International internships are gaining greater importance in the international higher education arena. Traditional international internships, where the learner travels to a company abroad, are not always feasible for all students due to financial, geographical, social or other reasons. Virtual mobility, or ICT-supported international collaboration in a learning context, offers an alternative, but how can you ensure the student is getting the most out of the experience?
Virtual mobility can be used to facilitate and support physical international internships (blended) or to realise international internships (virtual). Based on experiences in a number of pilot projects, it has been seen that virtual or blended international internships can be successful when the factors below are taken into account:
Select the ‘right’ students
Not every student will be able to undertake an international virtual or blended placement. The student needs to a have good meta-cognitive skills, ie he or she needs to be able to take control of and plan their own learning process. A blended or virtual internship is therefore more suited for Master’s students or adult learners.
Establish a good communication protocol
A good communication protocol is essential. Such a protocol defines all the practical conditions for the communication and collaboration process. It will help to establish the feeling of virtual ‘presence’.
Consciously integrate the ‘human’ factor
Choose technology that creates the possibility to interact synchronously in a setting that is as close as possible to a face-to-face setting (eg video or web conferencing) and consciously define space for non-task-related communication (eg talk about other projects of the company, the news, social events, etc).
Don’t forget about organisational socialisation
It is important that a student feels part of the hosting company, even in a virtual setting. He or she needs to be able to collaborate with different members of the company staff and the internship tasks need to be of real importance to the company.
Choose the ‘right’ internship
Virtual or blended internships can really have an added value when a flexible work organisation is allowed. Working on a specific company project is also more suited for these internship forms than being involved in all regular day-to-day activities.
Focus on the development of intercultural skills
Gaining intercultural competencies in a virtual setting is of course a complex matter. There is no ‘immersion’ in the other culture as will be the case during a stay abroad. Body language and intonation will also be less at the forefront during virtual interaction. Nevertheless, it is possible to at least develop a sense for dealing with cultural differences through virtual mobility activities if the following points are taken into consideration:
- As for traditional internships: explain beforehand, give feedback and stimulate reflection. This is always of key importance.
- Focus on differences in written communication, negotiation styles, business cultures, decision making processes (eg: formal vs. informal communication; importance of hierarchy, etc)
- Do not limit the interaction to a one-on-one situation. In this case personality traits will be more determining for the experience than cultural identities.
Blended or virtual internships are still a very new concept for higher education institutions and for companies. These new internship types nevertheless can help to answer current and future needs and it is worthwhile to explore their possibilities further.
By Mariet Vriens & Ilse Op de Beeck, K.U.Leuven, Beligum; Christophe Terrasse, EFMD, Belgium