topics. Our student virtual interns had an opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” and observe a variety of working sessions demonstrating the skills they were learning. The sessions included daily management standups, software development “Scrum” sessions, and many others. Simulated customer support problems let them work on the most common calls we receive for help. We positioned these activities in the context of the work week and demonstrated how our staff leveraged the skills the students were currently developing.

The benefit of this model was that most student activities could be completed both virtually and asynchronously. Our staff conducted synchronous sessions for introductions to modules, and discussion and reflection on activities. These sessions could be done with the entire cohort of students, allowing them to share perspectives with each other. Overall, the approach allowed us to provide an experience to several students concurrently, reaching far more students than a traditional internship model.

It's important to recognize that students are just beginning their journey to a (hopefully) fulfilling career. Too often we set insurmountable objectives for a work-based experience, which then limits the number of employers and students that can directly benefit. We believe the virtual internship model can provide a meaningful experience to students, and one which is much easier to scale, thus ensuring many more students get the opportunity.

Virtual internships provide an additional rung on the education to career ladder. Our goal should be to provide every student with meaningful work-based experiences throughout their academic journey. Our traditional approaches have left too many students without these opportunities. Creativity, technology, and passion can create new models that will reach far more students in the future.

About the author

Michael King is a leader in applying technology to the challenges facing Education and learning. He was the worldwide leader for the IBM Education Industry with responsibility for strategy, marketing and sales across schools and higher education. Most recently, he directed IBM’s work for cognitive computing in education, bringing Watson to classroom, campus, and career.

Michael is an active advisor, investor, and board member in several EdTech startups. As board member at Global Grid for Learning, he has helped define and create a privacy centered platform to transform K12 education.