In Blogging, the Benefits of Exposure Are Worth the Risk

Online encounters that may appear risky or dangerous can generate interest and be good for learning, says Aaron P. Campbell. See Dafne González's Portal article, "Blended Learning Offers the Best of Both Worlds," Essential Teacher, December 2005 (pp. 42-45).

I couldn't decide which was more shocking: the photo of two half-naked young men in leather straps, one holding a sword drawn across the other's neck in a classic sadomasochistic pose, or the enthusiastic response it was receiving from the young, seemingly innocent Japanese university student on whose Weblog this link was posted.

"Are you OK with this?" I asked.

"Oh yes, I like it," she said with a smile.

Several classmates began crowding around her computer screen, looking over her shoulder and giggling with interest in what Yoko's newfound cyber-friend had so generously shared. Requests for new words to describe the image came quickly; one student furiously scribbled them down in her notebook, breaking the lead on her sharp pencil twice.

This fresh buzz around Yoko's computer attracted a few more students from the far side of the room, eager to check out what was happening. I had the scribbler explain everything to the new arrivals, using her makeshift vocabulary list.

I then asked one of the young men how he would feel if this link turned up on his site. He paused, and then tilted his head sidewise with a slow and barely audible sucking-air-through-the-teeth sound, a Japanese way of indicating uncertainty, hesitation, or discomfort.

I turned the issue of how to handle unwanted blog visitors over to the class in small groups of four, and later wrote the results of their five-minute brainstorm on the whiteboard. We jointly arrived at a greater awareness of what to do in these situations. Interestingly, we had plenty of other visitors to our blogs that semester, none of them unwanted.

From Rote Conversation to Fresh, Peer-Generated Content

In reflecting on that incident, I remembered the years of apathetic staring at EFL textbooks and the often-rote pair conversations arising from the exercises in them. It pained me to watch the twenty Japanese university students in my class--all intercultural communications majors--sitting at their desks and struggling to speak to one another in broken English, especially when most had said at the beginning of the semester that one of their main reasons for wanting to learn the language was so they could communicate with foreign people.

In contrast, blogging generated lively conversations, allowing the students to actually use English, while pushing them toward greater learner autonomy. It gave the students interactive windows--portals, I might say--to an internationally distributed conversational space.

In their blogs, students shared their voices with the world and, in return, received comments from peers in faraway lands. Instead of relying on the textbook for content, the students used English in personally meaningful ways and interacted with foreigners on the subjects that most interested them. In one of my classes, Takato spoke about jazz, Yukie chatted about food, and Mariko talked about her weekly experiences. Mayu took pleasure in reading other people's blogs and asking them questions about the cultures in which they lived.

This fresh, peer-generated content exuded a poignancy and relevance that textbooks rarely achieve. And for the students, blogs represented a satisfying leap from practicing English into the realm of experiences. As one student wrote,

When I wrote on my Livejournal [blog], I could find many interests of mine. I think my English skill was getting better due to writing and reading on the Livejournal [blog]. I could communicate with foreigners on the Internet for the first time. It was my good experience!

Don't Be Afraid of the Openness of Blogs

The incident with Yoko's visitor shows that any fears about students being "out on the 'net" may be overblown. The S&M visitor was the most extreme case of anything approaching unwanted that the students experienced that semester. Not only did we welcome him, but he ended up being a valuable contributor to Yoko's learning. For her and for most students and teachers, the openness of blogging is a good thing, not something to be afraid of.

And when the school year is over, students belong to a network of people with whom they can continue interacting at their leisure. Once they realize that they are in control and that the blog is theirs, not the school's, they can start using it as they wish. Their language learning adventure continues, edging them gently toward greater self-direction.

So stop fearing online encounters, and give your students the freedom to explore the world through blogging. Allow them to use the language instead of merely studying it, and help them achieve the autonomy that will be beneficial to them and the society at large.

Aaron P. Campbell teaches EFL at Kyoto Sangyo University, in Japan; is a cofounder of Dekita.org (http://dekita.org/); and runs a Weblog (http://e-poche.net/).