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3 Big Advantages of Virtual Work-Based Learning Experiences for Students

by Staff

Schools are increasingly harnessing work-based learning experiences to make academic learning relevant and motivate students, whether they are planning to go to college or straight into the workforce.

At the same time, the nature of work itself is changing, with more employers allowing employees to partially or fully work remotely, even in jobs that just a few years ago would have seemed difficult to do virtually.

What do you get when you combine those two big trends? A sudden demand for virtual work-based learning experiences for students at all levels.

For-profit companies and nonprofit organizations are stepping in to fill that need, representatives from organizations that use different models for connecting students to work-based learning opportunities said during a panel April 19 at the ASU+GSV conference that was broadcast virtually.

These opportunities are relatively new, but the people working in this area are beginning to see some clear benefits. Here’s a quick rundown of three big opportunities, which emerged during the panel discussion:

1. Virtual work-based learning programs offer students in rural areas the chance to connect with companies in big urban centers, and even around the world

Many rural school districts—like their urban and suburban counterparts—are working to dramatically expand their work-based learning offerings but can’t always do so if in-person is the only option, said Sabari Raja, a managing partner at JFF ventures, which works to fund technologies that will help create more inclusive workplaces.

In her work with rural districts, Raja found “it was very evident that these internships and work-based learning opportunities were very limited. There’s a lot of issues around putting them in a bus and getting them somewhere. I think it worked when the school districts [did] like ten work-based learning opportunities. Right now, [each district] wants to do 1,000.”

In particular, she recalls one rural California district she began working with in the early days of the pandemic.

“They had a lot of work-based learning coordinators,” but not a wide variety of companies to partner with, she said. “And during COVID they were like ‘how do we run our work-based learning programs?’”

The answer, naturally, was going virtual, Raja said.

2. Virtual career development experiences can help students connect to a myriad of employers and meet professionals working in a wide-range of jobs in a relatively short time

Raja helped the rural California district create a three-week program, featuring three different employers, including telecommunications giant Verizon. Students took virtual tours of the companies and heard from people in a variety of roles.

Then, companies put a problem in front of them, based on an issue that they had wrestled with in the real world. Students worked together on pitching solutions or projects to address the issue, and then presented them to the companies, virtually.

“They met so many different people,” Raja said. “They understood so many different careers, but most importantly, they learned how to present to real employers, they learned how to work as a team, they learned to ask questions. It all happened within a matter of three weeks, and it was real experience.”

3. Students learn how to work remotely and how to collaborate with remote employees, skills they will need in the future

Virtual work-based learning experiences can help students get ready for the workplace they are entering, where most jobs will involve at least some remote interaction.

“One of the things that we always reinforced to our students is that even if, in the future, you’re not in a remote or a hybrid role, chances are you’re going to have a coworker who is in a role like that,” said Prue Clifford, the executive director of the Work-Based Learning Alliance, a nonprofit that works with states to provide career-oriented learning experiences to students. That means students need to master “simple things that we all take for granted such as email and how to engage on Zoom.”

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