The history of PikiFriends: Part 1

2004 in Tokyo

I’d been teaching at a private Japanese jr/sr high school for 4 years (still there today), and my students were the same every year: amazing kids, but awful at English. In most cases English just didn’t exist for them outside of class. English was hard, didn’t affect their social lives, there were way too many torturous grammar classes and ability tests… if you don’t know this story already, it’s easy to imagine.

I can relate to them; can you? After 4 years of Spanish lessons as a kid, I can only remember “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?”  Excuses aside, basically I blew it off. I didn’t have the right frame of mind to see how worthwhile it could have been.

That being said, my high school certainly didn’t have the programs my students have now: mandatory study abroad in America, many hours of English classes each week, 8 ‘native’ English-speaking teachers teaching all students, a dedicated “English Room” staffed by the ‘natives’ every day after school, parental support, societal support, etc..

Meanwhile SNS sites were taking over.

At that time, MySpace was the #1 SNS in the world.  In Japan, Mixi was on top. Even Friendster had a big presence in parts of Asia. Facebook was still up and coming (like a rocket ship). I was using MySpace for my band, Facebook for connecting with friends, and I also really liked Virb which has changed a lot since then.

Using an SNS to communicate was obviously going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and it was making big headlines.

The Holy Grail for teachers

Have you ever seen the moment intrinsic motivation takes hold of a person? For teachers, witnessing that happen in our students is our holy grail.

By 2004, I’d taken my students to our school’s Boston campus many times and witnessed the amazing transformation that happens without fail when our Japanese students get to hang out with their American peers. They shine. They try to use English like never before. Kids I swore were borderline mutes leapt out of their cocoons and grew social butterfly wings.

And most of them come to some version of this conclusion within themselves:

“I want to be better at English.”

It has nothing to do with grammar, ability tests, or vocabulary lists. They have firsthand knowledge, they’ve been to the mountaintop. It’s personal, it’s real, and as their teacher it’s so much fun to witness.

My quest for the Piki-Grail begins.

Back in Tokyo, I realized that the future of ESL (English as a Second Language) education was going to include incorporating SNS technology somehow into the curriculum. I imagined that the right combination of features could come close to creating the magic of studying abroad. It’s simple: connect students to peers using English. The impact it could have on motivation alone, well let’s just say that we teachers could see the Grail appear more often in our classes.

And here in Japan, everyone knows that English education needs a swift kick in the behind. Web 2.0 could be revolutionary, I thought.

So I started looking for a powerful tool, a new weapon in my arsenal to finally destroy all of those “I hate English” students in my school.  I Googled, browsed ESL forums, asked around. Facebook and similar tools didn’t cut it – too many places to click, not safe at all, no way to assess student work and not geared for the younger crowd (remember, this is 2004 we’re talking about).

Long story short: the right tool didn’t exist. I saw a need and I set out on my adventure.

To be continued…  PART TWO

5 thoughts on “The history of PikiFriends: Part 1

  1. Hi Jeffrey,

    First, thanks for the notification re the blog and your ongoing development work. This weekend was the JALTCALL conference and, as usual in Japan, reading and writing were major themes. Collaborative projects and social media projects also had many presentations. While many of these are by university folks, you might consider reviewing the program for the event, contacting those who seem to be in an area sympathetic to PikiFriend’s goals, and approaching them on a collegial level to see where shared interests might lead to opportunities.

    One other interesting idea arose in the plenary by Dr. Mark Warschauer. He is researching the efficacy of an on-line text format re-compositor, called LiveLink. For making text easier to grasp, this concept is very common sense, but the research is also quite interesting.

    Are you giving thought to presenting at professional events on a research theme arising from PikiFriends? Certainly that is one way to help ensure that the history recounted here is the prologue to a bright future.

    Best regards,

    Bill Gatton

    • Bill,

      It’s great to hear from you, and thank you for taking the time to come here. I hope you’re doing well.

      Your information about JALTCALL will be very helpful, I’ll try to connect with some of the presenters. I’ve been away from forums for a while, mostly because my life changed so much with the birth of my daughter. (Not that I was ever a regular at those events.)

      I agree that doing meaningful research based on PikiFriends and presenting results is the way to go. Since research has never been my strong point, I’ve always hoped that someone would take that torch…but I really need to get past that and put a good project together. (By the way if any researchers are reading this, let’s talk!!)

      LiveInk looks interesting. As you say, it’s a common sense concept, but I’m sure it took a lot to create the programming, and this kind of project could have many impacts in many areas. Off the top of my head, for something like PikiFriends it would be very cool to give students a one-click option to read any text as inputted or in the LiveInk format, the ability to simply go back and forth. I would guess that many ESL students would prefer the LiveInk way. I also wonder how it would affect their own writing.

      Please subscribe to this blog if you don’t mind. Thanks again, and all the best.


  2. Pingback: The History of PikiFriends – Part 3 | The official blog of PikiFriends

  3. Pingback: PikiFriends: Since 2008 | The official blog of PikiFriends

  4. Pingback: Is this site safe for my students? Here’s the first place to look. | The official blog of PikiFriends

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