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Writing in a Multiliterate Flat World

Multiliterate approaches to writing and collaboration through social networking

This is Lecture 3 in my part of a short course on writing on the Internet "Learning to write in a global and plurilingual world" given during the XXVI Summer Courses of the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastian, Spain, 11th-13th July 2007:; Date and time of delivery: July 13, 2007, 10:15 GMT (12:15 in San Sebastian, and for the time where you are:

by Vance Stevens Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Navigate to: Writing Portal | Lecture 1 | Lecture 2 | Lecture 3

Lecture 1 is an explication of Web 2.0, multiliteracy, and its impact on the nature of learning in general, and on writing in particular. The first talk will therefore be an encapsulation of my multiliteracies course.

Lecture 2 discusses the general playing field for writing and collaborating online, as the two are closely inter-linked. There is no real writing without a need to communicate a point, and therefore an audience is required. The nature of that audience is discussed, both from the point of view of collaborating 'writers' and commenters on their blogs.

Lecture 3 is more technical. Taking the concepts laid out in the first two talks, how do we do it? I will discuss Writingmatrix and what I have learned about aggregation since mounting that project, and carry this through work done by Barbara Dieu, Rudolf Amman, and Aaron Campbell on (in so far as I can understand it ;-), and finally show some of what Robin Good has shown me about newsmastering using

The sessions each morning were followed by Basque cuisine
Pictured: Joanba, Vance, Daniel, Paco El Pescado,

at a gastronomic society in the old town
Suresh's daughter Phoebe, and Vance again

Lecture 3

Putting the forces in motion:
Applying technology to foster writing through motivating online environments

182 word abstract - Technology affords powerful resources to help us teach writing, as with collaboration projects involving blogs, wikis, Google docs and mapping tools perhaps in convergence with online writing labs or multi-user virtual environments and even lower-level spelling software, readability analysis systems, automatic assisted translation, text corpora, etc. How can we use these resources and with what implications for writing online? I will focus on an aspect whose widespread use is only just emerging, and which I have found requires some training in teachers and learners, i.e. how tagged learning objects are aggregated in a way that encourages collaboration which in turn elicits writing. Specifically, I will report on the Writingmatrix project, established to pursue exactly this question. In this project students from different parts of the world tagged their individual postings and through these tags found one another while heightening their own experience in tutored writing. We will hear how the teachers in the project implemented it in their classes, how their students reacted, and what this technique suggests for the teaching of writing over the Internet in the 'near and now' future.

Using Web 2.0 resources for writing collaboration and idea development

In this lecture I want to mention some of the resources to help us teach writing in the context of collaboration with face to face or online partners. There are search engines that teachers can have their students use to help them gather information as well as Web 2.0 tools, such as geographic mapping tools, Wikipedia, and collaborative graphics tools like Gliffy, as well as concept mapping tools to help students convey ideas. There is a free spreadsheets in Open Office, and an online spreadsheet in Google docs to help them analyze data, in the latter case collaboratively. There are blogs, wikis, and a word processor in Google docs to allow students to compose in collaboration with partners, and powerful free recording and sound processing tools such as Audacity and the video editing tool that comes with Windows to assist students in augmenting presentations with media illustrations, and numerous sites for creating slide presentations blending sound and photo images, and for uploading videos that help get the message across as well as help partners get to know each other and understand one another better. These tools can be used in convergence with online writing labs or multi-user virtual environments (such as Ning, Facebook, or Second Life) and even lower-level spelling software, readability analysis systems, automatic assisted translation, text corpora, etc. How we use these resources has many implications for writing online when expression in multiliterate documents includes graphics and multimedia.

There is much we could say about use of such tools as they are actually used in writing classes, and we have touched on a number of these in the preceding two lectures, but I would like to focus in the time that I have here on an aspect of collaboration whose widespread use is only just emerging, and which I have found requires some training in teachers and learners, i.e. how tagged learning objects are aggregated in a way that encourages collaboration which in turn elicits writing.


