15 Tips for Virtual Exchange and Engaging Partners Online

These tips are 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.

1. Explore the benefits of a remote partnership

  • Assess the advantages of virtual exchange to enrich student experience and key course topics
  • The overall goal is to design a course that enables experiential learning based on the core tenets of:
    • Social innovation;
    • Community engagement;
    • Knowledge mobilization;
    • Cross-disciplinary communication.

2. Connect with the right partner

  • Select potential partners based on the course topic, interests, expertise, and networks.
  • Connect with stakeholders and issues on the ground. This approach will to help choose initiatives, organizations, and projects with the greatest need or impact based on a critical community-engaged learning lens [1]. It will also encourage ongoing partnership development and mutually beneficial outputs.
  • Acknowledge important social and logistical considerations that are relevant to students and partners, including:
    • The goals of each group;
    • Differences in time zones;
    • The language(s) the groups use;
    • Accessibility and available resources for both groups [2].
  • Hone in on what the course can offer. Projects can range in size, scope and community involvement depending on the level of students, class size and available course supportsi.

3. Pick the right project – start small and get specific

  • Take the time to listen and assess the research interests of the partner.
  • Evaluate the fit of the partner’s needs, students’ learning opportunities and goals, and instructor’s areas of expertise and interest.
  • Assess the viability of the project based on the appropriateness of learning opportunities and the course’s resources and time constraints.
  • Ensure familiarity with the research area; connections and contacts in the field are crucial to guide students.
  • Before the course begins, turn the partner’s ideas and interests into research questions, which students can address during team assignments and projects.
  • Test, modify, and revise research questions with the partner’s feedback.

4. Set clear expectations and plan ahead

  • Get a real commitment from the partner by understanding their needs and context.
  • Identify a common, articulated understanding of what the partnership can reasonably accomplish in the experiential learning activity [3].
  • Be clear about what the partnership involves, including an estimate of their anticipated time commitment. Be clear about what the partner will get in return for their time.
  • Let them know what to expect in advance. Send them the course syllabus and highlight deadlines and dates for presentations to the class. Set times to review and revise key outputs and outline key points of contact throughout the semester.
  • Develop written agreements with tangible goals and a timeline.
  • Use templates and tools to help design work plans, expectations, and agreements.

5. Build trust, maintain communication, stay flexible, and be responsive

  • Get to know the partner well in advance of the course. Make a genuine connection with them and build trust.
  • Once the course begins, work to create an authentic connection between the partner and the students, despite the physical distance.
  • Consistently check in with the partner. Plan regular meetings before, during, and after experiential learning activities to gather feedback and evaluate progress.
  • Figure out optimal times to meet during the semester. If possible, schedule bi-weekly meetings with student research groups and the partner during class-time.
    • Regular meetings during class can overcome the challenges students face when they have conflicting schedules but have to find time to meet outside of class.
  • Be adaptable and flexible. Offer extra time to meet with students and partners beyond pre-scheduled meetings, especially if students need research or context clarification, or someone needs to make a decision before the project moves forward.

6. Get comfortable with the technology

  • Determine a plan for what resources and technology will be used to implement the course.
  • Confirm that appropriate technology is available for all parties and decide which platform works best, considering issues such as location and internet availability.
  • Incorporate IT service assistance and security recommendations into the entire design and implementation of the course.
  • Consider the use of Google Docs for student collaborative document building, research, and design.
  • Expect the unexpected. Plan for the best, but expect the worst, and have back-up plans in place. For example, for web-based meetings, book a conference line with a call-in number in case the internet stops working.

7. Define student benefits and learning outcomes

  • At the start of the semester, introduce the project as a part of course curriculum and highlight benefits to students in gaining transferrable experience in collaborative research that responds to practical questions. Explore:
    • What can students do at the end of the course?
    • What learning activities will help students achieve these outcomes?
    • How to know if students have achieved these outcomes?
    • What can students do with what they learned?
  • Talk about specific learning outcomes, technical skills, and professional development, and how they may connect to future experiences and opportunities in the field.
  • At the beginning of the course provide pre-placement orientation to share an overview of the sector or the project’s context, workplace professionalism, and culture.
  • Facilitate student readiness and success. Be clear about expectations and provide step-by-step instructions for all aspects of the project. Offer examples, tools, and templates, and design activities to help students meet learning outcomes.
  • Be explicit about cross-discipline learning outcomes for the curriculum, such as:
    • Developing (intercultural) communication skills and managing interactions in diverse and complex situations;
    • Demonstrating the capacity to apply global standards and practices within the professional area;
    • Demonstrating a critical approach to study skills through global teamwork [4].

