Student Knowledge Exchange – Optimising Virtual Delivery to Remove Barriers and Engage Communities

In this article, Terry Dray, Sue Welland, and Hannes Read look at how Keele University and the University of Birmingham are re-imagining experiential learning, industry placements, and student knowledge exchange. Terry Dray is the Director for Employability and Employer Engagement at Keele University, and leads the Student Knowledge Exchange project.


Even though our project was initiated before the pandemic began, our new virtual approach to re-imagining experiential learning, placements, and student knowledge exchange came into its own when the pandemic started. We detail the aims and methods of how we have started to break down barriers to students accessing experiential learning with a range of organisations below.

Re-imagining placement learning

We are keen to encourage and enable more students from under-represented groups to meaningfully access opportunities and engage in project-based internships and challenges. We reflected, and re-designed approaches to delivery. By delivering virtual micro internships, the barriers to students engaging with internships can be broken down. The flexibility of the virtual micro internships allows more students to challenge themselves, gain essential work-related experience, develop employability skills and attributes including confidence, and, importantly, develop social capital and networks.

Virtual micro-internships

Our approach to enabling students with little time, or any other barriers to accessing traditional internships, is to offer virtual micro-internships. The typical offering is a 55-hour internship split, in agreement with the opportunity provider, so the student delivers between 6-8 hours a week for around 6-9 weeks. This flexible approach allows the student to blend the virtual micro-internship with their other commitments. At the end of this opportunity the student receives a £500 bursary. One very welcome consequence of virtual micro-internships is that opportunities to work with international organisations are in reach for many more students. We purposefully chose to offer experiential learning opportunities locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Geographical boundaries can be broken down through virtual internships. Students can understand different cultures, develop an international mindset, and have the financial burden associated with travel and subsistence removed. Virtual internships mean that international experiential learning and knowledge exchange is now more of a reality for many.

International student internships

The University of Birmingham is developing a new internship scheme offering meaningful work experience with UK employers to international students and recent graduates. Through West Midlands based internship opportunities, the University hopes to connect international students who possess valuable language skills and insight into non-UK cultures, labour markets and economies with employers who can benefit from cultural knowledge exchange.

Enterprise challenges

We are supporting enterprise and entrepreneurship by providing seed funding and virtual boot camps for students. Students who are looking to set up a business could access £500 of seed funding to start up their idea and virtual boot camps are enabling students to work on real-life business solutions, providing benefits for both students and businesses. Engaging student creativity to scope out and plan solutions to challenges set by organisations allows students to work individually and in social learning groups. Towards the end of 2021, around 150 students from Keele and the University of Birmingham will collectively work on virtual community enterprise projects in St. Lucia – evidencing impactful, virtual international student knowledge exchange in action!

Impact tool

We want to evidence the impact of student knowledge exchange through the project via an Impact Tool. The Impact Tool is an exciting and innovative way of evaluating the impact that the project has had on students; businesses; universities/departments; and the wider economy and society. There are plenty of benefits to student internships, and the Impact Tool will capture these. For example, students gain the confidence and networks from internships; businesses can gain knowledge and processes from working with students; universities are increasingly focused on capturing knowledge exchange through the Knowledge Exchange Framework and Knowledge Exchange Concordat. And as a whole, universities are anchor institutions that play an active economic and societal role in the local area. Placing the student knowledge exchange work in the local economic and societal context is the key to evaluating the broader impact of student knowledge exchange. Capturing the impacts of the knowledge exchange is really important for understanding the impact of universities. We will be testing this tool widely across the sector to have a real impact in evaluating knowledge exchange in the future. We also hope to be writing a further blog about the progress of the Impact Tool soon.

The response from opportunity providers

We want to engage not-for-profit organisations as well as for-profit organisations. The reaction from opportunity providers to virtual micro-internships has been overwhelmingly positive. The £500 student bursaries have enabled not-for-profit organisations to receive insightful student solutions to long-standing problems. Over the course of the project, we aim for and are on track to achieve, engagement with 850 students between Keele University and the University of Birmingham, with 75% of those students from under-represented backgrounds.

YMCA Crewe comments:

“[The student’s work] Has given us chance to reflect on our current digital communications, and how we can adapt to create filming opportunities that are more collaborative and supportive for our residents”

Student feedback:

“I’ve been able to design a lot of new marketing content and witness first-hand how my efforts were assisting in developing the organisation. I have been given the opportunity to develop lots of new skills and show these off in a professional manner.”

If you are a student or an employer/organisation looking to get involved, please visit the dedicated Keele University and University of Birmingham web pages. Alternatively, please email Terry Dray (t.r.dray@keele.ac.uk) or Sue Welland (S.E.Welland@bham.ac.uk) for further information.