Some day it just so happens that you suddenly promise to write a blog post to an audience of about 50+ people. Here it is.
There’s this Facebook group that I’m one of the admins of. It’s called Students Connected and here’s what the group description (which I wrote) says:
This group is designed to help learners of English aged 17-23 get in touch, practice and improve their English in the most natural way – by communicating with one another. It is a closed group which provides safety for all members because teachers invite their own students and we trust the teachers who belong to the group. All activity is on the wall and it’s a good idea to start with introducing yourself. Both teachers and students are welcome to initiate a discussion on whatever might seem interesting. Feel free to upload a photo, give a link to a video, ask a question, or tell a story. Thank you. Engage in discussions. Be friendly and polite.
That was the mission and key principles of the group when I, Michael Stout and Mari Yamauchi originally created it in September 2012. A brief pre-story will tell you that one of my students of that new term came up to me and asked if I knew any place where he could talk to people his age (university students) in English. I never had a positive image of numerous English Clubs we have in Moscow (with no real facts or evidence to support my opinion, so it is notoriously subjective), so I wouldn’t recommend that. Well, Michael and Mari were the first teachers to respond to my tweet that very same day and then in a couple of days the group was set to go, with quite a few Japanese and very few Russian university students on board. The word was spread and more teachers with their students were joining. And have been joining ever since. Factual information at the moment of writing this post states that there are currently 564 members from about 25 countries or so.
Now to the point of this blog post. I’ve long been interested in how social networks can be used in and out of class, for learning English (and really much more than just the language), and I believe there’s a variety of ways. It’s very typical of Russian schoolchildren and university students to create groups in our Russian equivalent of Facebook (VK) for their studies. I think that’s great use of a SN, and I’ve had a group/learning space for my course for more than 2 years now. With time I’ve figured out what I need it for, what I expect my students to do there, what the easiest way to manage it is for me.
Students Connected is different, though. Different and difficult. That’s what this post is about, and now it finally begins.
My presentation at E-merging Forum 4 last Friday had a terrible title (“International student collaboration on Facebook: what it is and what it isn’t”) which I regretted immediately after I’d sent my submission form. Not only is it long, but also presumptuous and deluding. I have little idea what it is or isn’t. But I do have worries, concerns and struggles about how the group has been developing, why it has been developing in this particular way, what my role in this development is, how responsible I am for the messiness that occasionally happens there, and how I can help it develop in the way that I see the group functioning in the future. That’s what I spoke about, that’s what I’ll now write below.
Articulating some of my and my fellow group administrators’ worries&struggles, and very superficial analysis of their why’s.
Little to no activity from students. This is what has been noted by all admins with no exception. The majority of students couldn’t get past the “introduce yourself” phase. There are few/no comments to posts, few/no comments to comments, and even few/no likes. This tendency of no response has affected teachers as well in that they gradually become less enthusiastic and consistent in posting themselves.
WHY? So many reasons. Fear to make a mistake. Shyness. Low self-confidence. Lack of interest. Lack of motivation. No personal connections. No need to say more. No time. Being used to being “led” and instructed by a teacher. And I’m sure there must be others, too.
FB group wall activity flow. Posts that are up the wall are those most commented or liked. This is a feature of FB groups, there are no separate sections for discussions. It becomes messy and difficult to find something important from previous shares. Also there’s only one possible pinned post.
WHY? It’s a Facebook thing. It can’t be helped I think, or if it can please let me know how.
Keeping track of members. Teachers keep arriving at our space (and initially they were supposed to add their own students). But then, as I made a decision to make other teachers group admins too (to make it transparent for myself who is who), I lost understanding and now have little clue or following of the members inflow. Also as teachers stop teaching their groups they lose contact with students, and these are left “hanging” in our space.
WHY? This looks to be my oversight, or poor management strategy. Having multiple admins, aside from the advantages it has, also creates unnecessary misunderstanding that must be handled.
Teachers being overly encouraging. I believe it’s in the nature of being a teacher. We are too active from the best of our intentions and end up devouring the space we’ve created for students, both by posting and commenting. Sometimes (or very often, or too often) wall shares in the group can be seen with discussion threads of teachers only (I, for sure, have participated not once!).
WHY? Trying to be “present”. Being initiative and genuinely interested in communicating, thinking of it as a possible example for students to follow. The line is truly fine.
Questionable shares. I must warn and apologise in advance – this is my very subjective view. And subjectivity in perceiving what’s right and good for the group, and what’s not, is also an issue. My point, that I’m a bit uncomfortable to write about but will, is that I don’t want “impersonal” shares in this particular space we’re creating (like posters, wisdoms, links). I think there are enough places for that online, other groups and places. Every wall post, from my perspective, should be addressing the students in our group and should carry a message. Like in real communication, when one person turns to another to give information and ask for opinion, share news or some story.
WHY? People are different. And it’s true that rules regarding shares are very vague, or even non-existent, so this is a logical consequence of opting for creating this kind of “free space”.
Thinking of ways to overcome the worries&struggles.
First of all, I now understand that it’s most important to organize efficient communication between teachers in the group. Set the scene and ground rules. We should all have a clear understanding of how many teachers are there, who of them need to be admins, once we opt to go for multiple admins. We should talk things over and think them through together, maybe agree on taking over charge, sharing some responsibilities for the group activities. In order to do this it seems logical to me now to choose a suitable communication channel (mail, Google doc, group messages). Finding a way to talk to students also sounds a good idea, to analyze and see a bigger picture of what’s happening in the group, get their feedback, learn what’s possibly missing. Guidelines for both students AND teachers should be clear, transparent and always available in the group. My reminder to myself would be to also remember it’s not a self-governing space; any Facebook group is a community that needs management, and so I should know something about it. I should be ready to make uneasy decisions (like approaching people re their comments or shares, etc). Another thing I should be ready for is that it’s going to take time and effort, so once I step in I should keep going and doing it well (which I’m afraid I haven’t been).
While I find the above-mentioned crucial and really cornerstones, there are more of course:
Talking to our students in real life, revisiting the idea and gently nudging them to connect by giving reasons why it could be good for them (e.g. authentic use of language). Maybe in order to motivate them it’s worth using classtime to introduce the group or do some activity together, like we once did with my students recording a video with questions to the Japanese members.
Routine is as we know very helpful. Presented in a nice, enjoyable format it can really stimulate students to check the group once in a while. In Students Connected a teacher from Indonesia, one of the “leaders” of the group, Ika Chieka Wibowo has been doing an amazing job with her Saturday Splash activity: every Saturday she suggests a topic for discussion with 3-4 simple questions for us to express our opinion about.
There’s a typical feature of any FB group that it’s good to remember about – it’s the wave-like nature of their online activity. You must “feed” the group, but even then the silence period will happen. There’s no such thing as ever-lasting buzz here, I think.
Finally, I want to make one more point. I like to view Students Connected group as a space for students to come to. It’s not a project, not a club. Students will come and *hopefully* go (please don’t forget to remind your students leave the group when they don’t need it anymore, and please do the same). The space should stay and be welcoming, not off-putting, to those who come for the first time eager to contribute, take part and learn from and about other cultures. To me, connected is something to always keep in mind and aim for.
A huge thanks to all the teachers and students involved in the group activities and making that space grow and be interesting. I hope I haven’t said anything too wrong or offensive. Let’s talk about how we can turn our group into a glorious space to be part of=)
P.S. There’s a younger sister group for high school students organized just very recently by Kevin Stein and already hosting 70 members. Good luck to them and us all.