The value of virtual internships as authentic assessment in developing the future generation of international business and economics graduates


Personal and Professional Development (PPD) courses in the Greenwich Business School have long contained employability as a key element. In the department of Economics and International Business (EIB), Professional Practice International Business Economics (PPIBE) was the second-year module, divided into two parts. The first term and assessment were employability focussed, the second term and assessment were research project focussed. In the academic year 2020/2021, we changed the design and delivery of the employability activities to include a compulsory virtual internship. 

A note about terminology: for the purposes of this discussion, ‘virtual internship’ (VI) refers to “Asynchronous tasks, devised by employers, accessed via a web platform –“. The Forage is a global platform with a strong collection of brand names running virtual internships through the platform, for example, Microsoft, Deloitte, Accenture, Electronic Arts, Aon, Clifford Chance and many more.Virtual internships are distinct from remote internships, which are traditional in-person experiences re-engineered to be done at home. These are either paid or unpaid but feature live interaction with teams/communities of interns and have competitive entry requirements. The Forage platform offers students employer developed and funded opportunities, with unlimited places available and no constraints on the number of opportunities a student can do (The Forage, 2021). Students decide how visible they want their work to be to employers, with the option to allow employers to view the work that they do. Some employers view completing virtual internships very favourably in recruitment processes, giving students who chose to be visible ‘a great leg up’ (The Forage, FAQs 2021).  

How we embedded virtual internships into PPIBE. 

PPD courses can suffer from a credibility problem with students. The Greenwich Business School response is a new, compulsory but non-credit-bearing module called Future Paths which will replace the credit bearing module discussed here, while retaining the virtual internship experience piloted in Economics and International Business (EIB).  

In EIB, there was a need to address students’ calls for more practical and real-world assessment on PPIBE, which will help them learn about the professional skills they need and actively help them develop those skills. It also aims to address employers’ calls for graduates who have these types of skills, often obtained through placements, but we know that currently, the number of students enrolled in placements is far from ideal.  We therefore thought of introducing a piece of assessment which would: 1) require students to perform tasks that replicate real-world challenges; 2) retain an academic element, through a reflection that in asking students to adopt models of reflective writing enables them to develop life-long learning skills, critical skills, and self-awareness; 3) provide some supportive scaffolding for individual development through asynchronous forums, guest speakers, tutorials. At the end, they receive personal and detailed feedback on their reflection. 

Authentic assessment (Mueller, 2006) requires students to perform tasks that replicate real-world challenges. The VI does so. However, students are not assessed on how they did on the VI (but completing a VI is part of the grade – 20 marks), but on their ability to reflect on the VI experience. It can be argued that the VI reflection is the authentic assessment. We know the ability to reflect about one’s own weakness, take stock, identify future actions combined with the ability to effectively present on video replicate what future graduates will be expected to do in graduate schemes and employment.  

We all remember the uncertainty of the spring-summer of 2020, so choosing to embed a new activity needed to come with a large amount of flexibility. We kept the assessment light-touch; we wanted the focus to be on the doing of the virtual internship rather than the doing of the assessment. As such, students were given a choice of either a 7 – 9-minute video presentation or a 1000-word reflective report. We were keen to encourage the additional challenge of presenting on video, but also recognised that these students were operating in an environment full of stretch already and so decided an ‘in comfort zone’ option was warranted. There were also four asynchronous Moodle forums that ran alongside the four weeks of teaching. These offered students the opportunity to share and discuss knowledge and information about recruitment processes, what employers are looking for, networking and interview skills. Contributing to these forums earned 10 marks, submitting the certificate of completion of the virtual internship earned 20 marks and the remainder was based on the reflection; overall this was 40% of the module grade. The graphic shows the structure of the Employability Activities assessment (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Employability Activities Assessment   

Figure 2 Submission option choice

Figure 3 Average grades for the two submission types

Students identified confidence as a key area for development through the Moodle forum discussions, guest speakers and virtual internship. They also recognised that the ability to confidently present via video was essential.  However, despite this, only 40 students submitted the video option, compared with 145 written submissions (Figure 2), indicating a low appetite for risk. Informal conversations with students subsequently have revealed a sense of regret about this, with several students saying they would have liked to have been braver. The average grade for the essay submission was 59% and the videos 61% (Figure 3). The reflections were generally positive in tone, with students appreciating the employer-led nature of the virtual internship, and the opportunity to discover a possible career option. One student wrote that they had realised that their long-held dream of investment banking as a career would not be a good fit, as they had not appreciated how much Excel work was involved. Another student got the chance to try out management consulting, something they had heard as a phrase but had never explored as an option. Other students took the opportunity to confirm their interests, using the full range of options available. This positivity extended to their commentary on the relevance of their degrees, with reflections that they had used something they had learnt in the classroom for a real-world analysis; at times in the reflections, there is a strong sense of surprise that their studies are so practically useful. 

The student satisfaction was also shown in Evasys (the end of module student survey), where the overall satisfaction was 0.6 points higher (on a five-point Likert scale) than in the previous three years. Higher points were also given in response to the three questions below: 

2.3. This module has challenged me to do my best work. 

2.4. This module has helped to enhance the skills and knowledge I will need after graduation. 

3.5. Assessment has enabled me to demonstrate what I have learned. 

Qualitative comments from Evasys

The qualitative comments provided insight into the higher score with comments such as “It really does help with employability which I’m just realising in my 2nd year”; “Useful module for real life work”. 

Perhaps even more importantly, we had no complaints from the Economics students, which is almost unheard of! 

The Future 

The success of this experiment means that virtual internships will be embedded into the faculty-wide Future Paths modules in 2021/2022. We have the University’s ethical approval to do a thematic analysis  on the reflections and match the emerging themes with students’ personal characteristics to assess whether perceptions of value vary across different groups. We will potentially also undertake a qualitative follow-up analysis to gain a better understanding of the results. 

We look forward to deepening our understanding of students’ experience doing virtual internships and are exploring collaborations with the Edinburgh Napier Business School and the University of Strathclyde Business School, as they consider virtual internships in their programmes. Virtual is here to stay; we are very pleased to be the UK University with the highest number of penultimate year students doing Forage internships and leading the field with the inclusion of them in compulsory modules.  

Blog Authors

Katherine Leopold
Senior Teaching Fellow in Employability
Department of International Business and Economics; Department of Accounting and Finance
Greenwich Business School

Dr Sara Gorgoni
Associate Professor in Economics
Department of International Business and Economics
Greenwich Business School


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