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
Presenters: Andy Chao, Vance Stevens, Jim Kohn, David Nunan, Lillian Wong
Sat, April 3, 8:30 AM to 10:15
Location: Long Beach Convention Center/Grand Ballroom
Click here to view the hypertext PowerPoint presentation: fun00.htm
This is a rough and only partially complete work in progress. Please do not cite from this page until this notice is removed, thank you. - Vance
Despite an explosion in the use of the Internet for all aspects of curriculum planning, implementation and evaluation, there is comparatively little documentation of the use of the Internet for actual instruction. While some successes have been reported in areas such as teacher education (see, for example, Nunan 1999), and also in the teaching of listening and literacy, considerable skepticism has been expressed at the possibility of teaching English through the Internet. :P>
In this colloquium, several experienced teachers and researchers as well as a student will offer multiple perspectives on the virtual classroom. Questions explored in the session include:
What are some of the technological barriers and solutions to conducting classes on line?
What is the nature to the discourse in the online classroom and what are the similarities and differences between classroom discourse and online discourse?
What special skills and knowledge are required by teachers to facilitate online conversation classes?
From the perspective of the student, what are the pros and cons of taking conversation classes on line?
The colloquium will conclude with a comparison of voice chat with conventional face to face instruction as well as an evaluation of the potential of voice chat to enhance learning through blended learning solutions.
Voices heard in online communities of practice
by Vance Stevens
This presentation is about Webheads' experiences with using voice chat with students, realized and potential benefits of such use, and some drawbacks associated with realities on the ground as concerns bandwidth and issues of voice quality. It is stressed that in order for the potential of voice interaction to be realized with students, teachers much first become comfortable with the medium in their own communities of practice.
The presenter has extensive experience using numerous voice chat clients with students and teaching peers in Writing for Webheads and Webheads in Action respectively. The goal of each endeavor has been to promote learning through creation of a community of practice of participants in each group. It is important to speak of both groups, the teachers / practitioners and the students because training teachers experientially in techniques for forming robust online communities and in their look and feel informs the way these teachers subsequently interact with students. We apply many such techniques to our online community formation projects, including creating portals with pictures and personal vignettes of all participants, and use of voice and web cams in synchronous chat events. We feel that voice is pivotal to these projects. It's the element of humanism in online interaction that projects best over the Internet. Web cams, the way we have used them so far, have had limited impact, but voice interactions consistently work for us in cementing bonds in our communities. With our student groups, in addition to enhancing the ability to get to know one another, it has the added benefit that for those in remote locations where there are few or no native speakers available, it may the only opportunity that such students have to interact aurally in real time with native speaking informants.
There was some question whether I was supposed to talk about teachers or learners today. I work primarily with teachers. But it will be a main point of my talk that working with teachers IS working with students, indirectly. It is crucial for teachers wishing to use CMC with students to get familiar with the medium by rehearsing off stage, and the logical interactants for that are other teachers with the same need to practice for their own professional development, and ultimately their own meetings with students.
That's essentially what Webheads is. I'm often at a loss to explain what we do there, why we have met weekly since 1998, for a calculated total of over 300 straight weekly meetings. Aside from the very important human element, the networking in both the figurative and literal sense, we are practicing - we are exploring what the medium can do. Over-riding these informal discussions is the the question - how can what I am doing here be applied to what I do in my profession? For many the answer comes on the wings of an inspiration (to bring in the conference theme of soaring far and catching dreams).
If this is indeed the case then we would expect to see evidence of this inspiration manifested in student projects, which is exactly what we find with Webheads.
First I should back up and say a few words about how we got started doing what we do.
I started teaching ESL in the mid 1970's. After a 20-year teaching career, most of it overseas, I moved back to the USA and into software development. In order to keep my hand in teaching, I started teaching online courses through EFI, English for Internet, at http://www.study.com. My first courses were email based but I soon moved into web-based environments and started experimenting with synchronous learning spaces. In these spaces, I started meeting like-minded teachers and prospective students, and with Dave Winet at EFI steering students our direction, we soon had a vibrant community of learners which we called Writing for Webheads.
The course was organized around a web portal, an email list, and a weekly synchronous chat venue. We were fortunate to have students who were as willing as the teachers to explore the confines of these spaces. Two of our students, Ying Lan and Felix, were particularly interested in voice and video. Felix was the first Webhead to send a video file out to the group, and I placed it at my website. Not to be outdone, I soon figured out how to record my own welcome message and place it at my site, to give visitors to the site more dimensions of my being besides text and still image. Meanwhile, Ying Lan was using Pure Voice and Real Player to send us recordings of her voice, which she would ask us to critique for pronunciation. She also sent us recordings of songs and poems she liked, and in many respects she led the teachers in use of sound and voices in her own language instruction. So early on, we had instances of students using the Internet to make themselves heard online, and at their own initiative and volition.
