Integrating virtual internships into online classrooms

Abstract

With the rapid increase in the number of online enrollments, educators are faced with the challenge of ensuring on-campus experiences are available to distant students, which meet quality and accessibility expectations. One of the biggest challenges with online courses is constructing meaningful group projects for part-time students who can be in disparate time zones. As part of our Master's biotechnology programme, offered completely online, we have developed a capstone course for students approaching graduation, which integrates a semester-long project working with a small biotechnology company in the DC metro area into the course curriculum. The experience and results from these projects have been well received by the participating students and companies. We describe some of the challenges we have faced, strategies we have developed, and ongoing modifications to the programme to integrate projects with small biotechnology businesses into the online classroom.

INTRODUCTION

Although distance education programmes have existed for more than a century, the swift growth of the internet over the past decade has helped drive demand to a new level. The ability to transfer large amounts of information over the internet almost instantaneously has removed many of the asynchronous barriers of distance education, making the online learning experience close enough to the ‘on campus’ experience to attract large numbers of learners. With the move away from the independent study models traditionally used in distance education has also come the expectation that online courses will offer the same activities and opportunities as face-to-face classes but with the geographical and time flexibility of online learning.

The graduate school at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) offers a fully online master's degree in biotechnology that is specifically designed, with input from industry professionals and an Advisory Board, to prepare students for the workforce. In such a programme, the need to have hands-on components in the curriculum is vitally important. Building on the rapid instructor-to-student and peer-to-peer communication channels available through the internet, the UMUC has implemented capstone courses in many of its online programmes. Capstone courses provide an excellent opportunity for assessing the ability of students to synthesise experience and knowledge from the programme and apply it to a significant, rewarding project.1

The capstone course in biotechnology is either the penultimate or final class taken by students in this master's programme. It provides a good example of a course designed to help students apply the knowledge they have acquired through a programme to gain practical experience working with a business. The core of the course is a group project, aimed at giving students an intern experience and the opportunity to complete a mutually beneficial project with a small biotechnology company over the length of a semester.

There are many challenges to providing a quality educational experience in the asynchronous, well-planned online learning environment students are used to, with the dynamic, synchronous nature of a business. To make such projects successful in an online environment, a number of factors have to be taken into account while designing the curriculum, and tactical decisions made during the term to steer progress.

In this paper, we describe some of the challenges we have faced in implementing a capstone course in the biotechnology programme at the UMUC. Using a mixture of methodologies and technologies, we have met expectations in providing a fulfilling, real-world experience in what students regard not only as one of the most challenging, but also rewarding courses of the programme.

Capstone courses

A capstone is the covering or protective stone in a masonry construction and figuratively is used to describe the culminating event of a process. Capstone courses perform the same function within a programme of study. These courses are typically designed to give undergraduate students nearing the completion of their degree, the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired to real-life situations. These courses are often built around a central project for which students must define a problem, develop a plan to solve the problem, and create a deliverable by the end of the timeline for the project. This format is also well suited to testing the written and oral skills of students and for offering experiences and deliverables which are helpful in the search for future employment. Although relatively common in the United States undergraduate curriculum, capstone classes are not as common internationally or at the graduate level.

Capstone courses encompass a wide range of designs. The first distinction that can be made is between ‘keystone’ courses which introduce the foundations of a programme, ‘bridge’ capstone courses with minimal pre-requisites and ‘major’ capstone courses with significant prerequisites, and which can only be completed as the penultimate or final class. For these major capstone courses, in addition to the ‘major project’ design described in this paper, two other types of capstone courses are routinely used. The ‘fieldwork’ design can take the form of an internship with a company or a field trip and typically involves keeping a diary of experiences and completing a project, often on an individual basis. A ‘portfolio’ style capstone course, developing a personal collection of work, is common in creative arts programmes to demonstrate the quality and depth of material which the student can produce. While a fieldwork design may be easier to implement in an online classroom, we felt it was important for students to build their teamwork and communication skills in a group project, similar to the environment of a biotechnology company and therefore chose a ‘major project’ design.

