Beyond Keypals: A Framework for Internet Mediated, Content Based Communication.

Here’s some ancient writing…like, real ancient, that I dug up.

As the internet moves from the novelty stages of its relatively new existence and into the realm of a more fully integrated tool for use in the foreign language classroom, educators are faced with questions of its proper uses. The most apparent uses of email for "keypals", a variation on the "penpal" theme of pre-internet days, have been tried and quickly worn thin; teachers are now searching for new and better ways to more fully exploit the potential of the new medium.
This article is a preliminary description of one aspect of a project carried out in the Spring and Fall Terms, 1996 at Nagoya University that takes the concept of the "keypal" and more fully embellishes the role to that of a "cultural resource informant": one who acts in the capacity of a "supplemental teacher" working with students on a one-to-one basis to more fully expand on in-class coursework through discussion and collaboration. This article will describe the pedagogical justifications of content-based language teaching; the steps involved in contacting the informants and assembling the information they contributed on a World Wide Web (WWW)-based page; matching students to the individual correspondents; and finally, describe ways in which this project can be adapted to classrooms that have not yet gained access to internet resources.

McKenzie (1996) informs us that "Unless classrooms are inquiry-based, project-based or problem-based, it may be a waste of money to connect with the Internet. Unless questions and research are central to life in the classroom, the Internet may serve little purpose worth the millions of dollars of infrastructure required to establish a ‘robust’ connection to the Net." With this in mind, the content-based nature of the course could be more fully realized. The topic, Introduction to Intercultural Communication, lent itself well to content-based language teaching, as it could be used with problem-based in-class subject matter. Further, the course could be developed along the lines of themes to be covered during the 13 – 15 week, 90-minute per class span that each term required. The idea of the correspondents to be used as cultural informants came simply from the need of finding the best way to present alternative views on the subject matter based on the experiences of different peoples from different cultural backgrounds of both the students and the teacher. The shortness of the in-class contact hours was also a prime motivator for seeking outside informants.

Contacting Correspondents
The author is a member of several "mailing lists." These are electronic versions of discussion groups wherein a person can submit correspondence to others as a means of discussion of a topic, clarification of previous correspondence or any other information gathering or disseminating task. It is a step beyond simple one-to-one email correspondence; that is, using the internet to exchange messages of a personal nature, much like regular mail, but at a greatly accelerated response time. "Mailing lists" enable a single author to exchange the same bit of information with hundreds of others simultaneously, and based upon a shared common interest in which the "Mailing List" addresses.
Because the author wished to compile a short list of informants to help further the pedagogical goals of this course, it was a natural step to write a brief letter of introduction and an appeal for help. The letters (appendix A) contained personal information of the author and a short appeal to help. The lists contacted included SIETAR, The International Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research’s two lists, one for all members (approximately 300 worldwide), and one specifically for members in Japan (approximately 50 members); SIT-Alumnet, a 250-strong list of Alumni from the School for International Training, in Brattleboro, Vermont, USA of which the author is a graduate and, more specifically, the SIT-MATNET, a sub-list of SIT-Alumnet containing approximately 70 language educators. All in all, the author could quickly contact close to 700 people with two letters of inquiry, streamlining the search for correspondents and contacting people with a more direct interest in the project.

Giving Background Information on the course
After the informants responded to the initial inquiry, the author sent a more detailed description of the course. This was done to insure that the lines of communication and feedback could be clearly established and maintained between the author and the informants. Background information (appendix B) on the course was also supplied by the author to the correspondents to more fully integrate their experiences into the course. The background information included personal information about the author, what the author envisioned as to the purpose of the course, and an explicit statement on the author’s philosophy of teaching in line with some of the macrostrategies advanced by Kumaravadivelu (1994).
In later stages of the course, the author kept an open narrative journal of the class, which was posted to the correspondents weekly, shortly after each class session and which a sample is included below (appendix C). This again was done to maintain the lines of communication between the author and the correspondents and to help the correspondents more fully address the issues and problems that any of the students may have encountered either within the classroom context or in the context of the internet-based task sheets that were part of the requirement of the course.

Assembling addresses and descriptions
Twenty-seven people in total from various backgrounds asked to join. The author, using a specialized word processing program, was able to compile each person’s request as it came in and built up a WWW page which was integrated into the overall site containing the other worksheets and resources to be used in the on-line version of the course.
Some informants volunteered to withdraw from the project for various, technically related reasons, but the author did not find the technical problems to be substantial for the informant’s withdrawl and advised against it.
The WWW page contained, in the end, active links to the email addresses of each of the informants, along with brief personal biographies and an invitation to the student to initiate the correspondence by simply clicking on the highlighted name of the person.

