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March 2006 presentations on Multiliteracies:

Deleting Online Censorship

Remarks prepared for Global Learn Day 10

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

A recording of this presentation can be found at

Hi everyone. This is Vance Stevens checking in from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. I consider myself an ESL teacher due to a long career teaching English as a Second Language, but since the very late 1970's I've been involved in computer-assisted language learning, and for the last ten years I have been involved with ESL learners solely online. In my daytime professional life I have been working full time in software development and in supporting language programs with educational technology. And for the past few years I've been teaching computing literacy and applications at The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi.

But in real life, or my second life, or whatever you want to call what we all do online, I've been involved with an outstanding community of practice called Webheads in Action. Some people credit me with being the founder of that group but just in case there's ever any blame associated with this (kidding of course ;-) I generally point out that Michael Coghlan and Maggi Doty were co-founders back in 1998. We started by simply meeting language learners online:

Inevitably and often, the path of Webheads has have crossed with that of John Hibbs, especially when he voyages annually on his mythical cyber-space ship. Webheads have been faithful supporters of John's annual pilgrimages, and he has been one of our most vociferous supporters as well. Possibly Webheads most significant and interesting participation in Global Learn Day (up to yesterday) was on November 16, 2003. Michael Coghlan was on one of his world tours at the time and he made a side trip to Abu Dhabi, where we met for the first time after years of collaboration. His presence in Abu Dhabi at that particular time was coincidental, I think, but as he was in town, and thinking our presentation might be of interest to my colleagues at work, I arranged to have it webcast live from one of the Lecture Halls at the Petroleum Institute where I work. Not only that, but Buthaina Othman, who lives in the neighborhood just a few countries away in Kuwait, flew down to Abu Dhabi especially to be on hand to present with us. So we had a three-star show with two guest speakers who had flown in, on-hand for the occasion, right in our auditorium at Petroleum Institute. The whole lecture theater was wired for sound piped in over the p.a. system as we spoke in Alado Talking Communities voice chat with 60 people in the chat from all over the world, interacting with us during our presentation. And the slides of our presentations themselves were displayed via the Internet on the monitors of all 60 participants in the chat AND on the big screen behind the podium in the lecture theater. We sustained this presentation for over an hour, speaking synchronously, in 'real time', to our remote audience, and discussing our topic with them .. and how many people do you think we had in our 100-seat lecture theater? Well, it was a little late in the afternoon, and we were competing with an important televised rugby match, I found out later, so we had, off and on, half a dozen people stop in to see what was going on in the big lecture theater

Buthaina took pictures and archived the event at her website:

I think this is not really unusual for those of us who carry on parallel lives in face-to-face and in online environments. It's possible that many of you listening to this online have more productive professional, and perhaps even personal, relationships in your online lives than in your face to face ones. This makes a lot of sense really, because one great advantage of the Internet is its ability to put us in touch with like-minded peers. I've been teaching an online course in multiliteracies for the last few years as a service to TESOL, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages ... this year's course ends today in fact, and I'm hoping that some of its participants will be in the GLD audience today ... if so, hope you've enjoyed it as much as I did ... Now we try each year to come to grips with how communications in our modern wired society impact literacy. In other words, where technology is changing in ways unimaginable from one year to the next, what do you have to know to be literate, to function successfully in an interconnected world, where communication has by now transcended print.

When I first started Webheads in 1998, I brought a community together by projecting pictures and writings of each participant to all the others via web pages which I created. This worked well in what we now often call a Web 1.0 world, where webmasters used to create Web pages for one-way information distribution, just as with print media. More recently this view of how the internet should work has been overtaken by a Web 2.0 worldview, where individuals can easily set up web pages that not only articulate positions, but show pictures, play sound and video, and encourage conversations and collaboration. So the information flow is now two-way, and like-minded individuals can find one another through social networking, and not only communicate with one another but learn from one another and help one another in very tangible ways.

