In January 2020, the University of Westminster embarked on a new work-based and placement learning (WBPL) project with the aim of embedding employability across all undergraduate courses. The aim is to enable all undergraduates to gain valuable employability skills that will help them prepare for a competitive job market.
With the onset of Covid-19, we needed to find quick and innovative ways to be able to move WBPL online so our students could gain these vital employability skills. After meeting with Forage, it was clear to us that the ethos of the organisation was similar to ours: to enable students, particularly from under-represented groups, to access online virtual internships that could enable them to gain employability skills remotely while also counting toward assessment.
Forage’s virtual work experience programmes replicate work at top firms such as Linklaters, Clifford Chance and Deloitte, and connect students to companies themselves. Students get to experience what it is like to work on projects that mirror the skills employees need and the work they do in the real world, such as project and stakeholder management, decision-making, data interpretation, user experience and process design.
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There are plenty of programmes to choose from and students have the flexibility to complete the tasks in their own time to suit their needs and commitments. Crucially, the main Forage programmes are free, which is obviously very attractive to institutions and has generated a lot of interest during the pandemic. Here, we provide tips on how to work with Forage to implement virtual internships.
How to engage with Forage
Jeremy Grunfeld is our main point of contact and the first step I would recommend is simply making contact with him. We found him incredibly helpful in explaining how bespoke webpages can be set up for your university, suggesting the most appropriate virtual internship tasks for the sector you are looking for support with, plus running any training sessions for you or your colleagues. Jeremy can also put you in touch with other colleagues at Forage if you are looking to develop further bespoke internship opportunities (for a cost).
As part of the project requirements, students need to complete a minimum of 35 hours of employability activities. Because a typical Forage virtual internship activity takes between five and seven hours to complete, we have been able to use this resource as part of a “menu” of activities for students and academic staff to choose from. It has also helped us look at wider online learning as a vehicle for improving students’ employability skills on a more flexible basis than we previously considered under the original scope of the WBPL project.
For example, we have now established new relationships with Bright Network, OpenLearn and LinkedIn Learning and created a suite of resources and specific “pathways” that students can complete to help build their employability skills.
The virtual internship offer has provided invaluable insight into placement tasks across a range of industries. Access to the “big four” consultancies and “magic circle” law firms, as well as many familiar brands, excited students and piqued interest in engaging with the virtual placement concept. With the feedback from students routinely positive, we decided to build the placements into our Level 5 assessment, with different organisations featured in each semester.
A total of 800 students across Westminster Business School completed the challenges in this core mega-module, giving them deep insight into what it is actually like to work at professional organisations. The series of tasks, which vary depending on company/sector, aim to improve practical skills, are self-paced and give students the option of sharing their work and profile with the employer.
Students reported that they found the work appropriately challenging and enjoyed being awarded the organisation’s own certificate of completion to validate the work achieved.
Westminster Business School is now using Forage for seven out of 35 hours of the work-based learning that is required from Level 4 students to be assessed at Level 5. Master’s course leaders have also adopted it as a recommended preparatory step before interview for graduating candidates.
It is possible for individual courses to set up their own bespoke section of the Forage website to which they can direct their students. This way, students can go straight to a particular virtual internship that is specifically linked to a course. Lecturers can then refer to their area to check student progress.
Forage have been happy for us to amend and adapt resources to suit the university’s own needs (for example, tailoring their CV referencing guide to help support students and achieve project goals). Several training sessions have been facilitated, both for careers staff and wider academic colleagues, to help in embedding the virtual internship experiences. All these sessions have been run for free.
Monitoring and tracking
Forage have set up bespoke dashboards for course leaders and professional services staff to be able to monitor and track the number of student registrations and completions. This reporting functionality also enables colleagues to look at specific cohorts, or larger faculty and college-level groupings. The functionality also enables reports by sector and gender, making it useful for summary feedback at a strategic level.
Ben Powell is work-based and placement learning project manager at the University of Westminster.