Specifically, I will report on the Writingmatrix project, established to pursue exactly this question. In fact, it was in preparation for this very lecture that I invented this project, because I wanted to speak here about aggregation in ways I had been envisaging, but I didn't know exactly how it worked in practice, and I needed to engage students and their teachers in order to gain experience with the method reported here. So to do that, I worked through my community of practice or what we now like to call distributed learning network and found some teachers interested in learning about these concepts with me.

These teachers had students from different parts of the world who learned to tag their individual blog postings and through these tags they were able to find one another while working with their teachers in tutored writing via blogs. One of these teachers, Nelba from Argentina, recently invited me to an online conference in Yahoo Messenger where she had gathered a number of her students to meet students from Doris's classes in Venezuela, so it appears that the project has met initial successes in bringing students in different countries in contact with one another synchronously online which we hope will be manifested in more productive interaction in the students' blogs.

The technique was as follows:

This is as far as we got with the project as summer set in. The students had learned how to start blogs and how to enjoy posting in them, and we had seen that blog postings tagged writingmatrix were accumulating steadily on the Internet. I gave presentations on the project online which were recorded and were sometimes assisted live by the other teachers in the project and watched by their students. I am told that these students would be thrilled when I would show the local face-to-face and global online audiences examples of postings the tag search identified, and I would randomly pull up the blog of one of Sasa's students in Slovenia, for example. We teachers too were pleasantly surprised that the system we had set in place worked so well. (though not all teachers' students' blogs were visible at first. We learned later that each blog had to be visible to Technorati - pingable - in order for Technorati to find it and include its postings in the output of each search.)

The next step will be for students to start forming friendships with one another that might result in writing partnerships. There are a couple of ways this might happen. Possibly the easiest way is just to browse the output of the Technorati tag search on writingmatrix It is also possible to open an account with Bloglines, an internet site that aggregates RSS feeds and displays results in an easily organized way, and put the RSS feed from the Technorati writingmatrix search results into bloglines and browse the output there.

This would save a few mouse clicks and bring up the tag search right away, but better it would get the students using Bloglines. It is hoped that some might find others in the project whose blogs resonate with them and might add THOSE blog urls to their Bloglines list and then follow postings from those particular peers regularly. Students might then comment regularly in each other's blogs. Dialog might follow. Paul Allison shows in some of his videos how this kind of interchange between students happens in practice.

A final aspect of the project will be to get the students to tag the URLs of each other's posts in Although none of the groups has reached this stage yet, I think that once students find each other through appropriate use of Technorati and Bloglines, tagging each other's posts and exploring how others have tagged them through will be a mind-opening experience. It is further reinforcing and accordingly motivating to discover that others are tagging what you produce and place on the Internet, and to follow the links that these others have tagged to see what their interests are. In my view this is the crux of collaboration in such a way that students might be motivated to make discoveries of authentic interest so that a motivation to write can be nurtured.

In recent correspondence, Barbara Dieu critiqued this section for being about collaboration rather than about writing. I replied "to me, the collaboration IS the writing. It's where the ideas come from. The other major component to writing is the deadline. What happens in between is magic. It just happens." I know that's glib; but also I hope that it will cause the reader to reflect on why Barbara and I made these perhaps equally valid (or equally invalid ;-) statements. I expect that in these lectures this summer in San Sebastian, that other professors will address the magic that takes place between idea generation through collaboration, and the final product that appears at deadline. For my part, I hope that what I can add is an understanding of how the emerging read-write web, and how it is organized through folksonomies and tools to filter out those aspects of aggregated folksonomies that we are interested in, can serve to help students to explore their ideas in conjunction with others and thereby become motivated to write, and produce better writing by passing it through the crucible of feedback.from peers. As one of the students in one of Paul Allison's videos said, you can write something and think it is totally correct, but when someone else reads it they can find some aspect that the writer didn't think of, and this kind of feedback, coming from another student somewhere, is much more meaningful to that student in some respects than a comment his teacher might have made. Stanley (2006) provides an excellent rationale for using blogs in writing and its counterpart, reading.

The Writingmatrix project, still ongoing as long as there are students who wish to try it out and respond to one another's postings, worked remarkably well considering that its participants acted as pioneers and didn't know what to expect from it. One of the teachers, Sasha from Slovenia, has just written, though her classes have ended and she and her students are on summer holidays:

"another student of mine opened his blog and joined our project – 2 months after our classes officially ended : - ). It's really nice to remain in touch through blogging – everyone working at his own pace without any pressure... I don't know what my fall group will be like yet but I hope some of them will join us and make our Slovene section stronger. : - )."

