CoP + CMC = Teachers as Lifelong Learners

Vance Stevens
Petroleum Institute
vance_stevens at

This is a working version of a paper being prepared for publication. Please do not cite from it until after this notice is removed. Vance Stevens, October 2005

Abstract :

Stevens is the founder of Webheads in Action, a teachers' community of practice existing almost entirely online, which explores technology collaboratively through the extensive use of computer-mediated communications (CMC) tools. In this chapter, Stevens documents the birth and development of this community. He explores how teachers learn to use CMC tools in a constructivist setting, such as offered by Webheads. Teachers' hands-on professional development, in turn, informs their interactions and approaches to language pedagogy with their own students. Stevens describes several Webhead classrooms and argues that if teachers pursue ongoing professional development in the context of communities of practice, they will work within a constructivist paradigm, where scaffolding occurs in a shared zone of proximal development.

Writing for Webheads

Language teachers have often shown themselves to be on the leading edge of computer-based technologies because of their involvement in language and communication. The Internet is an excellent means of putting people in touch with one another, and this characteristic has been exploited by language teaching professionals. The tools with the most potential to put learners in touch with one another can also be used by teachers to learn about these tools and how to use them with students. In fact, in order for teachers to use computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools successfully with students, they must gain experience with these tools themselves. One significant solution to the problem of ongoing teacher training with rapidly developing CMC and other technologies has been the formation of communities of practice (CoPs) online, where teachers share and learn how to use techniques that benefit their students in online or blended settings.

The catalyst for the development of one such community, the Webheads in Action (WiA), occurred in the late 1990s when David Winet started a Web project he called EFI (StudyCom English for Internet, 2005). Winet's concept was to recruit properly qualified volunteer teachers to mount courses at EFI. He offered the courses free to students through his Web site and matched students with available volunteer teachers. Winet directed teachers to prepare courses containing the words grammar, reading, writing, and so on, in their titles and descriptions, but other than that, he made no demands on how the courses were conceived or structured. At the same time, he encouraged teachers to experiment with innovative Web tools and sites that might be appropriate to their students' needs.

I volunteered to teach online, but my first course (something to do with writing and grammar) was entirely email-based. I soon saw that sending out assignments in email did not engage the students beyond the initial correspondence. When one of my students made a Web page for our course, I was so impressed that I took it upon myself to learn the Web authoring language, HTML (hypertext mark-up language). This was a real awakening for me, a realization that what was missing in the flurry of email messages passing in the night was an anchor. This student had demonstrated the importance of having such an anchor: a portal that would focus the course on its objectives and expand its purview infinitely through hyperlinks to other relevant documents on the Internet.

HTML and Web authoring tools are easy to work with and uniquely suited to the creation of such a portal. HTML was an appropriate tool at the time because it allowed links to widening layers of resources available on the Internet, some of which I might create myself and adapt to various purposes. HTML is cross-platform, meaning it works via browsers ubiquitous on almost any computer, Mac or PC, Linux or Windows, and it is portable, which means that I am still able to use what I created back in the early1990s despite countless evolutions in hardware, operating systems, and other software over the past decade

By 1998, Winet had introduced what he called 3D classes in English and encouraged his teachers to explore virtual chat rooms in The Palace (2001-2005), a space where participants were represented by avatars (imaginary online characters which could be created from personal photos or graphics). The illusion of three-dimensionality was created by endowing each Palace (a graphical chat-space unique to a given server) with objects such as doors and windows hyperlinked to other graphical spaces, so that visitors had the impression of moving from room to room. My writing classes used a Palace chat room called the Virtual Schoolhouse. The interface gave visitors great leeway in expressing themselves not only in text but also in emoticons (small images that represent feelings) and with tools that allowed them to control the environment in imaginative ways. For example, visitors could share graphical objects by dropping them, virtually, and letting others capture them.

Our Palace group at this time was comprised of a core of regulars who met at weekly chat sessions. Some were teachers who had gravitated toward using such virtual spaces and others were students who liked the environment and saw it as an enjoyable way of improving their language skills. We explored as many free synchronous chat tools as we could. At the time ICQ (1998-2005), Internet chat software, had introduced a revolutionary means of seeing when your buddies were online, and we used this tool as a back channel to get in touch with each other, help each other to download and install needed software, and then meet in whatever chat tool we were experimenting with that week.