We had been experimenting with synchronous voice chat whenever we could. Voice capability has long been a feature of Netmeeting, and there used to be an instant messenger called PowWow that did voice long before Yahoo and MSN came out with it (but the makers of PowWow, Tribal.com, bit the dust before MSN and Yahoo Messengers became available). However, our first real breakthrough in synchronous voice communications came with dissemination of a plugin called Hear Me. The Hear Me company sent a small bit of code to anyone who registered with them that could be placed in a web page so that all visitors to that page would appear in the same voice-activated chat room. This meant that anyone who could copy and paste to a web page and mount that page on a server somewhere could have voice chat on his or her website. Webheads demonstrated this with a live online audience at the recent TESOL Conference in Vancouver. Hear Me was almost too good to be true, and indeed the service disappeared almost as quickly as it had come. For a while, Excite by Lycos filled the void, but that too was suddenly taken away in May 2001. I remember the date because I was set to give a plenary in Cyprus using Excite when its sudden disappearance caused me to fall back on Plan B on just a day's notice.
Hear Me was significant to Webheads because its use ultimately caused us to split into student and teacher groups. After the turn of the century, Hear Me was the reason we started using listservs such as TESLCA-L and Neteach-l to invite teaching peers to join in our online presentations. As teachers became increasingly interested in Writing for Webheads they joined the group and eventually came to dominate it, suppressing the students. Then in 2002 I gave an EVOnline session to more formally teach or community building methods and use of CMC tools to a group of teachers, and this group started the core of a teacher group that broke away from the original Webheads students group, calling itself Webheads in Action.
Webheads in Action was formed as a sort of experiment to see if the community-building techniques that had worked so well with the student group could be replicated with a group of language learning professionals who would be taught the techniques as they experienced first-hand how the community could form and develop (Stevens and Altun, 2002; Stevens, forthcoming). The experiment worked so well that the group continued beyond the time-frame for the original course and into a second round of courses a year later, where it undertook a study of itself as an example of a distributed community of practice. This study culminated in a symposium at the TESOL convention in Baltimore last year (Stevens et al., 2003) where, because of the world situation at the time -- the outbreak of SARS coupled with the start of the Iraq war -- only half our panelists were able to travel to be in attendance. So we arranged to have a phone line installed in the room where our panel would meet and we beamed in the missing presenters using voice chat software, and broadcast our session to the world at large while were at it.
This group of online teaching enthusiasts remains active to this day and is in fact constantly reinventing itself, emerging this year for example in an EVOnline session called Becoming a Webhead, in which some of the original group of course graduates took on the job of initiating yet another group of novitiates into the techniques of using voice and video to forge dynamic communities of practice.
This group has collectively produced an impressive portfolio documenting successful application of our techniques with blended communities of learners. I'd like to show you some examples of their work, as it aptly illustrates my point that proper training of teachers in CMC techniques can translate into applications of direct benefit to students. In particular I'd like to focus on the instances of this involving use of audio in the online environment.
Components for the creation of online learning portals
The use of IM (instant messenger) tools such as Yahoo Messenger <http://messenger.yahoo.com/>, MSN Messenger <http://messenger.msn.com/download/>, or ICQ <http://www.icq.com/download/> is on the rise among computer-users worldwide, and is becoming second nature to individuals utilizing their text, video, and/or voice capabilities. All CMC tools that I know of incorporate text chat, which is essential even to voice and Web cam enhanced CMC. Text is needed to clarify, specify URLs, and allow users to get a word in edgewise if someone is dominating the voice chat.
Instant messengers can let you know when your contacts are online. With Yahoo Messenger, you can see who has a Web cam online, and you can view multiple Web cams, all in conjunction with a robust multiplex voice chat conference to which users must be invited (no unwelcome drop-ins). It is even possible to open multiple chat rooms for breakout work. For conferencing among multiple users, Yahoo Messenger seems to be the best of the commonly available free voice and Web-cam enhanced instant messengers.
MSN also has voice capability and allows Web cam enabled chat in its version 6.0. It also launches Netmeeting <http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/>. Netmeeting has an accompanying set of tools that can enhance the quality and capabilities of synchronous CMC meetings, such as interactive whiteboard and application sharing, but in the free rendition, Netmeeting and MSN Messenger are both one-on-one voice and Webcam tools.
For institutional users with healthy budgets, Wimba's voice-enabled threaded discussion boards enhance the interaction, communication, and community development inherent in threaded discussions by letting interactants leave threaded voice messages in addition to text ones. Wimba has had sample voice boards at its Website where you can listen to people speaking in foreign languages and replay parts of utterances, and then leave your own spoken response <http://www.wimba.com/> . Wimba's interface is made intuitive with familiar record and play buttons. Wimba has other tools as well; for example voice email where you simply click the record button, address, and send (still free in the Demo section of the Wimba Website) and a chatroom product called Voice Direct.
