There are two pieces of good news this week.
First, the soleonline.org website finally went live. More about that later.
Secondly, something wonderful happened with the SOLE course I teach at Nagoya Zokei University – I found a teacher at an overseas university who wants to partner his class with mine.
I’m over the moon! While this collaboration will be brief, it is symbolically the culmination of many years, decades even, of work. Let me tell you about it: some background, how I found the teacher, and what I expect to happen next.
I’m a Japan-based ESL teacher who believes in situated learning. From day one of my career, I have tried to avoid obviously simulated practice in the classroom, and pushed my students to use language in real ways, to discuss issues that were important to them, to achieve meaningful goals through communication.
I sometimes took students on farmstay and homestay trips to British Columbia, where they could practice in real social situations with native speakers. That was absolutely brilliant (although it was also expensive and exhausting).
Long a fan of Sugata Mitra’s work on Self Organized Learning Environments, and long a critic of rote institutional education practices such as those that surrounded me in Japan, I began to experiment with SOLEs in an ESL context. In early trials at Meijo University, my students responded very positively.
I had a vague idea that SOLEs might be applied to students in different locations connected by Skype; just imagine the breadth of knowledge that might be learned! Situated learning meets inquiry based learning meets collaborative learning meets international dialog. In English!
In 2018 I completed a Masters’ degree in online and distance education, and set out to run live, online, multinational SOLEs. Around that time, Hiroaki Kato, Jon Mizuno and I set up multiple sessions with Japan and other countries, and we laid the groundwork for what would become the SOLE Online organization.
Meanwhile, late in 2019, I received permission to set up a SOLE class at Nagoya Zokei University, in their English department. I started looking for overseas universities that might provide partner classes. I spent hours looking for likely institutions. I wrote dozens of emails, nagged colleagues in the international SOLE community to help me look, and held Zoom meetings with several college administrators in several countries. But with Coronavirus-related disruptions to education everywhere, not to mention time zone problems, it wasn’t possible to make definite arrangements.
I had engaged the networking power of social media however, and when you do that, good things can happen! A few days ago, a friend of a friend of a LinkedIn contact heard about my proposal, and got in touch. He’s teaching ‘Language, Culture and Society’ at a university in Hong Kong. We chatted on Zoom for an hour and came to a full agreement. We’re both really excited – this is going to work!
In the coming semester, our two classes will meet twice, using either Zoom or StartSOLE’s virtual classroom. In the first meeting, students will introduce themselves. The teacher in Hong Kong will present a Big Question that is relevant to his students’ study. That meeting will take about 30 minutes, after which students in both locations will work in self organized groups to prepare presentations tackling the BQ. The following week, they will come together again for 30 minutes or so. They will present their answers to each other, and then have some free time to chat (about the BQ, or not, it doesn’t matter – the content is less important than the process).
Some surmountable obstacles remain, and these will require work. A mutually convenient time needs to be negotiated with the students. Then, the other teacher and I must discuss details of the lesson plan, what communication platform to use, whether or not the session can/should be recorded, etc.
It has been a lot of work so far, and more work remains. But if this kind of joint venture can happen once, it can happen again and again. The benefits to the students will be huge. I am pumped! It’s that feeling one gets when a vision for positive change becomes something more concrete – an expectation. If you are reading this blog, you may be working in education yourself – I expect you know the feeling I’m referring to.
That brings me back to the first piece of good news – soleonline.org has finally gone live after about a year in development. The site will assist SOLE educators around the world do precisely what I discussed above – find partners for collaboration projects. Then it will guide them in the session set-up process. All it takes is for one educator to post a planned SOLE on our calendar, and another educator to apply to join the session. It will automate a lot of the work necessary to make this particular kind of education fantasy a reality.
To be honest, I’m a little frustrated with myself not starting and finishing this web application earlier; it might have saved me all that work finding a session partner! But looking forward, it will be easy to plan and run multinational SOLEs.
Hiroaki and I are relieved and hopeful now that the calendar is active. If you are an educator, perhaps you will give multinational SOLEs a try. We hope you find our web service easy, intuitive and useful.