In late December, 2005, I was sitting on the couch with a laptop at my parent's house in Australia, at the end of a short break and due to return to Changwon, Korea, where I was academic coordinator of a fairly major language school. When I returned, I would plunge into the popular "Intensive Winter Session" (10 classes a day for four weeks), and as usual, part of my vacation time had to go towards planning the spring term that would follow.
On that sunny morning, I was looking around the Internet for applications that would allow me to bring online speaking into our school's curriculum. Online applications for education by that time were very common, and Korea in particular was saturated with all sorts of glittery automated listening and grammar programs. But, flush with a fresh infatuation with this new concept of "Web 2.0", I wasn't interested in automated stuff, nor programs that just did more one-sided practice with essentially passive skills. I wanted the Internet to provide me with ways to connect students and teachers across time and space, and to allow the productive skills of speaking and writing to really flourish.
I also thought this could be the makings of a savvy business move for our school. In Korea, you will hear that all the parents really care about is test scores. Well, there is a lot of truth in that, but I think they also crave something very basic and inherent to anyone who enrolls their kids in a pay-for education program: evidence. I had already been proven right on this count by putting more effort into our school's writing program, asking for more compositions to be completed at home (rather than during class time) and adorning the walls of the school's main foyer with new samples of students' written work every week. Writing, and the act of completing it, was very important evidence to parents that the kids could use English in an independent and productive fashion. Many Koreans also have this in-built assumption that they and their kids are completely hopeless at speaking English, irrespective of how much time they have spent studying it. An online speaking program could be another, even more powerful, provision of evidence to parents and learners that said: hey, you can use English communicatively... believe it!
At that time, I couldn't find anything that could help me with speaking applications. They were either live-only or required complicated programming skills with software downloads for all potential users (by that time I was only ever interested in browser-based applications that wouldn't create unnecessary hassles for the learners and their parents), and in almost all cases they were prohibitively expensive.
Four months later, in spring 2006, I stumbled across Odeo, which was essentially a podcasting site at the time. However, and much to my delight, not only was Odeo fully browser-based, it had an application that allowed users to send direct audio messages to each other through a simple pop-up screen. Even better, it allowed users to share this recorder with anyone - Odeo member or not - online and accept recorded audio comments from them. And in an unexpected bonus, Odeo also featured a little application called Hellodeo - the first fully browser-based application I had seen that allowed you to record video directly from your webcam and obtain an html code that allowed you to embed the video directly into your own webpages. No software downloads, no complicated sign-up procedures... suddenly I was in business. Odeo's set up allowed me to set up a program, integrated with my own main website, that would facilitate online recording and sending of messages from learners to their teachers, and there was a nifty video application which would be great for creating task pages.
I experimented for a bit, and then by September 2006 I was ready to lauch a complete online speaking supplementary program for the hundreds of learners we had across ten levels in our program:
The pages and applications featured in that screencast can still be viewed here, with all the level pages still live. It's actually quite interesting to flit through the different levels and see what the learners at different ages were capable of producing, online, through speaking.
As far as I was aware at the time, this was one of the first major school-wide online speaking programs designed for an institute using very basic web skills and embedded web 2.0 applications from external sites. Certainly in our own school and even 'local private institute market' it caused something of a revolution. Teachers needed specific training, regular class scheduling and workloads for teachers had to be reworked to accommodate the extra work required (as teachers recorded and sent feedback to the learners), and learners themselves needed guidelines and help documents.
What continues to surprise me is that, in a country as wired and tech-savvy as South Korea, none of our competition - not even the super famous private institutes in Seoul - had come close to producing anything like this, and didn't really even start to until about 18 months later (even then, they didn't work on or produce these in-house, almost always going with expensive third-party developers and suppliers.
There were other surprises to come, too - some good, some bad.
On the good side, the introduction of this online speaking system may have actually saved the school in question from sinking. TOEFL iBT fever had just hit Korea: not only was there this brand new speaking thing to deal with on the test, but it required online application. At that time, schools that could cater to TOEFL preparation (and now Internet-based TOEFL in particular), became the instant market leaders. In addition to that, the owner of the school, sick to death of the inordinate franchise licensing fees she had to pay to the Ewha ALS chain, had decided to drop the chain brand name and continue the business under a new, private, non-national business name. Koreans are massively addicted to brand names, especially big flashy ones that could claim Seoul (where all the richest and 'brightest' students were) as their head office base. We were now due to become a "ma and pa on the corner" school with no links to any such brand name, and there was every expectation our enrollment could shrivel by half or even two-thirds as a result of a simple name change.
We introduced a big online speaking program to supplement our course at exactly the same time TOEFL iBT speaking fever hit and our school dropped its all-important national brand name link. The learners, for the most part, loved the online speaking applications and really embraced them. The parents went nuts over the online speaking program. The important "evidence" I alluded to above was abundantly clear to them through this program. They thought it was the best thing since sliced cheese. Far from copping a hit, our enrollment actually went up - and up!
Then there was the bad...
The makers of Odeo were two blokes named Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Given we were using this service with paying students and profiting from it (indirectly at this point), I contacted Evan and asked for information about a customized pay-for version, or at least official permission to keep using the Odeo applications under these auspices.
Evan, a very friendly and approachable person, got back to me and explained that no pay-for or customized versions were ready or required, and in fact his direct message to me on October 3, 2006 was:
"Hi, Jason. No problem. Would love to have you use the service, as is, for any and all uses."
Little did I know, at that very time Evan and Biz Stone were playing around with another novel little application they called twttr. In fact, they became so interested in it that they abandoned development and most essential maintenance of Odeo in early November, 2006. The Odeo service went into limbo - dead as a doornail (no recordings possible and not even access to previously recorded messages), and left us and our students stranded with no recourse.
Evan, with his new company Obvious Corp, eventually sold off the derelict Odeo carcass to Sonic Mountain, and concentrated on twttr - eventually putting some vowels back into the word to come up with Twitter, and (as they say) the rest is history. (I mean, what were those fools thinking - abandoning a free podcasting site called Odeo in preference of something that sounds like a bunch of annoying birds perched on your fence early in the morning??? They must be daft!)
I did find an alternative application very quickly for our online speaking programs and avert potential disaster for us as a business, but this was to be a first and very important lesson for me. If you use web 2.0 applications that are free, and put them into a highly organised and structured private school curriculum with hundreds of users who are paying you fees, you are fair game when those applications go pop on you.
There were other problems for online speaking further down the line, too, but I'll leave them for now... Another post, another day. For now, this post reflects on what really did feel like a revolution in our curriculum at the time.
Does it feel strange to you that events and developments for web applications back in 2006 (all of three years ago as I type this) now sound like ancient history?