The next issue has as a theme of technology, Nicky Hockly was looking for someone well known in the world of EFL technology to interview for it. "There'll be a piece on CoPs and professional development in the mag too, in which I mention Webheads in Action, so it would be a nice fit. (Btw, my colleague Gavin Dudney and I have submitted a piece to the Guardian Weekly newspaper about this, in which you and WiA are also mentioned, which we hope will be published - I'll keep you informed)"

INTERVIEW WITH VANCE STEVENS

As an EFL teacher, how did you first get involved with technology?

I started off an article I wrote for the CALL-IS Newsletter with an answer to this question. You can find the entire article here: http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/tesol/newsletter/callis_began.htm

I got into computing in 1979. That was the year I sat myself down at the keyboard at the terminal connected to the room full of cabinets with spinning tape reels of a half million-dollar minicomputer recently installed in the language center where I worked in Saudi Arabia and just diddled with the keys like you would a piano. While I was trying to work out where the sound should be coming from, my director happened to pass by and, perceiving in my random gestures some precursor to expertise, called on me to head up the CAI development program he had been charged with getting under way. Back then we didn't call it CALL.

I succeeded in coordinating a team of developers in the production of the institute's first battery of computer-based drill and practice lessons only because I got to grips with the manual for the authoring system we were using and managed to stay at least one page ahead of everyone else on the team... There is a lesson here for newcomers to CALL: it's a field you can get into at any time and become an expert in the latest software tool, Flash for example, faster than those with more experience can remember how to type in the code in BASIC that will get the computer to say BOO. It's a field where you break in fast just by starting out on a higher rung on the ladder than the next person down.

In 1981 I moved to Honolulu to start in the MA program at the University of Hawaii. After struggling for a semester with typing out second and third draft revisions to an overwhelming number of papers I had to write, I bought an Apple II plus with 48K RAM (that's right, kilobytes). The computer, second floppy drive unit, and printer cost me over $3,000 (RAM has since increased, but you'll notice prices haven't changed much). Taken in perspective, the remarkable significance of the Apple was that it was the first ever mass-produced computer affordable to individuals and was thus poised to make possible the empowerment inherent in grass-roots development of a far-ranging variety of computer-based applications that most of us take for granted today. Though I only got 40 characters of type across the screen and had to track in my head that every other line would have a break when it printed on paper, I had at least put the days of re-typing behind me. I also bought a copy of Apple Pilot and steered my M.A. thesis onto a CAI topic.

How would you say that computers (and especially things like the Internet) have changed EFL teachers' roles?

To answer this question we have to go Way back when: early ESL daze - http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/cyprus2001/plenary/gvs07a.html

And, in which: The presenter brings 20 years of CALL experience to bear on traditional notions of how CALL is implemented and suggests alternative paradigms inherent in two development models he has been working with, one institutional and one on-line. Theoretical underpinnings are discussed and serendipitous outcomes shown for both approaches.

http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/tesolarabia2002/outcomes.htm

The following chart tracks changes in approaches to language teaching and to CALL over the past few decades.

Era Milestone Language teaching CALL
1970's How languages were taught before computers & early days behaviorist: audio lingual, transformations as a way of understanding syntax transposing book exercises into computer-based ones
1980's The move into humanism cognitive, learner centeredness, communicative competence, community language learning, silent way, TPR ... humanism in CALL, tools based approaches, text manipulation, attention to language use around as well as via the computer
1990's Tutor / Tool distinction communicative approaches Internet opens vistas for authentic and relevant materials, providing resources for projects based curricula
This century Communities of Practice constructivist approaches wider possibilities for real 'live' communication make possible learner scaffolding via communities of practice online

Old behaviorist notions of language teaching and learning that lingered through the end of the last century were discouraging to both learners and teachers, as they disembodied language from its humanist, communicative purpose.  When use of computers is properly aligned with the more recent paradigms favoring language learning, this makes both the learning and teaching of languages more challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable by making possible highly motivating, authentic, relevant, and communicative opportunities for language practice, often with real people and in real-time, and theoretically available to anyone anywhere in the world.

For an EFL teacher who has no experience of using computers in the classroom, what would you suggest he/she start with?

An EFL teacher with no experience using computers in the classroom is more likely these days to be a teacher with little classroom experience rather than little computer experience. Teachers with years of classroom experience and no computer experience are becoming a thing of the past (let us hope, through prosperous retirement).