If you use voice-enabled chat rooms, it's good to know that recordings can be made with a utility called Total Recorder <http://www.highcriteria.com/>. An all-in-one product that allows recording of voice chat - and subsequent replay of voice, slides, and text - is TalkingCommunities <http://www.talkingcommunities.com/>, an interface used by Alado <http://www.alado.net/> and in vClass by Elluminate <http://www.elluminate.com/products.jsp>.
Alado <http://www.alado.net/> provides java-enabled chat rooms where participants simply visit one URL and install the java software at which point all wind up in the chatroom with other listeners and speakers.The interface is sophisticated. Moderators of the chat room can 'synchronise browsing' which means that whatever URL he or she keys into the whiteboard area can be seen on the whiteboards of all other occupants of the room. In this way presentations can be 'pushed' to other viewers. There is a text area in addition to the aural component plus other bells and whistles. Assuming one has the latest version of Windows Media Player, presentations can be recorded. When this is activated, a wmp file is created on the user's hdd along with an HTML file that calls up the screens presented in synch with the audio, so the viewer retains a complete record of the event for replay later. PC users can try out the software at this URL: <http://www.alado.net/webheads>.
Mac and PC users can find something similar at <http://www.learningtimes.org/>. You have to register with the community (free) to use the Meeting Room with features similar in all the above-mentioned respects to the Alado product. To use the software you have to register with the community, but its a community of educators, and its use is free.
Another online community portal which our Webheads communities use regularly and which I also recommend to educators is Tapped In <http://www.tappedin.org/>. It would be well worth your while to point your browsers to these two web sites, if you are interested in pursuing this topic.
At the moment my focus with these two groups is on the teacher training aspects. I think that in order for these techniques to be used with students, it is necessary first that you, their teachers, become comfortable with the media involved. Admittedly there is so much that can go wrong with connectivity, with the software, with firewalls, that it is understandable that teachers prefer to stick with what they know when meeting with students. We (Webheads) are working within our community to scaffold one another into a greater understanding of these tools. Our approach is working. Many of our members have engaged their students in gratifying projects which they say they could not have accomplished if not for their work with Webheads in Action.
The following are notes from a recent plenary I gave in Cairo. I will shortly be incorporating these notes into a formal text to be included logically with the work above.
Please do not cite anything in this material until this notice is removed.
I could produce dozens of stories of such accomplishments but Ill note just a couple. Here is a PowerPoint slide showing a portal developed by Aiden Yeh (n.d.), who collaborated with Michael Coghlan, another Webheads community member who, to bring us back to one of the themes at the beginning of this talk, is a musician and teacher who writes his own music and puts it online at his web site for use with his own students in Australia. Aiden had her students in Taiwan listen to one of the songs and then meet with Michael online to discuss it, and then Aiden documented her students reactions and interactions with Michael on her own web site.
Another success story is that of Yaodong Chen, a longtime collaborator with Webheads from Liuzhou, China. Yaodong has made the faces of the students in his packed face-to-face classrooms familiar to Webheads, and his constant efforts to bring them "out of the fishbowl" (as one of our online collaborators, Shunichiro Ito, has put it) and put them in touch with a world of native speakers have paid off. His use of CMC tools in his one-computer classrooms eventually resulted in his being granted a much larger CALL facility. I documented his work with Webheads in my first article as Internet editor for TESL-EJ (Stevens, 2002).
Yet another success case is that of Buthaina Alothman at Kuwait University. Buthaina joined Webheads in Action when it was formed in 2002. She used the community in the way that Chris Johnson describes in his diagram to increase her expertise in online communications tools to the point where she had developed a before and after website -- where she showed us examples of her web design before and after exposure to Webheads -- and she said she was, in her words, much obliged to the help Webheads had given her in facilitating her professional development (Alothman, 2003). She joined us as a contributor in our recent online workshop (where we examined our own community as an example of a distributed community of practice) in the part where members discussed how what they had learned with Webheads in Action informed their teaching practices.
Late last year Michael Coghlan paid a visit to me in Abu Dhabi, our first-ever face-to-face meeting in over 6 years of online collaboration. He came at a time when Webheads were giving a Global Learn Day presentation via voice chat live and online from an auditorium at Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi. Although there were but half a dozen people in the live auditorium audience, there were ten times that many in the virtual voice chat audience from all over the world. Because she lived nearby in Kuwait, Buthaina, whom we had also never before met face-to-face, hopped on a plane and joined Michael and I on stage in Abu Dhabi. The experience was revealing to her. As she said later, she saw how things worked from behind the curtains. Its not rocket science, and Ill try to show more about how its done in a demonstration Im giving on Friday (Stevens, 2004b), but sometimes its good to see first-hand how simple it all really is. Buths reaction was clearly, Oh, I can do that myself, and so when it came time for her students in Kuwait to make their end-of-term presentations, she constructed the activity according to what she had learned. She lined up an auditorium with an Internet connection and networked with Webheads to ensure the presence of a virtual audience, and her students presented not intramurally within the confines of their classroom at Kuwait University, but to a world at large.
