The Rise of Virtual Internships and 4 Emerging Models of Delivery

The following blog was contributed by Shaun Butcher, Partnerships Development Manager at Virtual Internships. 

The past few months have seen Higher Education institutions, as well as third-party providers, embrace the power of technology. The shift to digital delivery of educational programs – from degree courses to summer internships – has been ubiquitous. This raises questions: Will physical mobility resume, and if so, to what extent? Is the premature arrival of online programs simply a short-term solution to an unexpected crisis?  Will virtual/remote internships be seen as a convenient and timely alternative to summer programs or something complementary to the portfolio of experiential learning?

Much remains to be seen, but the digital future arriving ahead of schedule and the emergence of virtual/remote work integrated learning should be welcomed. However, this has created a need for institutions to start vetting providers with the same vigor as they do with in-person programs. Ultimately, not all programs are the same, and both institutions and students should determine the value proposition of different types of programs.

As the COVID-19 crisis begins to [hopefully] subside and brain space can be redirected from crisis management to opportunity planning, attention will rightly focus on the task of 'How to vet online work integrated learning’. The benefits of virtual or remote programs, as well as their efficacy, are yet to be determined. Here, we start this dialogue by identifying and discussing differences between four emerging models of virtual internships, all of which provide different things for different purposes and require varying levels of investment, commitment, and resources from stakeholders – the educational providers, the universities, and most importantly, the students.

What Exactly Is a Virtual Internship and How Can Something Completed at Home Be International?

It’s unfortunate that virtual internships are currently viewed by some as second-best. This is mainly due to anything that is pre-fixed with the word ‘virtual’ suggesting something is not quite real. Certainly, the common definition of virtual as “almost or nearly as described, but not completely” does little to help with this image. 

It’s no surprise therefore that international virtual internships are, at first glance, oxymoronic in a number of ways; how can a quality internship be completed remotely? How can a virtual experience be comparable to an in-person experience? Can an internship be international if it is being completed … at home?

These are all valid questions, but a virtual/remote internship is (or should be) completely different both in design and delivery to traditional in-person programs, and they should not be directly compared.

We’ve written about what a virtual internship is on our blog here, but to summarize:

An Internship

Fundamentally, an internship is a work-integrated learning experience that takes place over a certain period of time, whereby the learner is immersed in an environment where real-life learning can take place.

A Virtual Internship

If we start with the premise that the ultimate purpose of any quality educational program should be the creation of an opportunity for learners to build competencies as a result of carefully curated meaningful interactions, either online or offline (or a mixture of both), then a virtual internship can be a perfectly valid experience unto itself – but only if the program is built with pedagogical best practice in mind.

A Virtual International Internship

Continuing with the theme of curating meaningful interactions and experiences, a remote/virtual International Internship removes all geographical barriers to the opportunity of gaining internship experience. Students can still gain experience with host companies in countries other than their own. This enables students to develop meaningful connections, experiences, skills, and cross-cultural competencies. In our increasingly globalized world and with increasing numbers of university graduates pursuing careers abroad, these programs provide the perfect foundation for a successful international career.

What are the positives of a Virtual International Internship?

Virtual programs have clear positives. They allow for increased access to education, and common barriers that exist for physical mobility (financial/temporal/geographical) and they have the ability to be more inclusive. The biggest positive of engaging with online programs, however, is that they create a generation of graduates with a digital mindset who are ready for the future of work.

In a recent survey, less than half of recent graduates felt that their University course has prepared them for the digital workplace. The need for digital employability programs is clear, and online internships that are specifically designed to embed core competencies are well placed to service that requirement.

What are the limitations of a Virtual International Internship?

Virtual doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper – time is money and quality programs require pedagogical investment. They also require personnel and technological infrastructure. For some, digital literacy is an issue – it isn’t automatic given that all who wish to participate in online programming have the skills or ability to do so. Furthermore, not all home environments are conducive to home working for a number of reasons: access to technology, care responsibilities, or lack of space can be a barrier. Moreover – and rather fundamentally – internet access is required: In 2019, it is estimated that only 47 percent of individuals living in developing countries used the internet (compared to 86.9 percent of people living in developed countries).

Although online programs may be able to trump physical border issues, the digital space still has restrictions: content may be censored or simply inaccessible due to copyright, licensing, or technical compliance issues. There is an inherent risk of cybercrime (for all stakeholders) and digital harassment should be taken seriously. The policy also creates barriers: data protection is of vital importance but navigating GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in a globalized, digital world is challenging.

Despite all the above, there has been a bourgeoning of quality online internship programs and an emergence of different models that aim to democratize access to quality online experiences. All of these programs offer learners valuable opportunities, but it is important to understand that these programs, despite attracting a similar naming convention (online, remote, virtual), do offer dissimilar provisions.

The Four Emerging Models of Delivery

Insight Model

Programs falling in the Insight Model are typically short in duration and emulate what working for a specific organization would be like. They usually include a real-life simulation of life as an employee or trainee at the host organization. Tasks are similar to in-tray exercises used in recruitment, but the pressure is removed as students can usually complete the program in their own time. 