From a programme director's perspective, one of the key advantages of all capstone courses is the opportunity to assess the accumulated knowledge and ability of students in a single course. This overview is important for determining whether the learning objectives of the programme are being met and for assessing student-learning outcomes. From a student's perspective, a capstone course provides the chance to integrate and apply knowledge and skills from the programme while working on a project with real-life significance and applicability to their future careers. In addition, courses designed with wide and balanced expectations give students, in particular adult and non-traditional learners, the opportunity to bring other skills and experience to the table as well as the opportunity to evaluate their own learning trajectory.

Capstone courses provide an excellent opportunity for innovative teaching methods such as student- and team-led discussions, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and technology integration. In designing a capstone course, it is important to keep class sizes small; build a flexible, integrative syllabus based on the objectives of the entire programme; and allow students to explore their own strengths and diverse viewpoints to reach beyond traditional perspectives. Having a significant project with assessable milestones and real-world impact at the centre of a capstone course is important to all involved. One of the major challenges in designing capstone courses, however, is to ensure that learning objectives are met by the group projects and not driven by circumstance. Faculty also have to be conscious of time constraints in designing projects to maximise the learning experience for students while including assessment of learning outcomes. Capstone courses generally focus on the last three of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, which can be challenging for some students who prefer to learn in an instructor-centred environment or have taken non-traditional paths through the programme and the education system in general. Whether a capstone course is suitable for all programmes depends on the needs of the institution, its mission, who is taking and teaching the course and what information is being integrated. In addition, other driving forces such as support and resistance from stakeholders,2 the background and aspirations of students, and resource availability can shape the desirability of a capstone course.

Online distance education

The flexibility of distance learning, free from the geographical and time constraints of an on-campus education, has always appealed to non-traditional and adult learners. From early correspondence courses relying on the mail service to internet delivery of multimedia lectures, the major hurdle of time-lag has been eroded. The ability to study asynchronously and have a flexible schedule is invaluable to people who wish to continue their education but have time constraints due to other commitments. The accessibility of high speed internet both for communicating with peers and instructors as well as accessing resources such as libraries and databases has helped make the experience closer to that on a traditional campus. Despite its flexibility, learning online is not an easy option; it is more student-centred and therefore requires more self-organisation as well as more time to interact and communicate ideas.

More than two-thirds of higher education institutions now offer at least one online course with a third planning to start or increase their number of online offerings.3 Although these courses attract more than 3.2 million students with a sustained double digit increase year-on-year,4 online education has not been an easy goldmine to exploit. Initial attempts at creating online programmes underestimated the challenges and overestimated the demand, leading to a number of significant failures at the turn of the century including the $20m failed online venture by the University of London.5 In contrast UMUC, also a pioneer in traditional distance education like the University of London, successfully distilled the critical elements from its existing distance education programmes to tap the online market, growing its online programme to more than 40,000 enrolled students worldwide in 37 degree programmes comprised 681 courses.6

Surprisingly for graduate level biotechnology programmes, which number approximately 150 in the United States, less than five can be completed solely online. The most popular online courses are offered as part of business and social science programmes, with proportionally fewer life and physical science classes offered online in comparison to face-to-face classes. This may be because these classes are more visual and hands-on, requiring more complex media and instructor interaction. For example, laboratory skills classes are extremely difficult to replicate online, but intermediate solutions such as intensive lab courses can help bridge the gap. In designing an online capstone course containing a major project to be carried out with a local firm, we faced the same challenges, requiring mixed media, synchronous instructor, peer and company access in the asynchronous environment the students are familiar with.

UMUC BIOTECHNOLOGY PROGRAMME CAPSTONE COURSE

Since the Master of Science in Biotechnology in the Graduate School of Management and Technology started in 2001 with ten students, the programme has grown rapidly to more than 350 students enrolled in 2007. The programme is a 36 credit, semester-based programme, divided into 15 credits of core coursework and 21 credits from a selected specialisation including three credits from the capstone course (Figure 1). The whole programme, as with all UMUC programmes, is designed for open access and fully online delivery through the proprietary online learning management system, WebTycho. The programme is designated as a professional science master's degree (PSM) because it is interdisciplinary and aimed at training people to find employment in the biotechnology sector. Courses are designed to provide a thorough grounding in science, business, and technology issues unique to the biotechnology industry, with learning objectives matched to the skills required for particular careers.

