Are online internships the future of work experience, or just a pandemic remedy for student employability?

Student interns worked online last year. Amy Irwin and Joy Perkins find out if remote work experience brings the same benefits.

Amy Irwin is a  Senior Lecturer and Applied Psychologist within the School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen.


Joy Perkins is an Educational and Employability Development Adviser based in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Aberdeen

At this stage in the Covid-19 pandemic we are all quite familiar with the concept of remote working.

It might be strange, therefore, to remember that prior to the pandemic remote working wasn’t widely used, and was considered to be a white collar, or affluent worker activity. Remote working has multiple advantages such as flexible working hours, less commuting, and a potentially better work-life balance.

There are also challenges such as collaborating across time zones, communicating effectively and technological difficulties (most of us have had the experience of remaining on mute when trying to speak, or being cut-off altogether due to slow internet speeds). Academia adapted to the pandemic restrictions via an online pivot, with work, teaching and employability strategies, all moving online. In this context, students, as well as staff, had to make the leap to remote working – as online internships became the main model of work experience during summer 2020.

Remote work experience

Online internships can be referred to as remote, digital, virtual or e-internships (we will use online internships for consistency’s sake). These internships are defined as remote working opportunities, digitally mediated, with the student geographically distant from the organisation. The aim of these internships, similarly to traditional on-site internships, is to enhance student employability via work-based learning, allowing the student to gain insight into an organisation and develop their work-readiness.

While there is a great deal of research examining the utility of traditional internships, online internships are an underexplored area. So, last summer we conducted a study designed to evaluate the extent to which online internships are perceived as valid, useful work experience by students, academics, and employers in the UK. We recruited 156 stakeholders to take part in an online survey, to determine the factors that might influence perception of online internships, examine whether online internships are considered equivalent to on-site opportunities, and to evaluate any potential differences in opinion between stakeholders.

Free labour or free learning?

Participants were asked to view a series of fictional internship adverts, which were manipulated according to stated location (online or on-site), commitment level (full- or part-time) and payment (paid versus unpaid). Overall onsite, paid, full-time internships were preferred by all stakeholders (with no significant group differences in ratings). However, if an internship was unpaid participants were more likely to recommend part-time, as opposed to full-time internships. This could be linked to the perception that a full-time internship is essentially a job and should be compensated accordingly, in the same way that an employee receives pay. Certainly, participants in our study raised concerns about internships (online and on-site) being used as a method for gaining cheap labour:

I believe that this [unpaid online internship] is a euphemism for cheap/free unregulated labour. Employers should be banned from offering such a thing in a virtual environment. (Academic)

Stakeholders seemed to view online internships as valid work experience, but not quite equivalent to on-site internships, particularly in terms of communication and socialisation.

Future skills

Participants within our study highlighted that the world of work is becoming increasingly digital, and as such online internships were ideally placed to enable students to develop independent working and online collaborative skills:

The world is increasingly online and the skills they can develop through online collaboration are just as valuable as those they would develop in-person. (Academic)

Remote working was generally considered to be more flexible than working on-site, with online internships being more inclusive and reaching a more diverse student body, including those with carer or family responsibilities:

Potential advantages [of online internships] include students who are unable to leave their home town/University location to travel being able to undertake internships – this can include students with caring responsibilities and those who also have part-time jobs to help fund their studies. (Academic)

Online internships appeared to offer students the opportunity to take ownership of a task, organise their own schedule, and as a consequence enhance their resilience and independence:

The opportunity to learn with a work focus and independence. (Student)

The work without the experience

However, stakeholders had concerns about the extent to which students would learn about a real-life working environment, with the suggestion that online internships are less immersive, and allow for less socialisation, than on-site internships:

While it is possible to learn the job remotely and to get the technical skills associated with it – most of us in our organisation had to learn on the go over the past few months – it doesn’t allow for experiencing the company culture as it normally would be. (Employer)

Communication was one aspect highlighted as potentially difficult, particularly in terms of asking questions and getting support. There were also comments made about the importance of observational learning – being in an office and watching others interact, for technical and social skill development.

The future of internships?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the UK economy, workplace practices, and education. When we fully emerge from lockdown, what will the internships landscape look like?

We have taken a glimpse into this alternative, online internship model from different stakeholder perspectives. As students continue to navigate this new, internship mode, it is more important than ever that universities continue to research and evaluate the evolving nature of work and learning; to support the critical transition from student to employee.

4 responses to “Are online internships the future of work experience, or just a pandemic remedy for student employability?

  1. Just to be super-clear, unpaid internships are illegal.

    Volunteering within governemnt guidance is fine (just some considerations about covering any expenses that are incurrred – which might be different for those volunteering remotely eg. heating/electricity/broadband contributions.

    Placements (eg. part of the taught curriculum) ‘can’ be unpaid, but this creates a two-tier system and perpetuates inequality.

    1. Thanks for your comment – for anyone interested the UK government guidelines for interns can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/employment-rights-for-interns
      Within our research and this article when discussing unpaid internships we are referring to voluntary placements or internships taken up as part of a degree course that (should) result in defined learning outcomes for the student.

  2. I think there is a bit of confusion here between ‘virtual work experience opportunities’ (e.g. from The Forage, Brightnetwork etc) which are more ‘work simulation/online learning’ than ‘work experience’. So they’re unpaid, but from what I’ve seen, the student isn’t actually doing any ‘real work’.

    Then there is the situation where students are getting experience with an employer (e.g. a sandwich placement), in a traditional way but they are working from home along with the organisation’s other employees due to Covid.

    Then there are those opportunities which are ‘home based/unpaid’ which are specifically marketed at students and sometimes involve them paying a fee.

    1. Thanks Julie – you are right there is a huge amount of confusion regarding online work for students – with opportunities called by many different names and involving a wide range of activities. Certainly more research needs to be done to further clarify what is meant in different circumstances and to unify the wording used within the literature 🙂

Leave a Reply