Vance's CALL resources main page | View Site Index | Vance's papers and presentations
(C)opyright 2005 Vance Stevens

Tools used to create online communities of learner- and teacher-collaborators

By Vance Stevens
Lecturer of Computing, Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

This paper has been published in TESOL Arabia Perspectives (2005) Vol. 12, No. 2 (pp: 6-11). If quoting from the material here please note that you are viewing the online version from August 31, 2004 at: - Thank you.

Abstract (50 words)

Teachers incorporating constructivist principles in their professional development are then more likely to do so with students. Communities of practice where scaffolding occurs in zones of proximal development inculcate such principles. This article discusses tools used in such communities, and how CoP members apply these principles in their own classrooms.


In his recent book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Stuart Selber (2004) notes that trying to "be aware of all there is to know about computers" causes anxiety among educators whose work entails use of computers. This anxiety is probably common, in some degree, to everyone in education, and is inevitable and not necessarily warranted considering that knowing all there is to know about computers is impossible no matter how clever you are.

Language teachers have long been in the forefront of using computers with students, partly because their business is communication, something that computers are particularly good at facilitating. Consequently, there has been growing attention to computers in language learning since the early eighties, with many who have jumped on the bandwagon since that time becoming widely recognized for their contributions to use of technology both in the classroom and in the training of others. Where there is a bandwagon of course, there is by definition an exponentially greater number at the periphery who perceive themselves as having missed it entirely or having been prevented through their own shortcomings from hopping aboard. But I have often made the point that computer expertise can be more rapidly attained than most people realize, since constant innovation can leave even 'experts' behind as well as give novice users convenient entry points higher up the ladder than yesterday's experts. Accordingly, the greatest single requirements to becoming a knowledgeable computer user are simply a desire to be one, and commitment to act on that desire.

There are few other impediments. For people with reliable Internet connections, computer hardware normally exceeds requirements for expertise and much development of computer mediated communication (CMC) in language learning can be done with bundled and downloadable software (for CMC to work there must be many communicants, hence attainability of software cannot be an issue). In recent presentations and workshops I've been drilling home the point that what is needed to turn teachers into effective users of technology is not simply isolated training, but familiarity with the available tools ('procedural' as opposed to 'declarative' knowledge in one of Selber's breakdowns of 'functional literacy'). From this standpoint, I see the professional environment as a workshop staffed with teaching practitioners, and technology as comprising a set of tools appropriate to the tasks at hand. In order to exploit the tools, the craftspeople must know what tools are available and how each works in resolving different tasks. This kind of procedural knowledge or expertise is developed through familiarity with the tools. Workers generally don't excel using tools they are not familiar with. When a craftsperson creates something of value this will be done with tools the craftsperson knows well, and accomplishments of value can only be expected from craftspeople who have access to suitable tools and have taken the time to learn to use them. Accordingly, simply exploring what tools are available and creating and taking advantage of opportunities to use them is training in technology that anyone can do, at any time (and Tom Robb is conducting a survey which suggests that this is essentially all the technology training that many leaders in our field have received).

So suppose you are an educator with a standard model computer, LAN or dialup access to the Internet (the most common CMC tools work at less than 56K bandwidth), and a desire to join your peers in using technology with your students. How can you jump-start yourself on own training program?

One answer is to become involved in a community of practice. Communities of practice are nothing new. They have existed wherever people have found it expedient to band together spontaneously in order to pool knowledge on expertise associated with a 'practice' held in common . Examples extend from groupings around a campfire in primitive societies to any number of configurations in modern society. I used to belong to an 'Apple Club' for example, a group of people in my town who had in common that they all owned Apple II computers, and who met in regular meetings at which members would present on various aspects of how Apple computers could be used and tweaked, and then arrange to swap software (back in the days before email, Internet, or Macintosh). Nowadays such groupings need not be limited to people who can meet physically, or even regularly. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) use the term 'distributed' CoPs to refer to groups whose members meet online. It so happens that the tools such groups use to affect these meetings are the very ones that language teachers are interested in to promote communication among students, who may or may not be distant from one another, and speakers of a target language, who quite likely might be physically removed from the language learners.

Language teachers have already formed communities of practice to bring these elements together:

One community of practice which produces community members who direct their shared and acquired expertise into pedagogical outcomes is Webheads in Action. Members of this community have gone on to form others, such as Webheads members Elizabeth Hanson-Smith and Michael Marzio's Real English Online, which focuses on video production for pedagogical use with the aid of authoring systems such as Macromedia Flash and Hot Potatoes.

Webheads in Action

Webheads meet regularly online to explore ways of using the latest free communications technologies that work over the Internet for language learning and teacher training . These technologies include asynchronous tools such as blogging and synchronous ones such as text, voice, and web cam -enabled chat services (see Stevens, 2004a). Webheads have consistently introduced novice computer user teachers and students to CMC environments that are educational in nature, documented their experiences with these tools, and used them to work collaboratively on numerous student projects (Stevens, 2004b).

