Work-based opportunities are becoming more popular in many high schools as educators and parents look for ways to connect academic learning to real-world work. States like Vermont and New Hampshire already have work-based learning pathways at the state level, and voters in cities like Oakland have approved money to expand “linked learning.” Internships are also emerging as a way to help low-income students develop professional networks like those more affluent students have access to through family connections and community.
Many educators see the value in work-based learning opportunities, but the logistical challenges are daunting. Schools are responsible for students during school hours and are nervous to send them off campus for credit-bearing opportunities that they can’t supervise. Big high schools have so many student schedules to manage that off-campus opportunities can seem like one thing too many. And, even when schools do have some work-based programming, it’s often tied to a program or teacher. For example, career technical education (CTE) teachers may have a small work-based program that’s completely separate from opportunities elsewhere in the building.
Schools in the Big Picture Learning network have long held internships as a core part of the teaching model, so it made sense for the organization to develop a tool to help educators manage those programs. In the process, they’re trying to make internships more palatable to a broader group of schools. Their tool is called ImBlaze.
“We’re really trying to put a flag in the hill about what internships are and the importance of real world learning,” said David Berg, the director of technology at Big Picture Learning.
At its core, ImBlaze is a networked database of internship opportunities that students can search, favorite and request. The platform allows internship coordinators and teachers to see a snapshot of all student internships in a semester and facilitates logging internship hours and communication with mentors. It's currently being used in more than 50 schools and was recently selected to be part of the WISE accelerator, a program for ed-tech startups that have strong potential to have a positive impact and could scale internationally.
“Schools really want to know where their kids are,” Berg said. “It’s easier to keep them all in the building because then you know where they are. But the technology lets you know where kids are pretty well.”
Big Picture schools see work-based learning as an important part of a young person’s education. At many schools in the network, students spend two days a week at internships of their choosing where they are mentored by a professional in that field. That learning then becomes the basis for more traditional academic work in school.
“We think it should be the right of every student by the time they graduate high school to have had a mentor,” Berg said. “We want to make it possible for this to be the norm in schools.”
Big Picture has found that internships often help re-engage students who haven’t traditionally done well in school. Many adolescents have trouble seeing how classroom learning and homework connects to their lives outside of school. Work-based learning can help bridge that gap. Or, like sports for some kids, it could be the reason students are willing to put up with the rest of school.
But to have that effect, students must be given time to explore their passions and investigate internships where they’ll be happy working for a semester or a whole year. ImBlaze tries to streamline the process of finding an internship and embeds some of the best practices Big Picture Learning has discovered through trial and error into the technology.
“The platform is really less about the platform,” Berg said, “but it’s existence helps us inform the conversation about what work-based learning should be like.”
HOW IMBLAZE WORKS
ImBlaze is a database of internship opportunities curated and maintained by an internship coordinator at the school. Students can search this database for opportunities and suggest sites that interest them if they aren’t already in the system. Once students finds something they want to pursue, they request it.
The internship coordinator reviews the request and then approves or denies the student to pursue the internship. This step allows the coordinator, who has a birds-eye view of the program, to make sure students across the school are equitably able to access internships. Once that approval comes through, the student can see contact information for the mentor and can reach out to set up an interview or shadow day. The student only has a certain amount of time to pursue the internship before it becomes available to other students again. That prevents students from hogging internships that they aren’t pursuing in good faith.
If the student and mentor hit it off and intend to formalize the internship, the student requests to start through the app. At that point, the classroom teacher gets an email and has the power to approve or deny the internship. Throughout the semester, students can track their attendance through the app, set goals, and receive feedback from internship mentors.
“This platform doesn’t make an internship happen,” Berg said. “It’s management of the logistics.” That’s significant because the human elements of this process are important. Students have to initiate the process, show interest in something, follow up on that interest and eventually log their hours and progress.
All these interactions through the app are visible to the internship coordinator, who then has an overall picture of which internships are running smoothly, which mentors need a check-in, and whether or not students are actually going to their internships.
“It makes the internship process very deliberative and it makes it very step by step,” said Robert Fung, the internship coordinator at San Diego MET High School, a Big Picture school.
Before switching to ImBlaze, Fung said his school tried a variety of methods to manage their internships. At first they had an offline database students had to take turns searching. Then they moved to an in-house Google Fusion Table set-up that allowed students to search online and filter for various interests. Students filled out paper timesheets to track their hours at internship sites and inevitably those weren’t very trustworthy. Students would forget to fill them out daily and end up guessing at their hours when it was time to turn in the logs.
Fung said he was drawn to ImBlaze because the user interface was easy for students to use. They have an app on their phone, which makes it easy to check in when they arrive at their internship and check out when they leave. ImBlaze uses GPS data from the student’s phone to confirm they are at their internship site, but students can turn off that feature if they don’t want to be tracked. When students check in, they’re asked to list a few goals for the day. When they check out, their internship mentor gets an email asking them to confirm that they were there. In that email the mentor can see what the student’s goals were for the day and give feedback if they want.
