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Project-Based Language Learning

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Project-based language learning poses specific challenges for online language educators and learners. This session offers critical definitions and specific tools to aid online educators wanting to take the PBLL plunge.

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Project-based learning (PBL) is impactful, inquiry-based learning that aims to motivate the learner to develop a response to a real-world problem or question using tools ranging from scholarly inquiry to hands-on design and manufacture. It is characterized by cross-disciplinary learning and an emphasis on high quality, often referring to standards from the professional working world rather than just those developed for education. The Buck Institute for Education has emerged as the clearinghouse for the implementation of PBL across disciplines, and as an arbiter of quality and professional standards surrounding the use of the term “Project-Based Learning.” It has developed a set of characteristics that comprise a Gold Standard for project-based learning. Gold Standard PBL was outlined in the presentation; you might want to review this short article that outlines the essential elements of project design in Gold Standard PBL. PBL theory and practice still still await full development in the field of world languages. The presentation outlined some challenges in getting from PBL to PBLL for which there are no ready-made solutions. In fields other than world languages, the learner’s ease of use of their first language to engage in deep inquiry allows projects to range across multiple disciplines. In world languages, learners’ limited functional communicative capacity in the L2 can hinder not only their topic research but even their ability to work together in simple ways without using L1. One important PBLL strategy, therefore, is to reframe the concept of “basic language” to include a focus on collaborative classroom interaction and work routines so that learners can function in the L2 as researchers. The ability to do task management in the L2 has to be built gradually from the beginning with lots of scaffolding such as “cheat sheets” offering “language for step 1,” “language for step 2,” and so forth. 

Another “PBL to PBLL” strategy is reframing topics so that they become objects of investigation -- and in world languages, culture will be a typical focus. So you start with a topic area that typifies the Novice level, such as “Who Am I? Who Are You?” and you re-frame it as a cultural inquiry. For example, absolute-beginner learners could start out with a project to answer the question “What is most important to know about another person?” In this project, with the teacher’s help, they would first create a limited set of basic yes/no questions that can be asked about a person -- perhaps eight questions. Then they would create a survey to administer to different groups of people in the target language to ask those people to rank the importance of those questions -- for example, they could administer the survey to speakers of the target language who have never lived abroad and to speakers of the target language currently living abroad, and then examine differences in the survey results between the two populations. All this could only take place with strong scaffolding from the instructor, of course. Presumably the public product would be an infographic which the students would publish to the Web, or, ideally, to native-speaking students in a classroom with whom their teacher has established a tandem relationship. 

As an online educator interested in implementing PBLL, you need not only strategies for implementing PBL in a world languages context, but also implementing PBL in an online instructional context. This article outlines a model for implementing project-based learning online.

Lokey-Vega, Anissa, and Bondeson, Kimberly. (2017). Project Based Online Learning: Meeting the Challenge. Buck Institute for Education PBL Blog, August 21, 2017.
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Finally, for language teachers interested in developing a project, whether you teach online or not, other PBLL resources include:
- National Foreign Language Resource Center PBLL Project Blueprint template (Please note that the Online Institute referred to in the Blueprint template is past; the template is provided for your independent use)

- NFLRC Project Blueprint assessment rubric (for assessing Project Blueprints)

- NFLRC online repository of PBLL project designs

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