In cases where experienced teachers wish to use computers with students for the first time, I suggest text manipulation. Text manipulation is a fairly easy concept to understand. It assumes the user knows something about creating text (with a word processor for example) or capturing text (copying from a website and pasting to a text file) text, and storing that in a file somewhere which can then be targeted by any of the genre of programs that can create exercises from just that text. In CALL implementations I have started where the teachers knew a lot more about teaching than they did about computers, this approach has worked to get them using the computers with the students. I can also report that experienced teachers who have started using computers in this way generally progress very quickly to the next level.

The next level might be to get a little more creative with an authoring program. Because it is free to educators who agree to freely share what they make with the program, Hot Potatoes has become a staple exercise creation software. It's easy to use for churning out a wide variety of CALL materials, and for more imaginative and sophisticated users it can be used to present and create exercises utilizing multimedia. Hot Potatoes can be entry level software for novice computer users who want to get a lot of bang for their buck.

Hot Potatoes produces exercises that open in students' browsers and so the next step for teachers developing a collection of such programs might be to organize that collection and link to other such collections through a personal web portal of some kind. The simplest such portal would be a list of exercises made in a word processor and saved as HTML, but if Microsoft Office is used, then you might as well use Front Page instead of Word, since the interface has the same look and feel (or some other wysiwyg HTML editor). This list of exercises might be on a page addressed to students, and clicking on a link to the exercise would open it in the browser. From this concept the teacher would think of inumerable other ways that classroom and professional management could be improved through development of simple web pages that linked to one another and to resources on the computer, or set of networked computers, or on the Internet.

Progression to the next level requires that the computers are connected to the Internet. In days before Internet connection could be assumed, CALL developed the connotation of exercises done on computer, and teachers were searching for the cd-rom that they could sort of plug their students into. But now that Internet access is becoming more common it becomes possible to repurpose and/or make use of authentic language learning materials directly from the Internet. I would assume that many teachers entering our field at this point are at this stage. Young teachers today are likely to be familiar with the Internet, possibly utilized search engines to find their job, and applied online to get it. They know how to use computers, they just don't know how to use them with students.

For this kind of teacher there are a number of books to read (e.g. Dudeney, Gavin. 2000. The Internet and the Language Classroom: A practical guide for teachers. Cambridge University Press) and a vast plethora of web sites to visit. A workshop I gave on the topic has its website here: http://www.vancestevens.com/papers/cyprus2001/workshop/index.html, and (modeling the organization skills I espoused above) I've made links to other people's perspectives for using the Internet with students at: http://www.vancestevens.com/lnxmainp.htm. A personal favorite, with many practical suggestions for language exploitation based on interesting sites on the Internet is Douglas DeLong's Tower of English, http://TowerofEnglish.com. The Webquests concept is well worth exploring, as it incorporates a complete heuristic for developing materials with high pedagogical integrity by developing topics through managed exploration of the Internet. Bernie Dodge's Webquest page at http://webquest.sdsu.edu/ registers almost four and a half million hits since Feb 28, 1998.

This brings us to the latest, though probably not the last, level of using computers with language learners, the one that gets at the very heart of language learning, and that is communication - real communication with real people about topics of interest to all involved. In a way it's the most obvious use of computers in language learning consider how widespread email is, and considering that chatting and use of instant messagers is easy for almost everybody and rising so fast. The use of voice and video with chat enhances the human dimension and has not been difficult for those who try it out. But the role of chat is also misunderstood in language learning, and even considered a distraction and a danger and blocked at the firewall in many language learning settings. However, if I were a teacher looking for ways to use computers with language learners, this is where I would enter the fray, or at least where I would set my sights.

And with Webheads this is in fact what we have done.

Tell us a little about Webheads

Ok, the name Webheads was proposed by Dave Winet in an ICQ chat in 1997, back in the days when we thought it was amazing that Dave in California could be talking to me in Abu Dhabi through something as simple as an Internet connection. Dave had been organizing online classes through his site at http://www.study.com for a couple of years by then and I had taught two asynchronous (email-based) courses under his auspices. By 1998 I was following Dave's lead and holding classes synchronously in a Virtual Schoolhouse in The Palace and had started a course I called English for Webheads. In late 1998 I based the course at eGroups (now YahooGroups) and changed its name to Writing for Webheads, to reflect the activities students did in email, which we published on their web pages, and in the text chats we held once a week. When the capability presented itself we branched into voice chatting, and in a perfect example of scaffolding within a thriving community, it was a student who introduced us to web cams. Now almost five years later, we still meet each week at noon GMT.

