Some important aspects of language development have emerged in the current situation of distance/online learning. One of these questions concerns collaborative activities, which we tend to think are easier to accomplish in the context of classroom learning. However, collaboration is manageable and inspiring in digital environments. Why is it important? How can we facilitate language practice through collaboration?
Why does collaboration matter?
Collaboration in language learning should be a necessity, not a preference. Firstly, learning a language essentially means learning to communicate, which naturally involves other people. In order to achieve our goals of communication, we need to get involved in dialogues in different situations. Both in written and spoken discourse, we have a target audience and a goal to reach. Secondly, the sociocultural theory of language learning (based on the research of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky) has researched and promoted the benefits of collaborative dialogues and activities. In the presence of a more experienced peer or teacher, students can concentrate on completing pedagogical tasks which are designed to promote development.
In the context of shared experiences, students engage in dialectical learning and take part in the process of creation and co-construction of new knowledge. As applied linguist Gabriela Adela Gánem-Gutiérrez summarizes, “collaborative activity in the L2 context can be defined as an intersubjective, goal-oriented, and dialectical process leading to the co-construction and internalization of L2 knowledge in its broadest sense.” (In The Routledge Handbook of Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Development edited by James P. Lantolf, Matthew E. Poehner, Merrill Swain; Routledge, 2018)
How to promote collaboration in digital environments?
Some of our students might already be practising their English in digital environments. Multiplayer online role-playing games, like the World of Warcraft is a popular online game in which students already rely on their language skills to negotiate meaning and solve problems with others.
Apart from such online games, there are several other tools and tasks you can use to facilitate collaboration.
Collaborative writing projects
In our post on interactive storytelling, we have mentioned round-robin stories, a type of collaborative fiction in which each author contributes with a piece of a story.
If you have a small group, say 8 to 12 students, you can easily set up a shared writing project. Here are some things you should pay attention to.
- Involve each student in setting the context. Discuss where the story takes place, what the time period is. if the characters travel (in space, or maybe in time!): decide together.
- Ask students to do some research into the setting of the story. Some students can find information about the places, and some others can look for information about the time.
- Then, make decisions about the characters. What do they look like? What are they like? What type of lives do they lead?
- Decide the basic plotline.
Once you have made all these decisions, start writing the story. Ask students to write short chapters of about one page, with one student continuing where another has completed a chapter. They can also edit the chapter of the previous student, this way they can focus on building language awareness.
If you follow this plan, you will have 8-12 chapters. Check that the details in the chapters are correct. Finally, print the story and ask the students to illustrate it.
Tip: You can make this even simpler by asking students to write only 1 sentence and pass the document on. This is a snappier and easier way to engage students in a shorter time period.
Collaborative research projects and mind maps
Tools like Padlet help you collaborate with your students. Building mind maps around a topic can help you promote discussions and shared research.
- Choose a topic, like ‘Things to grow in the house’
- Ask students to think of different things they can grow
- They can add pictures, videos and descriptions
- From here, they can write an essay or create a presentation based on their findings
Learn more about apps on our Mind the App! 2.0 website.
Collaborative creation: interactive images
Several platforms let you create multimedia experiences. Imagine a photo of a building or a landscape, in which you find clickable icons. These icons can either reveal a detail of the photo detail, a written text, a video or a link. This way you can add depth that helps you learn about the theme of the image.
The app ThingLink, for example, lets you add interactive content to images, videos, and 360° images and videos.
You can easily register as a free user on this website. Then, take a picture of the class, a famous landmark or your school.
Ask students to do some research and add one piece of information to the image. They can find the information and send it to you. Then, you can add the interactive elements based on your students’ research and suggestions. This way you are the admin of the project, but everyone can contribute.
Here are some fascinating examples:
Collaborative creation: dramatized reading
Collaborative reading can result in collaborative creation. For example, students can record the dramatized version of a short story in the style of a radio play.
Read our interviews with German teachers Gertrud Merz and Maximilian Schoenauer, who have both managed the production of a radio play with their students for the Helbling Germany Reading Competition in 2018 and 2019.
- Interview with Gertrud Merz, project The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
- Interview with Maximilian Schoenauer, project The Blue Carbuncle
Here, the most important modification is that students need to receive the scripts in a digital format, and then they need to record their own part. Otherwise, you need a simple and secure app which allows you to record 2-3 speakers at the same time.
Have you tried any other collaborative projects?
Share them with us!