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INTERVIEW WITH VANCE STEVENS

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

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, where you can break in fast just by starting out on a higher rung on the ladder than the next person down.

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 and use. It assumes only that 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.

And the next step?

Progression to the next level requires that the computers are connected to the Internet. 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 now entering our field are at this stage. Young teachers today are likely to be familiar with the Internet, possibly utilized search engines to find their jobs, and applied online. They know how to use computers, they just don't know how to use them with students.

How else can we use the Internet with our learners?

There are many ways the Internet can be exploited for language learning, but the ultimate use of computers with language learners is the one that gets at its very heart, and that is communication - real communication with real people about topics of interest to all involved. This should be obvious considering how widespread email is, and considering that chatting and use of instant messengers is easy for almost everybody and rising so fast. The use of voice and video with chat enhances the human dimension and is not 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 novice 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.

Tell us a little about Webheads

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

Together the groups comprise nearly 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.

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 we 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 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 ;-).

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:


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.

You can find a full version of this 'interview' by clicking here

Date: June 26, 2003