Assigning homework to the students
Students were told to access the correspondent’s page after first learning how to use the locally available software for accessing the internet via email and the WWW. Once students could access, the author sent email with assignments for looking over the entire WWW site and specifically at the page containing the information about the correspondents.
Over the course of the next two to three weeks, a number of small technical matters had to be overcome before every student was properly matched with an informant. Inevitably, more than one student chose the same informant in a couple of cases, which were dealt with on a case-by-case basis and to the satisfaction of both the author and the informant. The students were unaware of these negotiations.

Applications for teachers without internet access
A project such as this does not require full internet access for the student. Schools containing computer labs can as easily use word processing in the same way. It does, however, require that the teacher, at least, has some degree of access to the internet, and knowledge of the uses of email and WWW programs. The advantages of this type of correspondence are many, including fostering a more meaningful interaction between students and others around the world, giving the students more of the initiative in their inquiry-based project work of this sort and allowing the students the opportunity to see a point of view beyond that of the teacher in order for them to become more inquiry-based and problem-solving students.
Disadvantages include more of a time lag between correspondents and the students, a much heavier burden on the teacher, who will act as the physical go-between for the students and correspondents when s/he has to upload and download all of the email that transpires, and the corresponding lack of privacy between students and informants when the teacher acts as mediator of information.
Language teaching is moving in the direction of a more "learning-centered" environment as Edge (1996) has noted, where the teacher acts not as a disseminator of information, but as a resource pointer and problem-poser, much along the lines of the Freireian (1971) approach to teaching literacy.
Using the internet as a tool for this type of project is just one of many practical uses that the author has attempted to describe in this article.

Appendix A

The following is an excerpt from the text of a letter sent to the lists described above.

I’m about to start teaching my course, entitled "introduction to intercultural communication" to a class of about 24 students, most of whom are Japanese (maybe I’ll get one or two non-Japanese, too). As part of the class, I ask students to correspond with someone who has had experience either working in another culture, or involved in an intercultural/interracial relationship. Hmm. Do you know anyone like this? (^-^)/~

If you are interested in participating, and corresponding for about three months with students who are MAINLY studying English for communication, please send me a private email with a very short (25 words or less) mini-biography. I will post this biography on a webpage along with a link to your email address.

I look forward to hear from some of you. I hope the response is not too over/or under/whelming.

Appendix B
Following is an excerpt from the first letter sent to the cultural informants on 26 September, 1996.

The purpose of this email is to give you some background about what is happening in my little corner of cyberspace, what I anticipate will happen, and some things I’d like you to help me with. I’ll include a short bio on myself for those who don’t know me which will include my current philosophy of teaching, a list of WWW addresses for the (always under construction) site which I have prepared for the class, and a general appeal to give me tips/advice/feedback and all the other good stuff that comes from collaborative/cooperative projects such as this. I’ve spent most of my waking hours preparing this class, as it has become my ideal class for using the internet as a supplement to content-based language teaching. Good luck to us all!

_Who am I?_

I am a Chicago-born, suburban-Chicago raised, white non-practicing Jewish 34-year old male. My Japanese wife of 6 1/2 years is Atsuko. — I graduated from UCLA (1986) with a BA in Creative Writing in Poetry, and immediately went into the Peace Corps, where I started my career in teaching to high school students in Kenya. I taught English, Geography, History, Ethics and started two school libraries at the two schools I was at. After Kenya, I came to Japan without returning officially to the US. I met Atsuko, married her a year later, taught in conversation schools, and a vocational college. In 1993, I went to SIT, did my teaching internship in a Mexican University and immediately returned to Japan in June 1994. Since 1995, I’ve been teaching part-time at three Nagoya universities including NU, Nagoya University of Arts and Kinjo Gakuin University. That means that as of October, I’ll have for all practical purposes, lived out of the US for 10 years. That constitutes almost 1/3 of my life to date. (@c-)v