Meanwhile my course had morphed into something called Writing for Webheads (WfW), and I was using my HTML skills to help our students and their teachers get to know one another by posting their writings on the Internet, in addition to interacting through our electronic email list and live venues. I also requested that students send photos, and I eventually mounted a gallery of portraits with links to individual student Web pages. These efforts served to create a far better sense of community than simple email exchanges. The students were hesitant at first to expose much personal detail, but in time as they became comfortable with each other and with the environment. Evidence of trust emerged, as well as commitment when they started to keep appointments to help with distance presentations at various conference venues.

The early "Webheads" tended to range in age from secondary school students to young male and female professionals, though we had a septuagenarian grandfather in the group (a former minister of culture from Argentina) as well as a young school-boy from Saudi Arabia. The students had in common that they wanted to improve their English, often for career enhancement, that they were drawn to the Internet, that they were all self-motivated and volunteer learners, and in having English ability sufficient to cope with unfiltered interaction with native speakers of the language. They also tended to be empathetic with each other, and appreciative of the opportunity to learn on the Interenet. A small subset of these were non-native English speaking language teachers practicing in their respective countries. These teachers as well as the native English speaking teachers in the group benefited in having the opportunity to try online techniques with genuine students, and all parties appeared to have sufficient self-interest in the arrangement to develop and sustain it over a several-year period.

Community Building 101

Eventually students and teachers started sending audio files to each other in email, using at that time Pure Voice (2005) and Real Audio (now called RealPlayer, 2005). The voices added a further dimension to what we were learning about one another. The recordings had pedagogical value as well: One student uploaded for us recordings of her reading aloud and asked for feedback on pronunciation. We often heard from students that aural training was one thing they found lacking in an online environment, and therefore they were happy when they had a means of practicing. A Eureka! moment came when we first tried an early version of HearMe (2005), at that time a synchronous, audio-enabled chat service that worked as a plug-in through our browsers. The makers of HearMe sent us code that we simply copied into Web pages. By visiting these pages, we could speak to each other. We could now find each other in ICQ, drop by The Palace for text chat, and then speak to one another in HearMe. We were well on our way to becoming a group who, despite having never met personally, knew a lot about one another: what we looked like, what we sounded like, and through our writing, how we perceived the world and one another. We had, in short, become a community, albeit divided by great physical distances.

By this time, we had branched out from simply meeting online regularly to participating in online events. For example, the WfW teachers gave a presentation together at the April 2000, Teaching in the Community Colleges online conference, and we invited our students to participate. We realized that having learners meet and interact with language teachers exposed the students to authentic language, and their confidence and motivation grew when they found they could communicate successfully in a live presentation (see Coghlan & Stevens, 2002).

Our use of voice chat at this time was innovative and, combined with our foray into online conferencing, gave us the opportunity to invite newcomers to our online gatherings. We began to submit proposals for online events at land-based conferences, and when they were accepted, we posted to electronic lists frequented by language teachers to get the word out that we were hosting live voice events online at certain times. In this way, we engaged live conference audiences in interactions with remotely participating WfW members. Happily, not only did these events work, but also we found we could count on members within the group to make and keep appointments online. The confidence that reputations could be staked on unseen colleagues responsible enough to one another to keep their promises was another important step in online community development.

Our use of voice technology also proved to have an impact of a different kind on WfW, one that changed the character of our community. Voice chatting and its potential in reaching learners and peers online brought attention to our work, and involved us more with teaching professionals who wanted to learn about computer-mediated communication and how to use it with their students. The increasing involvement of teaching professionals with the students ultimately had a dilatory effect on student participation. Students who popped by our regular Sunday synchronous chats were finding their voices being drowned out by native-speaker banter, and the discussion on the mailing list was tending to teacher talk.

So I took advantage of an opportunity at the end of 2001 to mount an online workshop in the second annual TESOL CALL Interest Section-sponsored Electronic Village Online (EVO, Bauer-Ramazani, 2002). The workshop was meant to show participants how a community could be formed online by involving participants in an actual community formation experience, and then relating this experience to the context of language learning. The effect was to create a community specifically for teachers and draw them from the student group, where the focus would revert to students engaged in language learning. Thus was born, WiA, Webheads in Action (2001-2005).

At the time, many teachers in WfW joined the new WiA group while remaining with the former, but it soon became clear that the most stimulating community members were focusing on the latter group. Consequently WiA has flourished and expanded and as of this writing almost 4 years later continues to generate numerous emails daily in addition to frequent other collaborations between members.