Figure 1
figure1

Flowchart showing the biotechnology programme structure with the core and specialisation courses.

Overview of course structure

The programme comprises core and specialisation courses (Figure 1). Three specialisations are currently offered: management of biotechnology, biodefense and biosecurity, and bioinformatics. Each of the specialisations requires the same five core courses. The first course taken by all students, ‘Societal Issues in Biotechnology’, looks at biotechnology from several perspectives and provides a common introduction, an opportunity to establish operating norms and acts as a guide round the online teaching platform, WebTycho. Within the first six credits of study, students are expected to complete a non-credit course ‘Introduction to Graduate Library Research Skills’ to familiarise themselves with the library system and how to carry out effective research. The remaining four core courses introduce bioinformatics, project management, the technologies underlying biotechnology, and the business landscape of the biotechnology sector. Each of these courses covers a broad range of commercially relevant examples and provides both an historical and emerging knowledge viewpoint. Although not mandated beyond that of completing the whole programme within seven years, students are urged to complete the core courses first followed by the specialisation courses. The flexibility provided by the seven-year period is important for engaging students who are working full-time and have other priorities, and may not be able to take courses every semester.

The five core courses are complemented by six specialisation courses chosen by the student. These six courses are more in-depth considerations of topics pertaining to the specialisation. For example, the biotechnology management track includes courses on the early-stage commercialisation of biotechnology, selection and evaluation of projects, the regulatory environment, and marketing and financial analysis. The final three credits for all tracks are for the capstone course. In order to focus their efforts, students are strongly encouraged not to take any other courses concurrently with the capstone and to be available for synchronous meetings with other team members.

Role of capstone course

Before students can enrol in the capstone course, they must complete at least 27 credits of core and specialisation courses. The capstone course is designed to be a ‘major group project’ capstone, where students work in a team on a project defined by a biotechnology company or agency based in the DC metro area.

Central to the capstone course are the ideas of bioentrepreneurship, personal growth, and the role of biotechnology in society. Through exposure to entrepreneurism, by working with a start-up company, students experience how concepts in the classroom are applied in practice and the challenges and rewards of working in a small business. Although many in the class cite adversity to risk for not starting their own business, approximately 10 per cent of students already own or work in a family business, in areas as diverse as a law practice, family restaurant or a hairdressing salon, and a significant number of students choose to go on to work in startups after their experiences in the programme.

In addition to the group project, the weekly readings and discussion topics are designed to promote critical thinking and add real-life perspective. The course discussions and peer interactions give students the chance to reflect on their career progression and whether their goals are being met or if there are new directions they should explore. Topics, such as the role of patient advocacy groups and what should be done with orphan embryos, are used to explore the social and ethical considerations faced by the biotechnology industry. Other discussions are deliberately provocative, like the use of siRNA as a cosmetic to lighten skin colour and whether women make better managers and entrepreneurs, but are structured and guided to let students explore their own positions as well as those of the group in a respectful way.

Capstone course design

The course design has two important components: course structure and evaluation. Both components are determined by the learning objectives for the course, which in turn are influenced by the overall goals of the programme. As the chance to express and assess the culmination of knowledge in the programme, the design of the course is important for student fulfillment, while the evaluation is critical for programme assessment.

Course structure

The capstone course is designed around a core of the group project and weekly discussion topics. A comprehensive syllabus is available for students before the beginning of the semester, which includes the course objectives as a set of goals and objectives, as described in Box 1. These objectives are assessed through the assignment schedule detailed in Table 1. The group project accounts for 60 per cent of the final grade with 30 per cent for participation in the weekly conference topics and the final 10 per cent for two case study analyses.

