Supervising Interns at a Distance

Internships are widely valued by students, faculty, and employers. A well-designed internship experience can be a powerful learning opportunity, full of chances to apply knowledge and skills, work collaboratively with others, and develop career interests. As a faculty member and codirector of my department's internship program, I help lead an internship program designed to give students meaningful professional experiences closely tied to their academic program and supervised by a faculty member. Recently, my codirector and I became concerned that our students at more distant internship locations might be at a disadvantage compared to our students placed more locally. It seemed that distant interns experienced less close supervisory relationships with their faculty supervisor, which might negatively affect student learning. As a result, we developed some strategies to enhance our supervision of interns at a distance.

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Internships are widely valued by students, faculty, and employers. A well-designed internship experience can be a powerful learning opportunity, full of chances to apply knowledge and skills, work collaboratively with others, and develop career interests. As a faculty member and codirector of my department's internship program, I help lead an internship program designed to give students meaningful professional experiences closely tied to their academic program and supervised by a faculty member. Recently, my codirector and I became concerned that our students at more distant internship locations might be at a disadvantage compared to our students placed more locally. It seemed that distant interns experienced less close supervisory relationships with their faculty supervisor, which might negatively affect student learning. As a result, we developed some strategies to enhance our supervision of interns at a distance. In our program, we help students to secure internship placements with very little geographic restriction. Students intern in our local community, but also throughout the entire United States and occasionally internationally. When students are placed reasonably close to our campus (i.e., within 80 miles), they are visited by their faculty supervisor twice during the semester. They also return to campus for two separate days of activities, including professional development programming, group supervision, and a final presentation about their internship experience. Approximately 25 percent of our students complete their internships more than 80 miles from campus. This group does not receive in-person site visits, and they aren't expected to attend on-campus professional development days. As a result, we were concerned that faculty supervision may have been less close and effective and that these students may have been at risk of underperforming during internship. This motivated two changes to enhance our supervision of the more distant interns. The first change related to site visits. Originally, we had simply used phone calls to replace site visits for distant interns. Now, we conduct “virtual site visits” by flexibly using a variety of technology. We have face-to-face conversations with interns and site supervisors using WebEx, Skype, or a similar platform. We encourage interns to give us a “tour” of their site using videos or photos. When possible, we ask interns to share a video so that we can observe them engaging in an internship task. Because of variations across sites with respect to technology availability and confidentiality concerns, flexibility is key. Each “virtual site visit” is different from the next. Nevertheless, we have found that these strategies make our communications more personal and thorough. Face-to-face technologies allow for nonverbal cues to contribute to communications. The use of photos and videos helps the faculty member to more thoroughly understand the internship site and the intern's tasks. Consequently, the faculty member's relationship with both the intern and the site supervisor is strengthened. We are better able to provide support to interns who might be having difficulties. The second change we made applied to all interns, both local and distant. We wanted to increase the frequency and timeliness of communications between interns and faculty members. Previously, interns completed a weekly reflection assignment. In these, interns often wrote about significant events or struggles they were experiencing. Due to the weekly nature of the assignment, however, they wrote about things that had happened several days before. The faculty member would subsequently read and grade the assignment, providing feedback and coaching—but by then, the incident was often long past. To address this issue, we created a new assignment using the journal feature in our campus's learning management system, which allows for private communication between intern and faculty member. Students now write about key events as they occur; faculty respond more quickly than before, and students respond to that feedback. For both distant and local interns, supervisory relationships have become more responsive, spontaneous, and targeted to student needs. Of course, not all students engage productively with the journal or the feedback faculty provide. But for many students, this tool has helped to facilitate meaningful faculty-student relationships with a strong mentoring component. Both faculty observations and student grades suggest that these changes have been advantageous for interns at distant sites. Under the old procedures, local interns' average grades were higher than distant interns', both on specific assignments and in the overall course. After the change, the pattern was nearly reversed, with distant interns' average grades higher than local interns' average grades in six of the nine categories we use for comparison. Given the small sample sizes, we don't want to over-interpret these grade differences. Nevertheless, both the grade pattern and faculty experience suggest that implementing supervision journals and virtual site visits has helped to minimize the disadvantages of distant internship placements. If your students engage in field-based experiences at a great distance from campus—internships, co-ops, student teaching, and the like—I offer these strategies as ways to enhance the field experiences of students at a distance. Jennifer Dobbs-Oates (jendo@purdue.edu), PhD, is a clinical associate professor at Purdue University, IN.