The student group still exists at around 400 members registered with its Yahoo Group (about the same number as the WiA group) and continues to enjoy sporadic interaction among members. But the dynamic of the group has diminished, and its members hardly know each other now as well as in the early days

Workshop outcomes

The content of the TESOL CALL IS workshop was both skills -- instruction in the use of the free text, voice, and video-enhanced synchronous and asynchronous communication tools in learning environments -- and pedagogy -- discussion of how these tools could be used to help bind a group of diverse online participants into a cohesive community. Through the tools, community members met online and got to know each other while sharing experiences and expertise. There is no doubt that the participants enthusiastically embraced the community that emerged as shown by evidence left throughout our Web archives (see evonline2002_webheads, 2001, 2005, and Webheads in Action, 2005, for instance).

There were two particularly important outcomes of the 2002 EVO session. One was that many of the members of the group applied what they had learned through participation in online communities to their teaching. WiA members regularly document their teaching experiences with online CMC, and several have specifically documented changes in their teaching by comparing their work before their encounter with Webheads to more recent work influenced by the CoP (e.g., González, 2003b; Al Othman, 2003; Yeh, 2003a; further details of teaching applications are discussed below.)

The second interesting accomplishment was that, unlike other EVO sessions that met during this eight-week period, our group did not disband. It continued throughout the year to meet at its regular Sunday noon GMT chat at Tapped In. Group members continued to participate in special online events and face-to-face and online conferences, and even launched its own traditions, such as an annual HalloWebhead party at the end of each October. WiA accreted new members, in particular those who became interested in the group through their research into CoPs, and those who participated in what have since become annual EVO sessions, Becoming a Webhead and its many sequels, run by "graduates" of the original group to inculcate in others the Webhead model of community formation (González et al., 2004 and González et al.,2005). Through interaction with new members, the community of practice paradigm has been embraced as a model for the learning that takes place through a loose yet strengthening association (Lave & Wenger, 1991)

Community Building 102: Communities of Practice

Etienne Wenger is perhaps the best-known proponent of the concept of communities of practice. Wenger (2004a) defines CoPs as simply "groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better." Wenger (1998, 2004b) distinguishes CoPs from other communities (a neighborhood for example) as sharing three crucial elements:

  1. A common domain of interest (a specialty, sometimes recognized as such only within the CoP)
  2. Cohesion and interaction within the community (as opposed to simply shared membership in an organization)
  3. A practice or expertise (as opposed to a common passive interest, for example, in books or movies).

As Snyder (1997) says about CoPs, "What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows" (p. 1). Snyder's page is a portal for com-prac (1999), one of many CoPs that have come together out of an interest in CoPs themselves, and these are often excellent sources of material on the topic. Within WiA ( Webheads in Action), are members who have joined in order to experience participation in a vibrant CoP while studying the topic for their doctoral dissertations (e.g. Johnson, 2003; and Steele, 2002).

Since the 2002 TESOL workshop, the CoP model has been replicated with consistent success in the formation of similar communities, for example, Real English Online, (2003, 2005). An examination of long-term CoPs suggests that the following components are integral to their formation and maintenance in a distributed online environment

The Role of Chat in Community Cohesion

What we usually call chat is discouraged in many language learning settings because of its association with telegraphic discourse and paucity of content. It is seen by some as a frivolous waste of time, anathema to learning, and a panacea for lonely hearts. Many regard it as potentially dangerous because people can misrepresent interactions or reveal too much of their identity and expose themselves to abuse. (Tudini, for example, notes a problem with "interlocutors seeking virtual sex," p.154; and see also Rao, 2003, and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2005).

These down-sides are a very small part of a much bigger picture. The telephone is also susceptible to these pitfalls. People can waste time on the phone, or use their mobiles to arrange trysts. However, the telephone is perceived as a remarkable tool that facilitates communication and helps people accomplish tasks that would be impossible or difficult if left to other means of communication. Yet, the telephone suffers a severe limitation. It is expensive over long distances and impractical for use by more than two people. If only we could pick up the phone and call anyone anywhere in the world at any time for as little as we spend on our Internet connection. Chat tools allow us to do this, and more, in combinations of text, voice, and video image.

In order for teachers to gain more realistic perspectives on the benefits of chat with students, they can use it themselves in their own professional development. The activity most pertinent to this outcome is when teachers join a chat to find out from each other how to use CMC tools and best apply them in teaching. By setting conditions whereby teachers have been able to interact in communities of practice, we have been able to exposed them to synchronous communication in safe and healthy environments and let them realize that such environments can be created for their students as well. (See examples in González, 2003a; Almeida d'Eça, 2003; and Trites, Chapter 15 this volume.)

For commonly used software tools to be used effectively in professional learning environments, they must be freely available to all concerned, that is, both low cost and cross-platform, in order to encourage the participation of all group members. Because of our activities as innovators and pedagogically cutting-edge users of CMC, Webheads have been fortunate over the past few years to have been granted free use of various voice-enabled presentation tools whose costs are born by the host services, such as LearningTimes (2005), Alado (2005), and Worldbridges (2005).