The following are some of the many artifacts which the Writingmatrix project left online to record its first phase:

Replicating the process

There are a number of interesting ways we can go from here in the lecture itself. I have been informed that I will have an Internet connection during my presentation, and so I will plan from now to try and get some of the other teachers involved in this project to join us online at a distance in San Sebastian and report how they implemented what they did in their classes, how their students reacted, and what this technique suggests for the teaching of writing over the Internet in the 'near and now' future.

I'm hoping to get a similar project going with the Summer course registrants, through a Moodle course set up for this pupose at, to encourage them to keep blogs and label their posts thewebisflat. There are instructions to that effect up now in the Moodle. In addition, there is a Frappr map at the Moodle where participants can put their pictures up next to a pin on the map. I've also started a wiki, If we get some results from the summer students we can talk about them here.

Another teacher in Brazil, Barbara Dieu, is doing a similar project at, and aggregating student content at If she can be persuaded to join us online she could talk a litte about her project and how she is using aggregation techniques to pull student writing in one portal to where it can be easily accessed and interacted with by peer student writers. Barbara and I are also collaborating on a joint report of our two projects which should be published before the end of the month. It's reference and URL will appear here.

Another project worth mentioning here is the Teen Life project of the Youth Voices umbrella project, instigated by . This project appears to be coordinated by Paul Allison and has been mentioned earlier. There is a rich body of resources explaining this project with recorded audio and video graphically conveying the concepts and student reaction to them (i.e. remarkable effects from students keeping blogs and being encouraged in their writing through interaction with students from other geographic locations). I might show selected bits of video giving student reactions to blogging and interaction with peers at remote locations.


Finally, I would like to show those present in San Sebastian how it is done.

During our 2nd live session, Barbara Dieu joined us and offered to provide some links in Spanish. I asked her if she would BLOG the links and tag the post thewebisflat. She did and during the final session we used to find her blog posting giving her reactions to the second session here:

I believe these three brief synopses of what I intend to cover in San Sebastian this summer should serve to alert all concerned what is coming down the pipe. There remains for me to add slides and graphics and screencasts of how these techniques are applied, and at the very last, Elluminate recordings of the lectures themselves, to be used as a resource under Creative Commons license, assuming this is commensurate with the goals of the organizers of the Summer Courses in San Sebastian this coming July 2007.

Vance Stevens


Dieu, Barbara, and Vance Stevens. (2007), Pedagogical affordances of syndication, aggregation, and mash-up of content on the Web. TESL-EJ, Volume 11, Number 1:

Stanley, Graham. (2006). Redefining the Blog: From composition class to flexible learning. In Hanson-Smith, Elizabeth, and Sarah Rilling (Eds.). Learning languages through technology. Alexandria, Virginia, USA: TESOL. pp. 187-200.

Additional Resources

Campbell, Aaron. (2005). Weblog Applications for EFL/ESL Classroom Blogging: A Comparative Review. TESL-EJ Volume 9, Number 3.

Campbell, Aaron. (2005). Commentary on Dafne González's Portal article, "Blended Learning Offers the Best of Both Worlds," Essential Teacher, December 2005.

Campbell, Aaron. (2004). Using LiveJournal for Authentic Communication in EFL Classes. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. X, No. 9

Campbell, Aaron. (2003). Weblogs for Use with ESL Classes. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 2.

Dieu, Barbara, Aaron Campbell, and Rudolf Amman. (2006). P2P and learning ecologies in EFL/ESL. Teaching English with Technology A Journal for Teachers of English ISSN 1642-1027 Vol. 6, Issue 3.

Navigate to: Writing Portal | Lecture 1 | Lecture 2 | Lecture 3

And after delivering this material, Bobbi and I went off to the Pyrenees.
What did we do there?

Stay tuned! Soon you'll be able to link to our Pyrenees wiki from here ...

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Last updated: July 26, 2007

Copyright 2007 by Vance Stevens
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