PikiFriends in the classroom: How it’s combined with a Japan-USA study abroad program

(Click an image to enlarge each profile page. The left is an American teacher, the middle is an American student, and the right is a Japanese student.)

Situation:

Every year about 250 Japanese junior high school students go to Boston in America for 2 weeks. Among their many activities, they visit American schools and meet American students.

PikiFriends connection:

All participating students and teachers from 3 junior high schools use PikiFriends to connect before and after the school visit.

Japanese students use PikiFriends to 1) improve their English skills, 2) learn about internet safety, 3) practice good digital citizenship skills, and 4) become keypals with the American students they’ll meet in Boston.

American students use PikiFriends 1) to learn about Japanese culture, 2) practice digital citizenship, and 3) develop meaningful relationships with the students they will meet.

Participating schools:

  1. Rising Tide Charter School, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA
  2. Qualters Middle School, Mansfield, Massachusetts, USA
  3. Showa Women’s University Junior High School, Tokyo, JAPAN

Total student and teacher numbers who use PikiFriends for this program:

Over 700

Details:

Setting up PikiFriends at the schools

Each school has their own way of introducing PikiFriends to their students and their guardians.

Click to download the permission form and explanation of rules for Qualters Middle School from 2010: PikiFriends Rules for Qualters

Click to download the permission form and explanation which Rising Tide School used in 2010: PikiFriends permission for Rising Tide

The teachers from those 2 schools have their own ways to introduce PikiFriends. One school used the PikiFriends curriculum.

For the Japanese school, PikiFriends is part of a 1 year program specifically designed to prepare the students for their trip to Boston. PikiFriends is introduced at the beginning of the program using the PikiFriends curriculum (a letter about PikiFriends is sent home to parents). Students first spend time learning about online safety before logging in, and then given time to build their profiles before making any connections with others. All of this is done with the support of every classroom teacher in the grade.

Before the school visit

Several months before the trip, student groupings from all schools are decided, and the real fun begins.  Students focus and “meet” online the same students they’ll be grouped with in Boston, sharing self-introductions, blogs, images and comments. When they actually meet in Boston, they all wear special nametags which have their PikiFriends name and user icon for easy recognition. Having already met online definitely makes it very exciting and meaningful.

After the school visit

Many students continued to use PikiFriends on their own after the trip. In some cases, PikiFriends continued to be part of school curriculum, but a core group of students used PikiFriends very frequently for their enjoyment.

Parent/guardian involvement

Each school sent home permission slips and explanations in the beginning (see links above). There are no parent accounts on PikiFriends, but in all 3 schools parents were encouraged to be a part of their child’s experience. I understand there were a few disgruntled American parents who seemed to be against any form of internet usage with their children, but the school was kindly insistent on using PikiFriends and eventually won them over. No Japanese parents have objected so far, and I believe that keeping parents in the information loop is the reason.

 

Reflection:

Pros

The student activity on PikiFriends related to this study abroad program has been incredible: with over 700 students writing blog posts, uploading images, writing comments, and making friends, everywhere you looked on PikiFriends there were students who were doing their best to connect with each other, learning about their peers abroad and how to communicate in English. There were no problems with students being inappropriate to my knowledge, although a few American student accounts were apparently put on hold by their teachers. I’m not sure exactly why but I believe it was a case of middle school students messing around a bit. On the whole though, the students in all 3 schools were full of kindness, curiosity, humor and friendliness.

I believe the American students learned a lot about Japan and for those who followed the PikiFriends curriculum, they also learned about digital citizenship.

The Japanese students certainly benefited from using English authentically. Using PikiFriends prior to departure to America not only helped with their basic English skills, but also increased their motivation for study. You can tell them, “You’re going to Boston soon, so get ready!” as many times as you like, but using PikiFriends really helped to bring it home for them.

The Japanese students who really enjoy using English certainly seemed to thrive on PikiFriends and continued to log in often well after the trip. Those students weren’t bothered by their lack of ability and showed a keen desire to share their views about many topics, which of course improved their English level and confidence immensely. I believe these types of students gain the most from using a program like PikiFriends. It is interesting that these successes on Piki are not only with outgoing personality types, but also with students who are usually quiet or shy in face-to-face interactions.