Thus, the CMC software we use falls into two categories :

CMC tools available free to the public:

CMC tools granted especially to Webheads:

Community Building 201: Constructivism in Blended Communities

Reflection on WiA suggests that teachers must experience participation in a CoP in order to understand the range of CMC tools available to them, to gain some expertise in orchestrating their use, and to practice the pedagogical principles appropriate to them. The CoP provides a zone of proximal development and experience with scaffolding in training techniques to offer an authentic experience in how rewarding it is to learn at one's own pace with the support of other language-teaching professionals. After such experiences, members reach the point where they can put their expertise back into the community, extending scaffolding to others.

Techniques for scaffolding experiences in CoPs introduce teachers first-hand to learning through constructivist models. Much has been written about constructivism in learning. Ryder (2005) has compiled a comprehensive Web resource on the topic. Among the papers listed, Hsiao (n.d.) provides a succinct definition of constructivism:

Constructivist approach to learning emphasizes authentic, challenging projects that include students, teachers, and experts in the learning community. Its goal is to create learning communities that are more closely related to the collaborative practice of the real world. In an authentic environment, learners assume the responsibilities of their own learning, they have to develop metacognitive abilities to monitor and direct their own learning and performance. When people work collaboratively in an authentic activity, they bring their own framework and perspectives to the activity. They can see a problem from different perspectives, and are able to negotiate and generate meanings and solution through shared understanding. The constructivist paradigm has led us to understand how learning can be facilitated through certain types of engaging, constructive activities. (II.2.)

"Engaging, constructive activities" are precisely those that Webheads encourage (Stevens, 2004). One of the interesting results of WiA has been the conscious transfer of community-building strategies from the online experience, where overt strategies are required, to face-to-face (f2f) or blended environments, which might not seem at first blush to require such strategies.

CoPs in Blended Environments

In constructivist thought, learning is considered a social phenomenon, and the presence of a community (others within one's zone of proximal development as well as experts leading the way) is a strong influence on learning. Teachers have long sought to make use of the notion that learning is aided by social interaction by putting students into small groups and having them provide feedback to one another. However, I now find that the community-building techniques which I apply to my online classes, where students get to know each other through their Web presence, work equally well in my f2f classes. The feeling of community within the class develops when student work is made available online for scrutiny by an audience of appreciative peers. The students work to project the right presence, and others in the class come to appreciate the personality quirks that show through (especially when students are encouraged to illustrate their work with digital art).

Techniques for community building mirrored in WiA that I use in my blended but largely f2f language classes are:

Blogging gives students a voice on the Internet. Blogging is an important element in building community online (Campbell, 2003; Galloway, 2005; see also Stanley, Chapter 14 in this volume). The advantage with blogs is that students can get themselves online instantly (Stevens, 2005). They do not have to bother with creating Web pages or deal with any of the normal aspects of Web hosting and transfer of files up to the host. Furthermore, students can personalize their blogs with photos and links to other Web spaces. I think of blogging as a message in a bottle because it also grants students access to an audience of readers and interactants going beyond their immediate confines. Many Webheads are doing significant work with blogging, for example Dieu (2004), Suzuki (2004), and Stanley, (2005; and Chapter 14 this volume).

Other Webheads have found unique ways to utilize the Webheads community in their f2f, or more usually, blended language-teaching situations. One is Dafne González, who notes parallels between lessons learned in a community of peers and their applications in the classroom with regard to chat, which she considers "an unexploited tool for language learning and teacher development" (González, 2003a). González used her experience with Webheads to create a blended, video-enhanced English course for architecture students in Spain and Venezuela (González & St. Louis, 2002; and González, Chapter 2 in this volume.).

Al Othman (2004) applied some Webhead-inspired insights to her teaching when she announced that her Kuwait University end-of-term student presentations would be delivered online live through the WiA Alado voice chat room. She invited community members to participate by listening in and helping to evaluate the presentations. Aiden Yeh also applies CMC techniques to her blended classes in Taiwan where she has created a graphically appealing set of Web pages documenting her students' work with other Webhead community members (Yeh, 2003a). One example of her ongoing work of this nature is her online sessions with Webhead songwriter Michael Coghlan. Yeh's students listened to recordings of his songs, then met the composer online to discuss the lyrics with him (Yeh, 2003b and 2004a). Yeh also has her students give demonstrations that she records and archives on the Internet. One example of her work with total physical response (TPR) features a charming video of her students talking their way through a Tai Chi demonstration (Yeh, 2004b).

