Virtual Exchanges in the Foreign Language Classroom

Theresa SchenkerBy Theresa Schenker, PhD, Language Program Director of German at Yale University.

In the foreign language classroom we often wonder how to make the target culture more accessible to students. Unfortunately, an immersion program is not always an option and language instructors have to find other ways to introduce the target culture to their students and help them gain “an understanding of the interdependent and interactive relationship of the perspectives, practices, and products” (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1999, p. 257) of a culture. One way to give students an opportunity to become more acquainted with the target culture while increasing their language proficiency is through the implementation of virtual exchanges with members of the target culture. This double advantage of virtual exchanges makes them an ideal tool for language instructors looking to give students more contact with the target community. A virtual exchange offers an ideal combination of practicing language skills and acquiring cultural competence as it allows students to “communicate and to learn to respond appropriately in a variety of cultures”  (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1999, p 245).

Development of intercultural competence, Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2002; Blake, 2008; Levy, 2007; O’Dowd, 2007a; Thorne, 2003.
Improvement of foreign language skills due to authentic communication with native speakers Brammerts, 1996a; Felix, 2003; Gläsman, 2004; Kern, 1996; Little, 1996; Mullen, Appel, & Shanklin, 2009; O’Dowd, 2006a, 2007b; O’Rourke, 2007.
Increase in student motivation, Gläsman, 2004; Perez, 2003.
Student-centered learning, Olaniran, 2009; Peer learning; Dodd, 2001.

In the following sections, I will briefly introduce some of the virtual exchanges I have conducted in my language classrooms and summarize the advantages and disadvantages each exchange presented. I will also give recommendations for planning and implementing virtual exchanges.

An email exchange is easy to set up (everybody uses email these days) and flexible (email is asynchronous and free of time constraints). I have conducted several email exchanges between my undergraduate learners of German at US universities and advanced high school learners of English in Germany. In the first email exchange, I worked with beginning learners of German who had very limited knowledge of the language and I therefore used the exchange as a cultural learning opportunity only and conducted it entirely in English. Students had to write a minimum of two emails a week on pre-assigned cultural topics to their partner in the German class. These topics were usually chosen in connection with the textbook or other class topics and included topics such as the educational system in Germany and the US, multiculturalism, student life, nationalism, immigration, or politics. The German partners responded in English and students engaged in many interesting discussions that increased their cultural awareness and knowledge over the course of six weeks. Students were highly interested in learning more about the target culture both before and after the exchange (Schenker, 2012).

Donaldson & Kötter, 1999; Kötter, 2003.
Aitsiselmi, 1999; Belz, 2005; Little et al., 1999.
Discussion forums
Schuetze, 2008.
Synchronous chat (text/ voice)
Hauck & Youngs, 2008; Lee, 1998; Tudini, 2007; Wilden, 2007.
Discussion forums
Schuetze, 2008.
Synchronous chat (text/ voice)
Hauck & Youngs, 2008; Lee, 1998; Tudini, 2007; Wilden, 2007.


In the second exchange, both sides wrote in their respective target languages, in order to practice the language they were learning in the classroom and explore each other’s culture. Students were encouraged to help each other with linguistic problems. At the end of the exchange, students were also urged to write parts of their emails in their native language so that their partners could get native speaker input. The virtual exchange lasted twelve weeks and received very positive student feedback. Some of the students’ feedback included:

  • “I really enjoyed how I was paired with someone who also has a passion learning about other cultures and languages. We would write about anything and everything and we were very comfortable doing so.”
  • “Please do this again! It was an amazing experience!”
  • “It’s been really great to see myself grow as a speaker over the weeks. The constant practice is really helpful, and each week that I know how to say something I didn’t use to know how to say is a really fulfilling feeling.”

Evaluations of students’ compositions and emails revealed that students improved their writing skills and developed their intercultural competence. As in the first exchange, students were assigned discussion topics which matched the overall curriculum of both classes, and students were expected to write at least two emails per week. In addition to the email exchange, this virtual exchange consisted of two videoconferences which connected both partner classes in a face-to-face meeting. The first videoconference was held in English, the second one in German. Students chose the discussion topics for the videoconferences themselves and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to meet their partners in a face-to-face context. The third component of this twelve-week virtual exchange was a reflective blog, kept only by the US students. In this blog, students reflected on their experiences in the exchange and gave each other feedback on problems or misunderstandings. Although a valuable learning tool, the reflective blogs were not enjoyed by all students, some of which wanted all exchange components to include the German partners.


While the aforementioned virtual exchanges were primarily asynchronous and focused on developing cultural knowledge, intercultural competence, and written language skills, I conducted another exchange focused on the development of real-time language skills. In a one-on-one synchronous text and voice chat exchange, I recently connected an elementary German undergraduate class in the US with an advanced English high school class in Germany. Although the US students had no knowledge of the German language when the exchange began, engaging in weekly chats with native speakers quickly developed their emerging language skills and boosted their confidence in their own ability to communicate in the foreign language. The exchange lasted 14 weeks and alternated each week between a 20-minute text-based and a 15-minute voice chat. In each chat, students divided the time equally between chatting in English and in German so that both partners were able to practice the target language using pre-assigned topics that were aligned with their curriculum. Students used the Facebook or the Skype text chat tool and the Skype voice chat.


