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Our Future Is BRIGHT! What I Learned From Our Summer College Interns.

This past summer, Unicon had the pleasure of bringing on five college interns to work on summer projects for us and our clients. These students were smart, articulate, self-managed, self-motivated, and did an amazing job of grasping difficult concepts and processes. Their majors ranged from computer science, to business, to chemistry, each with a distinctive path. Some were attending or had just graduated from four-year public research institutions, some had chosen smaller more liberal arts-focused schools, while others were at their local community colleges. These students proved to be up for any task, approached everything with a positive attitude, and moved mountains to get their job done.

As the summer progressed, I had the opportunity to explore their life and perspectives as a digital learner of today. Though there have been significant advances in online learning and technology simply from the overall progression of the industry, COVID-19 forced education to take even greater leaps in online learning. I wanted to share some of our interns’ perspectives on where the education industry is getting it right, as well as opportunities for improvement.

Student Onboarding

According to our interns, there is plenty of room for improvement in this area. As these young adults are venturing out on their own, (many for the first time), their experience has been nothing short of overwhelming. With the large influx of emails from their colleges, it is often difficult to distill what is and what is not important. The emails span the gamut of what you would expect for an incoming freshman, such as counselor appointments, registration, ID instructions, individual course instructions, learning management system setup, textbooks, tuition notices, dorm payment notices, etc. Universities are referencing systems that the students have never used before; in some cases, they have no idea what the systems do. Most of the interns mentioned that they wished they had a good old-fashioned checklist of onboarding items to work from, but no such thing was made available for any of them.

For our Higher Education clients, this is an easy chance to make big improvements! Demystify the college onboarding process and tailor your communication to your audience. Simplify the communication and frequency, and help them understand what is due and when. Even our students of today like checklists and to-do lists. Let’s help out by providing them.

Teaching Modalities

In chatting with our interns, each had a preference for the type of course they took. Some preferred in-person while others preferred online and asynchronous. However, the resounding common thread that made the difference in the classroom was the instructor. How the instructor approached the class and their level of organization at the end of the day made all the difference.

One aspect the students would like to see instructors consider is making adaptations based on how the course is delivered. Asynchronous classes require very clear class organization of assignments and content, while in-person classes can have less organization since students have the opportunity to ask questions live. This seems to be intuitive, but it appears there is quite a disparity between course organization across each campus. The interns wished their institutions provided a template for the instructors. Understanding and adapting to the nuances of the differing presentation in each of the classes added an additional layer of complication on top of the already rigorous coursework.


Most of our interns felt that an important pain point was the lack of a seamless integration across systems, and the lack of a centralized portal to access all the services provided by their institution. They found themselves still needing to remember a variety of passwords for systems across campus. Improvements in purchasing systems that align with core tools used on campus and ensuring integration is available from their education technology vendors is critical. In addition, a centralized location (portal) to access the most commonly used applications across campus is critical. This one is near and dear to my heart, since support for interoperability and uPortal services and support is one of the core consulting services that Unicon provides for both our Higher Education and Education Technology clients.

Learning Management Systems

Every intern was familiar with the use of learning management systems. In probing further about how they used these systems, their mobile experience was almost strictly limited to viewing the quick hits within the application. This included viewing notifications, messages, grades, and calendaring. Any in-depth coursework completion such as assignments or content review was completed on their laptops.

Learning management system features that the interns liked the most included:

  1. Grading “what if” function - The ability to assess the impact of various assignment grades on your overall grade was very helpful in prioritizing work.
  2. Instructor grade feedback - embedded instructor feedback within the grading function was great. It lets them know of opportunities for improvement, etc.
  3. Announcements and Calendaring - students lived by this functionality. Teachers that kept this updated were greatly appreciated.
  4. Useful or frequently used links are immediately available on the home page.

Frustrations they experienced with the learning management systems they used were:

  1. Non-customizable alerts/reminders or no alerts/reminders at all - Students would like the ability to customize their own alerts/reminders for any assignments or due dates.
  2. Instructors not understanding what students see or don’t see - The interns felt most of their instructors did not have ready access or were not making use of the student view of the LMS. Providing a student view that is prominently displayed for instructors to take advantage of would be an important improvement.
  3. Difficulty keeping track of all their work across different courses - They suggested offering integrated calendaring with color-coding by course.
  4. Poorly organized courses with all class materials in one giant module - Their instructors needed more training and a better understanding of effective online course design.
  5. Lack of access or difficulty drilling down to missed questions on a test quiz - In some LMSs, the presentation of quizzes and test results focuses on pie charts and graphics. These are appealing, but the students were more interested in seeing what questions they missed specifically.

Mental Health

Some of the interns also indicated that they are still feeling some of the side effects of COVID-19. It is proving difficult to re-enter the campus social world outside of social media. Institutions need to encourage students to engage and be active on campus, to be safe in smaller social settings, and provide student check-ins and interventions.

My impression is there is overarching pressure to have and do it all. To balance this within the context of their newfound freedom takes time management skills that they haven’t been taught, and likely don’t know how to implement. Not to mention the pressure they feel to pick the right major, which is magnified and complicated now that many high schools have academies that focus on specific areas.

Institutions should send a message that not having your life mapped out at 18 is okay and that students should explore courses and find their passion. Finding the right path in college will make it easier to find the right path in life.

At the end of summer, I was sad to see our interns go back to their college life. When they started, I jotted down all the things that I wanted to ensure they knew and learned from this internship. Little did I know that I would learn things too. They have energy and fresh ideas, and brought in new perspectives. They are curious about learning and understanding how all the pieces fit together. I have heard comments about “our youth of today” who do not have a strong work ethic and are only interested in doing the bare minimum. I found the opposite was true for the Unicon intern crew. If this group of five is any indication of what I have to look forward to, we all have a bright future ahead.

Patty Wolfe

Patty Wolfe

Senior Director, Learner Applications and Experience
Patty Wolfe is the Senior Director, Learner Applications and Experience for Unicon Inc, a leading provider of education technology consulting and digital services. Patty has over 17 years of project management and consulting experience, managing all aspects of client relationships including strategic planning and implementation, project delivery, client satisfaction, and P&L. Since joining Unicon in 2001, she has worked with companies such as Scholastic, John Wiley and Sons, and Pearson Education to deliver a diverse portfolio of projects including sophisticated online learning applications, simulations, and progressive assessments that deliver an individualized learning experience. She holds a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Agile Certified Practitioner (ACP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI), and a ScrumMaster® certification from the Scrum Alliance organization.