Internal recognition for Virtual Exchange

Professor Alessandra Tognazzo is a researcher in the department of Economics and Management at the University of Padova in Italy (UNIPD). She teaches, among other courses, a family business course.  With its integrated VE component, it has recently been awarded the UNIPD 2024 Arqus award ( for its innovative student-centred approaches to teaching and learning. Its peer-to-peer processes and its incorporating of elements of the UN’s SDGs in its content proved to be a winner too.

Lisa Griggio is an instructional designer and e-tutor and has been an integral part of the UNIPD fabric for the past 20 years. Currently, she is involved in assisting teachers in implementing their VEs and Blended Intensive Programs, (BIPs).

Another aspect of her work entails running and coordinating an intercultural, multilingual and interdisciplinary VE within the Arqus alliance, titled Arqus moVEs. This VE includes a number of different topics which are relevant to the students, together with looking at the majority of the UN’s SDGs.

The work is done in intercultural and multilingual teams to help prepare students for their international mobility and develop their soft skills.

An internal award recognising the benefits of integrating VE into traditional courses

Alessandra explains that she participated in the award process almost by accident! 

“A series of coincidences, actually’, she explains, ‘a colleague alerted me to the award, so I started filling in the boxes’, she laughs. And the more I filled in, the more I realised that my project was ticking all of them. My VE fitted the remit perfectly! It’s a lovely way for the university to recognise innovative teaching methods and VE.”

“My role’, says Lisa, ‘was to support and enable the implementation of the VE in teams. We incorporated various strands throughout by integrating soft skills with real world problems. The real-world problems included AI, and some of the UN’s SDGs. It was really important to encourage and engage the students in peer learning and assessing”.

Content and structure of the Family Business VE

“We began with in-class sessions on family business conducted by me and another professor Jörg, Obergfell during interactive sessions in class,” explains Alessandra.

“Then we moved to the online module for which attendance was mandatory. This is important to stress as our students were a mixture of Masters students – both Italian and international – and included a number of Erasmus students who were in Italy for a short period of time.

“This aspect of our project was developed with a professor who teaches design in Trier University of Applied Sciences, Jörg Obergfell.  Interestingly, they began with the VE component, which was the opposite way we had begun.  He then took elements from that and integrated them into his in-presence module, where he developed the more artistic part.

“Subsequently, we organised 5-6 sessions, trying to give a balance between the family business component and the artistic component brought over by our Trier partner. We spent time getting to know each other and talked about the requirements of the course and digital and tech skills required. This work ensured we pushed beyond just the content of the course and we took time explaining the goals.

Lisa explains the different sections in the structure. “There were three tiers, she says, ‘an informal level where students did some icebreakers as they got to know each other. Then we moved onto a more formal level where they had to address critical issues, such as AI and art or climate change and art for example. Finally, the teachers delivered the third level, which related to formality, and focused more on their specific disciplines.

Internationalisation at Home strategy

“In terms of internationalisation at home strategy,’ continues Lisa, ‘we exploited what we already had in terms of international components. We had Erasmus students, therefore there were other languages and cultures involved already. But we ensured the students made the best of it and used these perceived hurdles as assets, rather than obstacles.

“It was an initial challenge as they didn’t see what was in it for them. They already saw themselves immersed in a multicultural context. But we stressed the fact of being in a virtual context and fostering their digital skills. This is how we got them involved. We highlighted that they need to understand how to work online professionally and globally, without borders.

Inclusion as a challenge

“I was doing group projects as I always do, adds Alessandra, ‘and I tried many strategies to build the groups. But I was experiencing the challenge of exclusion. By that, I mean Italians were sticking together in their groups and the Erasmus students felt excluded. There were language issues too, as the Italians spoke Italian in their groups, thereby exacerbating the problem. So, I have to say there were issues. Also in the sense that some were working for a high grade and some equally did not have high expectations. 

“I thought about using transdisciplinarity as a means to overcome these issues. This approach, which involves integrating and applying insights from different academic disciplines, seemed like a way to create more inclusive and diverse group dynamics that would benefit everyone.  Could this be the key? And, ultimately, this is what I did with a lot of help and support from Lisa as this was new for me.”

“They were initially sceptical, chimes in Lisa. “In presence, they were grouped by nationality and we had been trying to mix them up for online sessions. Eventually they realised the benefits of having to embrace a different way of thinking and learning and seeing different perspectives. But we had to work hard at it!”

Overcoming exclusion in VE

“One of the secrets, says Alessandra, ‘was in the use of humour. This relaxed the atmosphere a lot. Lisa helped others overcome shyness. We considered this important to enhance the discussions, with topics that needed to be relevant to the students. Thirdly, they had to evaluate their teamwork using a little tracker and each week where they had to fill in short answers and demonstrate what they had contributed. When we met, we started with their contribution – even if it was just a picture they had taken – to demonstrate that they had met. This was a helpful way of moving forward. Essentially leveraging their soft skills, noticing and acknowledging them.”

Main Takeaways

Lisa says the students became noticeably more respectful towards other languages, other cultures and different perspectives. They eventually moved out of their comfort zone and created a larger one!

For her, the ‘Aha moment’ was the so-called ‘unboxing activity”. Simultaneously in Trier and in Padova, the students had to unpack items related to family business. They had to unwrap them, touch them, feel them and describe them. Both Padova and Trier students had the same items. 

“I found this an extremely moving experience to observe. Alessandra and Jörg physically brought the items to class and the activity took place simultaneously with identical products. What an intense and moving moment that was! They felt close to each other despite the geographical distance.

Alessandra says, “I want to encourage all educators who complain about today’s students, not studying enough and not being motivated. I want to say that I see changes like these as an opportunity to change ourselves and try something new. We can change ourselves for example, by embracing and using technology to meet many new people online and have new experiences with people from all over the world and discover new things. VE is a tiny way to see an opportunity where you think there isn’t one!”