Thousands of traditional summer internships have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic making way for a new digital offering: The virtual summer internship. But what does that look like?

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, the outbreak has ravaged communities and economies worldwide, transforming traditional supply chains and standard day-to-day operations for billions. Now, as many college students and recent graduates head toward summer, the fallout from the outbreak has also disrupted the standard internship model. In the era of remote work and lockdown orders, the traditional summer learning experience has been turned upside down, delayed, or outright canceled for many.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

The domain name exists as a telling sign of the times. The site functions as a database logging crowdsourced information and official notices regarding the current status of summer internships across industries. So far, more than one-third (35%) of summer internships have been axed due to the coronavirus and another 24% have been refashioned as virtual opportunities for students and recent graduates, according to a recent report.

At the center of this sudden impromptu digital twist on the standard in-house internship are questions surrounding the legitimacy, logistics, and utility of a virtual internship.

What is a virtual internship?

“I don’t think that having something being virtual makes it any less legitimate because at the end of the day, as an intern, you are learning, you’re making connections and you’re being assigned projects that are going to prepare you for future real-world experiences,” said Amanda Nachman, CEO and publisher of College Magazine.

In recent years, the notion of an internship has garnered a bit of societal caricature of sorts in which interns are at times underutilized as eager members of the summer staff tasked with grunt work, odd jobs, and frivolous tasks. Some individuals see the dawn of the virtual internship era as refocusing and revaluing of career development and summer learning. After all, in a modern plague, you can’t exactly send a virtual intern out to run errands.

“The way we’re structuring this program is going to be a really nice combination of doing work and project-based learning. We’re bringing learning back into internships. There was a time where students look[ed] to an internship as a way to learn and acquire skills and not just fetch coffee and do busywork,” said Amir Badr, founder & CEO of the virtual student accelerator Upkey.

A typical day in the life of a virtual intern

For many, especially those who interned during college and after graduation, it’s difficult to envision how a virtual internship would even work. Overall, the experience often requires a suite of digital tools to provide a more immersive hands-on experience with plenty of facetime peppered in.

“As part of this eight weeks’ curriculum, every week students are learning about a specific leadership topic, and they’re attending these really cool interactive webinars and workshops and receiving very powerful content. And then, during that week, they’re also doing projects and exercises and stimulation that cement the learning for that week,” Badr said.

A virtual twist of the standard internship leverages the full gamut of video conferencing technologies, messaging systems, interactive portals, and more. Students will certainly need to have a solid foundational understanding of a bevy of online platforms and interfaces to hit the ground running. Badr walked us through an example of one virtual scenario.

“On week one, you’re going to be exposed to some general themes around building your brand and career readiness topics such as improving your resume and making sure you have a good online presence,” Badr said. “They’re going to be exposed to that content through online webinars, Zoom calls, sessions with mentors, and interactive workshops where students are going to be broken into different groups and working on different projects and exercises.”

Tech-savvy students prepped for an increasingly digital future

Unfortunately, not all organizations or careers can leverage these platforms to support a sufficiently rewarding virtual internship. More limited or hastily fashioned virtual programs may rely solely on typical communication patchworks that may be woefully inadequate. Upkey’s platform takes engagement a step further, offering a layer of gamification in the form of badges for completed tasks.

“You can’t just rely on Slack and Zoom to build the full-scale virtual internship. You’re going to need interactive tools where students can attend workshops, receive feedback on their work, get badged for project completion, and have access to mentors and experts,” Badr said.

A platform geared toward self-starters with minimal hand-holding

In a typical internship, there are plenty of opportunities for guidance and task-specific direction. On-site, it’s easy enough to ask a superior for help or recognize that an intern may need a little nudge in the right direction through basic observation and body language cues. The virtual model certainly requires interns to take initiative with tasks and those inevitable questions along the way.

“I think a virtual internship even more so prepares you to be a go-getter because you have to take initiative, you have to be proactive and you have to be really good at managing your time and self discipline. No one’s looking over your shoulder, right? Physically. And so you need to show that you can make it happen. You can meet deadlines, you can be relied upon, and these are all amazing transferable skills to any career,” Nachman said,

The legitimacy and quality of a virtual internship

Larger questions surrounding comparative legitimacy and caliber of virtual programs are weighing heavily on the minds of many students, employers, and parents. About half of the students who have had their internship reworked as a virtual opportunity were glad the internship wasn’t canceled entirely, although 22% of survey respondents were worried that overall experience would not measure up to the quality of a traditional internship.

“The majority of the challenge though, if you believe it or not, doesn’t come from the students. It comes from adults. I feel like the previous generation is still limited by the way they think about education and internships and career readiness,” Badr said.

As anyone who has partaken in a virtual game night over Zoom is well aware, there’s still a series of facets glaringly absent from even the highest quality video call. Those subtle intangibles inherent in face-to-face interaction and communication are oddly lost in the pixelated translation. For many virtual interns, this opportunity is still an invaluable learning experience, although, there is certainly no replacing the feel and memory of that real-world rite of passage.

“I think the one big differentiator between the in-person experience and the virtual is that you kind of miss out on a little bit of fun. It’s like going to a happy hour virtually, right? It’s a little bit more fun to be there in person,” Nachman said.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and 2020 has been a regular improvisation tour de force around the planet. With no feasible vaccine in sight, many universities and companies will continue to function remotely through the end of the year if not longer. Even after a vaccine passes clinical trials and the wreckage of the coronavirus is squarely in the rearview mirror, the lingering effects of this pandemic will forever leave their mark on the way we conduct business, view education, and interact socially.

“Fluidity and agility are the themes that I’m hoping this pandemic will leave behind. It will allow all of us to start thinking more innovatively, and, it already has, obviously,” Badr said.

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IMAGE: iStock/evgenyatamanenko

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