These are designed to be mutually beneficial but are top-down, organization-driven with an ultimate goal of engaging early talent at scale in order to more efficiently. Another fundamental purpose of such insight programs is to build brand awareness in an innovative way through the creation and dissemination of valuable and insightful online content. Those engaging with an Insight Model of delivery do so usually as a precursor to something else, for example, an organization’s graduate program, internships, vacation scheme, or other. 

The cost is absorbed by the company meaning the content is usually free to individual students and the technological space is supplied by the third-party provider.

This is a fantastic way for a student to gain specific industry knowledge, usually disseminated by a large organization. The experience can be leveraged in future job applications to firms within that particular sector. However, it is very limited in scope and provides insight only – it’s certainly not an academically rigorous internship that would satisfy a course requirement, but they do provide an excellent looking glass into future careers.

Internship Marketplace Model

This model attempts to solve issues of supply and demand in the internship sector by bringing together universities (and their students) who are in demand of internships with organizations that can readily supply them. This model also works the other way around: the university can readily supply students to satisfy industry demand for labor.

If a university has a mandatory internship requirement as part of a course, it can be difficult to find suitable host organizations for all students. A marketplace model whereby the university is able to put out a tender for host organizations to engage is an effective way of conducting business development. On the other hand, organizations that have specific needs may not know where to go to request support from universities or are perhaps overwhelmed by a large number of institutions. Having a platform that enables a project to be posted in the hope that a university will pick it up is attractive.

The legwork of finding a partner is somewhat mitigated, but due diligence and ensuring a good match between the university/student and the organization is still required. The administration and wrap-around student support will still need to be conducted by the university. Other important information such as dates and duration of the work experience may not align. 

The solution is good for connecting stakeholders, but the difficulty of attaining placements that meet all stakeholder requirements remains.

Gig-Economy/Micro Internships Model:

This model is very much in line with the Future of Work trends. The Gig Economy has boomed: an estimated 43% of the US workforce participates in the gig economy and over 90% would consider freelancing or independent contracting (see more stats here). 

Some providers have emerged that specifically cater to students who are searching for short, bite-sized pieces of work. These so-called micro-internships are professional assignments that can be completed remotely. 

The assignments reflect a host organization’s business needs that they wish to outsource to readily available students and graduates who have the appropriate skills to complete the tasks. This could be a research project, copywriting, editing, graphic design, and more. 

This enables an organization to get work done without the need to directly hire staff, whilst also providing the student valuable, project-based work experience that they can add to their resume/CV. 

However, this model is organization-driven and managed. It is likely that projects posted will receive a flurry of applications from eager students. The organization retains complete control over who is awarded the work. The more qualified and proactive students can build their portfolio and snap up assignments, leaving those looking for experience without the guarantee of an internship.

Internship Program Model

With this model, the university intentionally sources, vets, and selects a third-party provider to partner with in order to leverage and benefit from their experience and expertise with regard to the delivery of virtual work experience programs.

The university may have a specific need – for example, student demand for certain locations or career fields in which the university does not have the expertise – or there may be a particular issue such as time or resources within the department. Engaging with a third party provides a solution. The university is able to outsource all of this whilst working in partnership to deliver quality virtual programs for its students.

Students are usually accepted onto a program and although the Host Company may not be immediately known to the student, when it comes to sourcing placements the student is usually paired or matched with an organization within the provider’s network of vetted partners. This enables most providers to guarantee placement as they will match the student with a company that has been onboarded by the provider.

Quality programs should have a wrap-around curriculum to support the student at all stages of the virtual program: pre-internship to prepare them, during to support them, and post-program to help them articulate the experience. Such programs should also have intentionally designed touchpoints that build a virtual community and provide structure: online webinars, weekly hangouts with fellow interns, as well as career coaching sessions will benefit students on virtual programs.


The above exploration of four emerging models aims to showcase that not all ‘virtual internships’ are the same. Each type of program has a different value proposition for the student and various benefits for other stakeholders. The Insight Model democratizes access to high-quality content from leading organizations, but its ultimate aim is to boost brand awareness and streamline recruitment for the host organization. The Internship Marketplace Model aims to solve the issues of supply and demand by providing a platform for tenders and bids but does not relieve faculty from the more arduous program management. The Gig Economy Model, whilst allowing for a multitude of short, bite-sized opportunities still creates a competitive environment where the most qualified of students will more likely be accepted by organizations that outsource work and expect results. The Internship Program Model provides a bottom-up approach via the matching of students with projects at their skill level, whilst also enabling university staff to outsource time-heavy procedures such as sourcing and vetting companies. Whilst this is supported by intentionally designed programming to support student employability and touchpoints to aid learning and development, there is a financial cost.

The rise of online internships will not replace physical internships, but the disruption does provide an opportunity to rethink the efficacy of the traditional in-person model and to look for valuable complements to what is already on offer. There are various models available at present – and likely more will emerge – but the rise of intentionally designed Virtual Internship Programs that are specifically curated for a digital audience and emulate the future of work will surely fare best.

Find Out More

Similar posts