Andrew McDouall and Mario Seidel
Furtwangen University of Applied Sciences, Germany
Learning Management Systems are often reduced to deliver text, and traditional vocabulary and grammar drills, not meeting the criteria for blended learning environments. We therefore implemented an action research project designed to break with this simplistic use by combining Project-based Language Teaching with the Team Protocol Method. By doing so the various strengths of each element complement each other, creating an online space in which autonomous and authentic use of the TL can take place. Students’ evaluations, teachers’ reviews and quantitative data analysis point to an increase in student motivation, cooperation and contribution, process orientation, and language accuracy.
While Learning Management Systems (LMS) facilitate on-line communication and course management, and promise to increase learner autonomy and student engagement (Blake, 2013), we believe that the pedagogic possibilities of LMS are not realized. Despite limited research into the educational impact of LMS (Coats, James, & Baldwin, 2005), we claim that LMS can be used to provide blended learning environments fostering communicative spaces in which learners use the target language (TL) autonomously and authentically outside of the classroom.
In this article we discuss an action research project designed to create such an online-setting through the integration of an LMS with Project-based Language Teaching and the Team Protocol Method. We report preliminary findings and make suggestions for further developments.
Project-based Language Teaching (PBLT)
PBLT is firmly rooted in constructivist learning theory and requires learners to build and solidify their grasp of the TL by applying linguistic and metacognitive skills to authentic problems requiring teams of learners “to ask and refine questions, debate ideas, make predictions, design plans and/or experiments, collect and analyze data, draw conclusions, communicate their ideas and findings to others, ask new questions, and create artifacts” (Blumenfeld et al., 1991: 375). Research indicates that compared to the traditional classroom, PBLT improves inter-personal and communication skills, promotes a greater understanding of the material, improving retention, and leading to better writing skills (Strobel & Barneveld, 2009). Most salient to our approach, however, is the fact that Project-based learning motivates self-directed learning (Hmelo-Silver, 2004), which we believe translates into teams engaging with the TL outside of the confines of the traditional classroom.
The Team Protocol Method (TPM)
PBLT faces two key problems when adapted for use in a blended learning environment:
1.The team dynamic allows weaker students to do well based on the efforts of stronger language learners. Termed “social-loafers” by Lee & Lim (2012), these students contribute little and can lead to work of a lower standard than if students contributed equally.
2.Project work is often focused on outcome, with learners discussing the project and the work associated with it in their L1, using the TL only for the final product.
Based on work by You (2011), we decided to introduce a procedural method into our PBLT approach by requiring teams to maintain Team Protocols (TP). You (2011) found that maintaining written in-class TP led to peer-evaluations in which cooperation amongst group members was evaluated more positively than in classes which made no use of TP.
The TPM creates a positive team environment by increasing the perceived value of group activities through the creation of a procedural artefact and by keeping members accountable to one another, thereby creating a socially inclusive atmosphere. Additionally, the continuous reflection required when maintaining TP leads to deeper engagement with the material, fostering social skills, as well as communicative competencies such as summarizing, paraphrasing, and expressing oneself clearly and concisely.
Language Learning 4.0: The Integrated Approach to Blended Learning
Our goal is to encourage out-of-class use of the TL, to ensure participation in project work, and to stimulate reflection. This required us expand upon You’s (2011) use of TP to include a video portion. Video-TP were used to record out-of-class meetings, which were then used to reflect on the meetings themselves and condensed into written form. Both the video-TP and written-TP where then uploaded to online team-workspaces on NEO LMS which instructors and students had access to.
In addition to extending TP to include video, we also integrated the blended learning environment, PBLT, and TPM in a graduated manner. The first project required teams to video record themselves while completing the task, and then using the video to reflect on the process. This initial phase introduced students to maintaining records of their work, uploading these into online workspaces, and sensitized them to the reflection process. In the second phase, students were asked to maintain a video-TP, which was used to reflect on question-sets provided by the instructor, and condensed into written form.
Student Evaluation Scores
In regards to course evaluations, our results mirrored those of You (2011). Evaluations indicated that students (n = 20/38) assessed TP courses more favorably than non-TP courses concerning: cooperation between students, contribution to the lecture, learning outcome, and overall assessment of the lecture.
Figure 1. A comparison of student evaluation scores.
From the two instructors’ perspective, TP classes, when compared with non-TP classes, were evaluated more positively, students were gauged as more motivated, student performance was judged to be of higher quality, and the performance of weaker L2-speakers improved significantly due to the more inclusive environment created through the TPM.
Corpus Analysis of TP
Using AntConc (Anthony 2015) we discovered several differences between TPs and forum posts. In a TP corpus of 3852 tokens we found 957 word types, while a corpus of forum posts, composed of 3740 tokens included only 779 word types. More significantly, while we found 34 orthographic errors in the forum posts, we found only 12 in the TP corpus. The errors in the forum posts included mistakes in spelling (26), punctuation (5), and word breaks (3), while the errors in the TP included spelling (6), hyphenation (3) and punctuation (3). Finally, the register used in the TP was more appropriate to an Academic English course than the language used in the forum posts. Forum posts made more use of contractions, used text based ideograms (such as smileys) more frequently, and included verbal expressions such as ‘like’, ‘ugh’, ‘yeah’, and ‘sooooo’, which were absent in TP. We feel that these differences indicate that the TPM encourages students to work in a conscientious manner and leads them to use the appropriate register for work required in an Academic English course.
We extended the blended learning environment by combining a pedagogical approach to language teaching with a procedural method to encourage student engagement and integrating it into our LMS. As this action research project was small, the results require replication and validation on a larger scale. Nevertheless, PBLT in conjunction with TPM yields promising results, encouraging discussion on how we can extend blended learning by adapting existing pedagogical approaches to the specific requirements of the online environment.
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