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March 2006 presentations on Multiliteracies:

Applying multiliteracies in collaborative learning environments: Impact on teacher professional development

Vance Stevens
Foundation Computing, Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
vstevens @

You can find this presentation (here) at
You can view the video at (521 kbps) or below, courtesy of (55 kbps). Click here for more viewing options .

This presentation articulates my shift in focus for my TESOL PP 107: Multiliteracies for Collaborative Learning Environments course currently scheduled for September 11 to October 8, 2006.

It also serves as a working version of a presentation given virtually via recorded video at the 12th International CALL Research Conference How are we doing? CALL & Monitoring the learner, DIDASCALIA, University of Antwerp Language Institute 20-22 August 2006, more information at DIDASCALIA Research Centre:

This version is only 55 mbps for fast load-in. For a 340 kbps version click here


Hi. I'm Vance Stevens. I teach computing at Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, but I formerly taught ESL for 20 years, and I've also worked many years as CALL coordinator and software developer, and I've been on the editorial boards of several CALL and ESL related publications, including the CALL International Journal, edited by Jozef Colpaert. I've always felt that one of my greatest accomplishments was to help found Webheads, a thriving community of practice of tech-savvy educators that's been meeting and working together online for almost a decade now.

I'd like to thank Jozef, whom I met some years ago at a CALICO conference in Davis, California, for this opportunity to make a virtual presentation at the 12th International CALL Research Conference. I can't attend personally because I am expected to be teaching in Abu Dhabi on the dates of the conference in Antwerp. Considering the torrid weather in the Middle East at this time of year, I wish I could be there live, but I'm glad that some electrons representing my presence can at least be interacting with you in this format.

My presentation today is on applying multiliteracies in collaborative learning environments, and particularly the impact of this on teacher professional development. I've written out my presentation and annotated it and placed it on the Internet at

... so, if you can remember my name Vance, the current year, and the name of the town associated with this conference, and if you can put vance2006antwerp after the slash at the end of, you can find my presentation and the links I mention here on the Internet.

The basic concepts

In the past year or two I have taught online courses on developing effective strategies for understanding and utilizing current technology-enhanced collaborative learning environments, especially in the context of recent interest in multiliteracies, and I've made a number of presentations on applying these strategies in teacher professional development. What I normally talk about in these events is how communities of practice are forming online with increasing frequency for the purpose of participants furthering their professional development through the establishment of distributed learning networks which are essentially communities of practice whose members learn from one another through exercising principles of constructivist and informal learning. The impacts of this extend beyond teacher training, getting into issues of multiliteracies, and how power is shifting to individuals in peer-to-peer distributed networks from traditional information distribution patterns inherent in top-down information networking.

Now, I'm not going to elaborate on all these concepts here, but if you need to know more about the concepts of multiliteracies, or communities of practice, or distributed learning networks, or informal learning, you can visit my portal for this presentation at

continue the presentation

Informal learning - According to Jay Cross, "We discover how to do our jobs through informal learning -- observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning - classes and workshops and online events - is the source of only 10% to 20% of what we learn at work"

Multiliteracies refers, in a nutshell, to how people must adapt to the changing nature of communication in a digital age and from an educational standpoint, to what must be inculcated in students in order for them to succeed in lives where productivity depends on keeping up with technology. The seminal work on this topic was produced by those who coined the term:

I have also written an article on multiliteracies explaining the way I understand the term in the context of the topic of this paper. This was done in conjunction with a course I've taught on multiliteracies in the TESOL certificate program. That course is run through a Moodle, and when I'm not actually teaching it, I allow guest access to the resources linked there. Earlier this year I also gave a series of lectures on the topic. These URLs are on the portal for this presentation (here) at

Distributed learning networks has to do with the fact that knowledge is distributed in the first place, not resident in any one person or repository; and then, to do with how people can best organize and access this information. It turns out that peer-to-peer networks are preferable to hierarchical ones, and well suited to knowledge distribution on the Internet. I find my knowledge of the concepts is increased through following the blog and listening to the podcasts of Stephen Downes. Stephen does a very good job I think of articulating the concepts and in his blog referring to the work of others so that a good overview can be obtained.

