When I came to work at Dickinson College, I saw there was a need to connect our language students with native speakers via the internet. Some classes had already begun connecting students through text chat, but I hoped to introduce exchanges with audio as well. One Japanese language instructor, Professor Akiko Meguro, was anxious to connect her students via voice chat. She had seen a French class connect with native speakers by text. The problem was that her beginning students wouldn’t be able to maintain a natural flow of conversation by typing in Japanese.
We tried Skype as the voice client, due to its reliability and popularity in Japan, but we still needed to find native speakers to talk to our students. At the time, there were only a few free sites where teachers could look for language exchanges and they weren’t very efficient. We also frequently ran into problems after contacting potential partners, due to time differences and semester schedules. As an alternative, Professor Meguro began looking for individual English learners on a Japanese social networking site called Mixi. It was much easier to organize. The site allowed her to post the day and time when her class would be in the language lab, and asked students in Japan to message her if they were interested in a language exchange with our students.
It was a huge success! Professor Meguro’s students enjoyed putting to use what they’d learned in the classroom, and the dynamics of the class fundamentally changed once the students recognized they would be practicing what they learned from each chapter during regular language exchanges with native Japanese speakers. The next step was to find a way to make this possible in all of our languages. To do this, I created the Mixxer. It is little more than a social networking site built with a Drupal platform, allowing users to find partners for language exchanges.
Today, because it is simple and free, Mixxer has grown to over 100,000 users. Now our students, or any user, can sign up and find a language partner on their own. Any instructor from any academic institution can also create an account and organize an “event” for their class, which sends out an invitation for native speakers of the target language to sign up for a language exchange. Mixxer is now large enough that an instructor can be confident of connecting their students with a native speaker of almost any language. I can’t emphasize enough what a positive change this has had on language students. My hope for the future is to provide a suggested structure and content for these exchanges using OER materials from COERLL, Connexions, and MERLOT, among other language learning resource portals.
Contact Todd Bryant at firstname.lastname@example.org or by twitter (@bryantt).