Many language teachers strive to provide their students with a variety of situations in which to use natural English. In recent years, many of these opportunities have come from using Internet or email resources. Now, with the growing popularity of social networking, the choices are even richer. However, before asking students to sign up for such services as Facebook, MySpace, or Mixi, it is important to consider what they may be exposed to. There are significant issues of privacy and safety, as well as the problem of focus—while they may start out on task, there is such a volume of material available that it is easy for them to become distracted.
Social networking sites do, however, offer many services, so they should be considered. The obvious advantage is their social nature—they encourage people to communicate, not just within their social networks, but also with a broad range of other users. They provide opportunities for people to meet others with similar interests or goals. And they offer a network of services in one convenient location, such as blogging, texting, sharing images and files, or taking part in activities.
One solution to the issue of using public networking sites for students is to set up your own site, and there are a number of solutions out there that teachers might consider (see <c4lpt.co.uk/handbook/comparison.html>). This article will focus on Elgg <www.elgg.org>, an open source social networking platform.
What Elgg offers
Like other social networking services, Elgg offers an online environment in which members can post material, find friends, create and join groups, and generally communicate. However, where public sites are totally run by (and at the mercy of) their operators, anyone can set up an Elgg installation and tailor it to their needs. And being open source, it is free. An out-of-the-box installation of Elgg comes with most of the tools needed to get started. These include activity streams, profile and grouping tools, blogs, file and media upload facilities, posting and page making capabilities, and The Wire—a Twitter-like microblogging service.
For those wanting to extend their installation, there is a rich community of developers creating plugins, themes, and language packages (see <community.elgg.org>). Installing plugins allows users access to such services as event calendars, live chatting, online galleries, embedded video, or integration with membership in public services. Themes allow both administrators and users to customize the look of their sites, while language packs make sites multilingual (though no Japanese pack was available at the time of writing).
Why not just use Moodle?
Certainly Moodle already contains many of the capabilities of a social networking site, and it could probably be tweaked to work as such. However, the problem is one of focus. Whereas the core role of Moodle is content delivery, Elgg is built around the user. When you log into Moodle, you see your courses… log into Elgg, and you see your personal environment. Each application is useful, but for different things. What is clearly needed is a link up between the two, so that users could log into one and seamlessly access the other (something that, for example, Drupal <drupal.org> can do). One option is to install Mahara <mahara.org>, an e-portfolio solution which does allow for Moodle integration.
Installing Elgg and adding functionality
For users with their own hosted website, installation is easy. Upload the Elgg package to its own directory, create a database, complete a few other minor steps (see the instructions on the Elgg website), then visit your website and follow the instructions. From there, create an admin account and you can begin setting up your site. This is a good stage to play with the installation, learn how to use it, and add features before making the site live. The online documentation is reasonably helpful, and there is a vibrant forum if you really get stuck.
If you do not have a hosted website, Elgg has a number of recommended providers listed on its website who will host your site from around $4.00 a month. Anyone with a basic knowledge of website building should have no problem getting started.
Once installed, adding plugins, themes, or language packs is as simple as uploading them to the mod directory, then logging on as administrator and activating them. One thing to keep in mind is that all of these are under constant development, so it pays to visit the forums frequently to have the most recent and stable versions. Unfortunately, Elgg doesn’t have any notification system for this—unlike, for example, WordPress.
Elgg offers a number of different ways to add users. The easiest (but least controllable) is to simply allow users to register from the login page. There are also options to manually create users, but that is a tedious process. Currently, there are no plugins to bulk upload users, though one is under development. If real control is needed, Elgg has the option to turn it into a walled garden, where only registered members can enter and see content.
Stability and usage
Elgg is at version 1.6.1 of its development, and is generally very stable. Care must be taken when installing plugins, which are not always as ready as they should be. In my case, I have had sites crash a number of times. This is usually easily fixed by simply removing the plugin by FTP, though in one instance there was also corruption of the database, so frequent backups are recommended.
How to encourage your students to use your site will depend on your programme. I have always had greatest success by integrating it into a course so that it is a core part of the programme, or by running it as a communication activity between students or groups from abroad and my own students. While it is difficult to sustain interest once programmes are over, for the duration of the course Elgg has proven to be a useful social networking experience.
Malcolm Swanson teaches at Seinan Jo Gakuin University in Kitakyushu, and enjoys tinkering with the inner workings of JALT’s publications.