Virtual internships are web-based simulations that help students learn to think like scientists, scholars, artists, and workers in the real world do. They simulate not only the content that students are supposed to learn but also the ways of thinking—the epistemologies—that some groups of people use to solve problems.

Virtual internships have already been developed in which students work as engineers who are designing dialysis membranes, robotic legs, or wireframe models of animated characters; as urban planners who must rezone a city; or as science journalists who report on the impact of new discoveries on local communities.

Of course, online learning has been around for decades – just look at the Open Universities in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands or the University of Phoenix here in the US. And before online learning, there were correspondence courses, in which students used the postal service to get assignments and submit their work.

What makes virtual internships different is that they don’t simply translate traditional pedagogical methods into the online environment. Unlike MOOCs – massively open online courses – and other popular online educational formats, virtual internships help students to learn by simulating authentic, realistic problems in an environment that combines instruction, learning, and assessment.

As with a MOOC, students can log into the simulation from anywhere they like – coffee shops, dorm rooms, libraries, or Wi-Fi-enabled airplanes. But in a virtual internship, students work in teams on challenging real-world problems that require innovative solutions. They conduct background research, interview clients, develop and test prototypes, and work with their peers to weigh the importance of technical, commercial, and ethical factors to propose a solution to a complex problem. Characters in the simulation, controlled by a combination of artificial intelligence and live mentors, interact with students as they work, giving feedback, asking probing questions, and showing students how creative problem solving works.

Virtual internships are thus a type of MACROSIM, or Massively Adaptive Complex Realistic Online Simulation with Interactive Mentoring. MACROSIMs are what a MOOC should be. Instead of sitting through lectures and tests, as they would in a traditional course or a MOOC, students learn by doing, and they are assisted not by lecture notes and text books but by the resources that professionals use and by an interactive human mentor, who can guide their individual learning processes. Instead of taking quizzes and tests, students are evaluated on all aspects of their participation in the simulation, giving a more detailed and more accurate assessment of their learning.

The result could be a real revolution in education: classes that have thousands of students, like MOOCs, but now thousands of people at a time learning more than just how to take good notes in a lecture and pass a traditional test.