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Virtual Exchange Case Study: Unlocking Students’ Global Competencies

Authors: Lorette Pellettiere-Calix, Linda Jones, Christopher Whann, Sandra Winn (SUNY Empire State University) Contributors: Luis Camacho (SUNY Empire); Moises Banks, Elsa Moquete, Melissa Rosario (Universidad APEC)


Learners who participate in virtual exchange are given opportunities to explore other countries, cultures, languages, and traditions and to build connections across continents, religions, and points of view, all from their home communities. These experiences are often more accessible than traditional in-person exchanges and help young people develop essential global competencies. Consistent analysis of virtual exchange illustrates participants’ improvements in key areas of global competence, such as the ability to communicate effectively across differences, recognition of one’s own perspectives and those of others, awareness of the world, and agency to take action for collective wellbeing. 

SUNY Empire State University in New York and Universidad APEC in the Dominican Republic have developed multiple virtual exchange experiences. The “virtual residency” (VR) model joins students and instructors from multiple courses and various disciplines. These exchanges last for three to five weeks where students interact and learn around a common topic. The VRs offer shared learning materials, weekly discussion forums, at least one virtual meeting with a panel discussion or guest speakers, and an optional final cross-institutional team project. In this case study, we will highlight our latest virtual exchange, Learning for a Sustainable Future, to demonstrate how virtual exchange builds strong global competency. 


The Learning for a Sustainable Future VR focused on sustainability, which is proven to benefit from multicultural, multidisciplinary, and multigenerational study. The program was designed around the internationally recognized United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and was created using a shared learning management system to manage and deliver online courses to students. Because cross-cultural learning doesn’t instantly happen when students gather in the same virtual international space, we began the four-week course with a “pre-week,” introducing the VR learning format, platform technologies and the dynamics of cultural exchange within the context of global competencies. Students completed a “cultural self-assessment,” to examine their individual perceptions and biases. This period established a safe space for learning and the exploration of challenging topics.

To support immersive learning during a short timeframe, we used a scaffolded design to organize the VR. Each week’s learning was built upon learning from previous weeks. During the first week, students completed a guided research activity to explore “what sustainability and sustainable development could be.” As a collective, after exploring individual, cultural, and global definitions of sustainability, the students developed a shared definition of sustainability. Students then created word clouds of their discussions to visualize the meaning of sustainability they had developed. During the second week, students reviewed additional research and participated in virtual games related to sustainability. For the final week, students applied their learning to case studies, developing sustainable solutions for local, regional, and global challenges.

A unique aspect of this VR was that assignments and resources were offered in both English and Spanish. Students could also participate in discussion forums in both English and Spanish.  Monolingual students used translation software (e.g., Google Translate) for communication.  The bilingual learning environment was an effective way to highlight challenges related to equity, access, and implicit bias embedded in human communication.


Our year-long collaboration culminated in the administration of surveys to students to gather insights on the transformation of their global competency resulting from the virtual partnership. Survey responses focused on collaboration/teamwork, communication, learning, and the overall virtual exchange experience. 

Within collaboration, students conveyed the value of their participation, emphasizing the transferability of acquired skills. One student expressed, “Working on this activity has been a valuable experience that I hope I can use in the future as it applies not just to intercultural collaboration but teamwork in general as well.”

Positive sentiments characterized communication; students highlighted linguistic and cultural dividends. One participant noted, “If anything [through] this exchange [I] was able to expand my knowledge of the Spanish language.” Moreover, they emphasized effective topic coverage despite language differences, stating, “I found it interesting that even though we spoke different languages, all the topics were adequately covered and understood.”

In the learning component, students articulated enrichment in multifaceted perspectives. Reflecting on the experience, a student shared, “It was nice to get a perspective from someone who was not from the United States.” Another emphasized the broader understanding gained, “It [the VR] allows us all to learn what the culture is like and the way in which [the participants] are educated.” Exploring diverse perspectives heightened awareness of global interconnectedness. One student highlighted, “This was a great opportunity to learn about a different culture and come together to work on a project for common good.”

The overall virtual exchange experience resonated with richness and excitement for students. A participant reflected on the transformation, stating, “The exercise will change the way I engage with other people or communities, but it also helped me to realize that sometimes we have to make more efforts to understand others even though it seems as if they are not making the same efforts as you do.” 

These testimonials underscore the profound, multifaceted impact of virtual exchange on participants’ development of global competencies and expanded worldview. 

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