BACKBONE: e-learning for modern language teaching

A Steinbeis cooperation with educational institutions in seven European countries

BACKBONE is an EU-funded project involving partners in Germany, France, the UK, Ireland, Poland, Spain and Turkey. A Moodle-based e-learning platform offers new e-learning and blended learning opportunities to schools, universities and vocational institutions. The main pedagogic principle behind BACKBONE is Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) in a constructivist learning environment. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Language Learning Media is one of two German partners in the project.

Across Europe, subjects like history and biology are increasingly taught not in the country’s native language, but in a second language – frequently English. This approach is known as bilingual education and forms part of the pedagogic concept of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). In this form of teaching, the main focus is on the subject at hand; the second language is merely used as the medium of instruction. As a result, students learn the second language in an authentic context, through real communication.

The CLIL method holds huge potential. It can help improve general language and communication skills, help students become more confident in using a second language, and boost their communication skills in relation to specific subject areas. CLIL is not just used to teach subjects bilingually in schools; it is also used in general language teaching, especially when studying a country, its culture and literature.

The learning materials and exercises made available to teachers and students are crucial to the success of any kind of approach that aims to integrate content and language learning. Here, e-learning plays a major strategic role. The CLIL resources developed as part of the BACKBONE project include video interviews in English, German, French, Polish, Spanish, Turkish and ELF (English as a Lingua Franca, as spoken by continental Europeans). Each language is represented by 25 to 50 interviews. The interviews have an average length of 10 minutes. They have been transcribed and pedagogically annotated with regard to thematic and linguistic features. The project team also developed language learning modules and instructions for communication exercises on certain subjects.

The BACKBONE search interface developed for the project provides free access to the interviews and learning materials. It supports pedagogically motivated search processes with thematic and linguistic categories as well as lexical searches with words and phrases. Sample courses based on Moodle have been tested in real learning situations and have demonstrated how BACKBONE search results can be used for individual or collaborative learning activities in an elearning environment with web tools such as forums, chats or wikis. The tools developed in the project also include software for the transcription of video and audio recordings, for the thematic and linguistic annotation of transcripts, and the online management of learning resources. These BACKBONE tools facilitate a "do it yourself" approach empowering teachers to collaborate in the creation and pedagogical deployment of authentic content for web-based language learning and teaching. The software is made available under an open-source license.

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