_My teaching Philosophy_

In a nutshell, I refer to Paolo Friere’s _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_ and J. Krishnamurti’s _Education and the Significance of Life_. I want my students to feel that they have learned how to learn. They have learned how to control a bit more, the situations they may find themselves in, and hence be able to be more proactive in their lives, rather than passive and reactive. As a language teacher, I want them to understand how the influence of learning English has changed their worldview and made them ever more unique and valuable to themselves, their family, friends, company, etc. In Japan, where uniqueness does not mean what it does for Americans, this is an especially interesting area for me to discuss with students. I’m also moving a bit in the direction of a Kenyan writer N’gugi wa Thion’go’s _Decolonizing the Mind_ in which English plays the role of the bad guy. The book warns a bit about linguistic imperialism, and how English is used in countries like Kenya to maintain the status quo and de-empower those who can’t speak it. Overall, I agree that we are becoming more of a global village, and that it is important to understand, and appreciate, the different perspectives there are in the world, and to enable my students to communicate their perspective as well as they can, through the English language, while making them understand that their language and culture also has the RIGHT to be respected and used in communication.

_What’s happening_

I wholly embrace the internet. I think it will have a profound impact on all our lives (it already has, actually). Instead of shying away from it, poopooing it, or being afraid of it, I want to use the internet mostly as a networking tool, to seek out others who view this tool as a great resource of human interworking. NOT to use the internet would be a disservice to our students, whose internet skills will give them a competitive/cooperative advantage in the near future. My favorite motto from my SIT days was: "You are your own best resource" and for me, the internet will link me to the rest of you, who are also the best resources. How’s that for empowerment? For more on this see what Vannevar Bush had to say back in 1946

Please please please. This is a great learning experience for me most of all. I’d appreciate any comments, suggestions, etc that you have for any part of any of this. Meanwhile, several people requested to see what exactly is it I’m doing. Below, I’ll publish the address of the Syllabus and Map pages of the site, which then gives details on all the pages in the site. If you want to contribute to the site, or borrow from the site, or make a link to the site, PLEASE DO! <—-This is the syllabus <—-This is the map of the site <—-This is where you will find descriptions of all the other people who have agreed to be contacts.

_Your job_
I will ask, and ASSIGN that students write a dialog journal to you about their experience and thoughts about the class. I will respect their and your privacy on whatever issues they raise with you. However, I would like you to triangulate that they are corresponding regularly with you. It will be up to each pair of correspondents to discuss what they want. If you feel like commenting on what students say, feel free. At the end of the course (haven’t thought about this that much yet) I may ask you to write a brief report about your correspondence with the student and to assess whether they have satisfied the correspondence requirement.

Appendix C
This is a sample narrative journal entry from the second week of the Fall, 1996 term course, written October 25th, 1996.

Hi everyone,

it’s now Friday, a full three days after class.

By now, many of you should have had initial contact with a student. Some of you might get two students, but I’d like to please ask you to write the student and say you are already corresponding with someone else. I haven’t closely checked my email correspondence with the students, but I’d estimate 10 of them have contacted 10 of you.

That said, here is a BRIEF (HAHA) recap of the last class.

21 students showed up, though I haven’t had a chance to put together my attendance sheet.

I started with a few quick comments about getting connected to the internet. Some students are having the usual technical problems, and I am not really there to help explain how to get on email, and how to use MOSAIC (yes, the computers at NU are a bit old. Black and white monitors to boot). I handed out another homework sheet guide to help them find my WWW site and deal with everything that is on there.

It was time to process BARNGA, which we played last week, so I asked the students to "make a BEAUTIFUL circle" which got a big chuckle out of them. I really like to hear the laughter in my classes. It shows that it is a receptive atmosphere and people are willing to let loose. I wish I could do the same, but get knotted up sometimes.

Next, I asked students to quickly introduce themselves, since we didn’t have the chance in the first class. Their name, major and something interesting about themselves. I have 1 Mainland Chinese graduate student, 1 4th year law student, 3 third year students and the rest are first and second year, mainly from the medical, physical science and agricultural schools. There are, unfortunately, only three women in the class, which is a bit of a disappointment, as I’d certainly prefer the balance.

I asked them to discuss shortly what happened last week with the person sitting next to them. There was very nice chatting for about 5 minutes as I let them go on by themselves. I wrote "Remember, Look, Think" on the blackboard (BB) as they were doing this, and generally tried to go over the questions I wanted to ask for the debriefing.

Next I asked them as a class to help me to remember the process we went through. I like Nagoya University Students, because they are much more responsive than the students at my other schools. It IS possible to have an open discussion, though for the first and second year students, maybe even this style is strange for them (sorry for the conjecture here). I elicited the steps and wrote them down, number by number, trying to summarize what they had said and to simplify the English for those having trouble keeping up (many are, and this is a definite challenge for me to overcome).

