University of Aveiro, Portugal
This paper presents an approach to implementing a platform for b-learning settings for students of the first and second cycle degree course in Languages and Business Relations at the University of Aveiro. The project entitled "Digiculturality: Language Teaching for the Business Context" intends to carry out research with practical application in the creation of a platform focused on the teaching of languages for specific purposes. We consider that our approach is innovative as it seeks to promote digiculturality by the use of new technologies which serve as a foundation for the development of students’ competitiveness, their functional competences and the acquisition of an intercultural communicative competence. The platform for b-learning settings will support teaching materials which were developed and/or adapted to teach various foreign languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. The learning and teaching process performed through the platform is intended to bring university education up to a level that reflects the dynamism of today's business environment. The general objective is that blended learning students assume an increasingly (pro) active and autonomous role in the pursuit of knowledge.
The target audience of this digital tool are first and second cycle degree students from the course Languages and Business Relations at University of Aveiro. The University of Aveiro is the only institution of higher education in Portugal that offers the opportunity to learn all these languages for a specific scope, such as the business context. The course Languages and Business Relations offers ideal conditions for the realization of this project, ensuring originality and, consequently, innovation as regards the pedagogical-didactic methodology to be implemented as well as research questions that will be approached. The project intends to take an innovative approach, since dealing with technologies in the context of higher education is imperative and beneficial (Bartolomé, 2008). Therefore, the project aims at encouraging and motivating students by providing them with access to tools and technologies that fit into the new educational paradigm of the digital age. From this perspective, the project does not neglect the promotion of knowledge of cultural differences as fundamental aspects of the development of digicultural competences, as well as to facilitate access to different cultures and patterns through the digital platform. The specific contents will be acquired through a series of communicative activities according to the parameters of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, with the aim of adapting them to Non-European Languages. Those activities include written expression, written comprehension, written interaction, oral expression, oral comprehension and oral interaction in order to enable students to develop linguistic, sociocultural and pragmatic skills and competences.
The project "Digiculturality: Language Teaching for the Business Context" has as main objective the creation of a platform for b-learning settings that will complement the formal education in the classroom and, therefore, will function as a teaching tool to teach several foreign languages - Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish - with special emphasis on the importance of the cultural dimension. The creation of the platform aims to help students acquire and develop intercultural communicative competence through the construction of digiculturality. In the study by Leiva, Yuste, and Borrero (2011), digiculturality is hereby understood as realization of intercultural activities by the use of ICT, paying special attention to participation, interactivity and cooperation. This will be achieved through the creation and development of the platform that will be a complementary tool for face-to-face classes. This blended learning methodology implies the implementation of a hybrid teaching process by the combination of traditional methods combined with the use of ICT (Blumschein & Fischer, 2007). To reach this goal, we intend to discuss technical and practical aspects concerning the functionality of the platform in view of its design, accessibility, dynamism and sustainable exploitation, in addition to meetings with all researchers involved in the project, which aim at identifying common key themes (conflicting linguistic and cultural aspects) that will be explored in the classroom and by the use of the platform. It is obvious that the functionality of this platform will be evaluated throughout the entire research process and therefore perceptions and interactions of the students are taken into account, in order to be able to carry out future modifications. By implementing this electronic tool, we intent to motivate students in order to enable them to develop their own autonomy as well as the capacity to reflect on their own learning process. Furthermore, students are expected to develop their intercultural communicative competence and also to acquire specific knowledge in the field of business studies. By the means of the creation of a flexible platform, which can either be used synchronously or asynchronously, we aim at motivating students to continuously acquire knowledge outside the classroom. The functionality of the platform, the way students interact with it individually and in groups, their participation and collaboration will provide quantitative and qualitative data for the research process that will be of great importance for the publications that the research group intends to deliver. Digicultural experience contributes to promoting educational innovation, thus enhancing intercultural development and enabling the appreciation of cultural diversity. Another objective is to motivate students not only to improve their academic success, but also to particularly enable the student to efficiently perform in a multicultural context, thus helping them to get aware of their own self-esteem and skills. Revitalizing the use of ICT within this project will help students to be better prepared for their future professional life, as well as to build multicultural relationships and gather professional experience. The project also aims to provide a response regarding continuous training in foreign languages aiming at extending target audience and including people connected to companies, who are interested in learning a foreign language of the project.
