Saturday, 8 December 2007

It's all about 'nukumori'

It is amazing to go down memory lane to track the rapid development of global school projects. I have been teaching for 20 odd years, and still remember my early years in the mid-80s when I used to arrange traditional pen-pals for my students. Some of them would be fortunate enough to meet like-minded souls in other countries and keep the correspondence going, while poor others never received one single letter. But common to all these exchanges were the dawdling gaps in writing, sometimes waiting for months for the next long-awaited letter to arrive. Nevertheless, there was something endearing in the hand-written sheets, sometimes beautifully decorated with drawings, the exotic stamps on the envelopes or, best of all, enclosed photographs!

Incidentally, I have just learned a Japanese idea called ‘nukumori’ from my dear Japanese friend and colleague. He described how he feels ‘nukumori’ when reading his mother’s handwriting, for example. He translated it as something like ‘warmth in humanity expressed through your personality’. Once again I feel quite lost in translation with this concept, but it sounds fascinating to me. I have been wondering if we tend to lose some of it when we switch into fast-paced online communication. It would appear so, at least in the case of my daughter, who is spending this whole school year as an exchange student in Belgium. We keep in touch mainly through modern technology – Skype, a joint blog diary, photos in Flickr etc. Interestingly, though, she seems to long for old-fashioned hand-written letters. Similarly, I too revel in every carefully drawn line and curve of her writing and sniff the subtle scents of the letters she has written to us. Must be the importance of ‘nukumori’, mustn’t it? Hand-written letters magically bring her much closer to me than the more impersonal typed writing on the net.

Anyway, back to international projects. The next phase for me was the introduction of email into project work. Suddenly letters and messages could be sent and received around the world almost instantaneously. For me, this started in 1996, when I worked as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the States, and acquired my first ever email account there. What a revolution! In the beginning, though, I can remember how people were so overwhelmed by this new medium that they created trivial ‘anybody out there?’ sort of projects with instructions that read something like: “My teacher wants me to get as many emails from as many countries as possible. So just reply to this email, but no need to say anything more than what country you are from!” I used to get irritated by those messages, but in hindsight, they were probably quite understandable first steps in the excitement of such novel connectivity.

Soon enough, though, even the email exchanges between students started to falter. Particularly, as many of our foreign partners insisted on the old format of pen-pals, only replacing letters by emails. Every student was to have their own individual e-pal to write to, which caused many problems to do with not identical group sizes, or some students simply not bothering. As a teacher, I felt I lost my face every time a disappointed student complained about not receiving any replies. I soon realized that this wasn’t really leading to any true collaboration between students. I even remember one time when I had found a partner class and all was set for an exciting email project after several negotiations between us teachers. But for some reason, the others never replied to my students’ emails. We waited and waited and I contacted the teacher several times, but he never replied to give any explanation. Needless to say, that was one of the all time lows in my project career. At the time I was embarrassed to let my keen students down, even though, of course, it wasn’t my fault as such. Yet, it’s still a mystery to me what actually happened, and whether my students’ messages are still hauntingly roaming the virtual space somewhere. This experience especially has made me even more careful in choosing partners, and expecting teacher collaboration before launching any project to students.

Next in line, the limitations of email projects created the need for online working platforms to better accommodate student collaboration and to enable forums where students could discuss in groups rather than individually, and so be more likely to receive replies. I got introduced to some platforms by colleagues from Singapore, who produced quality projects and won awards with the help of these tools. The only problem for me was that there was no way our state school system could afford the platforms the affluent private schools in Singapore had. But luckily, back in 2005, our school managed to get access to the open-source Moodle platform, and suddenly a whole new era began for our projects. Thanks to Moodle, at last, project management became much easier, and we were able to provide our international partners with a fairly user-friendly and competitive platform. But still, something was missing. At the end of each project, how to present the results online, since the Moodle platform was a closed, password-only site? I have written about this problem in an earlier post, so no need to repeat it here.

Finally, only last summer, I decided to start blogging and learning about web2.0 tools – which was the next huge step and revelation for me. There seems to be no limit to what can be done globally now! Blogs, wikis, and social networks facilitate smooth and motivating online collaboration and instant publishing, but also provide safety measures and privacy for those who are concerned about open online student presences. And how about podcasts and videos then? Wouldn’t they add some more ‘nukumori’ into typed messages, although actually my Japanese friend says that even some of my email messages have brought him ‘lovely melodies between the lines’.

In the end, it’s all about personal relationships, isn’t it, how you take a personal interest in other people? Whatever the medium these days, I feel we need to remember, and remind our students that we are, first and foremost, dealing with living, breathing, feeling people in our projects. The machines, tools or technology, not even the most advanced and academic topics and themes of our projects are as important as Stefano, Priyanka, Noriko or Julio, at the other end of our shared virtual reality.

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