Crossing the Physical and Linguistic Divide (By Catherine Cabiness)

As an educator for over 15 years at the intermediate level, I have experimented with a variety of methods to engage my students in their learning.  My latest endeavor involves introducing different kinds of technology to enhance the teaching of Medieval World History.  Through a professional networking site, I came across a request for international pen pals.  I thought, “Why not?”  My kids are learning about world history, why not try to meet other students from those very cultures?  And that’s how I came upon PikiFriends and Jeff Dionne.

PikiFriends is an interactive website where students can post blogs, pictures, and short messages on each other’s page.  The purpose of creating PikiFriends was to help EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students practice elements of the English language.  But the purpose of this website reaches far beyond just the basic elements of English language acquisition.  Students begin by writing a brief introduction about themselves on their home page.  The About Me section is a great way for students to identify commonalities amongst each other.  From there, students are able to practice writing short notes to each other or venture into posting a blog.

Jeff Dionne has done a wonderful job creating a site that is both kid-friendly and, perhaps more importantly, safe.  Teachers are able to monitor student postings to ensure responsible digital citizenship.  This is a teaching tool, not only academically, but also socially.  In addition, participation in PikiFriends supports the elements of NETS (National Educational Technology Standards).  It was because of all this that I chose to join the PikiFriends community.

The current students are using PikiFriends for a variety of purposes.  Jeff’s students are posting blogs asking questions for others to answer.  They are comparing Japanese and American cultures, but it’s not all academic.  Jeff’s students like to post pictures and blogs that give a snapshot into their personal lives.  My students also post a wide variety of blogs which range from the academic all the way to the downright funny.  The purpose of joining PikiFriends was to give my students the opportunity to learn about the Japanese culture from a Japanese student’s perspective.  My students and I were able to ask pertinent questions about the Japanese culture while we were studying Feudal Japan.  The connection between the past and present is a powerful experience and my students have really enjoyed learning about the Japanese culture from their peers.

A secondary reason for joining PikiFriends was to introduce my students to a safe, interactive, online environment.  I know that my “superstars” (as Jeff calls them) really enjoy PikiFriends.  I think that they love the fact that they are communicating with fellow students from across the Pacific.  They commiserate over finals and homework, while bonding over music and movies.  I think that my students will continue with PikiFriends long after they leave my class.  However, I also know that with each successive class, more and more of my students will be signing up for PikiFriends so I expect that we will develop a long-time relationship with the other schools who are members of this online community.

Though Jeff and I have different purposes for our involvement in PikiFriends, the fact that we both love technology and interactive learning is what brought our schools together.  I am hoping that my students are good models of the English language for Jeff’s EFL learners, but I am more concerned that they are engaged in learning, not only in academics, but in peripheral interests as well.

Jeff and I know that there are many doubters out there, many who think Web 2.0 and education are two separate entities.  It is those people who need to check out PikiFriends.  This educational Web 2.0 tool helps to inspire as well as enliven academic and social pursuits at the secondary level.

I feel that my involvement in PikiFriends has opened the doors for me to get to know my students on a different level.  The posts, blogs, and comments are not only academic, but also personal.  It’s a different way to interact with my students that is not normally possible within a 45-minute period with 36 other students.  Some may doubt that distance education is interactive, but I assure you that everyone involved in the PikiFriends community interacts with each other.

When asked about his take on PikiFriends, Jeff states, “I may sound foolishly optimistic, but I believe Piki will set new precedents in secondary educational technology, particularly if we can reach the full version of PikiFriends (we’re still in beta) and people start spreading the word.  I’m a full-time teacher myself, not some out-of-touch techie guy or high-flying exec.  I have a very good understanding of what teachers and administrators need and most importantly what our students deserve from us.  So I think I can confidently say that PikiFriends will be a very effective learning tool for countless secondary schools around the world.”

I think that PikiFriends is a valuable tool for teachers and students who want to branch out beyond the confines of a brick and mortar classroom.   Collaborative learning is not a new endeavor; its existence, however, has been made easier with programs like PikiFriends.

Note: This article by Catherine Cabiness originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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9 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Catherine, for sharing PikiFriends. I didn’t know anything about the site, and it looks interesting. I know that teachers have always been interested in finding pen pals for their students in order to make learning more real. PikiFriends seems to make it safe and easy.

    I look forward to learning more about it.

  2. Jeff Dionne says:

    Catherine, as I’ve told you so many times, I deeply appreciate your participation and invaluable help with PikiFriends, you’re one in a million! Let’s hope this article helps to find more friends for our students; just as this site ‘Teaching Village’ says, we learn better when we work together, and that fits in perfectly with what PikiFriends is attempting to accomplish.

    For any teachers wishing to learn more about PikiFriends, check the user guides and FAQ on the PikiFriends homepage, or just click ‘contact’ and mail us.