Table 1 Assignment schedule for the capstone course

When a student logs into the WebTycho system for the class, the entry screen presents the Class Announcements and a list of classroom areas as illustrated in Figure 2a. The classroom announcements are updated at least once every week in reverse chronological order, detailing the expectations for that week and any impending deadlines. At the start of each week, a new conference area containing the reading material and discussion topics for that week is added. There are also conferences for general discussion of the course and for the group study project (Figure 2b) which are updated on a regular basis. Each team has its own private area under Study Groups with a conference and collaborative documents section. For the capstone course, a typical team will post more than 200 messages in their Study Group and each student individually will contribute approximately 75 messages to the conference area. The instructors average more than 500 conference posts per semester, making this one of the busiest classes of the programme.

Figure 2
figure2figure2

Screenshots of the Webtycho interface: (a) the login screen showing the class announcements and (b) conference postings describing expectations for the project status report.

Evaluation

For each assignment, a grading rubric and guidelines is posted in the syllabus, detailing expectations in a range of areas including analysis, vision, and presentation. Grading is negatively affected by poor spelling, grammar, formatting, lack of technical language, poor referencing, and failure to follow directions. Assignments are expected to follow the APA referencing style and appropriate use of graphics and tables to illustrate and summarise information is encouraged. Assignments are date stamped when submitted through WebTycho and a late policy enforced, 10 per cent immediate penalty with an incremental penalty of 5 per cent per additional day. To encourage originality of written reports, a plagiarism detection service is used. Within a week of the due date for each assignment, feedback is provided by the instructors to each student or team as appropriate, with grading broken down into the components of the rubrics. For questions, the instructors endeavour to respond within 36 h, although often it is within a few hours. If the instructors are without internet access for any extended period, details are posted in the announcements and alternative methods for contact given.

Conference participation is graded for each student on a weekly basis according to the number and quality of the student's contributions. Grades are also based on responding to other classmates’ comments, developing rapport, and making contributions beyond single postings or simple replies on each discussion topic. A ‘B’ grade would correspond to approximately four substantial postings per week including thoughtful replies to other postings.

The two case studies used in this course are based on business and financial analyses, complementing reading and discussions from the required text for the course, ‘New Venture Creation’ by J.A. Timmons. This very practically orientated book is a helpful resource for many of the projects and for understanding the motivation and goals of the companies the students are working with.

To complement the textbook and weekly discussions, a number of guest lecturers are invited into the online classroom for week-long periods to share their experience and knowledge with the students. These guests include business analysts, executive officers, patent agents, and founders. Although there is a lot of freedom according to style, we encourage guests to provide insight through their real-world experience through an introductory Powerpoint and to challenge the students with common workplace case scenarios for discussion.

Methodology for team project

Approximately one month before the beginning of the semester a pool of small biotechnology businesses, government agencies, and universities in the DC metro area is contacted and asked if they would be willing to participate in the capstone course. Projects are solicited for each of the three specialisations. If interested in participating, the firms are asked to provide a detailed explanation of the project they would like carried out. The final set of companies with clear project outlines is provided with a form detailing a timeline of important dates and deliverables, contact information and expectations on contact with the group and feedback on assignments (Figure 3). The majority of companies submitting a project each semester has participated in the course previously and occasionally will submit more than one project. First-time participants are provided with additional information suggesting how to communicate with students and how to define realistic goals. Companies are encouraged to appoint one employee to act as a company representative to interact with the student team, although often other multiple people in a company are involved. Typically, by the start of the semester, there are 10–15 projects available for a class of 20–30 students to choose between.

Figure 3
figure3

Expectations and information document for participating companies and organisations.

