A virtual exchange for thousands of students around the globe


Eric Hagley is currently undertaking research in virtual exchange for a PhD at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

He lived and worked for nearly 30 years in Japan, which is when he began developing projects internationally.

He undertook his first undergraduate degree there at the age of 18. Eric writes extensively on VE and is co-chair and president of APVEA, the Asia Pacific Virtual Exchange Association.

A very International Virtual Exchange Project

It all began back in 2004, when Eric’s mostly Japanese students wanted to interact with other students of English around the world.  

Thus far, his IVEProject (International Virtual Exchange Project) has included over 40,000 students and 600 teachers from 25 countries participating in Virtual Exchange (VE).

“Twenty years ago’, explains Eric, ‘the internet was becoming more stable and more accessible to a wider population. You didn’t need to be super-rich either, and so it seemed a great time to use technology to facilitate authentic language exchanges.”

After sending out dozens of emails to fellow English teachers, he got a bite from Juan Pablo in Colombia. This was the start of Eric and Juan Pablo’s intercultural language exchange between Japanese and Colombian students of English.

“It was brilliant’, says Eric, ‘when the students began to be curious about other cultures as well as learning the language. It was really gratifying. In 2015, the Japanese government gave me some funding to expand the project to include 4 countries and about 800 students. Since then, we’ve grown to incorporate 10,000 students and 22 countries involved in mainly English as lingua franca exchanges. The numbers continue to rise year on year.”

Teachers, teams and platforms

Eric has a trustworthy and passionate team behind him to help manage such large numbers of participants. They are located around the world and use Moodle as a platform. Participating teachers have many add-ins allowing them to access the platform and monitor how the students are performing. The structure of the VE project allows them the freedom to decide on the topics for discussion. There’s a fair amount of student input in the process too.

With over 200 teachers involved, across 6 countries, there are many different ideas for topics which can lead to some deep and engaging discussions. Some participating teachers want to focus on teacher education. To that end, they can set up a forum and invited discussions on how other teachers teach English in their respective countries.

“Exploring the similarities and differences in teaching practices around the world lead to such fruitful discussions among pre-service teachers. It was fascinating and hugely helpful to other students,’ explains Eric.

Other forums relating to the desired content can be set up to enable all manner of discussions and exchanges.

Going beyond words

Other forums are more audio and video based, and discuss, for example – ‘A day in our life’, explains Eric.

“The day in the life of a Mexican teacher proved a big hit, as students love that kind of thing as it’s great to compare how their lives differ whilst doing the same job. So, the sky is the limit”.

“Within the Moodle platform, students are able to do searches on any topic and interact as much or as little as they like. Thousands of students do this, exchanging and writing and practicing their English. There are so many options open to them. There’s something for everyone, explains Eric.

How to manage large synchronous gatherings

“We have synchronous meet-ups online too, once a week, with hundreds of students from dozens of countries. This enables them to practice speaking to other learners from around the world.

“To manage those sorts of numbers’, says Eric, ‘we use breakout rooms for the different levels of English that we have in the room. The students will have been assigned a topic to prepare and they use breakout rooms to discuss these and come back to plenary for feedback.

“We prepare as much as we can in advance, but it’s very student-driven.  We get lots of positive feedback on this way of working.  These sessions are really student-oriented and basically run themselves. Despite the high numbers, which may appear daunting, it actually isn’t hard.”

How the Virtual exchange evolves organically

Eric says that the content and structure continues to evolve and grow and is becoming more organic these days. “We do encourage the teachers to assess how their students are doing, but it’s really up to them how they do this.”

“We require the students to contribute a lot to these exchanges. To keep up motivation, we’ve begun to hand out certificates that reflect the work they put into the project. Students get assessed also on levels of engagement on the forum and the teachers can receive reports on this, including how many days the students have been active on the platform, and how many words or multimedia they’ve used too. The respective teachers are the ones who monitor and assess their students in any way that suits them.

Benefits and satisfactions

“Beginner level students really do stand out, as they think they won’t manage to communicate. But this is simply not the case as they soon realise that others reply on the forum, and their confidence soon grows. The spark is ignited and it’s wonderful to see even around the most basic interactions. The more advanced students get into really deep discussions about culture, politics, food and other topics. We ended up with over 300 recipes after one of our exchanges!”

“Every year we get new countries on board. Japan and Colombia always participate. But more recently we’ve got Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkish students are real stars at this, and we have Poland, Georgia, Italy, Spain, Niger, Djibouti, Brazil and Ecuador. I’ve left out a few for sure!

Extra information and how to get involved

IVEP happens twice a year at the moment, and it’s based around the Japanese academic calendar. More options are being explored for future virtual exchanges. The team consults with teachers for the structure and content of future projects. If you’re interested in participating, you can go to the website here – https://iveproject.org/