Communities of practice are groups of practitioners which form spontaneously - and spontaneity is important; these groupings can't be forced, they must come together naturally - for the purpose of participants' sharing information and developing their expertise in a particular domain of knowledge. The concept has been elaborated particularly by Etienne Wenger in numerous publications, such as:

Though many such communities devoted to exploring various aspects of educational technology are proliferating on the Internet, one good example is Webheads in Action,, a community of teaching professionals whose members were committed to learning from one another and developing each other's expertise online (and occasionally in person) in innumerable distributed collaboration projects even before its official kickoff in 2002. Another fascinating and prolifically engaging community of this nature is Worldbridges, which uses an innovative mixture of webcasting and podcasting to capture conversations with people whose interest in educational technology ranges from expert to peers wanting to know, keeps extensive archives on its websites, and arranges training for those wishing to emulate the successes in evidence on its sites (Worldbridges subsumes dozens of other domains with their own portals and foci, such as,, and

Web 2.0 vs. 'Web 1.0'

The domain of knowledge in these communities of practice is typically the mechanism of communicating with students and other teaching professionals through the proliferation of Web 2.0 tools. These tools render meeting in real time effective and second nature, and can be applied to particular teaching, or more properly, learning situations. In implementing learning within such communities, the communities themselves become models of how teachers might configure effective learning environments to meet the challenges in their own local or online situations, in which they themselves teach or work to expand their knowledge, as in professional development situations..

Web 2.0 is a term generally credited to Tim O'Reilly, and refers to web sites and services which are generally free, where server space is granted in return for signing up for an account on that server, and which are under control of the individuals who create the sites. The concept is described at:

Here examples are given to illustrate what is meant by Web 2.0 through comparison with Web 1.0 sites and services. For example, in Web 1.0 users might create HTML based web projects having arranged their own hosting, with severe constraints on storage space and download speeds for multimedia. In Web 2.0 anyone who wants to get on the Internet can create a blog or wiki and augment it with multimedia hosted at other Web 2.0 sites such as or (for video) or or any number of other hosts which allow users to store photo albums and display them in various ways.

For example, I easily got the video associated with this presentation on the Internet by creating an account at and uploading my file, which created the URL I also uploaded it to which then generated the code which I could copy and paste into the code for this web page, creating the video player that you see above.

These services are pretty typical for Web 2.0, also known as the read-write Web, where anyone can not only take information down from it but also create content and upload to it. In this respect the Web is not simply a one-way means of obtaining knowledge, but also a place where you interact with the materials and annotate and contribute to the content. Such sites frequently display other Web 2.0 characteristics such as automated access through RSS feeds and ability to find related materials through tagging and other social networking devices.

Effectiveness: Constructivist learner collaborations

The effectiveness of such communities can be measured in the number of online collaborations engaging students in learning opportunities which expand their potential for constructivist, student-centered learning though exploiting online resources that carry learning well beyond the confines of face to face learning environments. Several examples of such collaborations are given in a plenary address I gave at a conference in Cairo, and more recent ones can be found by exploring Worldbridges podcasts and the most most recent of the more than 13,000 messages in the Webheads listserv archive, which is available to non-members so that an RSS stream can be generated. Exchanges between students using blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other multimedia presentation forums, seem to be especially productive in instigating collaborative work leading to the enhanced language learning outcomes

The importance of multiliteracies approaches

Participants in such communities develop a first-hand awareness of the multiliteracies required to function effectively in any distributed milieu. This awareness is crucial because it affects not only how we keep abreast of our profession, but impacts what we should be teaching students (and one another) about coping in a world of information overload, where information must be accessed quickly and constantly filtered and distilled efficiently into useful knowledge in order for us to remain competitive in any walk of life. So much of the learning that takes place within these communities is done so not only through multi-modal media of communication and expression (multi-media being but one aspect of skills subsumed under the term multiliteracy), but also in ways that inculcate means to efficiently harvest what is most relevant to the individual from the constant and unending influx of available information (how to "sip from the fire hose"), and also how to critique and respond to the input of relevant others in such a way that dialogs and conversations are set up that improve on, if not supplant, the learning that takes place through more traditional means that are increasingly becoming outmoded.

To be more specific, a new literacy is clearly emerging through the medium of blogs and their accompanying RSS feeds, and the next logical step - which goes beyond text into audio podcasting, which currently appears to be the preferred and possibly most effective new medium of information distribution because it allows learning to take place on demand and conveniently, in conjunction with the more mundane aspects of life such as jogging, commuting, washing dishes, and at other times which can now be converted from down-time into further opportunities for enhancing one's grasp of educational technology, or any other topic brought to the user through a basic understanding of new literacies and access to them through educational technology.

Power alignment in constructivist Web 2.0 learning environments

A revolution in information distribution is taking place as we speak and those tuning in are growing aware that what you listen to through your iPod or other mp3 player can be as important to your professional development, and that of your students, as what you read carefully or are exposed to in print format. Meanwhile, the entrenched arbiters of knowledge are losing their power to determine what the rest of us learn through control of traditional print and other mainstream media. In so far as it is increasingly possible to use new means to replace for free what previously had to be paid for or accessed through distribution systems operating top-down, the new means of distributing information tends to subvert traditional power bases. Subversion is a word that recurs in the podcasts of Stephen Downes, who regularly speaks on this topic, and podcasts what he says.

