In my last post I talked about using a social media site for my upper level conversation class as a way to connect to native speakers. The main purpose of this experiment was to have access to native speakers for text/video-chat on some of the topics discussed in class. This exercise would give my students the opportunity to hear unfiltered opinions from native speakers beyond the class discussions and ask questions. Topics for the class are drawn from current news articles and are chosen so that they not only generate conversation but also inform on modern Italian society. So, hearing the perspective of Italians directly seems like an excellent exercise for the students both culturally as well as linguistically. For this purpose, I decided to try out WeSpeke, a social media site that connects speakers from all over the world to practice world languages. I chose WeSpeke because of its user-friendly interface and good online reviews.
After setting up the account in class and restricting the community to Italian-English speakers, the students spent time on their own on the site in multiple occasions. Unfortunately, even with the Italian-English setting, many of the students reported being bombarded by people seeking to learn English and not Italian. These same students also experienced some type of predatory behavior at first. However, once the students figured out how to avoid irrelevant partners, most of them reported establishing at least a couple of connections with which they could engage in a fruitful conversation. Unfortunately the conversations were just limited to text-messaging and didn’t go much beyond first introductions and superficial exchanges. Some of the students responded positively to this exercises, and thought it was an interesting twist for the class.
From my point of view, however, and from what I have read from the students’ reports so far, I have become skeptical about the pedagogical value of this site, or similar ones, in a structured course. Although the site seems to promote “long lasting friendships”, the reality is that most people on sites like this are not reliable, not consistently active, or willing to commit or engage in a meaningful conversation. Even my students reported some sense of discomfort with these interactions and they themselves were not ready for video-chats or discuss more complex topics. Although I asked my students to write reports about their activities as a way of documenting their interactions, I have no way of properly monitoring the exchanges and evaluate their relevance to the topic. Moreover, and most importantly, very few of the people that post their profiles on this site are college students, which made my students even more uncomfortable to move beyond a text chat.
In conclusion, although these types of sites might have some appeal for teachers and students because they seem to solve the native speaker problem, I would not recommend investing too much time and energy on them. A structured course needs a structured platform whereby both sides are fully engaged and invested, and equally accountable.