Challenges and Future Prospects

Despite the evidence and rationale cited here, teachers in general are typically not taking advantage of the technologies available today to put their students in optimally communicative, interactive, constructivist, and student centered learning environments. There are many reasons for this. Foremost may be that these technologies are emerging and evolving faster than teachers are able to keep up with them. Teachers are typically overworked with their day-to-day tasks, and it's the exceptional teacher indeed who takes the time necessary to keep current with technology. In the case of many teachers, they are simply not interested in the technology for its own sake, but only where it enhances how they might use it to do what they have always done with students. This is a laudable first step, but the most appropriate applications of technology in education require both skill and art, where technology as a tool most resembles a paint brush. What this analogy suggests is that using the tool to refresh a surface in the way sailors apply paint to ships involves a much lower level of skill and familiarity with the tools than manipulation of those tools in the manner of an artist. Producing truly stimulating material requires finesse in applying the tools in such a way that others will not only benefit from the immediate implementation but also be in better position to manipulate the tools themselves in an imaginative manner in pursuit of their lifelong learning objectives. Therefore, the most successful uses of technology in education tend to be innovative, and for innovation to occur, both an interest in technology for its own sake and a means of efficiently pursuing that interest and applying it to one's particular situation are involved.

How can this be achieved? This paper supports the assertion that if teachers pursue professional development in the context of communities of practice, they can achieve these conditions by working within models of constructivist learning environments, where scaffolding occurs among those in a shared zone of proximal development. In order for community building techniques to be applied to online or blended teaching practices, teachers need to experience participation in a community of practice where similar techniques are used as a model for learning. Then teachers are in a position to apply these principles to their own classrooms and workplaces with confidence. To begin the process of becoming Internet-literate, teachers are urged to join online courses, for example, those sponsored by TESOL, and to join a group such as Webheads in Action. These invaluable experiences will lead to a lifetime of satisfactory teaching and learning in the global network.

To join the Webheads in Action community of practice, visit their Yahoo! Group site at Evonline2002_Webheads:

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Further notes and commentary:

Regarding a definition of 'blended' learning: Curtis Bonk has an interesting presentation where he elicits from the audience their ideas of what blended learning is and puts these into a PowerPoint blender which he revs up and pulverizes in clever animation, the point being (I think) that there is no one good definition of blended learning (but see Bonk and Kim, in press). When I speak of blended learning I mean some combination of online and face to face learning. Blended learning is where you see your students sometimes and interact with them online at others. When I refer to an 'online' community I mean one that has little if any face to face interaction, or recourse to transactions within a blended community that takes place only partially online.

Bauer-Ramazani, C. (2002). Electronic Village Online 2002. Retrieved May 6, 2005 from


Bonk, C. J., & Kim, K. J. (in press). Chapter 39: Future directions of blended learning in higher education and workplace learning settings. In C. J. Bonk & C. R. Graham (Eds.). Handbook of blended learning: Global Perspectives, local designs. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing. Retrieved May 6, 2005 from:


Johnson, C. M. (2001). A survey of current research on online communities of practice.  Internet and Higher Education, 4 (2001),  1 - 16.


Stevens, Vance. (2004). The Skill of Communication: Technology brought to bear on
the art of language learning. In TESL-EJ 7, 4 (On the Internet). Retrieved May 6, 2005 from:


Stevens, V. (forthcoming). Online Webcast: Computer mediated communications tools used with teachers and students in virtual communities of practice. Submitted to proceeds of First Annual Middle East Teachers of Science, Mathematics and Computing Conference “Strategies for Effective Learning in the Middle East” 26 to 28 April 2005 in Abu Dhabi, UAE Retrieved May 6, 2005 from::

Author's Biographical Statements (50 words)

Bio-statement (60 words target 50):


Vance Stevens is a Computing Lecturer at Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, with ESL and CALL experience since the 1970s. He has conducted research, produced numerous publications and CALL software, and served on various editorial boards and committees of professional organizations. He develops communities of practice for students and teachers based on the 'Webheads' model he conceived.


CMC tools available freely to the public:



CMC tools granted especially to Webheads:



For more information about these two tools and their use in webcasting, see Stevens, V. (2005). Computer-mediated communications tools used with teachers and students in virtual communities of practice, in S. M. Stewart and J. E. Olearski (Eds), Proceedings of the First Annual Conference for Middle East Teachers of Science, Mathematics and Computing (pp. 204-218). METSMaC: Abu Dhabi. ISBN 9948-8569-0-2. Retrieved May 16, 2005 from:

This page updated February 9, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Vance Stevens