So, we see emerging a new world of distributed learning where the network is peer-to-peer, with each node (each individual) having the power to instantaneously access any other node in the network (assuming that node, or individual, is broadcasting) and to instantaneously respond in a variety of ways, normally using Web 2.0 tools. George Siemens has developed this idea in his notion of connectivism.

Perceptions of order vs. chaos in distributed learning networks

Now you might intuitively think that this would be a world of chaos and information overload, whereas the print-dominated world was one of order and legitimacy, and so it was, with information access being effectively filtered through established publishers at one end and driven by the economics of being able to afford the output on the other, despite the inconvenience of having to obtain that output (from libraries, bookstores, magazines, journals) and then find a time apart from other daily obligations to consume it (by reading the hard copy). This all served to compartmentalize information in such a way that deriving knowledge from it was a clear-cut process to what Prensky calls 'digital immigrants', or those who have been brought up and educated in the context of print media prior to the ubiquity of digital resources. Meanwhile, the new generation of 'digital natives' - those who take digital resources for granted and who are sometimes called the 'twitch' generation because they expect things to happen online and at their computers quickly and with no unnecessary hassles - may increasingly be feeling that print is not their medium of choice, and that distributed learning networks providing free content on the peer-to-peer model make more sense to them than the prior top-down model where fees are charged to compensate and sustain the top level content providers. Prensky and others make the further point that digital natives used to working at 'twitch speed' might be turned off (enraged, as he puts it) by tedious, dry, text-based materials, whereas digital imagery and interaction have great potential to engage them in the education process.

Preserving order in P2P networks

Clearly, lives that revolve around computers, where one's productivity and one's access to information are funneled through a single device that's always 'on', might find a more wired process of converting information to knowledge more convenient and efficient than working through traditional print resources. The only drawback is that such an information-rich system requires some means of indexing it so that information is accessible, and fortunately a workable system of access is emerging through search engines, social networking, meta-tagging, and other pull technologies such as RSS. Accordingly, emerging concepts of multiliteracies must take into account how these ordering processes work and ensure that students (and teachers) understand these processes.

Re-aligning power: The long tail

It is interesting to observe how the potential for chaos in a distributed peer to peer network sorts itself out to avoid the worst-case outcome. With print media we have situations where authors must convince publishers that their works are worthy of publishing, which might mean that they make significant contributions to human knowledge OR simply that they might be considered marketable to the greatest number of buyers. In this milieu, what is known as the 'long tail' of developers whose works will not sell to the popular market, are therefore of little interest to mainstream print-media publishers, and they might never be heard from.

Enter the world of open source, of creative commons, where content and the vehicles for distributing it are not driven by the economics of commerce, but simply by a desire to share and learn from others, and access to Internet connectivity. Anyone with connectivity, in other words, can be published. Everyone in the 'long tail' (those waiting their turn behind what the much more constrictive culture of print media is capable of producing) has a voice. Even Albert, a blind refugee in Western Sahara, who uses Skype in the few hours of the day when the power is on in his camp, and who pieces together in his mind what most of us take for granted on monitors, since his is replaced by a device which reads to him whatever appears on the screen … even Albert, who is known to the community of Worldbridges (where Albert has found an audience that listens) … even Albert has a voice in the new world of digital, peer to peer, distributed publishing.

When push comes to shove: Filtering information through pull technologies

The example of Albert serves to illustrate another important concept of this system of indexing the content available. Albert's voice is not one in a clamor of sound that users of the new technology have to fight off like so much spam. This would be push technology, where information is pushed to you almost at random by disinterested parties (or, shall we say, parties you are not interested in). You would only be aware of Albert if you had chosen to listen to Worldbridges or used pull technology to select to download its podcasts. And you would decide to do that if this seemed a good idea to you based on whatever other literature (text, audio, video) that you were following online. I'm not suggesting that we do away with books - but in this aspect of our professional lives, you would never read about Albert in a book (unless it were way after the fact, as an archival record which would appear too late for you to join the conversation online). Albert's existence and influence on those who know about him is firmly rooted in the present. Somehow, those who are constantly engaged in conversations about their profession, which they could never have had in traditional media, had tuned-in to conversations where Albert simply dropped by unannounced and became a memorable part.

What about the integrity of documents where anyone can create content?

