An interview with TEFL blogging pioneer Aaron Campbell

It’s nice to really re-launch my blog with this fascinating interview on the very beginnings of TEFL blogging. Enjoy!

Alex: Can you give us a brief biog?

Aaron: Originally from the USA, I caught the travel bug in college after a few trips to Central America and Europe, and have been in Asia since 1996, mostly in Japan.

When and how did you first become interested in taking TEFL online?

I’ve always been interested in the internet as a way to share ideas and information with others. And since all of my EFL students had access to the internet, I naturally wanted to use it, especially when free blogging software came on the scene, making webpublishing much easier. For me, this happened sometime toward the end of 2002/early 2003, during my very first year of teaching at the university level.

How would you define a TEFL blog?

It would be blog created and run by an EFL or ESL teacher, either as a space for reflection or as a vehicle for sharing and communicating with students and other teachers.

Were you doing anything online before actual blogging started or before you switched to blogging?

I had some experiences building websites in the late 90s, so I was no stranger to HTML and dealing with images. I wasn’t really dedicated to webpublishing since I was traveling a lot at the time, so it was more of a part-time hobby than anything else.

When did you first become aware of actual blogging and how did using it for TEFL purposes come to mind?

I came across my first blogs in 2002, while I was working on my MEd in e-learning. There were two things that immediately impressed me about blogs. One was the ease with which you could publish to your own website. Before that, you had to deal with HTML editors, and ftp and such. This was just like doing email, but instead of your message going into someone’s private space, it went into a public space for everyone to read. The other thing that impressed me was the interactive and ever changing nature of the blog. Unlike static HTML pages, they changed each time you visited, putting emphasis on the present. And since readers had the ability to comment, that made them potentially conversational and dialogic. So from that realization, it didn’t take me long to see the potential for language learning purposes.

It was in February of 2003 that I published a short article on using weblogs in the language classroom. At that time I didn’t know of any other EFL teachers using blogs with their students. Several months later I discovered an article by Jim Duber, published in 2002, that clearly showed that there had been a number of other EFL teachers using blogs before I even knew what a blog was. So I just wasn’t fully aware of what was going on at the time.

What were your first steps?

I searched for free blogging applications and found several of them. Initially I went with Blogger, since at the time it was had the most features and seemed to be well designed. I started a blog in 2003 called The New Tanuki, and used it as a website for my students. I also had them create their own blogs and linked to them from the main site. I would feature some of the their posts on The New Tanuki, and model the same exercises that they were doing. It was novel and fun and I think it motivated some of my students to share their thoughts and ideas.

How was blogging different in those days from what had come before and from what would come later?

Well, big social networks like Facebook weren’t around yet, so that type of integration wasn’t yet possible. Back in those days, RSS feeds were not well understood by the average internet user. In fact, most people weren’t even aware of the concept, so being able to subscribe to others’ feeds was pretty cool. With an RSS aggregator, I was able to follow new posts of other bloggers all in one page. Not having to actually visit a site to check to see if there were any updates was pretty impressive to me, so it made the idea of having my students run blogs and being able to monitor their activity a real possibility. Light bulbs were definitely popping in my brain around that time.

Were there are any other EFL/ TEFL blogs around the same time?

When I first discovered blogs, there wasn’t a whole lot happening that I was aware of. Much of what I learned about blogs and how to use them for reflective practice (in 2002) came from educators outside of the EFL/TEFL crowd, people like Will Richardson, Anne Davis, and Joe Luft, to name a few. Actually, the teacher I remember the most clearly who was already using blogs with her students was Anne Davis, who was working with grade school children and getting them to write.

It wasn’t until a bit later in 2003 that I started to notice other EFL/TEFL bloggers. I think Graham Stanley was one of the first I remember. Sean Smith in Korea was also an early adopter. By 2004, there were numerous teachers all over the world who were using blogs with their students and for professional reflection. That’s when the discussions started to get more interesting. That kind of open and dispersed-yet-trackable dialog and sharing amongst EFL/TEFL teachers was a first, and it was quite an interesting time.

When did you first think about writing about your EFL blogging experiences for teachers? What did you publish and what impact did it have?

I started sharing thoughts related to education and language learning using Manila in 2003. I moved it over to WordPress once that came to my awareness, probably in 2005. I found it helpful as a platform to share my ideas in a reflective way, and to respond to the ideas of others by linking back to them. This helped clarify my thoughts and ideas, while also allowing me to communicate with teachers and other bloggers from around the world.

Have you kept up with TEFL blogs since? How have they and the scene changed?

I blogged actively for about 3~4 years and then gave it a rest after that. I found that my desire to continue sharing and communicating in a public space began to wane. I turned my attention to other things after that. I also stopped following TEFL blogs, so I don’t know how things have changed since then.

What were other major steps in the history of TEFL blogging or TEFL online more generally? Any nominations for influential people, blogs and other sites?