I am currently conducting a 12-week asynchronous virtual exchange using discussion forums as the primary medium for communication. The exchange consists of four second-semester German undergraduate courses in the US and four advanced English courses at different German high schools. For this exchange, the students work in groups of 6-8 students; usually two to three German students work in a group with four US students. Each group has their own section in the discussion forum, but all groups discuss the same topics. Each week, students participate in a German and English discussion, so that both groups have the opportunity to practice their language skills. The topics for the German discussions correspond to the textbook used in the US class and the topics for the English discussions are chosen by the teachers in Germany and are intended to help students prepare for their upcoming final exams in English. Each week, students are expected to post twice on each board (two in the German board and two in the English board). The discussion forum was established on the website where the forums can be made private. Additionally the administrator has to verify each new member so that the use of the forum can be restricted to the students participating in the exchange. Also downloadable as an app, this forum was chosen because of its privacy settings and its mobile component.


The virtual exchanges outlined above incorporated a variety of tools that were always well received by students. In general, students embraced the opportunity for direct interaction with students in the target country and the majority of experiences were very positive. Students were able to improve their written and spoken language and were also able to develop their intercultural competence, which was measured with the help of Fantini’s (2006) model of intercultural competence. They were also able to improve their written and spoken language skills.

  Advantages Disadvantages
Email Flexibility (Ahern, 2008).
Ability to connect to learners throughout the world without having to consider time zones (Rösler, 2007).
Students can write when it is convenient for them; time difference not a problem.
Can take place outside of the classroom; teachers don’t have to adjust their teaching schedules (Gläsman, 2004).
Students can write long messages Students can be creative (Gläsman, 2004).
Partners get to know each other well High student engagement and motivation Low pressure situation (Olaniran, 2009).
Sometimes long waiting time in between emails.
Communication can be superficial if students don’t connect well.
Videoconferencing Students see each other face-to-face.
Low pressure because it is not a one-on-one chat.
Students get to know more than one opinion on topics (O’Dowd, 2006b).
Increased interest in other parts of exchange / students have more to say after video-conference.
Practice speaking and listening skills.
Potential for technical problems, such as poor audio/video quality or connection breakdowns.
Time difference can lead to scheduling difficulties.
Text-based and voice-based chat Students can practice language in real-time with native speakers (Meskill & Anthony, 2010).
Communication resembles real-life communication (Pellettieri, 2000).
Students gain confidence in their own language skills
Greater amount of spontaneity; students can get immediate feedback.
Time difference may lead to scheduling issues.
Requires a lot of flexibility.
May hold a lot of pressure especially for shy students (Rösler, 2007).
Discussion Forum Flexibility.
Students can compose long messages.
Students get to know a variety of opinions.
Students gain insights into target culture(s) and language (Liaw, 2006).
Lack of participation may prevent learning from moving forward.
With several students in one group, discussion can easily go off-topic.


1. Identify the Objectives of the Project

Practice writing skills? Practice real-time oral communication? Engage in cross-cultural discussion, or grow interculturally?
 Choose the communication medium that best fits the chosen objectives.Synchronous one-on-one or group-on-group chat exchanges are good fits for oral proficiency development while asynchronous exchanges are a good fit for the development of written language skills. Of course, technical equipment of the school must also be taken into consideration

2. Find a Partner Class

There are several online services that offer to find language partners but the most successful way for me has been to contact schools directly and ask if they are interested in a virtual exchange.


Resource Bibliography Notes
ListServs and mailing lists Van Handle & Corl, 1998
UNI-Collaboration Primarily intended for university collaborations
International E-mail Tandem Network Brammerts (1996b) Find a partner class by providing the native and target language of the class in a search engine. User then receives an email with contact information of the search results.
Epals Müller-Hartmann (2007) Several registration steps
Schools Online Müller-Hartmann (2007)
Iearn Müller-Hartmann (2007)t A great portal for participating in different projects with other schools that are not always language related
The Mixxer Godwin-Jones, 2005 Students can find individual partners and teachers can find partner classes primarily for Skype Exchanges


3. Negotiate Details of the Exchange

Both ends need to establish and coordinate topics, languages used, time frame, grading, and other logistical issues. A detailed information sheet for all participating students should be prepared to introduce the exchange and explain the various steps, including the assessment plan.

4. Prepare Both Classes for the Exchange

Prepare a handout about the exchange project. Make sure to include the goals of the project, what they will learn, and how they can contribute to the success of the project. Provide detailed information about the project requirements, the schedule, the learning objectives, guidelines and assessment. Provide technology training as needed. Give students as much information about their partner group as possible and if relevant, exchange biographies ahead of time.

5. Manage the Exchange.

Be flexible, especially when conducting synchronous exchanges, and make yourself available to help students if needed. Even if students complete the assignments for the virtual exchange primarily outside of class, reserve some class time to discuss the exchange and intervene if there are any problems or if miscommunication occurs (Schneider & Von der Emde, 2006; Ware, 2005). Gather frequent feedback from the students to improve the project.

6. Conduct Evaluation.

All participants should evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the exchange. Use class discussions and anonymous surveys to collect students’ opinions and impressions of the exchange. Student feedback will help you prepare future virtual exchanges.


Although planning and conducting a virtual exchange can be time-consuming, the benefits and learning opportunities for students are well worth the effort. Virtual exchanges allow instructors to make the target culture come alive, and give students authentic contexts for communicating in the target language. They are a great way to increase student motivation, make a language class more authentic and interesting, and increase students’ language skills and cultural knowledge.



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