On the first day of the semester, students are given details of the companies and projects and asked to pick their top three choices with a brief explanation why, within the first 3–4 days. Teams of 3–5 students are then defined within 24 h, primarily by their first or second choices of projects. Teams are chosen so there is at least one local student who can act as a ‘company interface’ to meet with the company representatives. Care is also taken to avoid any obvious conflicts of interest between team members and the companies they are working for; many of the students in the course already work in the biotechnology industry and occasionally for direct competitors. Once assembled, each team decides on team roles; the recommended roles are a drafter (record meeting details and compile the final report), editor (check all submitted work for errors and consistency), project manager (set a schedule and coordinate activities), and company interface (channels communication with the company liaison). Each team is asked to schedule a kickoff meeting with their company for the second week of the semester.

The goal of the kickoff meeting is to give the opportunity for the company representatives to meet with the student teams and provide a more detailed explanation of the project and the goals. Guidance is given to the students on how to prepare for the meeting which is a combination of a face-to-face meeting for those in the local area and a teleconference for remote students. The meeting is the first chance for the students to verbally interface with each other and the company. The instructors try to encourage a format that can be carried over into weekly or bi-weekly team teleconferences, which are strongly recommended. The company representatives use the kickoff meeting to give a broad outline of their business and to tell the students how their project will integrate into the development of the company as well as giving the opportunity to sign nondisclosure agreements. Following the kickoff meeting, each team is expected to write annotated minutes of the meeting, which although ungraded, give the instructors a first view of their understanding of the project and team dynamics.

A critical part of designing this type of group project for an online class is that it has to be well structured with several graded milestones (Table 2). This format fosters timeliness and accountability and encourages each team member to stay on top of the project as well as providing the opportunity for both individual and group feedback from the instructors. The milestones for the team project are spaced about 2–3 weeks apart and include, a detailed project outline, a 2–3 page project status report, 3,000+ word individual contributions and a first draft of the team's report. The final deliverables are a report and a presentation to the company based on the report due at the end of the semester. In addition to these components, students are also asked to complete a peer evaluation form at the end of the project which is used by the instructors for grading and which also provides a lot of valuable feedback.

Table 2 Timeline for team project

Team members interact with each other primarily through instant messaging and posts in the conference area, and with company liaisons through weekly or bi-weekly teleconferences that are organised through the graduate school. The teleconferences are meant to give progress updates and to ask questions of the company representatives. Company representatives can also have access to the team's study group area if required, which is particularly helpful if the team is working with large files and information which cannot be sent by e-mail or other means. Occasionally other mediums are used, such as instant messaging and web conferencing, where students and company representatives can interact synchronously or work on a multimedia project. During the semester the instructors try to sit in on at least one of the teleconferences held with the company liaisons and address any questions or concerns. Company liaisons are also asked for feedback on the performance of the team during the semester and are asked for written feedback at the end of the semester, which helps the instructors evaluate the course and make improvements.

With the detailed project outline due a week after the annotated notes from the kickoff meeting, the team has a chance to work together to digest the information they have been given and to assemble a plan of action for the rest of the semester. The goal of the outline is to see how well the students understand the parameters and deliverables of the project and if they can create a workflow to efficiently tackle the problems. Within the workflow, students are expected to define their own milestones within the framework of the group project and divide responsibility fairly among the team members.

The next formally assessed document is a project status report written by the team which is due half-way through the semester. The status report builds on the framework of the project outline, giving the team the opportunity to detail their progress and any challenges they have faced. This document is shared with the company representative to ensure that all the stakeholders are on the same page and are aware of progress. With a chance to reflect on their progress, the status report also gives the team a chance to modify their end goals for the project and manage the expectations of the instructors and company representatives.

From the outline and the progress report, each team member is expected to create an individual record reporting his or her own work by the end of week 11. The individual reports, designed to be modular parts of the final report, are based on the assignments tasked to each student in the outline submitted earlier in the semester, and graded as such. Substantial feedback is given on each individual contribution in order to help shape the important elements which should be highlighted in the final report. Although a minimum length of 3,000 words is given for this assignment, many of these assignments are 50–80 pages of detailed information assembled from surveys, literature searches, or computer code. Therefore, it is important for the teams to focus on how to distil and highlight their findings and recommendations in the final report. This is the goal of the next milestone, the first draft of their report, which is due in week 12. The focus of the grading for this team assignment switches from content, to the team's ability to take on board comments from their individual contributions and use that to put together a project report which is integrated, readable, and digestible. The final written assignment of the project is the final report, due at the end of week 13, is the culmination of all these milestones, and a substantial piece of work.

