Introduction: What is a Virtual Partnership?

This introduction is one section of a three-part guide designed for anyone interested in how virtual partnerships work, how they can be integrated with community engagement and/or experiential learning, and how they can enrich university-level courses. This guide was developed by Samantha Blostein, Global Engagement Specialist with the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute and the Guelph Institute of Development Studies.

What is a Virtual Partnership?

University units and departments face financial and institutional pressures to adapt to changing environments and manage fluctuations in global exchange, student travel for research, field schools, and semesters abroad. As a result, virtual partnerships have emerged as a leading model to internationalize curriculum and provide students with hands-on practical experience and know-how in the field [1].

An experiential learning virtual partnership integrates a community- or industry-focused project as part of students’ course work in an online format. Incorporating remote partnerships into the formal curriculum helps students engage with local and global experts and gain vital technical skills [2]. In order for the course to be considered successful, it must be mutually beneficial, supporting student development and meeting partner priorities.

The five key elements that define a virtual experiential learning project include [3]:

  • The use of internet-based tools to link students with a local or global collaboration and interact with institutions, community partners, and stakeholders from different sectors, fields, and backgrounds.
  • Student engagement in discipline-specific or inter-disciplinary exchanges with institutions, community organziations or industry partners, which aims to increase applicable skills and the development of digital skills, intercultural competence, and effective communication.
  • Student engagement in peer-to-peer learning with interactive learning tasks and online interaction, whether synchronous or asynchronous.
  • A set of Experiential Learning Outcomes that seek to develop global perspectives and foster students’ intercultural and professional competencies.
  • A reflective component that helps students think critically about such interactions and develop critical awareness about the impact of culture on organizational behaviour and professional standards.

Virtual community-engaged experiential learning exposes students to the authentic demands of the digital workplace, and it improves their employability, interpersonal skills, and transition to the workforce. The complementary tip sheet and list of key values aim to highlight key considerations when developing online collaborations that connect faculty with partners and institutions in a virtual exchange.

Virtual Partnership Options

One effective partnership format for curricular experiential learning includes the implementation of team-based research projects. In this model, instructors consult with institutions, industry partners, or community organizations to create the projects [4]. Engagement opportunities also focus on analyzing field issues and defining related policy and practice options. Overall, virtual exchange has the potential to enhance student engagement with key course topics.

Virtual exchanges may include partnerships with [5]:

  • Local community-based organizations
  • University-organized programs
  • On-campus student organizations
  • Non-profit organizations (regional, national, and international)
  • For-profit businesses (regional, national, and international)
  • Foreign affairs and development agencies
  • Donors, funders, and philanthropists
  • Community research teams
  • Government officials, departments or initiatives (any jurisdiction)
  • Urban and rural planners
  • Social entrepreneurs or industry experts

When developing curricular collaborative global learning experiences, important considerations are: Pedagogy, Experience, Assessment and Reflection [6].

Course Partnerships and Community Engagement

Community engagement requires collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities, whether the communities are local, regional, national, or global [7]. Such collaboration creates a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity [8].

Community-engaged projects should be more than a teaching tool – they should meet community identified research priorities. Identifying community research interests requires engagement with local community stakeholders and partners in the process, which is a central tenet of community engagement. This engagement helps ensure that new initiatives have value for both communities and students [9].

Themes and topics for engagement activities are adaptable. They can be transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and discipline-specific. Examples of online learning activities and student projects include [10].

  • Literature reviews and environmental scans
  • Research about existing initiatives and best practices
  • Strategic planning
  • Community-based research, needs assessments, and feasibility assessments
  • Program development and implementation
  • Project management and administration
  • Public education and presentations
  • Event planning, promotions, and marketing
  • Community outreach
  • Proposal and grant writing
  • Policy analysis and policy development
  • Program evaluation and impact assessments

Virtual community-engaged experiential learning helps students apply academic knowledge and essential employability skills through structured, purposeful, and meaningful activities. These opportunities prepare students for career readiness as they enter the workforce.


[5] [10] Algoma University. (2016). Community economic and social development field education manual – CESD guiding principles.

[7] [8] Campus Compact. (2020). Carnegie community engagement classification. Retrieved from

[3] Coventry University. (2020, May 27). Collaborative Online International Learning [Webinar presentation]. Centre for Global Engagement.

[9] Rowthorn, V. (2015). Global/local: What does it mean for global health educators and how do we do it? Annals of Global Health 81(5), 593-601.

[1] State University of New York. (2020). COIL Institute for Globally Networked Learning in the Humanities. Retrieved from

[1] State University of New York. (2020). What is collaborative online international learning? Retrieved from

[6] University of Calgary. (2020). Resources for virtual exchange collaboration. Retrieved from

[2] University of Guelph Centre for International Programs. (2020). Getting started with virtual exchange. Retrieved from

[4] University of Guelph Experiential Learning Task Force. (2020). Curricular experiential learning typology. Retrieved from