    • Catherine Cabiness says:

      Thanks, Jeff! However, I owe a lot to you and PikiFriends. This has given my students and I a different dimension to the student-teacher relationship. I feel closer to these students because I know them much better than most of the others in my classes. You can’t deny the value of one-on-one attention. I’m hoping to see more schools on Piki in the future. And I will certainly do my part to pass the word on…

  3. Philip Jarvis says:

    With only the written medium through which to communicate how is this ‘invaluable’? Surely an active classroom environment that has students communicating ORALLY; enunciating the SPOKEN form of the target language is far more beneficial and rewarding than this. There are your motivators, real usage, situational exchange and reflective learning.

    As a linguist, a teacher, and a full supporter of new ideas, including approach and technology, this write-up… just falls flat.

    • Catherine Cabiness says:


      In reading your comments, I must admit that I don’t believe you understood the purpose of my article. I never implied that the written medium was the only way to teach EFL learners. The initial purpose of PikiFriends was to have EFL learners practice English in the written form but if you read further, you would have come across Jeff’s comment that PikiFriends is still in beta form. I realize the importance of oral communication; did I ever imply that EFL learners are not practicing oral conventions at all? I hope that you don’t assume that PikiFriends is the only time EFL learners are practicing English. It is a tool. One of many that we teachers use with our students to motivate them to become active learners. If you are familiar with the ISTE and the NETS, you would know that PikiFriends supports the various standards of technology integration into the curriculum.

      Both Jeff and I understand the various modes of communication and we do not advocate one over the other. PikiFriends is a unique application because it connects EFL learners with students who are NOT from their class or school. It’s a safe environment for students to practice the English language for both academic and social pursuits.

      My students are participating in PikiFriends for the cultural experience, but the fact that they are also practicing writing conventions is an added bonus. Technology and the Internet have opened the doors to varied ways of learning and application. It is in our students’ best interest to give them a place to practice writing (which is one of the hardest things to get middle school and high school students to do); but if done online in a blog format with topics that are of relevance, suddenly writing doesn’t seem so laborious. Practicing writing conventions is not a lost art, because in the real world the written form is not obsolete (as is evidenced from this blog). Therefore, I stand behind my original convictions that PikiFriends is a valuable tool for educators who wish to branch out beyond the four walls of a brick and mortar classroom. Collaborating with students from other cultures IS a valuable experience.

      And if your concern is that PikiFriends is somehow going to stunt the progress of EFL learners, let me assure you that online discourse has been proven to increase participation – especially for English language learners. So if you would like to have a dialogue about the benefits of online discourse, I would be more than happy to do so. The research is out there and it’s positive for the benefits of online discourse. But PikiFriends is more than just for academics. And it’s not solely for EFL learners. I teach Medieval World History and we participate in PikiFriends for the cultural experience. Practicing writing is just an added bonus for my students.

      If you would like to see first hand what goes on in PikiFriends, perhaps you should email Jeff. I think that you misunderstand the different purposes that PikiFriends serves for the schools, students, and teachers involved.


  4. Philip,

    Actually the author Catherine never used the word you quoted, ‘invaluable,’ in her article…

    It seems that you’re an EFL professional? Catherine is using PikiFriends for other purposes, so maybe her entire write-up doesn’t ‘fall flat’ as you claim. Maybe you’re referring to the points I am quoted as saying in the article?

    If so, I’ll respond to your post.

    As the creator of PikiFriends I can’t help but sound completely biased, but according to your post I don’t believe you know enough about PikiFriends yet to accurately judge its pros and cons.

    Of course you’re right about stressing the importance of getting the most out of the classroom time where you have face-to-face interactions and can motivate students in a number of ways. It’s what Catherine and I do for a living so we know what you mean. PikiFriends is not a tool to replace that. There is a strong movement towards online learning and I am personally very wary of this, the human interaction between a good teacher and as small a number of students as possible must be the educational model we preserve at all costs.

    And you raise a good point, speaking/listening is missing in PikiFriends; this is crucial for EFL education. As is mentioned in the article, we’re in beta and as a matter of fact one of the features we’re building at the moment is a feature which will help to facilitate speaking/listening practice. It’s one of the many features we’re working on as we continue our grass roots beginning.

    A tool like this can address some motivators that we as EFL teachers and simply as adults can not; this is the area which I’d be interested in discussing. For example, the simple fact that PikiFriends gives students a chance to interact in many ways with peers in English enjoyably, safely and authentically (this is impossible in a class of only ELLs who don’t NEED to use English at all) without traveling and without the complications of organizing penpals is ‘invaluable’ in my opinion. In this way and many others it has been very effective.

  1. February 4, 2010

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  3. April 21, 2010

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