Human Skills Lessons in a Virtual Summer Internship | MIT J-WEL

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Human Skills Lessons in a Virtual Summer Internship

By Amy Taber

As COVID-19 closed buildings and offices, MIT J-WEL and LearnLaunch recognized opportunities for opening alternative doors. The two organizations matched 13 students from colleges across the U.S. with summer positions in global ed-tech companies. Recognizing the importance and the increased need for human skills in the workplace, J-WEL and LearnLaunch integrated a weekly program focused on this vital skill set in an internship context. 

The Human Skills Matrix (HSX), created by J-WEL’s Workforce Learning team, offers 24 durable, non-technical skills, grouped into four domains: thinking, interacting, managing ourselves, and leading. The HSX (below) offers employers, workers, policymakers, and educators a resource of skill sets to engage and integrate into their domains. Typical yet overlooked qualities in job descriptions and workplace requirements include critical thinking, collaboration, integrity, and strategic vision.

Our inevitable virtual contexts require education institutions, firms, and individuals to change more rapidly than ever before with the dynamic demands of learning, business, and technology. The Human Skills Matrix quantifies the critical skills and attributes that individuals need for the rapidly changing workplace. While digital skills and expertise continue to play a significant role in professions and industries, non-technical skills and personal attributes remain irreplaceable and empower people to connect and thrive.

MIT J-WEL is a member-driven organization confronting institutes, governments, and industries' education challenges and offers sustainable and scalable solutions. LearnLaunch, a Boston-based nonprofit, provides incubation space and knowledge to ed-tech start-ups.  LearnLaunch and J-WEL jointly designed and hosted a seven-week virtual events program encompassing human skills.

Susan Young, Assistant Director of J-WEL Workforce Learning, worked with a team to outline the program's structure, including Cohort Connect meet-ups, guest sessions, and a journal block. Each week focused on a specific skills theme. Meetings and sessions included panels, guest presentations, and roleplay and discussions. The combination of live sessions and asynchronous journaling complemented each intern's overall experiential learning journey. Young commented on the thinking behind the program:

“In designing this pilot, we had three goals: accelerating each learner’s ability to gain (virtual) workplace experience; facilitating opportunities for learners to articulate their technical and human skills; and guiding learners to identify ways to build their portfolios to improve their career readiness. To meet these challenges, we seized the opportunity afforded by going fully remote to provide learners with an intentional space to engage with each other, in reflection, collaboration, mentorship, and beyond.”

Guest sessions, which added a dynamic component, featured MIT colleagues and collaborators, varying from student presentations, to senior lecturers' research and findings, to feedback from MIT leadership. Below are samples of the summer’s guest speakers. 

Week 1  

Interning Remotely: How to be productive when working from home!, with MIT senior and blogger Nisha D., gave the cohort a glimpse of the pros and cons of virtual interning at Twitch. Highlights included a walkthrough of her daily schedule and useful tips. 

Week 3

Reflection as Learning featured a guest presentation from Michellana Jester of the Global Economics and Management Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She shared insights from her work, focusing on consciously reflecting on oneself as a follow-up practice after interactions as a pathway to personal growth. 
Reflecting on Learning Slide

Week 4

Daena Giardella, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and Executive Coach, shared her work focusing on hearing and addressing the inner critic. The journal meetings following these events included reflection prompts for journaling, a review of the week, and individual sharing.  
  Managing your Inner Critic Slide

Lessons Learned

While the commonality was working at ed-tech companies over the summer, each intern worked in a separate organization. At the start, they were strangers to each other in the cohort space. Icebreakers, hearing all voices, and seeing faces with names helped everyone get to know each other. Placing people in Zoom breakouts encouraged interaction between learners. Role-playing and scenario discussions brought out lively engagement and invited additional introspection and self-assessment.   

An unexpected lesson learned soon into the summer is that people in virtual meetings tend not to speak up or contribute to the discussion unless directly prompted; open-ended questions were sometimes met with silence. Facilitators used direct questions and structured turn-taking to encourage the interns to join the conversation. Though awkward at the beginning, occasionally sitting in silence became acceptable over time. 

In addition to human skills guidance, providing a space for goal-setting, visioning, and reflection fills a gap some organizations and internships cannot offer. J-WEL's virtual platform for peer-learning cohorts complements the technical skills learning that happens simultaneously in the experiential sphere. 

As facets of our lives become quieter and, sometimes, more solitary yet magnified in a Zoom grid, our human skills are more apparent than ever. Honing these skills as a vital part of our personal and professional lives has become increasingly important. Providing a forum to explore and develop these abilities in a patient and compassionate space is critical, particularly in an integrated, global, and likely virtual workplace.

If you or your organization are interested in exploring how this work might apply to your content – educational settings, workplaces, and beyond – please contact Susan Young at

Top: The Human Skills Matrix
Middle: A sample slide from Michellana Jester's presentation
Bottom: A sample slide from Daena Giardella's presentation