8. Progress through specific phases [5]

  • Team building phase:
    • Use introductions and icebreakers with activities and discussions that help students get to know each other. Begin each class with an icebreaker as the first activity. These steps may help students feel comfortable working with one another online and across cultures. 
  • Planning phase:
    • Incorporate comparative discussions and organize the student projects.
    • This phase prepares students for effective collaborative project work.
  • Project phase:
    • Focus on the main collaborative activity.
    • Students should conduct literature reviews to fill their gaps in knowledge about local or regional history and current affairs.
    • Students apply their knowledge, create something together, or have substantive debates about the topic of the collaboration.
  • Final phase:
    • Students complete and present their work.
    • Students reflect on the content of the course and the intercultural aspects of the collaboration and its conclusion.

9. Develop a strong sense of team and personal commitment

  • Be transparent with students about expectations of regular participation in class discussions, teamwork, and connections with the community partner organization.
  • Encourage a sense of belonging and community among students. Set up regular virtual video chats, forums, games, and structured check-ins [6].
  • Continuously develop interpersonal relationships, rapport, trust, and unity among students. Facilitate cross-cultural teamwork, understanding, and problem-solving.
  • Require that students share frequent group and individual progress updates to encourage accountability and reflect on the process, its challenges, and its success.
  • Listen to students’ experiences, and offer direction to guide the conceptualization and implementation of student projects.
  • Each group should assign a communication liaison to encourage regular contact between the instructor and the group.
  • Monitor group dynamics. Be ready to mediate issues and intervene when it is necessary to offer support and resources.
  • Help students develop constructive feedback skills to share mixed-discipline knowledge and meaningful input about the work of other teams.

10. Emphasize humility and strengths-based approaches

  • Practice cultural humility. Its principles include a lifelong commitment to self-reflection, self-critique, and the development of mutually beneficial partnerships [7].
  • Take a humble approach. Instructors have as much knowledge to learn from students, peers, and partners as they do to share. Show equal respect for academic and community experience.
  • Recognize that the community includes knowledge-rich partners who can contribute to virtual exchange and co-create knowledge that maximizes the usefulness of research.
  • Highlight community assets, strengths, resources, and opportunities rather than focusing on community deficits and limitations.
  • Invite field experts as guest speakers who can share context and insight about course issues.
  • Recognize that the healthy development of communities requires a holistic approach that addresses the social, economic, cultural, and ecological dimensions of community well-being.

11. Facilitate critical reflection

  • Build reflection into every class through activities and discussionii.
    • Critical reflection includes questions that prompt students to examine power relations, cultural norms, and existing institutional arrangements and policies that marginalize and oppress specific groups of people [8].
  • Practice learning integration, which includes carefully facilitated dialogue and learning themes about responsible engagement, cross-cultural cooperation, and growth in the global community. Have these debriefs before, during, and after an experience [9].
  • Invite students to use theoretical discourse to demonstrate core concepts and gaps in knowledge in the relevant fields while considering multiple perspectives on issues and how people with various circumstances, values, and visions of life may experience power, situations, and decisions differently. Students should also identify personal strengths and opportunities for growth.  

12. Bridge global and local issues

  • Incorporate global/local community engagement, which is a particular form of experiential learning that can advance integrative learning and encourage social action.
  • Combine attention to global/local issues can:
    • Remove artificial divides to connect domestic and global needs and solutions [10];
    • Expand the potential of community-engaged learning by promoting the “mutual constitution of global and local processes” [11];
  • Promote global citizenship to understand the links between:
    • Global and local;
    • Campus and community;
    • Us and them;
    • Real-world and classroom;
    • Social and economic issues.
  • Engage with course readings and academic literature rooted in ongoing and in-depth conversations about who drives knowledge production and how they drive it. In global/local community engagement, an analysis of knowledge is essential to build solidarity, as it requires careful attention to subject positions, power relations, and structural inequalities [12].
  • Use continued class discussion to analyze the circumstances of identity, positionality, and power dynamics in the context of the partner or the country and how these relate to local issues.

