Finding Your Voice on the Internet – changing the language, building community, and reducing diversity?
Keynote address at CLESOL Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand, September, 2004
Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion

Let’s go back 10 years. Just 10 years. I was a classroom ESL teacher. I rarely, if ever, had discussions with colleagues about teaching methodologies, teaching and learning styles, constructivism, the roles of content and process in designing courses, or instructional design. We talked about roll books, attendance, passing, and God forbid, Occupational Health and Safety ad nauseam. We certainly never talked about notions of community in connection with our classroom practice.

One of the things I love about the Internet is that it has made all educators who use it re-evaluate their classroom practice. For most of us ten years ago there was no alternative to classroom practice. Enter online education. Another way of doing it. And inevitably, comparisons were made. How do you translate what works in the classroom online? This was largely prompted by the fact that people on the Internet are disembodied beings. There is a degree of liberation in this experience – you can function as a mental presence only – but many teachers find this unnerving. It is as if our physical presence in a classroom could magically resolve all the problems that ever occurred in a face-to-face environments. Our charm, our acting ability, our people skills would conquer all. When the prospect of displaying our engaging and infectious personalities was taken away from us, many said online teaching couldn’t be done.

We know now that it can be done. People can and do successfully learn and teach online. But it has involved a steep learning curve. Mastering the technical issues aside, it has meant a realization that we need to provide information in multiple formats – some prefer text, some prefer pictures, there are the multimedia learners. There are the learners who are happy to work in isolation, but there are many more learners who need a sense of place, a sense of collegiality, a sense of being in a class, the sense of being part of a group. And yes, perhaps being part of a community. The work of Gilly Salmon and others has demonstrated the crucial role of socialization online (and yes you can be social online). In the classroom, many of us knew much of this instinctively – we allowed for multiple formats, designed engaging activities, and knew some people loved group work and others hated it. Online you need to be far more conscious of each of these aspects course delivery, and ensure they are included in your course or you will fail. In the classroom our magical presence solved all. Online we need something else other than our magical presence, or at least strategies to convey your magical presence to your remote students, AND to allow your students’ magical presences to be apparent to you and each other.

This is called simply, online presence. Much of it is done via language. As alluded to earlier, people often define themselves in this medium via language. They define their social presence via language.  There is currently an extraordinary amount of activity and research around the notion of online community. Some of this debate has focused on classrooms – both physical and virtual. People are now asking whether or not they should be communities. Asking if it’s possible, or necessary? This is a quaint notion, that there might be a collective presence in a class that could be in some way a sense of community. Think of your own classes now and ask yourselves, “are your classes communities?”.

I personally think this is stretching the point a bit. I don’t think physical or online classes are communities. I concede that some members of a class may feel ‘a sense of community’.  Online it is imperative that you foster this sense of community for those who need it, but there are students who are loners, and shouldn’t be hassled by more dependent types wanting to ‘share their learning’! Many online teachers will testify that they keep contact with their students after their courses are finished. Recently one of my online students requested that we set up an alumni group so exiting students from the program could keep in touch with each other. I have never had a similar request from a student exiting a face-to-face group in over 20 years of teaching in the classroom! This sense of class community can happen in the non-virtual world of course, but there you have your magical presence to support you. But for this to happen online, when the student and teacher have never met, is truly remarkable, and says a great deal about the medium, and the people who use it. And when groups of people who have never met choose to maintain regular contact over many years it is even more remarkable. The Internet, as I mentioned earlier, houses hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these communities. Online learning communities.

Last year a colleague was doing some research into the patterns of friendship and social activity over time, and one of her questions was, “how many people between the ages of 40 and 50 did I have regular social contact with each week?” My question immediately back to her was, “does this include people online?” The fact that this question occurred to me actually surprised me. This was one of those moments when I realized that I was a Netizen, a citizen of the Internet. After some short discussion we agreed that these people should be included in my response, and that she would need to modify her survey instrument to reflect this change in human social behaviour.

Now before you go thinking how sad and pathetic it is that his guy thinks he has online friends and turns to the Net for a social life, I can tell you I have a great many real friends that I sit around tables and talk and sing and drink with! I must confess that I used to worry about this question myself. How come I know these people across the world and know nothing about the man across the street? And do you know why? I have far less in common with the main across the street than I do with most of the people here online today. The webheads share collective interests, and I doubt that if any of them lived across the street that they would steal the tennis balls my sons hit into their yards and never return them! Or perhaps I have too rosy a picture of my online colleagues?

Introduction | Language | Community | Diversity | Conclusion
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