Step 11 was: Some of us thought the rules were different for different tables. Ace was high for one person and low for another person.
Step 12 was: The game stopped.

I said that I noticed last week that the games didn’t stop and that something happened. There was discussion about how gestures were being used, and that the majority seemed to quickly overpower the minority, even at times giving the minority the winning hand when that person thought they had a losing hand.

I then drew it out to real life situations, and three students responded with
-A Japanese family prepared the best food they could for a week for their American visitor who, in the end, said s/he didn’t like the food.
-A male student who said "I went to boys only jr. high school and high school and then when I got to Nagoya university … WOW!" definitely inferring that he was having trouble relating to or dealing with the female population and said with awe and astonishment for his strong feelings.
-A female student who said she couldn’t even figure out how to use buses on her trip to Canada, and found she couldn’t perform even the simplest functions.

I then explained how Barnga simulates these kinds of situations and that this was our main theme in the class, to get beyond Step 12 above, because real life doesn’t stop and wait for us.

Appendix D
Following is a World Wide Web version current as of November 11th, 1996 of the correspondents and their descriptions as submitted by them.

1. L.A. Adams ( ) is a 40-something US female who had a career in the arts (13 years) then did a hitch in the U.S. Peace Corps (Thailand). She then went back to school and got her Master’s from SIT. Currently, She is an International Student Advisor at a College in a suburb of New York.
2. Marshall Brewer ( is the Director of Enrollment Management at SIT. He holds a Master’s degree in Intercultural Administration from SIT. He has lived mostly in California, Washington, D.C., and Vermont in the U.S., Oxford, England, and visited Europe, Central America, and Japan. He is gay and married to a man for seven years. He enjoys cooking and gardening.
3. Marisa Brooks-de Dios ( lived/taught English in Japan for 8 years, (3 years in Komaki) and while there met her husband, who is a Filipino. They now live in Indiana, where she is the director of an intensive English program.
4. Alfred Carrozza ( is an American who now lives in the United States. His wife is Japanese. They lived together in northern Japan (Iwate-ken) from 1991 to 1993. He has been studying Japanese language and culture for nine years. He is very interested in learning about other cultures.
5. Erik Dahlin ( is 30 years old. He has been raised bilingually and biculturally, as his mother is from Germany. He has also lived in Japan for three years, and is planning on returning there.
6.Karen DeVoll ( is a 43 year old female graduate student in intercultural relations. She is 6 months into learning Japanese, is the Executive Director of the Portland/Sapporo Sister City Relationship, and has been to Japan four times. She will go back in the Spring to immerse herself in the language and do research for her thesis. She is married and has a cat named, Koi. She would prefer having a female correspondent who is willing to discuss women’s issues, especially in Japan.
7.Vansin Dokken ( was born in Cambodia in the late 1960s and has lived in the US since October 1979. In 1986 he received a scholarship to Norway as an exchange student. Between 1987-92 he attended the University of California at Davis majoring in Electrical Engineering. After graduating, he volunteered to help the UN with the general election in Cambodia. In 1993 he returned from Cambodia to study in a Master’s Program in Intercultural Management in Vermont. Thereafter, he has worked with a Japanese non-profit organization in Cambodia and with a non-profit organization in California (funded by the US Department of Defense).
8.Lila Dubin ( has lived in the Czech Republic and is currently teaching in Nagasaki. She is American.
9.Mary Vincent Franco ( (a Caucasian female) grew up in rural Northwestern Wisconsin — studies Spanish & Latin American Studies at the U of Minnesota — studied (Puebla) and later worked (Mexico City & Monterrey) in Mexico for a total of almost 2 years — did her master’s at SIT emphasizing intercultural training and int’l ed. — at SIT she met her husband (an urban Colombian) and they lived in Colombia for their first 4-5 months of marriage after which they moved back to Minnesota — She now works for Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, MN, in the Int’l Studies and Programming office.
10.Janet Gerba ( is an ESL teacher, American literature teacher, and writer. Born in Kansas, USA and has lived in California, New Jersey, and now living in Killington, Vermont. She has taught students from 5 years old to 75 and has lived and taught in Hong Kong, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, Nitra and Presov, Slovakia. She has also traveled through Japan, staying with friends and former students as well as Tanzania, Mexico and all of Europe and the US.
11.Ronnie Goodwin ( is an American who lives with his Japanese wife in Saudi Arabia and teaches English.