But the people who meet at noon GMT are no longer for the most part students. Somewhere along the line, the Writing for Webheads group started attracting the attention of language practitioners. One vehicle for this attention was the conference presentations we would make. At first we appeared as one of the side shows in web fairs where conference delegates would circulate among numerous presenters showing how they were using the Internet for language learning. Occasionally they would stop at my computer and find they could interact in real time with the Webhead students and teachers who happened to be online at the moment. This kind of interaction was excellent practice for students, who particularly thrived when we joined conferences that were conducted entirely online. When we started doing voice chat we began announcing our venues via the 'usual' listservs frequented by language facilitator practitioners (TESLCA-L, Neteach, for example) and our conference presentations became circus events where attendees would often use computers at the conference venue where they could voice and text chat with each other and with the Webheads participants online.

The involvement of language professionals had the effect of diminishing the participation of the student users in the weekly synchronous chats to the point where it was realized that two separate groups were required. The opportunity to form a professional development group came in 2001-2002 when Webheads in Action was formed as a TESOL EVOnline session to teach community building online through the actual building of an online community. The experiment succeeded so well that the Webheads session was the only group that year to not disband; rather it continued in the EVOnline sessions the following year with a study of itself as a Community of Practice. This particular study led to a colloquium presented at the 2003 TESOL Conference in Baltimore at which half the panelists presented live and online in voice and video chat via a dialup connection we had arranged for the presentation room.

At present the two Webheads groups comprise about 400 members and have enough impetus to generate daily interaction on whatever topics interest the members. We are often asked what we talk about at our weekly chats, and we have to answer, 'whatever comes up.' We have no agenda, no syllabus, no funding and yet we have illustrated that learning is indeed a social phenomenon and that participants in such a group will meet weekly for years on end to enjoy each other's company and expertise, and to develop individually through collaboration efforts that stem from getting to know one another through frequent encounter.

The two Webheads groups have evolved over the years, the original student group and an offshoot for teaching professionals:

You can join Webheads any Sunday at noon GMT by logging on to http://www.tappedin.org/new. You can find out what time that is where you are here: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/full.html. If you want to find out what other chat tools were are experimenting with at any given time, you can find that information here: http://sites.hsprofessional.com/vstevens/files/efi/software.htm.

 

Could you give us a few doís and doníts for the EFL teacher starting out with technology in the classroom?

If you're in the position of needing this advice then the first DO is 'Do get started now' and 'DON'T put it off any longer.' Another DO might be to take an inventory of your skills. A teacher recently reported that she had asked colleagues if they used technology in the classroom, and found that they frequently said 'no' when in fact they used word processing and web browsing as a matter of course. So it's possible that you use technology more than you give yourself credit for.

As shown by the Webheads experience, learning to use technology takes place at an accelerated pace if you join a tech-savvy community. In today's interconnected world, there is no need to press on in isolation. You can join listservs such as those mentioned earlier and simply lurk and get a feel for list traffic, then ask your questions. You'll be surprised at how helpful and understanding community members can be. You can also join online communities and ask questions of live people. One great community is that revolving around Tapped In, http://www.tappedin.org/new. Here you can find live interlocutants at almost any time of the day or night (your night is somebody's day ;-). As mentioned earlier, Webheads meets here each Sunday noon GMT. You can find out what time that is where you are here: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/full.html.

There are a lot of other little tips you can add to your DO list. Use the search engines to feret out information. You can type in almost anything and information of some use is likely to come to you. Try typing in the error message you get when something you're are attempting doesn't work. You might find someone has had that problem before and posted its solution. Problems with Windows? Open any window and select Help. Need training? Look for it on the Internet. The more you seek out information, the more you learn, even through the process of conducting your search. You can even use search techniques in class to expound on grammar or usage. Try Google's advanced search for example, exact phrase 'should have' (to use one possible example) and ask students to tell you which instances express regret and which possession (one possible exploitation). So another DO is 'use your imagination.'

I can't think of many DON'Ts, except perhaps, if you think something might work, don't hesitate to try it out.

Whatís your favourite EFL website? And your favourite non-EFL website?

My favorite ESL sites present imaginative uses of the Internet, while their creators remain committed to both their craft and to keeping their sites free for everyone to use:

My favorite non-ESL sites favor community building or provide useful tools or concepts.  As with my favorite ESL sites, their services are provided for free.  These include:

For young learners:


An ESL teacher since 1975, Vance Stevens has been implementing CALL since 1979. He has conducted research, produced numerous publications and CALL software, and was Director of ESL Software Design at a software publishing company in California. He has served on the editorial boards of major professional journals, and is past chair and founding member of the CALL Interest Section in TESOL.

This was edited down quite a bit to produce the published interview, here.

Date: June 26, 2003