For the kickoff meeting and the final presentation, students are required to attend in person or via a teleconference. Many students choose to attend the final presentation in person, in some cases travelling across the country, to meet the people they have been working with all semester. Each team is asked to provide a printed and electronic copy of their final report and annotation of supporting documents to the company they have been working with at the final presentation. The guidelines for the final presentation to the company are that it should not exceed 45 min and include 15 min for questions. The majority of teams use multiple presenters, to enable each member to present his or her own work. With approximately half of the students presenting remotely via the accompanying teleconference, the success they have with doing this is testament to the work and practice they put into preparing for the presentation.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

One of the core objectives of the capstone course is for students to display a sound knowledge base and the ability to perform critical and in-depth analysis of important business and technical issues. This opportunity to pull together specialised and fragmented knowledge from disparate courses in a graduate programme is unusual in higher educational institutes where courses are normally designed to be stand-alone, with narrow prerequisites. An integrated curriculum rounded off by a capstone course helps provide a total academic experience and gives students the opportunity to gain valuable experience. This is particularly important in an online environment because it delivers proof that higher order learning objectives can be achieved and students are prepared to join a highly skilled workforce.

Advances in communication technology have been a strong enabler for these types of group projects, opening the possibility for inexpensive synchronous and asynchronous communications and the integration of higher education with business systems. Many of UMUC online programmes now offer capstone courses because of the benefits to both the students and to faculty as well as offering a service to small startups that do not always have the time or personnel available to address all their business questions.

The majority of students taking the course, and indeed the instructors and company representatives as well, have full-time positions in addition to the commitments of this class. Although online classes allow greater timing and geographical flexibility, these advantages are offset by more time being required to complete weekly assignments and respond to conference discussions. One major concern therefore is ensuring that everyone has set aside sufficient time to be fully engaged in the class. Students are strongly advised not to take any classes in parallel with the capstone and to expect a heavy workload. Faculty has to ensure they have time to monitor discussions and provide feedback in a timely manner as well as ensuring smooth and productive project interactions. We have tried to manage the faculty commitment question through having two instructors for the capstone course, one responsible for the majority of the grading and focussing on half of the rubric elements for the grading of the project assignments, while the other instructor leads the discussions and grades the other half of the rubric for the project.

The level of participation by the company representative is critical to the success of the projects, and they have to be willing to spend 1–2 h with the student team on a weekly or bi-weekly basis in the evenings or at weekends to fit in with everyone's schedule. We focus on supporting the company representatives, by ensuring they have access to all the information and technology required and the students understand that they are expected to make independent progress. This investment has paid off through the large number of companies who choose to participate in the capstone course in subsequent semesters (Table 3).

Table 3 Companies and agencies which have participated in the capstone course recently

The largest degree of uncertainty in this type of capstone is in the month leading up to the start of the semester and the first week. During that time student numbers and project availability are both uncertain and adjustments need to be made to the course materials in order to fit into the semester schedule. Strategic planning during this initial phase is critical to the success of the course, because there are few opportunities for anything other than tactical planning once the semester begins. Along with the classroom messages, which routinely average more than 200 per week, instructors receive between 300 and 500 e-mails during the semester ranging from simple notifications of absence or asking for an extension, to more complicated interpersonal conflicts. One challenge with two instructors is coordinating this e-mailed information, which is often only sent to one instructor. We have found it very important to communicate effectively and frequently often in-person or through instant messaging. We have also found that two instructors can cross-check syllabus and classroom materials to catch and correct errors as we proceed through the course and to have conferences which are not visible to students where we can store additional class material or reference material for our own use.

Box 2 lists some of the comments we have received from both student and company participants in the capstone course. When working with small companies, students are often directly interacting with a founder who has high expectations, and quite often the teams meet or exceed these expectations.

