Cultures of risk and the activity format of internship participation

The activity theory of work-based learning

One of the fascinating things about interviewing students, educators, and employers about their internship experiences is that we are able to learn about how students experience work-based learning. And frankly, how work-based learning is organized is a bit different than we might expect based on the research.

Back in the early 1990s [1], Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger developed an activity theory of work-based learning, focused on a process they called legitimate peripheral participation, which involves novices and experts co-participating in complex work activities. In this description of work-based learning, at first the novice participates at the margins the activity—helping the expert with tasks appropriate to their beginner skill level—but gradually, while learning through work co-participation, novices acquire the skills and confidence to take over more central tasks in the activity setting; and through this process of work co-participation the novice’s identity itself gradually transitions to that of an expert practitioner.

But we are learning in our study that this account is not the only way that students participate in internships and that the variation we have observed has consequences for student learning and identity formation. In our study, we have conducted focus groups and interviews with students at a community college who have had internships, and with instructors and employers who support and supervise student interns. We are finding that the variation in the activity format of internship participation is informed by a particular key contextual factor—the culture of risk in which the student intern and internship supervisor go about their work activities.

Internships and risk

According to the research [2, 3], a culture of risk includes the disciplinary and professional norms that inform the perception of risk and the social activities engaged to manage that risk. In terms of how these perceptions and management strategies impact work-based learning, Lave and Wenger described how the risk associated with having novices employ expensive tools and materials is a key factor that informs how work-based learning is socially organized. For example, novice tailors in Liberia are permitted to make small cuts and stitches; but the long cuts of expensive fabrics were reserved for expert tailors. In this case, the financial risk of working with expensive materials informs the boundary between expert and novice tailors, and the types of work-based tasks in which novices can participate.

Activity formats of internship participation

The variety of internship participation activity formats that we have documented can be organized as a continuum from the most peripheral and least autonomous activity format, to the most central and autonomous.

Peripheral division of labor: This activity format limits an intern’s participation to low-risk tasks which are often marginal to the professional activity and identity. For example, interns at a kitchen design company manage the intake of clients over the phone and at the store front. After discussing the services provided by the company, and the client’s goals for the kitchen, the intern then refer the clients to the design professional who does the actual work of designing the kitchen and ultimately, ordering the installation of the product. Interns who are then hired by the company, who have acquired no experience in actual kitchen design from their internship, have to learn the process using the particular design software employed by the company.

Legitimate peripheral participation: As we described earlier, this activity format involves the transition from peripheral to central activity tasks. In our study, a good example is an architecture student who spent the first year of his internship at a sprinkler design firm cleaning and adding additional specifications and details to senior architects’ drafts—but the legal responsibility to make sure that the drafts meet code and that the product meets the clients’ needs is solely the expert’s. Gradually, the intern took increased responsibility for larger portions of ongoing projects, and he may even take responsibility for some small projects independently, but the senior architects review and approve his work, as is legally required.

Parallel simulated participation: This activity format involves the intern in the simulation of the work of the expert in parallel. Court reporting interns, for example, sit next to the official court reporter during court proceeding and produce a court transcript, which the supervisor can review to provide feedback. Interestingly, the intern does exactly the same work in total and in parallel to the work of the official court reporter. That work is done in the courtroom setting where the same standards of professional conduct are required of both the intern and the official court reporter. Whereas the intern produces a simulated court report, the official court reporter, however, produces a legal document with consequences for litigants and for the state. The court reporter, because of this legal and ethical responsibility, takes an oath of office similar to other officers of the court—since the intern does not take this oath, they cannot produce to official document of the court.

Projects with panoptical review: In this activity format, the intern works on a project independently but the supervisor reviews the final product and takes responsibility for the work of the novice. In our study, accounting interns at a tax preparation company fell into this category. They learn the tax preparation software through online tutorials and work with clients. Because the supervisor manages the intake, he can delegate standard tax preparation clients to the interns but reserve clients with complicated tax situations for himself or senior staff. The interns work independently, consulting with the client and using the software to prepare the client’s taxes. Prior to submitting the tax return, the supervisor—who is legally and financially responsible for the tax preparation work—reviews a report generated by the system which allows him to quickly identify any errors in the process, and then the supervisor and intern can fix the return prior to submission.

Autonomous projects: In this activity format, the interns works on their own project independently, with support from a supervisor. For example, information technology interns at an insurance company take responsibility for “proof of concept” projects which senior IT professionals would like to have tested. We learned about how interns develop particular applications for managing the insurance process, such as developing an application for a particular kind of smart phone to submit an auto insurance claim. The intern, with regular advice and support from an IT professional, takes over the project to see if such an application is feasible by designing it for the company. Such work cannot be billed to clients, and generally the company does not bill the work of interns to their clients, reserving that for full-time professionals who take responsibility for the reputation of the company and the satisfaction of the clients. Autonomous projects for paid interns are thus expensive for the company—the work results in a test of a concept but cannot be not billed to clients.

Consequences for student learning and identity

There appear to be several different, and new, formats of internship participation—and this variation seems to be organized by the cultures of risk that constitute the disciplinary and professional setting. And each of these activity formats can result in quality internship experiences and valuable outcomes for students. So it is also important to consider how the structure of internship participation can have important consequences for student learning and identity. We see it affecting students in the following ways:

  • In activity formats such as legitimate peripheral participation, parallel simulated participation, and projects with panoptical review, students progressively engage in increasingly central work tasks, but the legal, ethical, financial responsibilities of the work remain vested in the expert.
  • Internships organized with the peripheral division of labor format receive relevant work experience, often in close proximity to expert practitioners, but they do not engage in increasingly central activities to the organization, as often occurs in legitimate peripheral participation.
  • And autonomous projects, while often beneficial to students, are expensive for organizations to provide, and with less supervision and more independence, the risks of unsatisfactory performance are greater. We have noticed, surprisingly, that students who have done autonomous projects for their internships often feel that while they learned a great deal about their particular project, they also felt they lacked a more general understanding about the profession and the organization.More on this later, as we get into the depths of how these different structures might affect students!
  • More on this later, as we get into the depths of how these different structures might affect students!
  1. Lave, J., Wenger, E., & Wenger, E.(1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (Vol.521423740). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Boholm, Å. (1996). Risk perception and social anthropology: Critique of culturaltheory. Ethnos, 61(1-2), 64-84.
  3. Douglas, M. (2013). Risk and blame. Routledge.

Dr. Matthew Wolfgram is an anthropologist of education and Assistant Director of CCWT. Emily Parrott is a Project Assistant of CCWT, focusing on qualitative methods.