Virtual Internships Step 6 - Formal Learning & Development

Virtual Internships Step 6 - Formal Learning & Development

In tandem to interns learning in the flow of work through their daily work tasks and from programme specific projects, most organisations in our research supplemented this learning through more formal training.


The Value Of Curation

There is little doubt that the shift to virtual requires a more curated learning and development (L&D) pathway, as the opportunities for more organic and informal learning are reduced in the virtual format. The specific content of learning programmes varied from organisation to organisation, was largely aligned with the objectives of the programme and reflected the level of maturity of L&D in the organisation more generally. A number of organisations had clearly defined and curated learning journeys which were communicated with interns and line manager alike. These generally identified a series of events or specific courses which interns should complete at particular times during the programme. One organisation designed a learning guide which included information on what to learn and how and where interns could access learning materials they may need to learn. This guide proved successful, and that organisation plans to retain it when the programme returns to a traditional or hybrid delivery. Many organisations simply provided interns with access to internal learning management systems and encouraged them to self-select training.

One innovation which we saw in a professional service firm was the development of a programme which spanned multiple years with interns returning over multiple summers. This firm had developed a very clear learning pathway with the aim of having work ready graduates by the time they graduated and entered the graduate programme.




Multi Year Programmes

In one professional services firm located in a smaller market where competition for graduate talent is particularly high, interns are recruited in years one or two of degree programmes with the intention of returning over multiple placements. The learning journey prioritises formal in-company training programmes in the 1st and 2nd years of the programme. The emphasis shifts to engagement in in-company projects and client engagement for the 3rd and 4th years of the internship programme. This means that interns are work ready when they transition into graduate roles on completion of their studies. In addition to attracting the very best talent, this was in part an effort to invest in development to supplement university education over an extended period.

Designing Learning Experiences

As noted above, the content of L&D programmes varied across organisations, but we did see some commonalities. All organisations had an induction programme which is discussed in detail in step one. This included specific training around tools or technology required as part of the interns' daily work tasks. Many provided specific content around working in an online environment, for example, resilience, time management, stress management, how to set up meetings and arranging calendar invites. One organisation recognised the importance of learning agility and their formal development programme for interns emphasised developing learning agility. A number of other methods used for training interns which were not unique to virtual internship programmes, but which provided valuable knowledge were identified. For example, lunch and learn sessions were used in a number of organisations to introduce interns to other employees’ areas of expertise, to different parts of the business or key initiatives.

Given the challenges of sharing organisational values and culture identified earlier, a number of organisations placed a key emphasis on this in L&D programmes. In one technology company, where being curious and asking questions was core to their values, a partnership with Toastmasters was used as a key means of developing confidence in public speaking and contributing to discussions. Interns were active members of this programme.

Most organisations leveraged technology, which was generally pre-existing, to support intern learning journeys. These included platforms such as GetAbstract, LinkedIn Learning, Skillsoft and in-house Learning Management Systems. Beyond curated content, organisations encouraged interns to engage with this material during quieter periods of work.

There was some recognition that training that was traditionally classroom based could not simply be moved online without being given further consideration. This is important insight as academic research evidence suggests for effective web-based courses to be as effective as classroom face-to-face instruction, design conditions which must be implemented include, providing trainees with control over the pace of their learning, practice on the training material and feedback[1]. Research evidence on virtual reality (VR) training for social skills, in particular, recognises that VR is effective subject to some conditions i.e. VR programmes that provide information and knowledge to improve social skills (e.g. presentation, interpersonal, communication) are effective, mostly in terms of reaction and learning outcomes. However, there is some further research and development work to be done to improve VR programmes that try to train social skills using practice as the effectiveness varies considerably[2].


“And then you have the classroom bit …, it’s very important and we need to think about what is the objective of the training, because you cannot just take what you did in the classroom and make it virtual.  That doesn’t work.  You need to kind of start again and go, oh what is the objective or purpose of the training, is it upscaling them on tools, is it that they want to have knowledge and awareness of what the teams do, is it that they want them to get to know each other and based on that objective, design something virtually that works”.


In a number of organisations, we saw a real effort to develop L&D interventions which linked to learning but were clearly targeted at the profile of the intern populations. These initiatives emphasised fun, networking with other interns and employees in the organisation through challenging tasks.




Building Creativity

A telecoms company developed an innovative intervention aimed at sparking creativity. This was developed in collaboration with a very creative L&D team. The initiative involved regular programmes with specific challenges to help spark employee creativity. The objective was to have teams working on a complex problem-solving task while additionally building networks. Many projects were more fun oriented than business oriented, for example writing a company song. Teams included directors, managers, other employees, and interns with an emphasis on mixing levels of experience and functional areas. This facilitated knowledge sharing while developing problem solving and collaboration capabilities but with a very playful or fun focus.


The Value Of Reflection

Relatively few organisations emphasised formally tracking skills acquisition or learning amongst interns. Such information can prove valuable to the organisation in evaluating programmes (see also step 7). However, having interns reflect on their own learning journey can be invaluable to them for enhancing self-awareness of their development and how their learnings could transfer to other contexts.   We saw a number of examples of organisations where such reflection was an integral part of the programme. One telecoms company had a scheduled check-in half-way through the programme and at the end, with a focus on discussing the interns’ developmental journey. We also saw the use of learning logs or diaries in a number of organisations. The level of sophistication of these learning logs varied. In one professional services firm, a graduate diary was used for interns to reflect on their learnings in the previous week, things they would change, ideas of what they would do differently the following week and other prompts for what they might like to remember. One programme manager reflected on the value of learning logs in their programme. 

“We have learning logs created for interns to make sure they are keeping track of their development...we continuously track where our interns are at but they're able to really kind of learn about new areas of the business or new areas in general that they might never have thought about before necessarily. So I know even from my own experience, working for a tech company, I come from a marketing background, but I was able to upskill in elements such as like CSS, HTML, and things like that. So really kind of learning these new what we like to call future-ready skills. But most importantly as well showcasing that these are the skills that might be necessary to learn if you are interested in a career that you want to go forward in.”




Learning & Development

  1. Identify specific competency needs, matched to the objectives of the programme, and include these in a training plan. For example:
    1. Working in a virtual/hybrid context.
    2. Technical skills for job tasks.
    3. Soft skills such as teamworking, presenting and networking.
  2. Provide information on learning platforms available and how to access and navigate them.
  3. Partner with L&D to ensure appropriate design and delivery of online content.
  4. Create learning moments for interns or invite them to wider workforce events
    1.  Lunch & learns
    2. Specialist presentations
  5. L&D and managers should partner in developing curated learning plans and ensure to get manager buy-in to the plan.
  6. Managers should consider how interns can transfer their learning to their work or projects.
  7. Help the intern to create links between work-based learning to academic course curriculum. (may link to learning logs.)
  8. Consider learning logs or diaries as a key means of reflection for interns. This should incorporate feedback from peers, teams, managers etc.



[1] Sitzmann et al. (2006), The comparative effectiveness of Web-based and classroom instruction: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 59, 623-664

[2] Howard, M.C. & Gutworth, M.B. (2020), A meta-analysis of virtual reality training programmes for social skill development, Computers & Education, 144,