Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

Googling Perseverance: How an Academic Online Community Thrived in the Wake of Japan’s Devastating Disasters
Chris Hale

In this paper, I would like to share how the incorporation of an online component of a graduate TESOL course I teach at Teachers College Columbia, Tokyo enabled the students and instructor to not only remain in contact during the disruption caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but also how it allowed for the creation of a deeper connection and camaraderie among the participants that has continued long after the course finished.

Like many instructors in graduate programs, I have long employed Web 2.0 tools to enhance the learning in my courses and to encourage prolonged contact and reflection of students between class meetings. At TC Tokyo, the program is geared towards working professionals already teaching in Japan, therefore courses are generally held on weekends for intensive periods of four to six hours per class spread out over a three month term. Classes tend to have long periods between face-to-face meetings, often up to two or three weeks. In an effort to keep my students engaged in the course content during these long stretches between classes, I created a Google Group and common Gmail email address which allows me to pose weekly questions to the whole class, which students reply to by the end of the week. Because Gmail organizes replies to the same e-mail as a single thread, even a large number of responses to the original e-mail remain together. Having a common e-mail address is a much more convenient way to keep in contact with a class than having to go through several steps to log into a group bulletin board, such as those in Blackboard, and attempt to contact students enmass—from the same e-mail platform we use daily, we can conveniently contact each other. This convenience cannot be overstated when a disaster like the one in Japan strikes, as many of us were too concerned with daily necessities to take the time and effort to log into a third party bulletin board.

In addition to the common e-mail address the class shares, I also created a course Web site and a template student portfolio using Google Pages. Each student copied and customized the template, then copied and pasted the link to their portfolio in an area on the class Web site so their classmates could have convenient access to their portfolio. In this template I created areas for students to upload any materials they used in their microteachings, useful links they wanted to share with others and a reflection area which required a weekly post describing any issues, problems or discoveries that occurred while teaching that week. One key benefit of using the Google Sites platform is that students can keep their portfolios private to anyone outside the class by allowing access only to those who share the class Gmail address.

When the earthquake hit and pandemonium ensued surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the class was in its 4th week and had had only two face-to-face meetings; in addition, students were just starting to gain confidence with the Web tools. On March 11, I was in Thailand for a TESOL conference thinking about how convenient it was for me to be able to engage my students in course content while we were thousands of miles apart from each other.  After the earthquake, however, course content was the last thing on anybody’s mind, and students began using the Group email address and their portfolios to check on everyone’s safety and remain in contact. Some Japanese students began posting safety information in English for those who could not understand the information in Japanese, others provided links to Web sites measuring radiation levels in the Tokyo area, and most shared thoughtful, touching accounts of how the disaster had changed their lives forever.

In the days following the earthquake, many students in the course, particularly the non-Japanese, began to flee the country along with a large number of foreign residents fearing a full melt-down in Fukushima. Within one week of the disaster, half the students in the class, and me, their teacher, were not even in the country any longer, yet TC had decided not to cancel any courses for the term. The building holding the TC classrooms was closed until the director could ensure the safety of the building, which meant that students in other classes that had only a face-to-face component were left in limbo until a decision could be made to open the building again. Class meetings were cancelled and would need to be rescheduled, instructors had difficulty contacting students and providing information, essentially, TC Tokyo ground to a halt for several weeks. My class, however, was a buzz of activity and commentary and, ultimately, community. After a week of the disaster we were able to refocus on the content of the course, and continue with the class, only in an entirely on-line format. Students were spread all over the world, yet they were committed not only to the course, but to each other. Camaraderie developed in our online community, a desire to finish what we all started together: a resolve to stick together.

Eventually the TC building was reopened, and classes resumed (though there was a tremendous amount of complicated rescheduling of missed classes and a palpable loss of momentum among students and instructors in other courses). My class had not physically met for nearly two months, yet when we finally did, it was as if we had been together the whole time. We laughed, some cried, and then we got to back to work. Our missed classes did not need to be rescheduled (a relief to our director as this left him some flexibility in rescheduling the other courses) simply because we were able to adapt our on-line environment to cover the content we would have discussed in face-to-face meetings.

Though the course recently finished, students are as active as ever on their portfolios, making comments to each other, offering words of congratulation. There is a palpable feeling of sadness among us all that “it’s actually over.” We have all been through so much together, that we are genuinely sad to part. The course Web site, however, along with the common e-mail address and student portfolios, will remain, and students can stay in contact long after the course has finished—or even after graduating from TC and all going their separate ways. What the Web-tools have allowed us to do in this course is produce an enduring record of a moment in time that we can all go back to in order to remind ourselves of our determination and fortitude, but most of all, the power of community.


Course Web site:
(Note: The Google Groups feed and student portfolios are only visible to members of the course).

Sample Student Portfolios:
(Note: These students have graciously agreed to share their portfolios with the NYS TESOL community and the world).

About the Author

Chris Hale was born and raised in Los Angeles, and has lived in Japan for over ten years. Currently, he teaches academic writing and language-learning pedagogy at International Christian University and Teachers College, Columbia University, Tokyo.