How one man is keeping the iconic online ALT community alive and well
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Monica Hand (Ehime)
Jake Whiton (Nagano)
If you are in any way involved in English language education in Japan, you’ve likely stumbled on ALTopedia.net at least once. And if so, you’ve likely come to cherish this goldmine of a website as a saving grace during those frantic lesson planning sessions. But this site, boasting lessons from elementary to senior high school, has a story all its own.
In the beginning, there was Englishpedia. If you’ve been around long enough to remember that site, you may also recall its slow and chaotic interface. The manager of the site was looking to move on, and found a successor in Jake Whiton. Though a new ALT, Jake’s technical experience and knowledge was the key to unlocking the site’s full potential. It just needed a reboot, so to speak.
Here we’ve chatted with Jake Whiton, now the sole admin of the site, to learn more about his philosophy and vision for this online ALT community.
I still get a big kick whenever I see that someone’s class went really well because another teacher shared their great idea with everyone.
When you first came on to revamp the site and create a more efficient interface, what inspired your approach to the community side of it all?
I’m in my late 30s, so I grew up in the era of web forums. I’d seen a lot of web-based communities form around a topic of mutual interest or a geographic region, but inevitably most of them would burn themselves out as users started getting into arguments with each other. Most people want to avoid acrimonious places, so you often see web communities that get entirely taken over by conflict as the more reasonable users leave.
I think communities should be able to decide what kind of discourse they want to have, but I wasn’t too keen on having to moderate arguments all the time.
Speaking of online moderation, how do you promote a more wholesome environment online?
I try to encourage positive behaviors like expressing appreciation for other users’ contributions. On the flip side, I haven’t added any systems for negative interactions like a “thumbs down” button or a rating system with a point scale. It’s a big site, and if someone doesn’t like an activity, they don’t have to use it, and there isn’t any algorithmic recommendation system trying to constantly show it to them.
You can probably think of a few large commercial sites and social media services which encourage negative posts as much as positive posts, because it riles up the users and gets them to return to the site to look at more advertising. This is having negative effects on society and I don’t want to be a participant in making the problem worse.
I’d like the site to be a collection of teachers being thoughtful, positive, and productive, and I think that will lead to better, if somewhat less frequent, contributions.
In terms of the community and the contributions, is there anything that has come as a surprise over the years?
What surprised me the most with how ALTopedia turned out was the popularity of interactive PowerPoint-based activities. Englipedia ran from roughly 2006 to 2016, and a lot of its activities centered around print-outs and worksheets, as was more of the style at that time. Paper-based classroom activities were my bread and butter, so I didn’t anticipate just how much PowerPoint activities would become a big hit in the classroom in the last few years. I think there’s been a positive escalation effect as users find the most creative and funny PowerPoints and then put their own spins on them.
How have your own interactions with and maintenance of the website changed over the years?
On the technical side, I’ve gotten quite the baptism in fire regarding the technical details of web development and hosting. Like a lot of things in life, I’ve only learned the right way to do something by stumbling upon all of the wrong ways first!
The other side of this learning process is that I’ve been able to enhance, refine, and add a lot of things to the site over the years. The users have been patient and helpful and I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of their great suggestions over the years.
The earliest activities on the site were the ones I was using in my own classes that I added just to have something for people to look at, but now that I’m not teaching, I’m a little out of touch with what’s going on in today’s classrooms. At this point, I think my role is to listen and keep building a better platform for teachers to collaborate.
What has been the most rewarding part of running the community and watching it grow?
I don’t remember the exact time this happened, but early on in the site’s history, I noticed that someone had left a comment on another user’s activity saying “Thanks! I used this in my class today and the students loved it!”
Two people I didn’t know had found this silly site that I’d designed, (and it was much rougher in the first year or two) gone through the trouble of signing up, contributed their own ideas without me ever telling them that they had to do it, and a class full of students that I’d never met had a fun time in their English class. Somehow, amongst all of the technical issues and coding ineptitude on my part, I’d managed to facilitate that. I still get a big kick whenever I see that someone’s class went really well because another teacher shared their great idea with everyone.
You mention no advertisers, is everything all not for profit when it comes to the community? How do you make those kinds of decisions?
This is kind of a pet peeve of mine, although I think it’s become more of a mainstream issue in recent years. I think that advertising creates bad incentives for web sites and online services. There’s the phenomenon of “clickbait,” where a dishonest or insincere framing of a story is used to lure people to click on something to be able to tell advertisers that more people are visiting their site. Advertising-based sites frequently turn into little more than a trap with a bare minimum of useful, substantive content to decorate the margins around the advertising.
Users dislike this, so sites have to constantly engage in back-and-forth battles with their users about how many ads are too much. I think this is one of the factors that coursens people’s behavior on large, ad-driven sites. People can sense when they’re in a place that doesn’t respect them.
What kinds of challenges has this decision brought about? How do you meet those?
I’ve operated the site at a loss for most of its history, but I’ve been hoping to eventually make its costs back with the subscription system. It’s still getting off the ground, but the primary subscription benefit is the Lesson Tracker, a system to manage your school schedule inside ALTopedia.
My hope is to fund the site through services like this that users find valuable. I don’t know if it will be possible or how long it will take, but I think it’s really important to align the incentives of the site management and the users.
What is your hope for the future of the community and the website?
My long-term goal for the site is for it to be the best possible home of good ideas and hard-earned wisdom about working as an ALT. Most ALTs work for a few years and then move on, and I think many of them would love for their ideas to live on and help others even after they’ve left their schools.
There are a hundred other features I’d like to implement if I had the time, but in general, I’d like teachers to be able to find classroom material that will work well for them in their unique situation, track and organize their own lessons, and be able to share what they’ve developed and learned with others.
Do you plan to keep manning the sails in the years to come?
I plan to keep running the site for the foreseeable future, since I’ve spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping it running. I think that not having a corporate parent puts it in a unique position where it can focus on what’s beneficial to the users instead of the usual big company shenanigans.
Unfortunately, the site’s costs continue to grow as well, so its long-term viability will depend on how many subscribers the site can find to offset its costs. I have plenty of weaknesses and blind spots as the administrator, but I think that selling the site or sharing its leadership with someone who doesn’t share the same values would have a negative impact on the site and its community.
I think the ALT world is still very underserved when it comes to innovative solutions to the issues teachers face at work and in the classroom. There are still a lot of opportunities for someone who’s willing to look!
Jake lives with his family in mountainous Nagano Prefecture. Besides web development, he spends his time playing with toys like film cameras and electronic doodads. His favorite game to play with students is “Plural Monsters,” which you can look up on ALTopedia.
Monica is a second-year ALT based on the rural and lush Shikoku island. She loves rocky shore lines, salty popcorn, and a juicy plot twist.