A virtual internship program forged international connections between a Peace Corps volunteer, a faculty member and students at Kaplan University, School of Information Technology. Virtual internships and international partnerships provide high-impact experiential learning opportunities for students while providing means for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to build capacity and cultural bridges. This type of program allows non-traditional adult students in particular to maintain their family responsibilities and to continue their full time jobs while working on projects overseas in an online capacity. This program has led to increased student confidence in their skillsets as they continued to develop their assigned projects for the NGO. They also gained exposure to cultural diversity and international collaboration atypical of your average IT class.
Project iNext exemplified an institutional partnership between Kaplan University, Information Technology School and a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), Julie Frieswyk. Julie reached out to Kaplan University on behalf of her partner non-governmental organization (NGO), Pro-Business Nord (PBN), located in the Republic of Moldova. PBN is directly funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). One of the key goals of PBN was to develop a new social enterprise model for a sustainable Women Career Development Program in the northern part of Moldova.
The virtual internship program of Kaplan University was implemented to connect Information Technology students with the NGO. The partnership goals were to gain expert advisory in updating the older versions of their NGO website, testing server security and help to develop a new website for PBN’s new social enterprise, ProBizNord, a regional Business Resource Center.
The partnership with Pro-Business Nord (PBN) in Moldova was led by Allison Selby, Kaplan Information Technology Faculty and Julie Frieswyk, Peace Corps Volunteer. Frieswyk ensured the internship project goals were in alignment with the priorities of PBN and Peace Corp goals. Selby ensured the weekly outcomes were being met by the students and the students were receiving the necessary assets to complete their assigned tasks. This partnership was also important for the very practical concern of language translation. While the PBN team did speak English well, Frieswyk was also able to translate Russian to English as necessary.
The project provided excellent opportunities for students to apply their knowledge, skills and abilities in an authentic context. They were exposed to negotiating schedules, timeframes, project outcomes and clearly communicating the assets needed to progress to subsequent stages of the project. Students were able to participate in conversations that quickly became a mix of Russian and English, spanning multiple time zones, and developing materials for people they discovered they had much in common with. The exposure to cultural diversity, businesses and lifestyles was greatly appreciated by the students.
At the end of the ten week experience, two students exceeded expectations and one student did not perform per expectations. Two fully functional websites were developed and met the requirements of PBN. The students were able to apply new skills for the site development and learned the process of client interaction, requests for revisions and practiced final presentation skills. The third project involved conducting security forensics, which were never fully completed. Many factors could be attributed to this outcome. Conducting security forensics as a team may be more effective, having a mentor with strong expertise and practice in forensics would be an asset and providing projections of some of the possible testing outcomes would have provided a stronger set of parameters for experimentation. The fact that one of these projects was not wholly successful was actually just as valuable to us as we continued to evaluate the program.
The overall outcome included engaged students with opportunities to gain authentic work experience and international exposure. PBN received considerable student-conducted training with the platform Wordpress, marketing skills including Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and practice in project planning and implementation. The Moldovan NGO gained exposure to more skills and up-to-date technology, building their own capacity, while continuing building cultural bridges through their experience with the Peace Corps. They also became co-educators of the students (Holland, 1997), while the students learned how to professionally interact, accept constructive criticism, and design for the clients’ aesthetic taste rather than their own.
This international partnership resulted in a small sampling of student participation and as such, my evidence is largely anecdotal and based upon student and NGO team feedback. The students remarked this was a unique international opportunity to learn the process of web development for clients, working together with international clients reviewing risks and suggestions, and to experience real-world project management. The NGO loved to be a part of something innovative and to learn more about our school system. The skills transfer and global understanding were repeated themes that appeared in the feedback and discussions.
As a high-impact experiential activity, the student and NGO partnership provides a type of global community based opportunity for the students’ worldview and perception to transform (Cress, 2004). The NGO benefits from the partnership by gaining access to resources and networks (Ferman & Hill, 2004) while collaborating with the students to build social change. The ‘mutually beneficial agenda’ (Holland, 1997), collaborative effort and shared gains of knowledge and practice becomes a transformative relationship (Bushouse, 2005), which in turn provides a sense of purpose to motivate student engagement and learning (Colby & Sulivan, 2009).
It relates to pillars due to the learning gains made by the students as evidenced by implementing and customizing the Wordpress platform, participating in professional dialogues with the partners, demonstrating project management skills to stay on task, and interacting with a culturally diverse team. The student survey feedback stated this experience was not something they could experience in a typical classroom and they gained confidence and increased abilities throughout the process. They completed the program knowing they did possess professional skills in an authentic context.
Virtual internship partnerships could involve studies on social entrepreneurship, micro-finance, marketing, business administration and design. The virtual internships creates problem-solving activities with the potential to result in real-world skills such as collaboration for problem-solving, technology proficiency, presentation skills, and a greater appreciation for intercultural diversity (Humphreys, 2009). This opportunity provides students with an international experience who may otherwise be limited by finances, work responsibilities, family obligations or physical limitations. In addition, there is a considerable cost-savings when compared to studying abroad for the same amount of time. A virtual internship program incurs regular tuition fees, no additional costs are required by the student.
Students enjoyed the experience overall and loved the new addition to their resume and credentials. We learned a lot about how to support the students more efficiently. This type of project benefits tremendously by considerable advanced preparatory stages. Using project charters to outline weekly outcomes and deliverables is very important. Defining the exact scope of the deliverables, what assets may be needed and the key stakeholders were all important topics to clarify. Synchronous weekly team meetings using Skype with the clients gave the students a vested interest and motivation to succeed. And having the students train the clients for site maintenance gave them ownership of the process and pride in their proof of success. It was exciting, engaging, and could definitely be accomplished by other institutions with great success.
The only aspect completely necessary is an internet connection and email. In our program, the students also used Captivate for creating videos to present the finished products and instructional materials for the clients. Jing would be a reasonable free alternative for short presentations under five minutes. The students also used Wordpress and installed the framework on the client server. The students used free themes for both Wordpress sites.
All other tools enhance the experience and few have costs associated with them. We recommend the following:
• Synchronous tools: Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts, Google chats, Skype
• Asynchronous tools: email, discussion board in LMS
• Reflective tools: Blog, journals, status reports
The only additional cost would be optional and would involve the use of Adobe Connect. All other resources were open source and we did not incur additional costs using them. The client already had server space and the students used free Wordpress themes. There was essentially no budget for the site so our costs were very minimal for this project.
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Ferman, B., & Hill, T. L. (2004). The challenges of agenda conflict in higher-education-community research partnerships: Views from the community side. Journal of Urban Affairs, 241-257.
Holland, B. (1997). Analyzing institutional commitment to service: A model of key organizational factors. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 30-41.
Humphreys, D. (2009). College outcomes for work, life,and citizenship: Can we really do it all? Liberal Education, 14-21.