“One of the things we’re concerned about in internships is that often kids go to their internship and then go home,” Berg said. That means if the student had an issue at their internship that day, he or she may never report it. ImBlaze offers many more opportunities for communication between the student and the school as well as the mentor and the school.
“I did not expect mentors to leave comments very often, but they have left them with good frequency,” Fung said. To him, that’s one unexpected benefit of ImBlaze. Most mentors don’t have a problem writing a quick response when they get the check-out email, so Fung has a much better record and sense of the student’s progression at the internship site.
“What I’ve found is they’ll leave comments that are insightful, even if they’re not lengthy,” Fung said. “I think it creates this living regular conversation that gives us good feedback, good data, but also makes us feel more in touch with the mentors.”
Under his old system, Fung often wouldn’t hear about issues at an internship until he visited the site. Now, he’s able to help mediate smaller issues before they become bigger. The enhanced communication also means that Fung knows right away if a student is skipping out on their internship and can talk to them about it.
In the first year of implementation, Fung said the main problems he had revolved around teacher buy-in. Many members of his staff were used to the old way of doing internships, and some had developed short cuts, so they chafed against the methodical, step-by-step nature of ImBlaze. The technology intentionally slows the process down to make sure students aren’t hastily assigned to internships they don’t actually want. Fung has also found that teachers had trouble learning how to use the tool and needed some training. Students, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any problems.
NETWORKS AS EQUITY
“What students know is important, but who students know is also really important for their success in life,” David Berg said. “That’s something that has become much more laser focused in the work itself.”
As a teacher and administrator, Berg didn’t understand just how much social networks mattered for closing the opportunity gap. Since he’s become more focused on internship offerings in various parts of the country and by different schools, he’s come to see just how unequal those networks can be.
Often the internships a school has cultivated don’t match the interests of students. ImBlaze has a “wishlist” feature where students can list internships they’d like to have. Berg noticed that 25 percent of the internships listed in ImBlaze are in the field of education (which makes sense because teachers know other educators), but many students request healthcare-related internships on their wishlists. With that knowledge, the internship coordinator at a school can actively try to cultivate more internship experiences in that field.
“We’re really concerned around the inequity of social capital,” Berg said. “We’re collecting data around this now. We see how some schools using our platform have more opportunities than other schools.”
That’s why Big Picture would like to see ImBlaze used regionally -- schools could share their social networks. Right now, each school has its own network of internship opportunities that no one else can see. Berg would like to move towards a system where ImBlaze is managed by a district or other regional player so that students at one school could see the internship opportunities cultivated by another school. This would help equalize the kinds of internships on offer. One school might have a bunch of internships in the arts or trades while another has more in science and technology fields. If they shared, both sets of students would have access to more types of internship opportunities.
“It’s tricky because we want schools to own the relationships,” Berg said. “We want there to be a real personal component.”
Big Picture has found that when a school cultivates a relationship with internship mentors, students have better experiences. While they want to open up the opportunities available to students, no matter where they live, they don’t want ImBlaze to become an impersonal job board experience.
Here To Here, a Bronx-based non-profit working to connect high schools, community colleges, businesses, and community-based organizations through internships is piloting the type of regional approach Berg envisions. The program works with eight high schools in the South Bronx, all of which have different levels of comfort with internships.
“We’re trying to use it as a regional portal; so our eight schools are all in one ImBlaze portal,” said Noel Parish, director of high school partnerships for Here To Here.
They have a naming convention to differentiate the internship opportunities a school’s staff brought in versus ones Here To Here cultivated. When students search the system for an internship, they first look at the opportunities their school has, along with the ones available to everyone through Here To Here. Over time, if another school’s internships aren’t filled, the staff can release them to the broader community.
“At the beginning of the school year folks were very nervous about sharing a portal and having all those things listed transparently in one place,” Parish said.
But as they got used to the system they could see its value. For example, one school had numerous EMT opportunities that no other school could offer. When a few of those spots became available to the broader Bronx high school community it was a boon to students who wouldn’t otherwise have had access.
A side benefit of this regional approach to using ImBlaze is a more fully developed asset map of what’s available to students in each area. To truly offer students work-based opportunities that reflect their interests and give them networks in professional fields where they may not otherwise know anyone personally, educators have to be intentional about the internships on offer.
“I really believe that this is something that helps every young person prepare to enter the workforce and go to college,” Parish said. “You can waste a lot of money in college if you don't know what you want to do.”
For his part, David Berg hopes the tool they’ve developed will make work-based learning cheaper and easier to manage. He sees national interest in things like career technical education, internships, and other real-world learning opportunities as a positive shift in education and doesn’t want it to lose momentum for lack of a good tool to manage the logistics. Big Picture does charge an on-boarding fee when schools start using ImBlaze and a per student charge year over year. Berg said the organization was working to reduce the per student charges to zero through philanthropic funding, but has not yet reached that goal.