The concept and practice of the remote internship/placement were not new in 2020. Over the past several decades, more and more work has been done out of the office and out of the bounds of typical workday time constraints (Dean and Campbell 2020). Until recently, however, the remote internship was relatively rare. Many universities did not allow remote internship placements, and both employers and interns expected in-person work environments.

Given the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention to and implementation of these opportunities skyrocketed over the past several years. Our attempts to take higher education online in 2020 have sometimes been referred to as a phase of “panic-gogy” (Dean and Campbell 2020) and there were certainly growing pains in work-integrated learning (WIL). Internship participation dropped substantially in 2020, and interns experienced lower satisfaction as employers, sites, and schools adjusted on the fly (Gray 2021). Although remote placements are still less common than conventional sites, it appears that acceptance of and participation in remote work opportunities will continue to play a significant role in WIL going forward. For example, at Elon about half of our current placements are fully in-person, with about a third being hybrid and 20% being fully remote. As such, it is important for us to consider the costs and benefits of these opportunities, and to ensure that students participating in WIL remotely have an excellent experience.

Benefits of Remote Work Opportunities

Many sources have indicated that remote internships and placements are good for both employers and interns. The pandemic pushed employers to reevaluate their processes, to increase their flexibility around internship opportunities, and to clarify their priorities and communication with students and universities (Maietta and Gardner 2022). Some employers have gone to fully remote work, allowing student interest in remote internships to be mutually beneficial. Remote opportunities have also allowed sites to recruit a larger and more diverse pool of applicants and to save significant costs with regards to space and amount of staff time needed to manage internship programs (Dean and Campbell 2020; Gray 2021; Maietta and Gardner 2022). For students, the major benefit is accessibility – no travel, no new or temporary housing needs, fewer costs, and access to a wider range of opportunities. There are many ways in which remote work offer better access for all students, and especially those with financial or geographical limitations (Nwachi 2022; Pretti, Etmanski and Durston 2020). Students may also benefit from increased autonomy, flexibility, and a lower-pressure environment (Nwachi 2022; Pretti, Etmanski and Durston 2020).

Disadvantages of Remote Work Opportunities

Remote work placements are not without their challenges. The main concern for both interns and employers is the loss of in-person time and face-to-face contact (e.g. Maietta and Gardner 2022). On one hand, students can still learn, participate, and grow in a remote environment, but on the other, they lose the opportunity to spend time in the workplace, as well as the chance to network and connect with colleagues informally. Some employers expressed concern early on about intern productivity, but findings are mixed – some struggle to be productive remotely, but many are successful (Maietta and Gardner 2022). For students, they must work harder to manage their own time and boundaries, and they may derive less meaning from the experience if not in person (Pretti, Etmanski and Durston 2020).

Planning for Future Success

Considering the costs and benefits of remote WIL experiences, we see that these opportunities can be great for students if done well. What does great remote work experience look like? How can we be both practical and intentional about our design of these experiences to benefit both employers and students? Dean and Campbell (2020) discuss how modern WIL experiences should prepare students for the “workforce” rather than the “workplace” and call for WIL experiences to evolve with the rapid increase in technological advancement in the workplace. Regular and close mentorship seems to be a key part of creating a solid remote experience for students (Maietta and Gardner 2022; Wood, Zegwaard and Fox-Turnbull 2020). Employers will need to have a clear organizational commitment to student mentorship and remote interns in particular, and they must provide both training and resources to their own staff, assisting them to prepare and manage these experiences for students (Jeske and Axtell 2016). Students working in remote placements will need different support and guidance from in-person interns. They have more independence, which means that they may need assistance more with time-management and motivation strategies, as well as with setting physical, temporal, and psychological boundaries (Bowen 2020; Jeske 2020). Students will also need additional support around making connections within the work community. Opportunities for both formal and informal contact and support are essential to learning work culture and to helping students feel like a valued part of the community (Bowen 2020; Maietta and Gardner 2022).

Taking into account the relative advantages and disadvantages of remote WIL experiences, it seems clear that remote WIL can have tremendous benefits for students and employers when it is done well and with intentionality. A placement that leaves students to fend for themselves with irregular check-ins and few attempts at community building will not benefit anyone. Remote opportunities that save money and space while still including the intern in meaningful work, with intentional mentoring and community building, can be an effective and fulfilling experience for all involved.

Works Cited

Bowen, Tracey. 2020. “Work-Integrated Learning Placements and Remote Working: Experiential Learning Online.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 21 (4): 377-386.

Dean, Bonnie, and Matthew Campbell. 2020. “Reshaping Work-Integrated Learning in a Post-COVID-19 World of Work.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 21 (4): 356-364.

Gray, Kevin. 2021. “Study Shows Impact of Pandemic on Internships.” National Association of Colleges and Employers, June 11, 2021.

Jeske, Debora. 2020. “Running Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Employers.” Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, August 13, 2020.

Jeske, Debora, and Carolyn M. Axtell. 2016. “Going Global in Small Steps: E-internships in SMEs.” Organizational Dynamics 45 (1): 55-63.

Maietta, Heather, and Philip Gardner. 2022. “U.S. Employer Response to COVID-19: Actions Taken and Future Expectations of Virtual Work-Integrated Learning.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 23 (3): 427-444.

Nwachi, Daniel. 2022. “The Benefits of Virtual Internship.” R:Ed, Right for Education, August 23, 2022.

Pretti, Judene, Brittany Etmanski, and Amie Durston. 2020. “Remote Work-Integrated Learning Experiences: Student Perceptions.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 21 (4): 401-414.

Wood, Yvonne, Karsten Zegwaard, and Wendy Fox-Turnbull. 2020. “Conventional, Remote, Virtual and Simulated Work-Integrated Learning: A Meta-Analysis of Existing Practice.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 21 (4): 331-354.

CJ Eubanks Fleming is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Elon University, where she serves the Faculty Fellow for Internships in the College of Arts and Sciences. In this role she evaluates department- and university-level data regarding internship outcomes, shares internship best practices with faculty, and serves as a liaison between faculty/ students and the university’s career center. She also serves as a seminar leader for the 2022-2024 research seminar on Work-Integrated Learning.

How to Cite this Post

Fleming, CJ. 2023. “Remote Opportunities in Work-Integrated Learning: Considerations for Moving Forward.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. May 9, 2023.