3. Implementation of the platform
By implementing the platform we strive to go beyond formal education, emphasizing above all the cultural aspects of languages that are meaningful for communication and appropriate behavioral practices in the multicultural business and corporate environment inside and outside Portugal. The acquisition of all this knowledge will support the formation of a digicultural competence that will influence the development of the students’ intercultural communicative competence. Given the fact that formal language teaching is limited to a few hours a week, it is not possible to delve into the crucial aspects of contact with a foreign culture that are so important for maintaining a good relationship with foreign companies. For this reason and according to our experience as teachers, we believe that university graduates do not dispose of sufficiently developed skills to be able to act effectively in contexts of this nature. In addition, we find that only a few investigations and studies on these subjects are applied to a university target audience in Portugal. To avoid that this lack of skills has direct consequences on future professional practice, we propose the b-learning methodology for a possible solution to this problem considering also that the majority of our students are digital natives and the platform can be a way to encourage and motivate them to study foreign languages. The implementation of this combined methodology (formal classes and use of platform) contributes to the students leaving their passive role in the teaching-learning process and assuming another much more active role in the construction of their own knowledge. The students can manage the acquisition of knowledge in a continuous and flexible way so that the learning process does not end when leaving the classroom. In addition, the platform will be characterized by accessibility and content organization, authenticity of materials and samples or language models that reproduce the linguistic realities of the countries whose languages the students study in the university course. The possibilities of using this tool presuppose that the students are responsible for building their own knowledge through research, collaboration, cooperation and sharing of the acquired knowledge with the group. This will promote a better learning process thanks to a combined methodology of face-toface and virtual teaching that will be a valuable tool for consolidating and articulating old and new knowledge.
4. Expected results
We are convinced that this project will make a very important contribution to the area of language teaching for specific purposes, since it will represent an innovative pedagogical-didactic proposal and will provide a theoretical framework for the teaching of digiculturality to university students. We believe that the impact of the project will be on enhancing the skills of future employees so that they are better prepared for an increasingly globalized and multicultural society. In addition, the opening of the platform to society will also serve as a means of training employees who can access content and continue their training by learning one or more foreign languages of their choice. Nowadays, more and more companies hire external services to train their workers in different areas, such as language teaching, international business protocol, skills and communicative strategies in the company, intercultural competence, etc. The platform can be a means of filling in the gap that these employees from local, regional or even national companies may have. That is why we will look at other distribution channels, such as creating a mobile and tablet application, where professionals can access content anytime, anywhere. Our project aims, therefore, to invest in education and training, as well as in human capital to develop their competitiveness and to train more functional capacities that are important in the world of multinational enterprises. In scientific terms, we intend to discuss technical and practical aspects concerning the functionality of the platform. On the basis of the results, every researcher will analyze the data collected in view of their own research interests related to a specific language through the production of articles or other publications, seminars, conference papers, etc. These theoretical-practical reflections are meant to evaluate how this pedagogical-didactic proposal, consisting of face-to-face lessons complemented with the platform, is received by teachers and students.
5. Future challenges
Our project fits this societal challenge, since it involves educational innovation, a higher education institution, students and researchers who are highly experienced teachers that aim at evolving their pedagogical practices and, at the same time, responding to the current challenges of a very dynamic and demanding job market. Our challenge is to train students in the skills that companies require, preparing them for the labour market through the realization of an innovative project and stimulating them for a continuous learning process (García, 2002). We will aspire to understand how the learning of European and Non-European Foreign Languages is achieved through this proposal of foreign language teaching and learning, where face-to-face lessons are combined with the use of a digital platform. We also want to analyze how students build their digicultural competence and how this influences the evolution of an intercultural communicative competence. The project we are presenting challenges the cultural dimension of the language, since cultural and social knowledge is very important in international business relations, especially in an increasingly globalized and multicultural society. We consider that our proposal is innovative as it seeks to promote digiculturality by the use of new technologies which serve as a foundation for the development of students’ competitiveness, their functional competences and an intercultural communicative competence that prepares them to be able to act and interact effectively and appropriately in various communicative contexts.
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