13. Select appropriate methods of assessment

  • Assign a research paper as the rigorous academic research component of the curriculum.
  • Ensure that areas of assessment evaluate the command of core theories in analysis and writing. Assessment may include a project work plan and proposal, critical reflection, final paper, research presentation, and knowledge mobilization materials.
  • Assessment of final products and student projects should consider the extent that students:
    • Demonstrate mastery of course readings and central principles through writing, research and deep and insightful analysis about the main themes associated with the issue or challenge and its potential solutions;
    • Demonstrate an understanding of the context of the stakeholder(s);  
    • Demonstrate profiency in applying the theories, empirical contributions, and best practices used to undertake effective experiential learning community partnerships.
    • Clearly address the challenges, insights, feedback, and revisions that the partner presents;
    • Provide research and evidence-based recommendations appropriate to the partner’s context.

14. Foster effective communication about research

  • Throughout the course, train students on how to transfer disciplinary knowledge and effectively communicate with practitioners and stakeholders through written and oral forms.
  • Teach students to translate field/discipline-specific, jargon-filled research to accessible information that targeted audiences can understand, including scientists, policymakers, business owners, and community members.
  • Provide an opportunity at the end of the course for students to share key knowledge they learned from engagement projects in a conference-style presentation.
  • Invite input from partners, peers, and other relevant community stakeholders on students’ research results.
  • Create potential avenues to apply and share the findings.
  • Learn from students’ fresh insights, innovations, and suggestions about knowledge mobilization and turning research into action.

15. Strive for excellence and quality assurance

  • Invest time to develop partnerships and agreements that can meet mutually agreed-upon objectives.
  • Make a clear, mutually agreed upon plan about how to ensure the course outcomes meet the partner’s expectations [13].

For early year or larger classes, projects may focus on developing foundational community engagement skills including listening, understanding the community context and defining the problem from the partner perspective, with small community focused tasks (such as converting research to infographics or plain language). Upper level or smaller classes may have more in-depth projects that require higher levels of support and partner participation.

ii Reflection is a key component of critical thinking. It provides students with the opportunity to make connections between formal learning and personal and intellectual development. It is vital to integrate during- and post-placement reflection throughout the reflective process.


[7] Abdi, S., & Mohammed, S. (2017, November 21). Cultural humility: Practicing equity. Paper presented at the Healthy Communities Link Conference. Public Health Ontario, BMO Institute for Learning, Toronto, Ontario. Retrieved from http://hclinkontario.ca/images/Cultural_Humility_AbdiMohammed.pdf

[3] [13] Cahill, S., Doner, J., Su, Y., & Thomson, L. (2018). University of Guelph community needs assessment in experiential learning: Summary of findings. Community Engaged Scholarship Institute and University of Guelph Student Life Department for the Experiential Learning Hub. Retrieved from https://www.cesinstitute.ca/sites/default/files/Community%20Needs%20Assessment%20Summary%202018.pdf.

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

[1] Gordon Da Cruz, C. (2017). Critical community-engaged scholarship: Communities and universities striving for racial justice. Peabody Journal of Education 92(3), 363-384.

[11] [12] Houston, S. D., & Lange, K. (2017). “Global/local” community engagement: Advancing integrative learning and situated solidarity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 42(1), 44-60.

[8] Kiely, R. (2016). Community-based global learning: Key elements of ethical engagement at home and abroad. Cornell University. Retrieved from https://clubrunner.blob.core.windows.net/00000002079/en-ca/files/homepage/speaker-slides-richard-kiely-engagement-1-16-/Cmty-Based-Global-Learning_Ethical-Engagement_RichKiley_20190116.pdf.

[6] Lowes, V., Goldman, A., & McMahon, C. (2020, June 8) How to adapt experiential learning activities in the time of COVID-19. University Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/how-to-adapt-experiential-learning-activities-in-the-time-of-covid-19/.

[10] Rowthorn, V. (2015, September 13). Global/local: Much discussed, little understood, and the right thing to do. Campus Compact. Retrieved from https://compact.org/globallocal-much-discussed-little-understood-and-the-right-thing-to-do-2/.

[5] State University of New York. (2020). What is collaborative online international learning? Retrieved from https://innovate.suny.edu/introtocoil/suny-coil-what-is/.

[9] Tiessen, R. & Huish, R. (2013). International experiential learning and global citizenship. In Globetrotting or global citizenship: Perils and potential of international experiential learning.  University of Toronto Press.

[2] University of Calgary. (2020). Resources for virtual exchange collaboration. Retrieved from https://www.ucalgary.ca/international/funding-and-resources/resources-virtual-exchange-collaboration