What this has done, it has expanded the concept of literacy, which is what one needs to know in order to learn, to communicate, and to succeed in a world that often rewards those who function best in the media of communication that those with power are using. For example, we still read, but many of us no longer read books and journals as much as we used to. Instead we read blogs. And not only read! We listen. For example, I'm writing this out now, but once I record it I'll put the recording up at my podomatic site, and some people will download it and listen to it on their mp3 players. As Stephen Downes often does when he records his presentations, and puts them up on his site for me to download and listen to while I'm out jogging, I might just pause here and say to those people, "Hi from Abu Dhabi." I always like to hear Stephen say that when I'm listening to his presentations.

This morning I discovered that we might have already gone beyond Web 2.0. This morning I heard about Education 3.0. This word has apparently been coined by Derek Keats, who is giving a keynote at some point today in GLD 10. He's written a paper about it, but I actually found out about his paper when I clicked on a link in an email that John Hibbs sent around, and while working on this paper, which you are reading or listening to now, I listened to Derek explain how Web 2.0 is evolving into a 3.0 version, and now I've included ths notion in my own talk. But the point here is, I didn't just read about it, I heard it. I'm not sure when Derek recorded it, perhaps only a day or two ago. And it came to me, from Capetown, to Oregon, and back to Abu Dhabi, and I heard it today, and you might hear it today as well, wherever in the world you happen to be. This is an example of literacy in our new age.

So it looks like we're on our way to a utopian world where information, or content as Stephen calls it, can be distributed free of charge and freely exchanged, and where we are developing mechanisms to help us distribute it efficiently and systematically, and for each of us to pull towards us the information we want and need, and keep the rest at bay. So everything is fine, right?

Well I wish that were true, but not everyone wishes simply to use these tools to spread knowledge altruistically in peer to peer networks throughout the world. Some folks have hidden and not so hidden agendas. A social network site can put kids together to learn from one another how technology can help them become lifelong learners -- but some people might pose as kids themselves and try to lure the kids over to their strange agenda. Because of this and other downsides, schools are under some pressure to block these social networking sites and in effect censor what kids can do on the Internet.

In the United States, this pressure has been ratcheted up with the DOPA, or Deleting Online Predators bill, which has just passed the House of Representatives. DOPA doesn't really legislate blocking MySpace, but it would require that certain un-named 'commercial' social networking sites that allow people to create profiles and chat with one another not be allowed in schools except under certain conditions; one being adult supervision, and another parental permission.

There are a number of questionable things about this bill. It was proposed perhaps in a sincere effort to address the issue of stalking of children in such online spaces but the effects of the bill are not well thought out. The reason such bills are in danger of becoming law is that the legislators who pass them have so much on their plate that they can't really delve into the issue. They are likely to be digital immigrants who have never used social networking software themselves yet they might be aware that their kids are doing it and be concerned that - hey, my kids are in the cross hairs of potential predators, and hey, therefore, vote FOR this bill which is AGAINST predators. Good thing, right?

NOT. First of all, it states in the bill that the social networking software they are referring to will be defined later, and secondly it creates conditions which will be impossible to implement in school environments (for example, supervision - if educators can't provide that, then to avoid litigation, they'll have to block it). This will drive the kids who want to use these spaces outside the school environment (so much for supervision). But more importantly, this will then deprive schools of the benefits inherent in such software. Depending on how the software is ultimately defined, it could apply to sites like and Blogger.

So if part of being multiliterate is communicating effectively not only in, but about, these new media, then how do we, educators who are aware of the benefits of social networking software in education, articulate a position and convey it to those who are unaware of these benefits, but who see all too clearly the dangers. Only when these benefits are as well understood as is the danger from pedophiles will there be a truly balanced discussion of this issue in congress or anywhere else.

When I try to explain this to people, I often draw parallels with another kind of service, mobile telephone networks. Mobile phones, or handies in Europe, or cell phones in the USA, are widely used and understood. They are convenient means of communication, and they are used by rich and poor, old and young, and as such they are widely understood and accepted.

They are used for many purposes. My wife and I carry them around shopping malls (no more 'meet you by the blue post in an hour'). If I want to go to the top, I call the director on his mobile. Nowadays you can download from the internet to your mobile, take pictures, check email ...

Let's see what else ... you can use them to arrange trysts, plot political insurrection ... many records from the use of mobile telephones have been used in court in cases of fraud, spying, terrorism ...

