Thursday, 5 March 2009

Testing student chat on Ning

Last week we organised an intercontinental chat session on our WHAZZUP? project Ning. This was initiated by our members in Cyprus, who had a special theme day in their school and wanted to give hands-on demonstrations of their international projects.


Adding the chat feature on Ning was a piece of cake really, and we teachers test-drove it beforehand to see how it worked. The more complicated task was to synchronize all the different time zones of the participating schools. In the end, we came up with the following time frame for start of a one-hour chat session.

Cyprus/Finland 11.00 am
Ireland 9.00 am
Italy/Spain/France 10.00 am
New Delhi 2.30 pm
Malaysia 5.00 pm
Korea/Philippines 6.00 pm

The time zone issue actually turned into a whole lesson with the geography teacher in Ireland:

On the foot of preparation for Thursday, I took out a large wall map of the world and circled each of the countries participating. Using the notice on whazzup, we identified what countries were in what time zone, and looked at the difference between Ireland and Korea. I think it began to dawn that as we were in class at 10 am today, other students had their days work done and were probably at home relaxing. It certainly gave pause for thought.

The details of the chat were discussed in our Ning Teachers' group, where teachers also indicated whose students would most probably manage to be online at that given time. The idea of planning a joint discussion topic came up as well, and it was decided that students should be prepared to talk about some special national holidays, as it was the time for the beginning of Lent in Europe with different traditions and also the Chinese New Year celebrations in Asia were not far behind.


On the day, the Cypriot students stayed online from 8 am till around 1 pm to see who they could catch for a chat. Eventually, students from Cyprus, Finland, Ireland and Malaysia got together in the chat room, which was very positive, as, despite the time differences, we managed to involve people from both continents in a real-time activity.

As for the topics discussed, quite expectedly it mostly revolved around young people's leisure activities - shared music, film and reading experiences.

Some more serious topics came up, too though, such as differences in school systems, politics or environmental problems, which pleased us teachers. School uniforms were compared, for example.

It has got to be remembered, however, that apart from the Irish, the rest of the students are learners of EFL, and for some this was the very first time to use English in an authentic situation with people who don't share the same native language. From that point of view, of course, we can't necessarily expect very profound discussions about complicated issues. Even saying 'hi' and talking about the weather is an achievement and a positive language learning experience for some. Students' uncertainty about their English skills recurringly came up in their discussions.

While students were active in the main chat room, teachers opened up private chat rooms to share ideas about the progress. This proved a useful feature.

Some students started private one-to-one chats, too. However, something we began to miss on Ning was a feature that would allow small groups of students to open their own separate chat room. The most students online at any one time was 31, and it soon became apparent that even that was too many. The discussion simply got too fast-paced, not only for us teachers with far less online multitasking experience, but also for the students, as this example shows:

Some technical hitches were encountered, too, which seems unavoidable whenever trying to work syncronously over space and time. At one point it looked threateningly that we wouldn't manage to get anybody from Asia to join us Europeans. Although the students were ready and keen in their ICT room in Sabah, Malaysia in the evening the chat just wouldn't work for them. The teacher shared their frustration on wall posts:

Luckily, their ICT staff managed to work wonders and they entered the chat room bringing with them a fascinating , and even partly exotic, feel to the discussion. I will write a separate blog post on the the clear difference in the communication culture between them and European students later.


All in all, I would say this first chat experiment was well worth it. Our students in Finland were surprisingly excited about it all day. Some even revealed that they had never chatted online in a foreign language before!

Other participants have given quite positive feedback, too.

Just to say that the chat on Thursday went really well. As I said to Sinikka, I overheard a student say it was better than Bebo and that is a very big compliment. It created a great buzz with the students wanting to stay on-line for longer than originally intended.
I think that during the chatting the students have exchange many interesting information. They have spoken about their school, about the uniform in school, about the different time zone. Someone asked where is Cyprus, our students try to know about the political problem in Ireland and they try to tell the others about our political problem but this was without success. They have spoken with success about the weather.

And certainly it created momentum for the project in Malaysia, where suddenly more and more students wanted to join the Ning and become part of the network. In actual fact, all through the chat one of my main jobs was approving new members from there. I was quite touched by some of their reactions, which was a good reminder that not all teenagers all over the world are as blase about participating in online social networks as we might expect.

As a final remark, another feature missing on Ning is having access to past chat logs. Once the chat is over, and even during it whenever a limited number of visible lines on the screen is exceeded, the comments are simply wiped off into the void of virtual space. That is why I was busy taking screenshots all through the chat to have at least some record of what was going on. It might be useful to be able to go back to the whole chat session, especially as I enjoy doing small case studies on young people's communication patterns in international projects.


We are definitely going to try the chat again during this spring term, but in new and improved ways. Firstly, we will seriously have to limit the number of participants per chat to make it more manageable and productive. This will involve a lot of joint coordination and planning between teachers in advance. We will also need to find out about options for grouping students during the chat, as one colleague pointed out:

if we do it again (which I hope we will) it might be an idea to form groups with a student from each country in a group. With so many exchanges as on last Thursday, the speed makes it difficult to keep up, even for our tech savvy students!

Secondly, I feel that, despite the obvious advantage of everyday chit chat for lower level learners of English, as mentioned before, more attention will have to be paid to defining a purpose for the chat to enhance the overall learning experience.

Other forms of syncronous exchanges have also been suggested by colleagues:

with the Polish and Russian students we've had two skype sessions.. we could do that with yours.. so the students, instead of just chatting on the net, could talk.

As inviting as adding voice to the chat sounds, unfortunately we don't access to Skype at school, so that is out. There must be other tools available for this, but for now they will have to wait till a later time.

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