Science & Tech

Virtually connected

4 min read

HGSE pilot program offers long-distance student internships

Last semester, while sitting at her dining-room table, Hannah Poole helped young girls in southern Sudan to go to school.

In that northeast African region, early marriage, coupled with fears of sexual harassment and gender-based violence, mean a high dropout rate for girls. But Poole wants to change that. Based on studies in the area indicating that female teachers have a positive impact on girls’ school attendance and achievement, she helped to craft high-level education policies through her virtual internship.

Her classroom discussions — which involved policy frameworks, gender education issues, and cultural norms that prevent young girls from attending school — contributed to her virtual internship, said Poole, who did extensive reading on the importance of female teachers to girls’ education.

Using data compiled from Sudan’s census, along with education statistics, she was able to chart the parts of the country with the fewest female teachers. She also completed case studies of successful education programs in other countries, such as India and Afghanistan, and used her findings to craft recommendations for southern Sudan’s education officials.

“I really get to be part of shaping the country’s future,” said Poole, who is part of UNICEF’s education initiative. The Canadian hopes that her work, conducted out of her Cambridge apartment, will convince education ministers to increase educational opportunities for girls.

Using the Web, Poole and a group of her master’s degree classmates at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) are gaining a kind of field experience without leaving home. They are part of an ongoing virtual internship pilot program offered through the school’s Career Services Office and its Field Experience Program (FEP) in collaboration with its International Education Policy (IEP) master’s program.

The virtual internships represent a trend in an increasingly connected world, with communications technologies such as e-mail and video conferencing making it easier for those eager to explore career opportunities in distant locations to work remotely.

“With the Internet, we realized there was a limitless opportunity for students to work beyond the local area,” said FEP specialist Sarah Deighton. “In terms of their future careers, we wanted to help them build connections and networks not only in this country but around the globe.”

Fernando Reimers, director of the IEP, developed partnerships with international institutions that agreed to work closely with the students during the semester.

“International development institutions, ministries of education, and education policy think tanks abroad all offered their support to this programmatic innovation at HGSE,” said Reimers, who is also Ford Foundation Professor of International Education. “The result has been a very rich experience for our students who are engaged in a variety of exciting programs.”

Last semester 11 students worked on various international initiatives.

In the fall, master’s student Simon Thacker and his classmate Jessica Malkin helped children in Jamaica to have more fun. Working with the Jamaican Ministry of Education, the pair developed policy around a child’s right to play.

“The perception in Jamaica is that play is a waste of time, so don’t let kids play,” Thacker said, despite evidence that play is essential to a child’s cognitive, linguistic, and social development. “This policy is to ensure that the children of Jamaica do get what they need.”

Using Elluminate, an online platform with a phone and instant-message function as well as a public whiteboard that participants can use to mull over ideas in cyberspace, Thacker and Malkin connected with their contact, a senior adviser to the country’s Minister of Education, to review their work.

In addition to affording him high-level policy experience and helping him to put his quantitative skills to use, Thacker said the program was a great way to network and search for employment.

There are some drawbacks. Students admit they miss the face-to-face interaction available in a traditional office setting. The flexible nature of the internships — students are required to devote at least eight hours a week to their projects — involves a greater degree of discipline. Getting in touch with contacts can sometimes be a challenge, and stopping an officemate or co-worker in the hall for the answer to a quick question is impossible. Still, they agree, the tradeoffs are worth it.

“This program shows you that the work that you do has real-life consequences,” said Poole, “and that gives you a really good perspective on what you learn and its implications.”