Teaching an online internship course

For the last few years, I’ve taught a rather unusual course at UW-Madison.  It’s a one-credit course, delivered online, that students are meant to pair with an outside internship, called INTER-LS 260.  I’m posting this description in order to ask for some help in teaching this course, and I want to explain why I think it is so important.

First, the background. Roughly half of our undergraduates currently complete at least one internship over the course of their college career.  Some are with for-profit organizations, and some are with non-profits or government groups.  Some pay the students a modest wage or living allowance, and others are entirely unpaid.  But increasingly, many organizations which offer internships are demanding that these students pair their internship with college credit.  Students in professional programs, like the Business School, the College of Engineering, or the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, can often take advantage of specially-designed internship courses as part of their major curriculum.  But what about students who are majoring in a department that doesn’t offer its own internship course?  Or students whose departmental internship course doesn’t actually match the field of the internship that they want to pursue?  And remember, we have many UW-Madison students who have not even declared a major yet.  So a few years ago, the smart people in the College of Letters & Science, especially the folks in L&S Career Services, began to cast about for a solution to this problem of how to make sure that no L&S student was turned down for a good internship just because they couldn’t find a credit-bearing experience to match with the job.

As it happened, I had been working on a different internship issue in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication: the problem of scaling up an internship course from a one-to-one directed study experience into a many-to-many class experience.  For many years, SJMC had a one-credit internship course intended for majors to pair with outside media experiences.  But in practice this worked more like a “directed study” experience.  First, the student found a professor willing to be an internship mentor.  Next, the professor assigned some body of work — readings, writing assignments, maybe a final project — that would equal one credit worth of effort.  In any case, the student never encountered other interns working in the same course, since they were often paired up with different faculty members, even in the same summer or semester.

I started doing things differently.  First, I put together a standard syllabus of short readings and a final writing assignment that would fit a wide variety of media-related internships.  Second, I signed up to advise not just one student intern, but a dozen.  Third, I demanded that each student intern keep a weekly diary of “fieldnotes” about on-the-job experiences and how those experiences related to the training that students receive in our major.  But the last change was the real innovation: I set up a private, shared wiki so that all the students could both write their fieldnotes online, and read each other’s fieldnotes (even commenting on them).  Suddenly the one-to-one directed study experience was operating like a real classroom, with interesting discussions, peer-to-peer comparisons, and students acting as friends and mentors to each other, while each of them were physically far away from both UW-Madison and their own homes.

This was the model that we brought to the new L&S internship course, INTER-LS 260: a collaborative, reflective online experience, where the readings and assignments complement a student’s outside internship work, demonstrating that a liberal education within the Wisconsin Experience is also essential for success in the professional world.

With funding from the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, we were able to hire a full-time internship coordinator and to pay a rotating team of faculty to teach the course all year long.  We’ve just finished the second year of running this course at the College level, and here are some of the statistics that we’re most proud of:

In the first table above, what surprises me most is that nearly half of our internship course students don’t have to take the course as a condition of their internship; they are choosing to take the course in order to earn the credit and to enhance their work experience.  As we suspected, nearly two-thirds of our students report that they lack a dedicated internship course in their own major.  And for two-thirds of our students, this is their very first internship experience, so we are helping them through a crucial moment in their working lives.

The second table demonstrates that most of our students find for-profit internships, but most of our students are unpaid for those internships.  We hope that our course ensures that this unpaid experience serves intellectual goals as well as career and networking goals.  It is also important to note that less than two-thirds of these internships occur over the summer; students are increasingly mixing internship experiences with part-time and even full-time classroom attendance in the fall and spring semesters.

Numbers only tell part of the story, though.  Each semester we ask our students to reflect on the value of the internship course; here’s a sample of the comments we receive:

What I liked about this online course was that it allowed me to address my internship experience and analyze it more than I would have otherwise. Keeping a weekly blog about my experience really enabled me to examine my experience more closely and provided me with an environment to evaluate how I was feeling throughout the internship. I think this course helped me come out of my internship with a clear understanding of the things I liked and didn’t like. Additionally, I liked how this course was interactive. It was encouraging to hear that my peers were going through the same things I was, and also really interesting to hear about everyone’s internships.

In terms of the course, I found it was a great way to connect with other interns my age since again I lacked that in my own office. I enjoyed reading other people’s experiences since the class had a great variety of internships which was undoubtedly beneficial. Even when reading my peer’s fieldnotes from [REDACTED], it seemed we even had differing experiences. Being given a glimpse into myriad internships allowed me to learn from people’s experiences with dismissive bosses to doing work for vice presidents of the company. I also felt that the course was clearly guided and the resume workshop was a plus as well!

Keeping this course running is going to require more faculty mentors.  Are you a UW-Madison professor who might be interested in helping us out with our one-credit online internship course INTER-LS 260?  Or do you know a faculty colleague who might be?  Please let me know at gdowney@wisc.edu — we have money to pay salary for faculty who teach the course in the summer session, and to provide departments with lecturer replacement funding for faculty who teach the course in the fall or spring semesters.  I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot about the job market that your students are going to face upon graduation — and you’ll help them to understand that even within the liberal arts and sciences, the academic work that they are doing for their degree has a direct bearing on their skills, confidence, and creativity in the professional working world.