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This presentation has been prepared for the Knowtips Conference
as part of an online panel presentation entitled:

Webheads – Intuitive chaos management in online collaborative interaction
with Susanne Nyrop, Vance Stevens, Dafne Gonzalez, Sergei Gridushko

Presentation description: Active WIA participants bring evidence of strong bonds of online collegiality and loyalty, while questioning and reflecting critically upon our experiments, tinkering with free communication tools and environments. During the Knowtips conference, we'll engage in storytelling and disucssion about such shared experiences. Join our narrative inquiry on how to help each other, moving from novice to practitioner to domain experts by inclusive participation, peer scaffolding and inspiration."


I knew my presentation would follow a presentation by Susanne Nyrop on the complexity of learning and perceptions of chaos in online environments such as Webheads. Not knowing what exactly would have been said before I refer you to a talk I have just prepared introducing Webheads which I consider to be a precursor to this one. You might therefore want to have a look at that presentation, which I can show you here.

This talk was scheduled for Feb 22 just a few days ago but despite having 49 people registered for it, so few actually showed up that it is now rescheduled for March 15, to allow us to attract a critical mass. So, if you're interested, please register (for free). I think we're looking at getting at least a hundred people registered for it this time in hopes that ten show up. You can track the development of this presentation here:

So this is a brief introduction to Webheads. And my talk today is on managing such a group in view of its many unique aspects. Many of these have been alluded to in what you have just heard, and I'll go over some of those aspects in a moment. Meanwhile, let me show you the URL for my talk, which is coming to you in the form of a Web tour. That is, I'm going to open a number of URLs on your computer, and I think each new one might appear in the same window as the one before.


This might appear a bit chaotic to you, so in order to help you manage this, or in a word I've just coined for this presentation, bring what you have to do in line with 'simplexity', I've written out everything I intend to say here and placed it at this URL, which I willl now open on your browser, voila:

There, you SHOULD have that. Now, what you need to do is bookmark that one, and you'll have it to refer to later. All the URLs I'm about to show you are there, so you can just sit back and enjoy the show. Now, have you done that? Let's have a show of hands, when you're ready. You've either bookmarked this or not and are ready to go on ... hands up when ready ...

Now that we're ready, I'll entertain you with a graphic from Bee's Weblogging portal, one she got from the Blaugustine blog, I believe. It illustrates to me the internally chaotic nature of interaction online, and exposes some of the uncertainty we all feel when contemplating our life on the Internet.

What kind of community do you want?

So, in considering management of an online community, one has to work out what sort of community one wants first of all. Webheads is fortunate, and unique, in that it isn't evaluated periodically, and it doesn't have to justify its funding (what funding!??). Someone asked me after a conference presentation how Webheads was evaluated and I said that it was evaluated by the number of return visits, and after 6 years we're still here, and still meeting at least once a week online, most often more frequently than that. We are productive, prolific, cooperative with one another, and we almost meet the constructivist ideal for almost any kind of learning community. How do we do it? I've made a short list. We tend toward:

Cat herding

So in managing this kind of system I as a sort of recognized manager have infused the group with my management style, which I could only get away with in a situation of zero accountability, believe me. Anyway the first premise of my management philosophy, or just for fun, let's call it a mis-management philosophy, is to treat the group as one would a group of cats. Now I like cats. I love cats. I respect the independence of cats. I will let a cat sit on my lap and get white hair all over my black suit, but when the cat wants to go off and do its cat-thing, I let it go. So I came up with this concept of my mis-management style being something akin to cat herding. I etched this concept in silicon back in 2001 when I gave a plenary in Cyprus and used it as a metaphor for promoting what I called serendipitous outcomes by allowing people to explore their full potential under a system of loose guidance rather than trying to remain firmly in control of all outcomes. Here's a slide from that presentation:

And there is an index there if you want to read the whole presentation, which was one of my early pronouncements on the topic. Incidentally, there is a link there to the Cat Herder video which was recently updated for our group by Elder Bob. It's very amusing and go ahead and click on it if you like. Your video will download in the background as we proceed. However, I can't call it up now or half my alloted time will be taken up in downloading it.

John Steele, now known to all posterity as Dr. Cat, incorporated this idea of cat herding into his dissertation, which he was writing on the subject of his interaction with webheads at the time. You can find it online here:

It's one of many dissertations that have been inspired by webheads, or to which webheads have contributed.

Intuitive Chaos Navigation

Another concept that we adhere to is that of Chaos Navigation. Now this is a term that was coined by our own dear Sus, Susanne Nyrop, shortly after she had discovered our group. She found our interactions difficult to follow at first since when the cats meet online, they might be in several windows at once, and those in the chat might be following multiple threads in any one or two of those. But we knew she had a handle on things when she produced this diagram during one of her early sessions with us.

I now tell the story of Sus's experiences at Tivoli

Here's another image I have on hand showing another rather complex interaction at the Palace, an avatar based chat client we used to use, and thoroughly enjoyed

Maggi's drawing at the Palace

And similarly, another screen shot showing a picture of my screen from the early days when a student had sent me a real player file to listen to and asked me to comment on her pronunciation while talking with her live in a voice chat client called Hear Me, while chatting with her and others in the Palace as well. It is pretty typical to work like this, but it becomes intuitive, which is when Sus coined the expression, Intuitive Chaos Navigation.

Here's another image from a recent TESOL conference where we have pasted screen shots from our video cam in the elluminate chat whiteboard while monitoring the actual web cam shown in the lower right of the screen

Frivilous Unanticipated Nonsense

Yet another concept is that of F.U.N. or Frivilous Unanticipated Nonsense, which is what I suggest is a likely outcome of chat-enabled learning situations, and which I suggest is a desireable outcome as well. I gave a talk on the topic whose portal is here (that's me and Dave Nunan and Buthaina having fun in Long Beach)

Here's a definition of FUN:

and an illustration in these two slides:

Developing the perfect mis-management style

I'm pretty sure that's all I've got time for but before I go I'd like to show you just two more pages. Both were created by Aiden Yeh, and they show in graphic moving detail (by that I mean video image) what happens when students have fun in this kind of environment. First, here's a page where you can see the students actually engaged in frivilous unanticipated nonsense:

And to lead you into Dafne's talk, I'd like to show you one of my all time favorites, which shows how something as complex as a Tai Chi lesson, delivered over the chaotic medium of computer-mediated learning, can be managed into a beautiful and flawless performance. Again, Aiden's students:

and that's it for me.

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Last Updated: March 17, 2005

Copyright 2005 by Vance Stevens