I know John Hibbs has often espoused the benefits of telephones and radio, and he has a point in encouraging greater use of technologies that are widespread and already in place, but there are things you can't do with telephones that you can do on the Internet. You can't really use phones to tap into a huge network where the population is differentiated into characteristics you might be interested in. For example, if I'm interested in EdTech I would gravitate to an online community whose members share that common interest. If I'm interested in pedophilia, again, I would gravitate toward my target audience in an online community.

That's the difference between social networking and these other ubiquitous technologies. It's important to tease out these issues, because last year's passe issue was your school trying to block out instant messenger chatting because, among other issues, students were using Yahoo Messenger or MSN to contact one another (in the UAE, males and females) and this was getting around supervision (which is a real issue in societies where the sexes are segregated ... but hey, these young people are sending each other text messages on their mobiles, and no one is thinking of blocking those!).

A better approach therefore is to capitalize on the technologies that interest these young people. This has sparked for example a healthy interest in mobile phone technologies for use in education. As regards MySpace, we should be showing kids how to harness social networking to facilitiate their lifelong learning, and how a major component to this is forming safe and productive networks with others who can help you learn and develop, and by the same token, warn and educate students of the dangers and counterproductive features of social networking and other emerging technologies, which, like nuclear energy, can be put to many good uses and, let's face up to real life, some bad ones.

So we have here a situation similar to the recent Napster case where an online technology lent itself to file sharing and this was threatening the music industry's ability to capitalize on its inherent greed, so the knee jerk was to somehow get control, by attacking what turned out to be the superficial symptom of the 'problem' (which it turns out was not a problem either) i.e. Napster, the company that had best innovated on this brilliant idea. Of course, once Napster was neutralized, this led to a mushrooming of lesser known networks where the same technology was applied, and the music industry has by now re-tooled to where, ok the music is free (well I mean, basically, check out or or negligibly priced (iTunes irritating 'store' for example). I find it irritating, but in the case of iTunes, there is plenty of free content. Music tycoons are realizing now that they have to have another business plan in order to make money. And incidentally, whatever the tycoons decide, they are not going to stop people making music, or fans listening to it, or sharing it online.

Music and education are two different things, but the underlying principle is the basically the same. And that is, you can't control what people do when they can find a way to exercise free choice, or they realize something is a good idea, or a way forward. Ultimately all those ulterior motives will be worked around, whether they are ulterior motives of corporate greed, crimes like pedophilia, or debilitating conservatism in politics or religion. This is the message of the Internet, of the principles of social networking, the leveling influence of peer to peer distributed networks where individual nodes are in charge and don't have to accept control from a central uber-server. You can't control the power of individuals in aggregate who not only realize that they have this power but who are able to use it, and you might put a shackle on Orgut or MySpace but if you prevent those services from meeting the need for which they were created, other services will spring up and then you're battling mushrooms in the forest.

So the best way forward in my view is to co-opt these services in education. If you block them you simply create a generation of zombies who will be unaware of and therefore more susceptible later to the lure and dangers inherent in these media, OR a generation of rebels who will look upon the antics of the blockers as backward or probably worse, irrelevant (and most likely both). You start to undermine the values in your society, where authority should be respected and obeyed because it's for the common good, and you nurture a culture where authority is seen as disfunctional, oppressive, and misguided (like, I hate to say it, but can't resist, the government of my country right now, DOPA being but a snowflake on an iceberg). And the vehicle to express your opinion and displeasure is the very thing that the government is trying to suppress.

Who's going to win out? In the short term, it would be the force that has the most clout, the larger club, the most money, the best lawyers. But in the longer term it will be the side that has the force of truly democratic and human right, the best idea, the most freedom in which to innovate, the best view of what kind of society we all want to live in. THAT is what education should be preparing students to achieve. Pedophilia and its countervailing DOPA are just bumps in the road in my view. Educators who see a world apart from its hidden and not-so-hidden agendas should be looking waaaay down the road and preparing students for what they will find when they finally arrive there. We will get there one day, count on it.

And I appreciate the opportunity to have my say. Have a great voyage as you continue around the world this October 8, 2006, Global Learn Day 10. This is Vance Stevens, signing out from Abu Dhabi.

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Last updated: October 7, 2006

Copyright 2006 by Vance Stevens
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