Ask not what the internet can do for you

When we, English teachers, think of the internet, we often tend to think about what it has to offer: unlimited information at our fingertips, ready-made materials for download, songs with their lyrics, clipart and other graphic resources, teaching ideas, podcasts, videos, tutorials, educational online games and many other resources that were unavailable when most of us were students of English a few years (well, in my case decades) ago.  The World Wide Web has become some sort of an Oracle expected to provide answers to all our questions and needs, but the question I’d like to raise is “to what extent is the internet about getting, and to what extent is it about giving?”

When I wrote my Master’s dissertation, 12 years ago, most teachers were still trying to decide whether or not the internet was a world they would like to venture into. Those who designed and ran their own websites were so rare that I studied them with the same curiosity an ornithologist would study a rare bird. I titled my study Teachers “DotCom”: What They Seek and What They Find in the Web. Basically, I wanted to find out what their motivation was to put in time and often money to build and keep websites that, in most cases, were not a source of income.

What I found out, mostly, was that these teachers realized that they had something worthwhile to say, and that there was no reason, anymore, for their voices to be restricted to the limits of their classrooms or even their schools. They also understood that shared knowledge meant generated knowledge. In other words, the more knowledge they shared, the more knowledge they acquired, because teaching was no longer a one-way process in which information went from a transmitter to a receiver.  The internet had managed to blur these roles to such an extent that interaction became multidirectional, with receivers turning into potential transmitters with only a few strokes of the mouse. Finally, ordinary teachers became TeachersDotcom because sharing knowledge, materials and experience gave them a sense of belonging. Way back in 1998, French sociologist Michel Maffesoli envisioned a neo-tribalism in which social organization would drift away from the usual class- based societies and move towards interest-based collectivities.  And nothing can be more interest-based than the Internet or the nearly one billion websites it hosts. A Google search for the term “English-teaching blog” alone will yield 124 million results.

Twelve years after I wrote my dissertation and 17 years after Maffesoli postulated his theory, the reasons why teachers have decided to become actively involved in creating content to be shared online has remained basically the same: they cherish the fact that they now have a voice; they know that it is in giving that they receive, and they want to be part of this universe of EFL teachers who may work in very different settings, but still share pretty much the same difficulties, interests and needs.

What has changed rather dramatically, though, is that it is not necessary, anymore, for anyone to start their own website or blog in order to create content. Social networks such as Facebook have their own interest-based groups, which allow the sharing of information within a specific “community”.  Mobile applications such as Pinterest will allow anyone to “pin” their favorite web pages or pieces of information, which will then become available to all their followers. Twitter, the popular microblogging network that is limited to 140-character posts, allows its users not only to broadcast their feelings, ideas, opinions and news, but also to follow other twitters who share the same interests. The list is, in fact, much longer: there are, currently, over 170 social networks which bring people and their peers together, allowing knowledge to flow freely among their members. And this interaction can be further enhanced in online forums and collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, where collaborators are often ranked in terms of productivity and reliability.

The internet has given every internaut a voice, but also a choice: to remain a passive recipient of information, or to grab the opportunity to make a difference within one’s peers by means of knowledge and experience that is shared.

I hope you opt for the latter. Because getting is convenient, but giving is what makes you a true participant in this collaborative universe called the World Wide Web.

Vivian Magalhães

Vivian Magalhães has an English teaching degree from UFRGS and a Master’s degree in Education from PUC-RS . She is the co-author of all the books in the series “Cem Aulas Sem Tédio”, as well as the author of “Teacher Tools” and the webmaster of www.linguaestrangeira.com.br. In over thirty years of English teaching, she has taught children, teenagers and adults in many different settings. Nowadays, Vivian runs her own English school and also works as a freelance teacher trainer.

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