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Project Based Learning: Online English Teaching in a New Era

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Jesus.B, online English Teacher at Acadsoc.

Jesus.B, online English Teacher at Acadsoc.

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Over the years, online English teaching and learning have both been the subject of adverse scrutiny based on the fact that current classroom topics do not reflect real-life events. One of the reasons behind these opinions is that curriculum conducted by online English teachers is designed/created a year before it is taught. Now we know how rapidly the world is changing – there are new developments in politics, finance and governance, developments that will one day directly affect the ESL student once he or she is in the working class. Using one of these as an example, students are not taught the value of money, the importance of saving and financial planning. On top of that, the continued increase in personal debt shows that there is a need for young professionals to have had a solid foundation on these topics at basic education level. Though we are just online English teachers helping students imporve their English level, our topics in the class should tightly catch up with the world since English usage is changing very fast nowadays.

So, the question beckons – how do we solve these issues? And how do we ensure that what is taught in the classroom reflects the outside world?

In the past, Acadsoc did introduce and highly recommend TPR (Total Physical Response) in our online English classes, however, it is not enough. TPR can help online English teachers inspire/motivate their students to learn, but how to effectively and efficiently learn English remains unsolved. The answer may lie in revolutionary methods of teaching and learning. An example of revolutionary learning would be the use of more real-life or current affairs examples in the classroom and in the exams to train the students’ minds on the developments of real-life and not only the textbook. We may already have the solution, and that is ‘Project Based Learning’ or PBL.

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.[1]

When teachers across America talk about the origins of Project-Based Learning, the name John Dewey often comes up. Dewey wrote a book in 1897 called “My Pedagogical Creed,” which outlined the concept of “learning by doing.” While many teachers embrace Dewey’s writings as the true birth of Project-Based Learning, a quick review of history shows things a bit differently. By the time Dewey had written his book at the end of the nineteenth century, education had already become standardized on many levels. For this reason, his concept of “learning by doing” piqued the interest of schools that already had education plans in place that relied heavily on book learning. All of that said, “learning by doing” is a concept that dates back to… well, no one really knows. Why? Because as humans, the concept of learning by “doing” is innate and intuitive.[2]

PBL is definitely a ‘revolution’ in the educational system, although its development has been over so many years. PBL stands firm in the notion that education loses its status as a social driver if it does not reflect current events and real-life scenarios.

Designing a ProjectWhen we consider the effectiveness of project-based learning, we need to account for the core fundamentals that make it what it is. With that being said, we need to look at three fundamentals that make Project-based learning what it is:

 

  1. Setting the Tone for Learning Spaces

The emphasis on group work is one of the core fundamentals of project-based learning. Aside from the fact that in the real world, a student would be working with colleagues, group work builds social skills and social coherence. Depending on the project itself, teachers could opt for congregation or meeting stations in the classroom – where students can meet ‘privately’ under the teacher’s supervision in various parts of the class. These spaces could be colour-coded to reflect the students’ responsibility for that particular area and space. Clusters give students the sense of independence, a skill that they definitely need in the real world.

  1. Access to Information

Depending on the type of project, the students need the freedom to do adequate research. Such examples of access to information would include access to the internet in the classroom, access to a computer to type the project and access to other resources such as books, magazines and newspapers. This will build skills such as research that is not only based on using internet sources but also articles that will reflect on current affairs in society.

  1. Use of Technology

As Maine-based PBL teacher Susan McCray told Edutopia, “I can’t imagine designing the curriculum that I do without being able to click onto the Internet and get all the materials and resources that are available, and I can’t imagine my students not being able to do that either.”[3]

This view is so important. It outlines the continued need to balance curriculum with technology literacy skills as the real world relies so heavily on technology to get projects done in the most convenient of times. Technology has a great potential to be a distractor and it is vital to always open up the dialogue at the end of each project to reflect on the challenges faced and also, to create contingencies for the future.

One of the main features of project-based learning is the teacher. It is important for the teacher to view themselves as the ultimate resource. The teacher needs to be able to introduce, maintain and conclude the project, as a facilitator. The teacher needs to be ready with answers and solutions at all times, but be willing to let the students work for those solutions. The goal is to give students the responsibility and independence of not being spoon-fed the work but to be rewarded.

For example, it is common practice in the real world to expect a mutual benefit for favours rendered. As nothing in the world is free, the students need to develop skills that they know will be needed, that they can use in order to gain favours in terms of assistance for their projects. Teachers need to be capable facilitators of such scenarios.

Particularly for online English teachers, we shall go a bit further than traditional teachers in a real classroom. In a virtual 1-1 class, there is no classmates or any other attendees but just a teacher and a student. Hence, an online English teacher here shall play a role of more than resources provider and giving instruction. He/she will have to engage in the project created by themselves with the student, as a friend and co-worker, trying to solve the problem. In a word, an online English teacher is another ‘student’ in the class when a new project has been introduced to the real student.

Based on the previously stated fundamentals of project-based learning, we can cautious of three dangers that exist when using PBL:

  1. Ill-prepared Teachers

Without even going further into detail, the most important figure in PBL, the teacher, needs to be well-equipped with information and skills that will make the project a success. It is not a simple transition between traditional learning and PBL so teachers need to undergo the necessary training and develop their skills in this regard. Traditional classroom teachers have a different approach in the sense that they are the first and last point of reference for information. On the other hand, PBL teachers are facilitators and are the ones who guide students on finding new ways of gathering information. The distinction is very important as PBL requires more responsibility and skill in terms of managing and facilitating in the project. ESL teachers need to be more than qualified as students from all over the world require different skills from the teacher – and in the case of English classes, preparation needs to be done ahead of time to anticipate possible issues and requests that may occur.

  1. (Filtered) PBL

So many schools need will resort to other forms of ‘PBL’ that are found online or from other vendors and think that they are active participants of PBL. But caution needs to be taken in this regard because PBL requires the whole schooling system to reflect on this, from the class environment, to the teachers and to the materials used. Having work-schedules that state ‘PBL’ are not enough.

  1. Selective Teaching

It happens very often that teachers use their ‘best’ students to try new strategies such as PBL, but what that might neglect, is students who can really excel in this type of learning environment. PBL is for everyone and everyone should be given an equal opportunity to participate and learn valuable skills as a result.

As we can see, it is vital to continue to innovate. The best place to start is in the classroom, and with PBL at the forefront, students will have fundamental skills, information and ideas that come as second nature to them. However, it is imperative for teachers to keep playing their role as the facilitators, and this means constantly equipping themselves with skills that can benefit their students in an ever-changing classroom environment.

[1] https://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl

[2] http://www.stratostar.net/blog/the-real-history-of-project-based-learning/

[3] https://www.teachthought.com/project-based-learning/4-keys-to-designing-a-project-based-learning-classroom/

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