4. User interaction on the Internet

4.1 Email and mailing list
4.2 Newsgroups
4.3 web forum
4.4 Real-time chat
4.5 Filesharing

An effective approach in language learning is through group interaction. The world wide web and other relevant internet technologies can be used as a medium of communication to facilitate interaction among learners, instructors and their role models (native speakers of the target language) to a scale unprecedented before. There are five major types of internet applications which can be used to facilitate such group interaction:: Email, newsgroups, web forum, real-time chat and filesharing.

4.1 Email and mailing list

Email is perhaps the most popular internet application. Most of us use email on a daily basis. In language instruction, email can be used to enable discussion among learners, question and answer sessions between the learner and the instructor and learner contacts with native speakers of the target language. Learners' writing skills can also be improved through the exchange of messages in the target language with native speakers.

4.1.1 Email

As far as the technical aspects of using email are concerned, there are three things you need to know:

  1. Email account: Both learners and instructors should have email accounts. Many people use the so-called POP3 account. POP3 is a standard for an email client program to exchange data and information with an email server. Unix users have their own account as long as they have login account on a Unix system. In addition, there are many web-based free email services available on the internet.
  2. Email client software: For web-based email service, the user access their email through a web browser. For others, they use such email client as Eudora, Pine, etc.. It does not matter what kind of email program you use as long as you feel comfortable with it.
  3. Multilingual support: The majority of email client programs are designed to handle ASCII encoded messages. While they handle 'Western' languages without any problem, there is a potential problem for other multi-byte encoded languages such as Chinese and Japanese.   Emailing in those languages are still somewhat unreliable in that either the email client program or email server may mess up two-byte encoded texts. On the client side, Eudora and Netscape Messenger can handle those two-byte encoded languages with little problem. However the computers that learners use for email should be configured properly. A simple tutorial on how to configure Windows platform (English version) for Chinese language support can be found here.

4.1.2 Mailing list

Sometimes we want to send an email message to a group of people at the same time. We use such mass mailing function, for example, to facilitate group discussion among language learners. If the group is small, we can use the alias function in the email client program we use. Otherwise, we will use a network service called mailing list. Using the alias function of an email client program

You can set up a mailing list on your own by using the alias function of your email client program. An alias is simple a mnemonic name for a list of email addresses. When you send an email using the alias name instead of a real email address, the email program actually sends a copy to each address listed in the alias file. Most email client programs such as Eudora (on both PC and Mac) and Pine (on Unix) support such a function.

An alias can be easily set up and updated by yourself. Further, you have full control of the email addresses listed in the alias. However,  no one else but yourself can post to the list unless you send a copy of the list to each person who wants to use the list. Further, when user number increases, it will becomes increasingly difficult to manage the address list.

Sample configuration:

  • Eudora:
  • Outlook (Express):
  • Pine: Mailing list service

When the number of users in a group is large and everyone wants to post to others at the same time, we will use something called mailing list service.

Mailing list service is provided by a mailing list software running on a dedicated email server. To install and configure a mailing list software  requires both technical expertise and system administrator privileges on a server. Once the necessary mailing list software is installed and configured properly, the list administrators can set up various mailing lists. To set up a mailing list often requires system administrator privileges on the server.

There are several advantages in using a mailing list service over the alias function of an email client:

  • Automatically handling of email addresses such as subscription and unsubscription;
  • Messages can be automatically archived and retrieved for future reference;
  • Posting can be free or moderated at the list owner's will.

However, there are also some disadvantages:

  • It requires assistance from system administrators, whose response may take some time;
  • It is more difficult to administer (needs time to learn the administrative commands);
  • If the mailing list is moderated, moderation requires the commitment of the list owner(s).

Some popular mailing list software are:

  • Listserv:
  • Majordomo:
  • Ezmlm: Once it is installed on a system, an email user can set up mailing list under his own account without the intervention of the system administrator.

4.2 Newsgroups

Newsgroups are often called USENET news. It had been the major way of sharing information before the world wide web became popular. While the use of Usenet is on the decline, there is still a huge repertoire of information. Previous messages can still be retrieved from various locations on internet such as Dejanews.

While most newsgroups you have come across may be meant for the world at large, local newsgroups can be set up whose access can be restricted to your campus only.

