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Virtual Internships Project

Engaging young people with the world of work through ‘Simulated Virtual Internships'

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Employers are clear about the skills and dispositions that future workers need: technical and practical skills alongside transferable skills such as effective teamwork, problem-solving and creativity. Many charities and businesses are also keen to establish links with education but their capacity to engage learners in schools is limited.

The ‘Virtual Internship Project’ (VIP) serves both as a ‘proof of concept’ and as a model for a new approach that has the potential to change how secondary school students view and relate to the world of work. Aligned with the National Curriculum and careers guidance such as the Gatsby Benchmarks, VIP involves developing and testing an innovative new model of ‘Virtual Internships’ to investigate the impact this has on how young people:

  • Engage with the world of work
  • Develop key competencies related to dialogue, collaborative problem solving and creativity


The Virtual Internships involve learners – initially in Year 7 or 8 from secondary schools in areas of low social mobility in England – working in small teams role-playing being ‘interns’. Engaging in an estimated 10-hour programme, students learn about the world of work while engaging in scenarios and activities designed to develop the ‘complex competencies’ emphasised by employers. Specifically, they design and develop solutions that respond to real-world challenges proposed by two global telecommunications leaders: BT and Huawei.

Project Details

Working in partnership with D&T and Computing teachers from four schools initially, design-based research is being undertaken to systematically develop and evaluate the Virtual Internship model. We are also exploring how developed resources and the VIP approach can scale up to impact larger numbers of learners: through building an online platform of resources aligned to a range of curricular areas and organisations, as well as spaces for practitioner and student collaboration and sharing.

In working on this project, we are aware that many other versions of Virtual Internship programmes already exist, particularly through the work of David Williamson Shaffer and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Such programmes however tend to focus on University-aged students. What we offer is a school-based simulated virtual internship: to give younger students a taste of different workplace contexts and practices, before they make or rule out career choices.

By ‘simulated virtual internships’ we mean students role-playing workplace practices, taking on the ‘mantle of the expert’, in responding to authentic workplace challenges. Partnership with industry colleagues – BT and Huawei within the current project – has informed the development of resources throughout the programme (including video induction and challenge setting; structuring authentic evaluation criteria; and worksheets to support various processes and organisation). During the present version of the programme such experts are not ‘on hand’ as groups engage with their challenges. Instead, co-present teachers are subject experts, and broker virtual internship experiences for their students. Students are therefore encouraged to use their initiative, group members and teacher as resources in overcoming challenges.

As part of the ongoing project work, we have developed a number of resources – for teachers implementing and facilitating the programme in their school contexts, and for students experiencing the Virtual Internships. These resources have been developed iteratively and in partnership with the participating teachers, to reflect pedagogic need and practical requirements or restrictions.

The piloting with four schools and initial scaling of virtual internships to a wider group of schools runs 2019 to 2021. The project is one of several being undertaken by colleagues from the CEDiR research group. It is an outcome of an established research partnership between the University of Cambridge, BT and Huawei.

As with most things in 2020, COVID impacted project plans. What the global pandemic and ensuing disruption also exposed however, was a dire need to address the gaping inequalities in experiences of and access to Education on a more general level. Addressing such inequalities was always at the core of VIP’s mission:

  • to facilitate authentic experiences of the world of work regardless of schools’ or students’ local or personal links to employers and professionals;
  • and to support students in developing ‘future skills’ of collaborative and creative problem-solving: that would equip them for their educational careers, and help them adapt within the rapidly changing workplace of the future.

Thus a simulated virtual internship offering – accessible via a variety of online or offline; synchronous or asynchronous; technical, digital and social contexts – represents a valuable element as we seek to define the Educational model and experience of the future.

The research team includes: Professor Rupert Wegerif (Principal Investigator), Dr Louis Major (Co-Investigator) & Dr Alison Twiner (Research Associate).

Project outputs and dissemination

We have shared findings of VIP at the 2021 American Educational Research Association conference (April):
Twiner, A., Major, L. & Wegerif, R. (2021, April). ‘Collaborating2Create’: Developing learners’ capacity for collaborative creativity through linking education and enterprise. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference.

Interactive poster can be accessed here
Full article can be accessed on Apollo here

Other articles, chapters and conference presentations are in progress. Details will be added as they become available.

Virtual Internships Project