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Using Ning in a University EFL Classroom
by Doris Molero de Martins


Abstract:
How to engage and motivate EFL/ESL learners in projects and in collaborating worldwide by means of a social network called "ning".

How can we attract our students to love what they are learning? This is a really interesting question and a difficult task to accomplish. Now, teaching at university level is even harder. The University EFL classroom is a place where students come to class to pass the subject because they have to and not because they want to. That is the case for most of my students. Allow me to describe my students... all of them come from different schools: engineering, accounting, law, social communication, education, economy, business management, and graphic design. Of course all of them want to be lawyers, engineers, etc. It is a pity that many of them can't find any logic on why they should be learning a second language and what they find even harder to swallow is that they are going to take their classes in English and with computers.

It is amusing to look at their faces at the beginning of the trimester. I always tell them..students we are going to learn English and we are going to work with computers. They open their eyes and look at me like I am from another planet. Well, that is a short description of the scenario of what I live through every time I suggest my students try mixing computers and learning a second language. How do I convince them to do it? It takes a lot of planning, a lot of thinking, a lot of watching closely what works and what does not. I have to show them that it works. One thing I found out about this process is that we have to work with models. I always give my students a model that they can follow so they have an idea of what is expected of them. Next, you have to give them room to experiment, make mistakes, try again and not worry about getting it right the first time. There is always time for editing later on.

How do we do it? All my classes are content based and project based. Depending on the content I teach, I select different web 2.0 tools to make a project. In class, we work with contents and models. At the end of the class, they have a product to create. Since the Internet and all the web 2.0 tools available are used for fun at home with friends and in Spanish, they now find out that they can use those same tools to learn a second language. In addition, we work with blogs. Blogs are the journals they use to write about the classes.

Doris3m EFL Center is our class blog where students find things that interest them, like university life, local news or special work done by different classes. There are blogs for specific classes at the EFL Center Speaking Group, where level 6 students practice speaking in class and use the blog contents while they talk.Their final project includes creating and recording a podcast. Next is the Doris3m EFL Center English for Work, where level 7 students read, listen to or watch videos and learn about their fields of expertise, engineering for example.Their final project this trimester was to make a how to video. And finally, there is the Doris3m EFL Center Writing Group where level 8 students, our last level, learn some basic writing techniques. In 2007, we participated in the WritingMatrix Project, a blogging adventure involving students and teachers from Argentina, Slovenia, Brazil, and United Arab Emirates.

By using blogs students can practice writing, reading, listening, and speaking. What we were missing with the use of blogs was the interaction. Even though comments are encouraged, students find it hard to keep track of other bloggers or they simply don't know how to do that and we don't have time to teach everything there is to know about blogging. I think we will get there with practice. That's when Ning came into this story. My dear friend Nellie Deutsch invited us to register on International Collaboration. According to Wikipedia, Ning is an online platform for users to create their own social websites and social networks. Ning means "peace" in Chinese. In my opinion, Peace is what we all are looking for. Peace comes from people talking to each other and communicating what they think, feel or live by. The International Collaboration is the place where we all go to talk to each other and find peace.

What do we do while we visit International Collaboration? Well, lots of things... discover, think, share, communicate in a second language. Members are teachers and students from high school and university level. Most of the interaction has been among students from the same school and teachers from around the world but students from different schools haven't worked together very much, yet. We just started last January and we are like babies playing in a park. I am sure more ideas and adventures are waiting for us. Teachers brought their students and started groups, school groups. Our school can be found at URBE. So far, we are only two schools but everybody is invited to join us. We found out that by making groups each teacher, Nellie and I, could follow and moderate our students' participation better. We have to thank many teachers who have come to join us to share ideas with our students. All the teachers help each other, learn together, grow together and do what teachers do best.

Nevertheless, we have worked a lot. We have used and played with different web 2.0 tools like: authorstream, snapevine, voicethread, flickr, etc. Of course, we've done all the fun tasks people do in social networks: added friends, uploaded photos and favorite music, made videos and posted them on the Ning. We have also had fun with photos that talk. The most productive of these activities has been the forum. One of my students surprised me by posting a great question to the forum by herself and she not only posted a great forum question but also moderated it.

It has been a great experience and now that we are at the end of our trimester, I am sitting back and checking on what we have accomplished together. Students and dear teachers from around the world have been sharing ideas and meaningful things. The most important thing is that most of them did it because they wanted to and not because they had to. People were invited to join and they came to give it a try. The results: they found out that they can communicate, experiment, try, make mistakes, and try again. That is how we learn in life. That is what a Ning community like International Collaboration provides teachers and students: A place where we can all be friends and look forward to a a future with millions of friends from all over the world.

To finish, I would like to invite other teachers and students to join us. There are great learning adventures waiting for us. Special thanks to Nellie, who was the one who started it all. Learning in the virtual world is up to you... It is like a snowball effect... you throw the ball and a lot of things will follow because we are made of love and we love people.

A warm hug from Venezuela and keep on shining!

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