Newsgroups are run through the so-called news server. This is usually run by the school's computing services. In theory, individuals do not have to run such a server, since it requires dedicated resources. They should seek the help of system administrators. Again newsgroups have similar functions as emailing addresses. You post to the newsgroup using an email client. They are shared by everyone through a newsgroup reader. Messages are archived and can be retrieved if necessary.

4.3 Web forum

4.3.1 What is web forum

A web forum is just a bulletin board on the web where users can post messages. It is known as  discussion forums as well. A sample site can be found here.

Web forum is similar to mailing list and newsgroups in many ways. One big difference is that web forum does not push messages into one's boxes. You have to go out and get it. In comparison, if you subscribe to a mailing list, messages will be pushed into your mail box, whether you like it or not. Both web forums and mailing lists (as well as newsgroups) can be used wisely to meet different needs of language learners.

4.3.2 How to set up a web forum UNIX

There are many ways to set up a web forum on a Unix-based web server. If your Unix machine's web server is configured to allow you running CGI script, you can set up a web forum yourself. Free programs such as WWWboard can be obtained, for example, from www.cgi-resources.com. There are other programs such as Phorum which requires the assistance of system administrator.

(Placeholder: WWWboard set up) WindowsNT

If you have access to a Microsoft Internet Information Server with FrontPage Server Extensions installed, a discussion forum can be set up very easily. It is just a few clicks away and doesn't require much computer expertise. Recommended for novice users.

(Placeholder) NT+FrontPage setup

4.4 Real-time chat and net conferencing

4.4.1 What is real-time chat

It is real time, for sure. With the help of video camera, users can also see each other face-to-face with audio and video support. This form is often called teleconferencing. The traditional way is through satellite TV. It is now through the internet, especially the web.

4.4.2 How to chat

  • talk/ntalk/ytalk: Pioneer of real-time one-on-one chat on the internet.
  • ICQ: many-to-many chat. Text based, in most cases;
  • Web-based online chat:

Sample software:

  • Microsoft NetMeeting:
  • AOL Instant Messaging:
  • mICQ

4.4.3 Advantage vs. Disadvantage

  • It is more interesting to have people talk each other in real time than delayed interaction.
  • While English (as well as other ASCII-encoded languages) poses little problem, keyboard input in other languages such as Chinese is time consuming and may take most of the time during a chat session.

4.5 Filesharing

An effective approach for learner interaction is through group collaboration. For example, there are times when a group of students need to share and/or edit files for their web project.

4.5.1 Using email

One option to share a file is to send it as an attachment in our email. Once the file is edited, for example, other people can send the revised version back to us.

4.5.2 Using FTP

Another option is that we can upload the file on our ftp server to allow others to download. Once their part of the job is done, they can upload the revised file back to same ftp server.

4.5.3 Using the web

Similar arrangement can be made through a web server for file downloading and uploading.

4.5.4 Filesharing service

There are times when it is more convenient for us to exchange files through what is called file sharing service.

A file is made available on a server machine so that others can access it over the network by a simple copying action, just like you copy files on your local machine (or local disk, to be more accurate). This kind of filesharing service is made possible by connecting different computers into a local area network (LAN). It should be pointed out that a LAN is not necessarily confined within a physical subnet. Remote machines across the entire internet can be arranged into a local area network. (This kind of arrangement is often called private virtual network).

Sharing files over the AppleTalk network can be set up by a user himself. Filesharing on other platforms often requires the assistance (and expertise) of a system administrator. MacOS

On the MacOS platform, AppleShare (seen in the Chooser window) is designed to provide such a service by default.

(Placeholder: how AppleShare works) Windows

On the Windows platform, Network Neighborhood is what you see on your Desktop for that purpose.

(Placeholder: WindowsNT domain) Unix

Files on a Unix system are shared among themselves through something known as NFS (Network file system). If you have an Unix account on a system with many users, it is most likely that you are already using the NFS service. For users who have accounts on the same unix system, to turn on filesharing is simply a matter of changing file/folder permissions.

(Placeholder: UNIX filesharing: allowing others to have read and/or access to your home directory) Cross platform networking

(Placeholder: Samba for NT+UNIX networking)

4.6 Other options

There are other third party software which provide filesharing service across different platforms.

(Placeholder: web-based file storage and sharing system that is beginning to take shape.)

However, if server resources are readily available to you and your system administrator is cooperative, it is recommended that you use the filesharing services as described in the above section.

4.7 The convergence on the web


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