I ask you to ponder for a moment how motivating, real, and meaningful that experience must have been for her students. Buth has helpfully documented her work online so you can visit her web site and see feedback from her students and others who participated in those student presentations online (Alothman, 2004).
How do students benefit from these activities? One of the first studies of chat in the sort of contexts Im describing was done by Jo Mynard (2002a and 2002b), a colleague in the UAE, as part of her doctoral dissertation. She lists several benefits as given on the slide shown here. These include interaction in authentic contexts with native speakers, promotion of learner autonomy, improvement of interactive competence, and opportunities to 'notice' language used by native speakers.
Another article on this topic has been produced by Dafne González (2003), another member of the Webheads in Action community. Both articles list benefits to students compatible with constructivist principles: learner autonomy, negotiation of meaning, immediacy of feedback, and a further benefit of having a record of the chat for enhanced study later. This is possible for both voice and text chats by the way. Dafne also references the work of Joy Egbert, who couches benefits from use of technology, including synchronous chat, in terms of TESOL and other written standards (e.g. Egbert 2000, and mentioned in Egbert 2001, two give two examples accessible online).
Another published article on the benefits of chat is one by Webheads community member Teresa Almeida d'Eça, who characterizes chat as "a powerful and effective communication tool that fosters a fascinating, authentic and enriching learning experience." (Almeida d'Eça, 2003)
To all too briefly encapsulate six years of development and evolution of this community, here are some things we have learned.
We have learned that its possible to bring people together to work on a common purpose or practice via the Internet, but the recipe requires several essential ingredients:
I am often asked what we do in such an environment. I often answer that its like Seinfeld. Do you know Seinfeld, the American comedy TV show? Its a show about nothing. We talk about nothing, and about everything: the weather, local concerns, our lives and surprisingly personal details (considering we are mostly strangers), and of course, we talk about our practice, language learning. Because its informal, we talk, and we learn from one another.
In the case of Computer Mediated Communication, the practice IS the medium. That is, the goal is to learn about a language if youre a student, or about how to facilitate language learning through CMC tools if youre a teacher, or perhaps both for either group (because not all our teachers are native speakers of English, and a lot of our NNS students who arent teachers are interested in CMC out of interest or as an aspect of their professions). So a part of our discourse is about using the tools, troubleshooting problems, and finding new tools. Topics are not restricted to tool talk, but as the community grows and percolates through its new members, the likelihood of gaining insights from the interaction grows too. As with any stimulating endeavor, its hard to pinpoint what someone is getting from it at a given moment. But one indication that its beneficial, at least in Webheads, is that people keep coming back to it, week after week, year after year. And it cuts to the core of that overriding reason to learn a language: to communicate. Its constructivist: people talk about what they want to talk about, each person is in control to the extent he or she wants to be, the affective filter is way down, meaning derives from within, and scaffolding clearly takes place within the zone of proximal development that encompasses the community of practice.
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Presenter: Vance Stevens
Stevens will share his extensive experience with use of numerous voice chat clients with students and teaching peers in Writing for Webheads and Webheads in Action respectively. The goal of each endeavor has been to promote learning through creation of a community of practice of participants in each group.
I will speak on Webheads experiences with using voice chat with students, realized and potential benefits of such use, as well as some drawbacks associated with realities on the ground as concerns bandwidth and issues of voice quality. I will stress that in order for the potential of voice interaction to be realized with students, teachers much first become comfortable with the medium in their own communities of practice.
It is important to speak of both groups, the teachers / practitioners and the students because training teachers experientially in techniques for forming robust online communities and in their look and feel informs the way these teachers subsequently interact with students. We apply many such techniques to our online community formation projects, including creating portals with pictures and personal vignettes of all participants, and use of voice and web cams in synchronous chat events. We feel that voice is pivotal to these projects. It's the element of humanism in online interaction that projects best over the Internet. Web cams, the way we have used them so far, have had limited impact, but voice interactions consistently work for us in cementing bonds in our communities. With our student groups, in addition to enhancing the ability to get to know one another, it has the added benefit that for those in remote locations where there are few or no native speakers available, it may the only opportunity that such students have to interact aurally in real time with native speaking informants.
(acceptance letter here)
This paper is being developed in conjunction with another here, and the
two might end up as the same paper at some point:
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Last updated: April 7, 2004 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0
©opyright 2004 by Vance Stevens