An interesting teaching point which I consider a big benefit is that the American students’ English was full of all kinds of errors. Many cases were spelling and grammar errors, and others were the new ‘shorthand’ version of writing so prevalent now with text messaging. The American students were told by their teachers to be very careful, as their writing had to be understood by low-level Japanese students. I believe PikiFriends forced the American students to thoughtfully consider their intended readers, a very worthwhile writing skill. I also saw many Japanese students shocked to realize that even native English speakers make basic grammatical errors – they are taught that English is inflexible, that there is only one right way, but as we know even brilliant people make writing mistakes. Often in casual correspondence we ignore such errors, as the content is what matters most.

Cons

The Japanese students were around 14 years old, and their English level was quite low. For many of them, using PikiFriends was their first experience of using English as an authentic communication tool. While this is very positive, many students felt overwhelmed by the Americans’ English and didn’t use PikiFriends more than the required homework assignments. This feeling of overwhelm is necessary, however, when first being exposed to a foreign language in an immersive situation, as the students all found out during their Boston trip. So this is a minus so far as we as teachers give up on the students and don’t guide them, and a plus if we support them to keep trying and give them pointers along the way.

The open (read: safe) nature of the PikiFriends interface means that participating students can access members from any other school using PikiFriends. Some American teachers wanted to have an exclusive online relationship with Showa, but this feature is unavailable on PikiFriends.

As one would expect, it takes lots of organization to use an online tool for such large student groups; students lose passwords, school computer rooms fill up, it’s hard to monitor completely, etc. However I never heard teachers complaining about this, and I think this is because they felt the benefits outweighed these kinds of issues.

PikiFriends is still in beta form, which means there are occasional programming bugs. While these bugs didn’t take away from our main objectives of using PikiFriends, they were sometimes frustrating to deal with.

Conclusion

Overall PikiFriends has proven to be an excellent program for our particular study abroad program. It’s easy to set up and use with any number of students, and it’s extremely safe and educational (particularly with appropriate use of the PikiFriends curriculum).

While I do not have actual data on percentages of student usage and their feedback, from my standpoint as a teacher PikiFriends gave students the opportunity to improve their English, learn more about internet safety and proper etiquette, and helped to build friendships from two totally different cultures across a great distance. I am happy to report that all schools have already begun preparing to use PikiFriends again for the 2011-2012 program.

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4 thoughts on “PikiFriends in the classroom: How it’s combined with a Japan-USA study abroad program

    • Hi Kathleen,
      Thanks for your comments both here and on Linkedin!
      You can find the Student Guide in this blog. Go to links>PikiFriends stuff and click “PikiFriends Student Guide Textbook sample”.
      The Worksheets and Teacher Guide are 2 other parts which are PDFs sent to teachers who purchase the Student Guide. I don’t have samples of those available on the blog, but if you are interested let me know and I’ll send you links to view them.

  1. Pingback: Lesson plan for blogging with students: Make a Contest Page | The official blog of PikiFriends

  2. PikiFriends is the best! Last year, my ELD students scores jumped so high that our school has moved into Safe Harbor due to our EL subgroup mostly. No one is paying me to say this. I have used this program for two years and LOVE it; and, more importantly, the kids LOVE it and beg to be allowed to go online to use it. Our first year, we only used the online website and liked it so much that I won a grant to buy the additional materials, which only added to the benefits and made it even easier to use. This program encourages meaningful activities that promote use of language to communicate with kids around the globe. Not only are students exposed to other cultures which helps build tolerance, but they are also working on communication and computer skills simultaneously. I think we can all agree that these are skills that are REQUIRED by employers in the digital age. Schools are verified and students can only be added by their teachers. Posts are also monitored and open. There are no private chats. This is a safe and fun way for students to learn. (My apologies if you already read some of these comments on another post I made, but I just wanted everyone to know what a real teacher with a challenging subgroup thought of the program. Happy Piki-ing people!

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