Despite its productive role in language learning and teacher professional development, 'chat' is discouraged in many language learning settings because of its perceived association with telegraphic discourse and paucity of content. It's seen by some as a frivolous waste of time, anathema to learning, and as a potential threat to network security (as is email, if safeguards are not put in place). There is some truth to these notions but they are only a tiny part of a much bigger picture. People can also waste time on the phone, or use their mobiles to arrange trysts. Yet the telephone is perceived more for what it is: a remarkable tool that facilitates communication and helps people accomplish tasks that would be impossible or difficult if left to other means of communication. Yet the telephone is expensive over long distances compared to the cost of an Internet connection. Eventually chat tools will be integrated with daily life, as is the telephone, but at the moment their use in education is misunderstood, their potential as powerful learning tools nowhere near fully realized. In order for teachers to gain a more realistic perspectives on the pedagogical utility of chat it is necessary for them to use it themselves in the course of their work and professional development.

Experimenting with chat as a form of professional development requires interaction with a community of like-minded communicants. Webheads have developed such a community through the following techniques:

CMC Tools

The CMC tools used in community formation and interaction enable both synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication. Some examples:



Through use of the above tools, community members experience participation in a community of practice where constructivist techniques are used as a model for learning. I maintain that in order for educators to become familiar enough with these tools to use them with students, it is necessary that they participate in such learning environments in order to gain exposure to the CMC tools available, and acquire the expertise to orchestrate them. But more importantly it is necessary to understand what it is like to learn within an online or blended zone of proximal development, how scaffolding works in such an environment, how rewarding it is to tap at one's own pace what the community has to offer, and to reach the point where it is possible reciprocate by extending support to others in the community.

Application in blended learning environments

Language teachers often acknowledge that learning is aided by social interaction by putting students into 'small groups' and having them provide 'feedback' to one another. Now I am finding that the techniques which work online apply in my face to face classes as well, in helping to enhance the feeling of community within the class, and in creating a wider audience for student work than just the immediate environment of the brick and mortar classroom. I accomplish this through the following techniques:

Blogging is an important element in online community building. The big advantage with blogs is that students can get themselves online instantly. They don't have to create web pages or deal with hosting and uploading files. Furthermore, students can personalize their blogs with photos and links to other web spaces. Blogging gives students a voice on the Internet and grants them access to an audience of readers and interactants going well beyond their immediate confines. Dieu (2004) has an excellent overview of blogs in language learning, and Ferdig and Trammell (2004) corroborate the importance of familiarity with blogging before using it with students.

Many Webheads participants have incorporated techniques for community building creatively in their own blended learning situations. One is Dafne González, who used her experience with Webheads to create her own online video-enhanced English course for architecture students in Spain (González, 2003). A second teacher is Buthaina Alothman, Kuwait University, who compares her work before her encounters with Webheads to her more recent work as influenced by the community of practice (Alothman, 2003). Among Buthaina's accomplishments was to have her students make their end-of-term presentations online through a voice chat portal, and to invite community members to listen to and help evaluate the presentations (Alothman, 2004). A third Webhead to apply CMC techniques to her face-to-face classes is Aiden Yeh in Taiwan. Aiden has created web pages documenting her students' work with community members, for example a meeting with Webheads songwriter Michael Coghlan, where her students listened to his songs online, then met the composer to discuss his lyrics (Yeh, n.d.). These projects are more fully detailed in Stevens, 2004b and 2004c.


The paper intends to support the assertion that if teachers pursue professional development in the context of communities of practice, they will work within models of constructivist learning environments, where scaffolding occurs among those in a shared zone of proximal development. Then, and perhaps only then, will they be in position to apply these principles to their own blended classrooms and workplaces.


Alothman, Buthaina. (2003). How participation in a CoP informs and influences personal teaching. Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Alothman, Buthaina. (2004). First live webcast of project by students (2003-2004). Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Dieu, Barbara. (2004). Blogging and Presence Online. Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Ferdig, Richard E., and Kaye D. Trammell. (2004). Content Delivery in the 'Blogosphere'. T.H.E. Journal (February issue). Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

González, D. (2003). Teaching and learning through chat: A taxonomy of educational chat for EFL/ESL. Teaching English with Technology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (October 2003). Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Selber, Stuart. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Stevens, V. (2004a). WFW: Writing for Webheads You can chat with us live, online, free. Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Stevens, Vance. (2004b). The Skill of Communication: Technology brought to bear on the art of language learning. In TESL-EJ 7, 4 (On the Internet). Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Stevens, V. (2004c). Voices heard having F.U.N. in online communities of practice: A Presentation by Vance Stevens, April 3 2004, at the annual TESOL Convention, Long Beach at a Colloquium on “Multiple perspectives on the on-line conversation class.” Retrieved August 30, 2004 from:

Wenger, Etienne, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Yeh, A. (n.d.). NKFUST's listening and conversation class with Michael Coghlan. Retrieved August 30, 2004 from: .


CMC tools and Web portals

Alado voice portal (for Webheads):

Blackboard -

Hot Potatoes -

iVisit -

Learning Times -

Macromedia Flash -

Moodle -

Netmeeting - Microsoft -

Nicenet -

Global Educators' Network -

Pal Talk -

Real English Online -

Tapped In -

Webheads in Action -

Wimba -

Yahoo! Groups -

Yahoo! Messenger -

Bio-statement (60 words):

Vance Stevens is a Computing Lecturer at Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, with ESL and CALL experience since the 1970s. He has conducted research, produced numerous publications and CALL software, and served on various editorial boards and committees of professional organizations. He has developed communities of practice for students and teachers based on the 'Webheads' model of online community development.

Use the navigation at the top of this page or your browser's BACK button to return to a previous page

For comments, suggestions, or further information on this page
contact Vance Stevens, page webmaster.

Last updated: April 24, 2005