I think there were two vehicles that helped spread blogging throughout the TEFL field. One was the free online 6-week courses sponsored by TESOL, called the Electronic Village, that happen every January and February. Sandy Peters and Anne Davis organized and ran the first one on blogging back in 2004, which brought the practice to the awareness of many teachers. They asked me to join them, along with Joe Luft to help out. That was a big learning experience for me, working with those experienced educators.

And the other organization, which in my opinion was probably the most responsible for the spread of blogging in TEFL was the Webheads, a very active community of practice centered on education and technology.

When I think of TEFL blogs, Graham Stanley is the one who first comes to mind. Based in Spain, he was active not only on his blog, but also in various TEFL professional organizations. So his influence was felt far and wide.

The EFL blogger who had the most influence on me as an educator was Barbara (Bee) Dieu, based in Brazil. I first met her online in 2004. She ran blogs with her EFL students and was a prolific blogger herself. She became a mentor of sorts for me, teaching me a lot about language education and blogging from my interaction with her.

I had the privilege of working together with Bee and Graham in 2005 to facilitate the TESOL Electronic Village course on using weblogs in ESL/EFL classrooms. That was a memorable experience for me.

And although he wasn’t an ESL teacher, Will Richardson definitely influenced me and thousands of others through his blogging activities. He was the first edu-blogger I discovered in 2003, and was truly an edu-blogging pioneer.

Was there a peak of interest in blogging for ELT purposes? Has that passed?

For me the peak was in 2005~2006, but since I stopped blogging regularly by 2007, I really can’t speak about blogging for ELT purposes in general, since I have no idea what has happened since I disengaged from that community.

Do you think TEFL blogging has lived up to its original promise or what you expected of it?

I had high hopes for the effect that blogging would have on my students. In retrospect, I can see that my initial expectations were unrealistic given the reality of institutional-based learning. So I ended up a bit disappointed. In addition to all of the benefits that can come from expressing oneself in a foreign language on an interactive space, the thing I loved about blogs was the fact that they belonged to the students themselves, not the institution. My hope at the time was that by running blogs and interacting with people in other places during the semester on topics of personal interest, students would identify with their blog and continue using it after the semester was finished. In this way, we are giving our students an opportunity to transcend the “walls” of the school itself, and help move our learners toward greater autonomy. And that’s a noble idea, and definitely something worth striving for. However, I found that with my students, the culture of institutional learning, with all of its rules, rituals, and regulations, made progress difficult. My students were simply too overwhelmed with classes, homework, club activities, part-time jobs, and long commutes, not to mention all the previous conditioning they brought with them into the classroom from their junior and senior high school experiences. What resulted was students not having the time and energy to make the kind of effort necessary to really maintain their blogs at a minimal level of activity. One blog post a week plus an occasional comment is not enough to really see the benefits that blogging offers. And to do all that in a foreign language was just too much for them to handle. Of course, that’s how I rationalize their behaviour, but maybe it’s because I wasn’t a good enough teacher or motivator!

Are you active online now?

Yes. I’m involved in two technology-related projects right now. The first is that I’m facilitating an extensive reading project at the university where I teach. We are using a system called MoodleReader, created by Tom Robb, which basically automates assessment of student reading outside the classroom, allowing us to run an extensive reading program on a large scale. It’s been quite successful so far.

The other is a project called the Kyoto Research Project, where students research and write about topics of their choice related to the city of Kyoto, Japan. It was the brainchild of the editors at Kyoto Journal, and it’s based on the principles of experiential learning. The students work together with tutors/editors to produce short articles, which are published on the web. The research process almost always involves going out into the community to experience the places they are researching, and to interview people and take photos, etc. The program has been running for a good 7 or 8 years on an old static HTML site, but we’re now in the process of moving all the old articles to a WordPress site to increase its interactivity and usefulness.

Has your interest in blogging been overtaken by other technology-related things?

For me, it’s all about education; I could care less about technology itself. So, if I find a tool that helps facilitate the educational process, then I’m all for it. The latest piece of technology to take my interest is the technique of using visualization to create personalized content for use in the EFL classroom. That is, I’m using guided visualization techniques to stimulate the imagination of my students on topics related to our curriculum, and am using a number of conversational activities in conjunction with these. That’s a technology, right? There is no need for electricity, no usernames or IDs to forget, and no cost! That doesn’t mean there aren’t any technical failures though. 😉

What do you think about books on technology in EFL and education more generally?

I harmonize most closely with books on educational philosophy (in general) written in the 60s and 70s. Call me a hippy if you will, but I’m attracted to humanistic approaches to teaching and learning. I have been inspired by writers like Carl Rogers, Ivan Illich, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Paulo Freire. Those thinkers and educators have influenced my practice much more than anything I’ve read in the field of language learning or technology itself. The book Deschooling Society by Illich (1971) is a must read for anyone involved in using technology in the classroom, in my opinion.

A huge thanks to Aaron. If you have more questions, I dare say he might answer them, and follow the tag below for more on TEFL blogging history. Give me five more years at this address and I hope to be worth a minor footnote in the history of TEFL blogging myself…

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