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You are looking at my final draft which was submitted for inclusion in the Spring 2004 issue of Essential Teacher It's title in that issue was changed to Tools for building online communities (and there may have been other minor changes as well, but I haven't made a fine comparison as of this writing). You may quote from this article online but please note that you are viewing the online version. If you would like a print version of the published work, please obtain:

Stevens, V. (2004). Tech view: Tools for building online communities. Essential Teacher: ESL/EFL.reflections.practice, Spring 2004. pp. 32-35. A draft version of this article can be found online here: (Note: this is where you are now)

Tools for building online communities:
Technology at the service of language learners and teaching practitioners

by Vance Stevens

Computing Lecturer, Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi,

While working on an early draft of this paper, I got an instant message from someone I'll call 'Foolan' asking if I would help resolve a problem with the voice chat at Although I don't manage this site, I am mentioned on it, and so I try to help when asked. is actually run by Dave Winet as a virtual space where language learners can meet and talk 'live' with other language learners and teachers online. Logging on to help Foolan, I was greeted by a lady from Columbia who expressed concern over her spoken English. I assured her that I understood and she relaxed noticeably. 'Dutchman' had visited my Web sites and was pleased to meet the creator. He wouldn't divulge his real identity, except that he was a German living in Holland. Since those present could hear and speak to one another, 'Foolan' concluded that he had a bad microphone and resolved to replace it.

Building community on line

This encounter illustrates several aspects of using computer-mediated communication (CMC) in Web-based language learning and teacher professional development.

  1. There are numerous indications here of community formation: (1) 'Foolan' used the community Website to launch an appeal for help from someone associated with that community. (2) 'Dutchman' is one of many return visitors getting to know one another here. (3) In articulating recognition of me as being associated with this particular community , Dutchman strengthened our ties to the community and developed awareness in others that such a community exists.
  2. Dutchman's desire to preserve privacy is typical within online communities. However it is not uncommon for trust to develop over time to such an extent that community members not only reveal their true identities but sometimes issue blanket invitations to online community members whom they have never met to visit their homes when traveling to their countries.
  3. The willingness of community members to take time to assist one another is also typical and exemplifies the benefits of learning within a sociological context where participants constantly scaffold one another.
  4. In order to promote community building online, a site's interface must be easy to use. Expertise with the technology is not an issue with You visit the site, click on a link, authorize the download, and find yourself participating in a voice-enabled chatroom. Anyone predisposed to visiting such a site most likely can without difficulty.

When the online site is compelling and easy to use, it attracts a critical mass of users and interaction becomes meaningful. Participants find they benefit mutually through helping and learning from one another, and a community forms as the interaction develops.

Accordingly, our discussion of technology focuses primarily on what we want it to help us do. The technology selected for language learning, and for the training of language teachers, needs to encourage the human interaction which in turn promotes community formation. The learning context should suggest the tools to be used - the tools serve rather than drive the learning process.

The same technology tools that can be used with students can also be used to get teachers communicating during professional development, and it turns out that teachers enjoy using CMC tools for the same reason that the students do - i.e. get to know each other and compare cultures.

I manage learning environments where users rarely meet in person <>. These environments promote self-actualization with minimal accountability required, and strong community presence. Interaction is aimed at the heart of language development: communication. The thrust is to encourage participants to leverage their mutual intrinsic interest in one another into forging avenues of communication.

Teachers find they can learn best about using CMC with students by gaining experience in using it with each other. When students are drawn into partnerships with teachers wishing to practice with the tools, the distinction between teacher and student blurs, and communication flourishes within the community. When the community meets to learn how to develop a skill, we call this a community of practice (Wenger, 1998). Communities of practice have long been pervasive face-to-face, but forming them at a distance online is a recent phenomenon.

Web-based community building tools

Looking now at some online tools favoring formation of such communities, we find

Learning Management Systems

Some institutions may already provide access to an LMS (learning management system) such as WebCT <>, Blackboard <>, or First Class <>, and these tools might be widespread enough throughout the institution to sustain the critical mass leading to formation of communities of practice. However, when no one LMS meets all your needs, you can mix and match your institutional tools with other free or third party software. For example Blackboard has many attributes making it an excellent choice on which to build an asynchronous e-learning environment, but its rudimentary set of synchronous communications tools (where users interact simultaneously as in chatting) might need augmenting

Asynchronous communication typically occurs in two forms: email lists and discussion forums, and the latter may or may not be threaded. Threaded discussions allow users to specifically address each other's topics, and comments and rejoinders can be viewed in outline format. Blackboard and WebCT are strong in this area, and this facility is often used by language teachers, who may evaluate students on quality and/or quantity of contributions to such discussions. It is also possible to set up such discussions on freeware, such as Nicenet <>, or follow them at sites like Dave's ESL Cafe <>, or GEN (Global Educators' Network) <>.

Many email lists retain an archive of some kind. One of the easiest to set up (for free) is YahooGroups <>. The archives in YahooGroups constitute a non-threaded discussion forum (though emails with the same subject heading are linked).

Components for the creation of online learning portals

The use of IM (instant messenger) tools such as Yahoo Messenger <>, MSN Messenger <>, or ICQ <> 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 <>. 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 <> . 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 <>. An all-in-one product that allows recording of voice chat - and subsequent replay of voice, slides, and text - is TalkingCommunities <>, an interface used by Alado <> and in vClass by Elluminate <>.

An even more comprehensive Web-based training tool is HorizonLive, which markets interfaces with streaming synchronous or recorded asynchronous sound and video enhanced presentation capability plus collaboration tools such as interactive whiteboard, application sharing, breakout rooms, and a quiz and survey facility. These tools are not free for those presenting, but archives can be freely perused at the HorizonLive Website <>.

Online community portals

For language learning and teacher professional development purposes, the most compelling chat areas for long term networking are those that develop a sense of community . One interesting example is Active Worlds <> where you interact via animated avatars having 3D mobility through virtual space (an avatar is an object representing you in a virtual environment). Gordon Wilson once maintained a website detailing work with ESL students in Japan who created an 'Active World' called InterZone University, but it is no longer available. Another avatar-based chat area used judiciously by educators was called the Palace, but Palace servers are becoming increasingly rare. At such sites you meet people who apparently know one another in spontaneously formed communities of frequent users of these sites.

One disadvantage of Active Worlds and the Palace is open access. They are largely uncontrolled spaces that can introduce Frivolous Unpredictable Nonsense into the language learning environment (considered by some as 'FUN'). A safer more homogeneous space is Tapped In <>>, a sophisticated virtual environment dedicated to interaction among educators, but which also welcomes use by students. Another professional networking portal is LearningTimes <>. Both afford productive opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous text-based communication and collaboration.


In conclusion, for anyone with an Internet connection, an open mind, a penchant for experimentation, and an urge to communicate, figuring out the technology no longer poses a hindrance to interacting with others in online communities comprising language learners and/or teaching practitioners. Nor is price a problem, as many robust tools are freely available online allowing collaboration via synchronous or asynchronous text, voice, and video enabled chat. Anyone wishing to pursue the opportunities inherent in these tools will likely expend far more effort finding and becoming involved in the communities associated with these tools than with stumbling on their download, installation, or use.


Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice Learning as a social system. Retrieved October 2, 2003 from:

This version October 2, 2003; header information altered March 21, 2004