The real issue here is how those conversations came to take place, how important they are to professional development as opposed to more traditional media, and most importantly of all, how they are regulated efficiently in the peer-to-peer network so that rather than a chaotic free-for-all, we have considered and reflective information flow and knowledge generation that is subject to critique in some ways more exacting than through a publisher, more pertinent and focused, and infinitely more useful to certain practitioners than the system that was in place before these new developments.

So another interesting development in consideration of the new literacy I think is the effective control that this peer review has over it to prevent its becoming chaotic and to regulate its integrity and authority. Since the read-write web is not only a place where anyone can write, but where anyone can comment, correct, and annotate - and thanks to tagging and meta-tagging, information can be retrieved in a number of effective ways - and, with RSS information streams, content can be accessed by individuals as soon as it is created and posted on blogs or other sites that generate RSS feeds - all this makes it possible for individuals to publish at will and be read almost immediately by anyone who has selected to follow the musings of that particular content creator (anyone who subscribes to the feed of that author or podcaster and who decides to read or listen to it through his or her online aggregator). This will prompt responses which will again be read and critiqued, and through this process the quality of the postings tends to be very high.

The information that passes through this process is current, publicly vetted and discussed, and freely available to all interested parties. The result is a literature of immediate import, highly relevant to its consumers, and of greater value to those concerned than anything else they could read or listen to from any other source, in particular traditionally published print media, which tends to appear months or years after an idea is first conceived. This might be acceptable in some fields and professions, but in the domain of educational technology, it is impossible for traditional media to keep pace with developments anywhere near as effectively.

Regarding the integrity of these materials, this again tends to be high. Wikis are a case in point. A wiki is software that allows anyone with permission to do so to write to a common space. This permission can be restricted, but where it is granted to the public at large, to anyone at all, one would expect vandalism to occur. Wikis also have built into them the capability to view a history of changes and revert to previous states, just in case, but in practice it is rarely necessary for wiki webmasters to repair thoughtlessly damaged wikis. The opposite normally occurs: the information in the wiki improves over time thanks to the input of so many users who buy into the process because they benefit from it.

Perhaps the most significant and widely-known wiki project on the WWW is Wikipedia,, an online encyclopedia where anyone can start a topic or add to, or erase, what anyone else has written. There are several observations we can make relevant to this discussion. First, Wikipedia is generally considered to have high credibility. Considering that mistakes can be made in printed encyclopedias (and once made, cannot be changed) the information found on Wikipedia is generally felt to be trustworthy, and it can be assumed that mistakes there can be corrected (if you spot one, change it yourself!). The question is sometimes begged: what about matters of opinion? It has been pointed out that people who write to one side of an issue tend to be careful about what they say, to avoid provoking rejoinders or having their input deleted, so again the integrity of the information found there tends to be preserved. Secondly, the information in Wikipedia is current. There are topics there which may not appear in printed encyclopedias for years, information on topics of greatest currency in educational technology being a case in point. Third, the content in Wikipedia is completely free and those involved in creating it work without remuneration, which is pretty amazing considering the result. And finally, Wikipedia is rarely vandalized, and if it is, the vandalization would likely be found and corrected before it was allowed to stand for very long, and considering the number of users, that could be a few seconds or a few days.

In conclusion

This concept of users in a peer-to-peer distributed network in effect pooling their expertise and creating their own encyclopedias turns out in many ways to be superior to other means of creating, storing, and later accessing content. (How is this superior? let me see, one way - where can you get your hands on an encyclopedia right now? It would have to be an online one … ). The concept can be extended to what we do in class when one considers having teachers, or students for that matter, create their own textbooks. You can look up and read a wide variety of wikibooks already, just Google the term and see how extensive the choices are. Again, as with other forms of wikis, the content in these efforts can be as high as in paper-published works. They are a lot cheaper to produce and use year to year, a compelling argument for school districts, who are coping with other issues such as whether to use Moodle or Drupal for free, or purchase Blackboard / WebCT … and which is better? And it's difficult to make a convincing case that the better product is the one you pay for.

So, to get this back to the point at which we started, the question teachers often ask is .. "Stop! I don't even know what questions to ask! This is already way beyond me!" This is where your community of practice comes in. Join one, start meeting peers online, get in conversations with others in your situation, find out how others have found solutions to their problems, learn in a non-threatening way how to use the tools you want to learn with students by practicing with them in communications with other teachers trying to learn the same thing. If you don't know already, learn what the tools ARE. There are many such CoPs. Webheads in Action is one. Maybe see you there,

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Last updated: August 21, 2006

Copyright 2006 by Vance Stevens
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