12.Doreen Harvey ( is a cross-cultural training and development consultant, living in San Diego, California. She was born in England, where she spent the first half of her life, and now considers California her home. Her interests are many – business, Latin America, culture, photography, Asian cooking, scuba diving, sailing, travel, the stock market, health, D.H. Lawrence.
13. Gordon Homann ( is a study abroad advisor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. As a student, he studied abroad in Germany for one year. After graduation from college, he lived in Iwate, Japan for two years, where he taught English on the JET program. His wife, Michiko, is from Japan. They have two dogs, named "Ebony" and "Mimi."
14. Nadine Bolliger Kato ( has lived in Japan for three years, one as a student, two as a teacher, and has married a Japanese man. Takashi, her husband, had never been out of Japan before he met her, and now they are living in the US together, so he might have some interesting perspectives to share, also. Nadine is now interning as in international student advisor at a university in Minnesota. Her undergraduate degree was in Japanese Studies, from Earlham College, class of ’92.
15.Suzanne Larsen ( is currently pursuing her Masters in Intercultural Relations. She has worked in the field of Intercultural Communications for 6 years with many different cultural groups.
16.Chris MacCormack ( spent 2 years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer and two years in El Salvador as an English teacher. He has had many Japanese students in Tampa, Florida, where he is now. He married and divorced a Salvadorean so he’s also a little wiser about intercultural marriages than he was 20 years ago.
17.Walter A. Mosch ( is a 45-year-old American who lives in Vermont, USA. He is married to a Chinese Singaporean and they have a 3-year-old boy. He lived in Asia for 6 years and taught at the International School in Singapore. Many of his students were Japanese. He is presently teaching at a small college and doing racism work in his community.
18. Herlyne Ramihantaniarivo ( is from Madagascar Island in the Indian Ocean, near Southern Africa. She is currently studying health care at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Her nickname is "Hanta".
19. Nerida Rand ( has also been teaching ICC classes to Japanese students. She is Australian by birth, and has studied in Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. She worked as a writer and cross-cultural trainer in Japan for four years. Currently She is working in community theatre in Australia, and teaching Japanese and Intercultural Communication part-time.
20.Catherine Rogers ( lives in Vermont and recently studied Intercultural Management at the School for International Training. She has travelled in southeast Asia and lived for almost a year in Penang, Malaysia. She worked for MACEE, a company that provides information to students in Malaysia who would like to go to the U.S. to study. She hopes someday to live and work in Japan.
21.Stephen M. Ryan ( is from the UK. He was an exchange student in the US. He has lived and worked in Japan since 1984, He has a Japanese wife.
22.Loran Diehl Saito ( works for an international exchange organization and recently married a man from Japan. She has a B.A. in French and an in a few weeks will complete an M.A. in Intercultural Management. She has studied and worked in France and Namibia, and has traveled in Brazil, Canada and Japan.
23.Kayleen Oka Sorohan ( is a graduate student living in Seattle. She was born in Canada and is a sansei. She grew up in a small French Canadian town where her family was the only Japanese family in town. She lived in Japan for two years where she taught English in Yamaguchi-ken.
24. Molly Strattan (, an American, lived in Kenya, East Africa, in 1986 – 1988. She was a high school teacher there. She is now a nurse/midwife in Portland, Oregon, USA.
25. Nestor G. Trillo ( has lived in Japan and is a Mexican/American. He is fluent in Spanish and English. He is currently doing research in Intercultural Communication.
26. Charlie Williams ( holds a B.A. in English literature from Sonoma State University and an M.A.T. from SIT. He has also participated in workshops for teachers intending to work in a corporate environment. He has successfully helped clients improve their English for Professional Communication from Asia, North and South America, and Europe and has experience training in a wide variety of settings, including refugees in Asia, production workers in the United States, and high level diplomats and business executives in Europe and the USA.
27.Nicholas Zweig ( is currently working at the University of Texas at El Paso as a career advisor. He has lived in Germany for several years, and visited several other European countries, and Mexico. He does not know any Japanese. He has worked with inlingua on their intercultural training programs, and given a few trainings on his own.

Edge, Julian. (1996). from a lecture on the Japan Association for Language Teaching’s 4-Corners Tour stop in Nagoya, Japan. October.
Freire, Paolo (1971). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum:New York.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). "The Postmethod Condition: (E)merging Strategies for Second/Foreign Language Teaching." TESOL Quarterly, 28(1), 27-48.
McKenzie, Jamieson. (1996). Internet as Bandwagon? "From Now On – The Educational Technology Journal" 6 (1). September.

Last Modified: November 27, 1996

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