Each semester, many of us ship our students outward toward internships. We hope they are headed to places that will treat them with respect, to managers who will teach them, to environments where they can learn the business and get a sense of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. I’ve sent many “I want to work in TV” students to local television newsrooms and they came back saying, “Ugh, there is so much yelling, so much noise, everyone is always going crazy.” It’s a tough lesson, but at least they find out they are not cut out for newsrooms.

There is a flood of writing on how to get the most out of an internship—everything from the basic “avoid missing work” to “no flip-flops” to “write thank-you notes” to “know the culture.” As professors and advisors, we no doubt say many of the same things. But what we really need is a way to evaluate the internships and make sure they work for students, news organizations and schools. Thanks to digital tools, we can do a much better job evaluating them.

The line between intern and staff positions is always a little blurry. Photo by Gabriel Cline.

The line between intern and staff positions is always a little blurry. Photo by Gabriel Cline.

Controversies abound

With internships, there is also a current deluge of paid v. unpaid, credit v. no-credit, valuable-or-not discussion going on within higher education and certainly in corporate human resources offices. In most journalism and communication departments, it is understood that students should seek out directed practical experience before they graduate. At my former campus, students were required to take at least three credits of “practicum” to graduate in any of our concentrations.

What does not get much attention around internships is the departmental commitment to assessment—both of the internship experience and of the student. In some cases, a simple signature by a professor and a supervisor are enough to get credit for this work while in others, an instructor might require a lengthy final paper. The good news today is that in our digital climate we can offer so much more to both student and supervisor. Let me offer just a few of the applications I use to strengthen the internship experience.

There are several tools for incorporating digital tools into the internship experience. Illustration by Peg Achterman.

Illustration by Peg Achterman

Make the plans clear to students

  • Prior to starting an internship students must read and send the information contained in these documents. Practicum Requirements & Before You Start (note that these are specific to the Seattle area and the requirements at Northwest University – but are a good template). They outline expectations and give links and steps for completion.
  • Businesses often send requests for interns to communication and business departments, so I keep a WordPress site specifically for these opportunities and add to them as new things come up. Again – this is specific to Seattle and to communication, but gives a good sense of the content.
  • Students must start a blog with an easy-to-use interface. WordPress, Blogger or Weebly are good choices. Some students may ask to use Tumblr – that is fine but somewhat trickier for tracking. Just make sure you can see the sites in an RSS feed. Once I have all of the URLs for my students for the term I subscribe to each student site in my RSS reader and mark them with a heading that will group them as “interns” so I can see them all at a glance. Netnewswire or Feedly are good options.
  • They must post at least once per week.
  • They must write about their experience in light of their course of study. What communication practices are happening (or not happening) where they work? What is the workflow for getting a story on the air? What might they do to improve the communication environment if they could? How are they applying what they learned in a classroom?
  • Remind them that this must be more than a travelogue—“today I stuffed envelopes for the candidate.”
  • Toward the end of the term students should be thinking about their informational interviews. I link them to this practical NYTimes article, but also advise them to look online for other tips on conducting this type of interview. The key application in getting these done is Soundcloud since the students can easily record the interviews and link them within their blogs. They are also welcome to simply send me a link if they or their subject don’t want the whole interview posted for the world to hear.
  • Getting feedback on intern performance can sometimes be a tricky business, so using SurveyMonkey or any other survey service works well to increase the response rate. Students give out the link, a supervisor fills out an online survey, and I see the results. I often use a combination of text and multiple-choice and make it no longer than about six or seven questions. Here is one I’ve used recently.

Digital tools can not only make our professional lives easier in the classroom, but also can be a boon when our students take their first professional steps away from those classrooms.

Peg Achterman is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Journalism at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle. Prior to her academic career, Achterman spent 20 years in the television news business. Follow her on Twitter at @achterman