Foreign language teaching in the virtual classroom – Part 3: The project-based approach

E-learning greatly boosts teaching a foreign language while using a project-based approach. Every aspect of the preparation and delivery process is made easier, leading to better results.

The advantages offered to both students and teachers by using e-learning platforms is visible when practicing a project-based approach. This can often mean that students need to provide different information and conclusions, as well as engage in many interactions in order to achieve their final goal. Let’s take a simple but highly effective and involved project in beginner classes: making a poster. The standard procedure is for the teacher to allocate tasks at the beginning, or to assign this project as a first activity for their students.

In the first case

The teacher has already designed a plan for the students to put into practice. The plan usually involves a few steps. First is the preparation phase, which involves some research work or review of past concepts. Next comes a phase where the students put together what they have gathered, often modifying it for the needs of the project. In the end, they come up with the final result, where they often need their teacher’s help so that their project can come to life and be useful for the needs of their small community or larger surroundings (depending on the project type).

In the second case

The preparation phase involves discussing who will do what. In a physical classroom, many aspects of this process contain difficulties linked to physical presence, the actual delivery of information (research results, old lessons, images, videos), and the elaboration of the final result, which usually needs a computer and some specific software in order to be designed. In the case of a poster, the students need to research images, pictures, or other visual material, and be able to put them together, adding text where needed.

First and foremost, in my view, the teacher’s personality and physical presence in the classroom is still perceived as supervision. I have personally tried to create a more friend-like relationship with students, and I have to say that this approach has been rarely successful. I find that many students don’t feel confident expressing their point of view. In an e-learning environment, interactions between students and teachers occur on a much more horizontal level, meaning that the teacher appears as one of them so that they don’t really feel controlled or supervised.

Making a poster is a highly rewarding, relatively easy, and federative project in foreign language classes. It is rewarding because students design something that they can use in real life, federative because everyone participates and, at best, has a clearly assigned role, and relatively easy because students can use software that they are familiar with and that is already installed on their computers.

The best results are achieved when the project can be directly used in the students’ environment, and an e-learning platform can prove useful in all stages of its implementation. In the preparation stage, students discuss their tasks and roles as a large group. They then share the results of their discussion directly with their teacher. This is usually done by the notetaker who can share their screen with the whole group and present the results of the discussion.

In the next phase

Students are separated into smaller groups based on the task that has been assigned to them. They are then free to do research online and to prepare their part of the project while having everything at their disposal. They can look for pictures online, as well as look at other similar posters, compare them, and decide which elements can work best for their task. Others can write the text of the poster – this activity may need a dictionary to be completed or other online resources. At the end of this phase, every student is able to show their work to the teacher or share it with the class.

Later, when they start to put the project together, each one of them can share their work and add it to the whole. They can adjust it so that it corresponds to the final goal. In the example with the poster, one or more of the students will have the task of assembling all of the elements. The results are shown to the group who can then make comments. Finally, once all the elements have been approved by everyone, the poster is ready. It can be stored in the classroom resources so that everyone has access to it and can use it while moving forward with the course.

Advantages of teaching a foreign language in a virtual classroom

What are the advantages of teaching a foreign language in a virtual classroom vs. in a traditional classroom in terms of a project?

  • clearer tasks – once a student is assigned a task, they can provide a result based solely on online research and/or software, which is entirely individual work
  • more clearly separated stages – students are aware when a stage is finished and they can see that everyone has handed in their work
  • greater awareness for the teacher – they can grade the project and guide students through their tasks more easily
  • providing resources – following a model that suits the student and the task is very important. The teacher can participate in the research process and show students reliable examples for their project

Projects in a virtual classroom can be assigned in different domains. Some examples of successful projects include:

  • sharing personal experience on a site
  • compiling a reference book with specific examples in a given field of knowledge
  • discussing topics of interest with native speakers
  • updating a Wikipedia page on a certain topic, and many, many more

Some of these projects aren’t designed to come to an end. In this case, a student may be responsible to give accounts of the project development on a regular basis.

You can find some more tips and insights on e-learning and teaching in a virtual classroom in the following articles:

  1. Distinguishing yourself as an online teacher
  2. What You Should Know About Your Virtual Learners
  3. Find The Audience For Your Online Course

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Emanuela Svilarova is assistant-professor in French as a foreign language at Sofia University "St Kliment Ohridski". Her activity includes classes for beginners up to Advanced - B2 levels, and classes in French for specialized domains - humanities, economics. Apart from language teaching, her fields of interest include French and Bulgarian contemporary literature and comparative literature. She has participated in the creation of textbooks for high schools of intensive French classes, the handbook "Laughter in class" and in various teaching- and learning-oriented projects.
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