There are, however, many challenges in organising group projects online, with students scattered all over the world, which is at odds with the synchronous teleconferences and tight schedule of the capstone course. These challenges fall into three main categories: the logistics of running the course, the management of the team projects, and awareness of time constraints.

From a programme manager perspective, the capstone course offers an integrated view of the strengths and weaknesses of the programme as well as a chance to explore new teaching methods and tools. The challenging nature of the course, the exposure to real-life projects and scenarios, and the thought-provoking conference discussions are some of the key strengths realised in this design. The assignments offer the opportunity to assess both the course and programme objectives and the continued health of the programme can be seen through the quality of the final reports and presentations. The logistics of such an intensive, multi-party course are challenging however, and requires a high degree of commitment and organisation.

It can be difficult for a team to get organised and digest the information for their project rapidly at the beginning of the semester, which can cause some initial frustration, but usually students with motivation and experience emerge who can coalesce and drive the team. Inevitably the goals of a project can shift during the semester due to changing business intelligence but students are not used to this in academic assignments and it can cause some confusion and frustration. Therefore, projects and expectations need to be carefully managed to avoid misunderstandings and surprises.

In addition, having the dual pressures of a company representative and two instructors can cause some frustration due to perception of the two sides having different expectations. Both of these sources of confusion need to be clearly addressed through the project description given to the students and the company representatives. Distractions to the central goals of the project can put a lot of time pressure on individual projects and it is important to keep everyone focussed on the goal posts throughout the semester and accept that they may move slightly.

The overall positive nature of the comments in Box 2 reflect the learning which has gone into this capstone course over the past six years and the adjustments which have been made to make the course a beneficial experience for all involved. The business-integrated group project provides tangible benefits to both the companies and students involved beyond the confines of the course. The repeated participation of companies in the course and the success of students after they graduate, in some cases going on to found their own companies, indicates that online capstones courses provide an opportunity to explore knowledge and skills leading to professional advancement.

CONCLUSIONS

In conclusion, when preparing a course integrating a business into an online class it is very important to plan ahead. This involves having all the classroom materials completed before the start of the semester and to provide clear instruction of all activities and expectations. The asynchronous nature of the online classroom makes informal and instructor-to-all-students communication much more formalised. To avoid confusion, syllabus and assignment instructions should be kept as simple and specific as possible.

Interfacing with the company before the beginning of the semester is critically important to manage their expectations for the semester and to ensure that project descriptions provide enough detail for students to make an educated choice when selecting a project. The number of projects solicited should be adjusted to match expected student numbers to ensure sufficient choice but not to discourage company participation. Developing a personal face-to-face rapport with the company representatives helps to breakdown any barriers for regular contact and honest feedback.

The success of this programme and the capstone course in particular illustrates how companies can be integrated smoothly into online learning environments with careful planning. With the rapid growth in distance education and the demand for industry-relevant experience, this integration will become an increasingly important part of curriculum planning. For biotechnology in particular, there are many opportunities for entrepreneurship and our hope is to see many more companies founded by the graduates of this programme.

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Correspondence to Rana Khan.

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1has been an adjunct assistant professor with the biotechnology programme at the University of Maryland University College for two years, teaching a number of face-to-face and online classes. He has a broad research background in the life sciences and has recently completed his own master's degree in biotechnology, partially through online classes. He is particularly interested in how entrepreneurship and translational research can be encouraged in the classroom.

2has been the director of biotechnology programme at the University of Maryland University College for the past five years. She has a strong interest in developing strategies to improve higher education, especially for working professionals. Her graduate training has been in molecular biology and she has conducted extensive research work in both academic and government labs. Her research interests include devising innovative and effective strategies that will prepare today's students for tomorrow's workforce.

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Conroy, R., Khan, R. Integrating virtual internships into online classrooms. J Commer Biotechnol 15, 97–112 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1057/jcb.2008.35

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Keywords

  • distance education
  • curriculum development
  • business internships
  • online classroom
  • capstone course
  • biotechnology