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(C)opyright 2003 Vance Stevens

CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) Symposium, Cairo, Egypt
An online presentation 09:00-10:00 GMT, December 18, 2003

Teacher professional development in online communities of practice: How does this impact language learning?

By Vance Stevens
Computing Lecturer, Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates


It has been observed that teachers most inclined to incorporate constructivist principles in their teaching practices might use such practices in pursuing their own professional development. This presentation indicates how teachers' learning to use computer mediated communication tools in a constructivist setting contributes to their professional development, and how this in turn informs the teachers' interactions with his/her students.

The author is a founding member of a community of practice existing almost entirely online and whose purview has been to study the interactions possible within a community exploring the limits and practicalities of computer mediated communications tools. Accordingly, the community has undertaken a study of itself as an example of such a community of practice. This presentation reports on findings, with particular emphasis on how practices within the community impact the language teaching behaviors of the participants.

I will suggest that if teachers pursue professional development in the context of communities of practice then they will work within models of constructivist learning environments, where scaffolding occurs among those in a shared zone of proximal development. Then, and perhaps only then, will they be in position to apply these principles to their own classrooms and workplaces.

Perspectives from last century

The story behind this chapter starts in the late 1990's, at a time when language teachers were showing a particular interest in harnessing the power of the Internet for use with their students. Language teachers have often shown themselves to be on the leading edge of computer-based technologies because of their involvement in language and communication through language, and the Internet was seen early on as a revolutionary source of authentic topical language input for learners. More recently, the Internet has shown itself to be an excellent means of putting people in touch with one another, and this characteristic has also been exploited by language teaching professionals. This is where the story gets particularly interesting, because it turns out that the tools with such potential to put learners in touch with one another can also be used by teachers in learning about the tools themselves and how to use them with students. In fact, it can be argued that in order for teachers to use CMC tools with students they have to undergo such training, or at least gain experience with these tools, themselves*. This has led to teachers forming communities of practice online, learning through experimentation, and then using techniques that work for them to the benefit of their students in online or blended settings.


The catalyst for the development of this particular story occured in the late 1990s when David Winet started getting teachers and students together online through a web project he called EFI, or English for Internet Dave's concept was to recruit properly qualified volunteer teachers to mount courses at EFI. Dave then offered the courses free to students through his website and simply matched the students with the available teachers. Dave asked the 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.

The Palace: Avatar-based chat

In 1995 I had just moved from a 20-year teaching career to a stint in educational software development and I was keen to continue interacting with learners while learning more about the Internet and how it could be used with students, and so I volunteered to teach online to learn what I could and keep my hand in teaching. My first course (something with writing and grammar in its title) was entirely email-based and I soon saw that sending out 'assignments' in email did not engage the students beyond the introduction phase. When one of my students made a web page for our course I was so impressed that I took it upon myself to learn HTML myself. Meanwhile, Dave Winet had introduced what he called 3D classes in English and was encouraging his teachers to explore the Palace, a virtual space where participants were represented by avatars The illusion of three-dimensionality was created by making objects like doors and windows hyperlink to other graphical spaces, so visitors had the impression of moving from room to room provided by the designer of the space. We used a 'Palace' called the Virtual Schoolhouse which had been created by a company that let EFI use it for free. The interface gave visitors great leeway in expressing themselves not only in text but in emoticons and provided tools allowing them to control the environment in imaginative ways. For example, visitors could visit Palaces where they could find avatars, or they could create their own from photos, and they could share objects by leaving them on the screen and letting others capture them.

This image depicts the 'front gate' of the Virtual Schoolhouse. Maggi is one of the teachers and she has chosen an avatar on which Ming has positioned herself in a way that suggests she is comfortable with the interface. Maggi's avatar was obtained at a Palace where a community member had assembled several which other Palace users were free to download. I was using an avatar created from a picture on my computer, and Ming is using one of the Palace default icons (with expressive eyebrows).

The picture is illustrative of the paralinguistic communication possible with avatars.

The Palace was considered to be '3-Dimensional' because clicking on the doors caused your avatar to appear in other 'rooms' on the server.

The transcript of this chat is archived here:

Sometimes our Palace server would go down and then we would find other Palaces and invade their space. This put us in touch with other Palace users, for many of us, our first contact with a broad-based online community. One user who called herself Mteer (the gender assignment is my impression) patrolled a Palace run by a radio station. Mteer's role was online vigilante, making sure that all participants to that Palace behaved themselves with respect for one another. When Mteer saw that I was meeting students there she showed me a room with a lock on the door where we could assemble our group and then shut out others.

This is one of the meeting rooms at the Virtual Schoolhouse. It had a whiteboard and as can be seen links to the VSEFI Website (Virtual Scholar/EFI) and to sources of streaming audio. In this picture, Maggi has used the whiteboard to draw a picture of the walker she is using to get around after a fall. Marina has drawn a flower and I have just congratulated her on her artwork.

In one session where I showed my students this room for the first time, they all spontaneously positioned their avatars one on each stool, in a gesture expressive of a student/teacher relationship which is yet another example of paralinguistic communication possible with avatar-based chat.

The Writing for Webheads community

Our group at this time comprised a few teachers who had gravitated toward using the Palace and a number of students who liked the environment and who clearly saw it as an enjoyable way of improving their language skills, so much so that they formed a core of regulars at our weekly Palace chat sessions. We explored as many synchronous chat tools as we could. At the time ICQ had introduced a revolutionary means of seeing when your 'buddies' were online, and we used this tool to get in touch with each other and talk each other into whatever chat tool we were using that week (and to help those who didn't have the Palace software to download and install it). Meanwhile my course had morphed into something called Writing for Webheads and I was using my web page skills to help our students and their teachers get to know one another by posting their writings on the Internet, in addition to their interaction through our listserv and live venues. I also requested that students send photos and although few did at first, once we had gained the trust of a few, then others more rapidly followed suit, and I soon had a gallery of portraits with links to individual student web pages.

Voices through the Internet

Eventually students and teachers started sending audio files to each other in email (we used Pure Voice and Real Audio at the time). The voices added a further dimension to what we were learning about one another. They had pedagogical value as well - one student sent us recordings of her reading out loud and asked for feedback on pronunciation, and 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 exercising this. But the 'eureka' moment came when we first tried Hear Me, a synchonous audio-enabled chat service that required only a small download and then worked as a plug-in through our browsers (we acquired the Hear Me code for free and simply copied it into web pages whose URLs we could then direct each other to.) We could now find each other in ICQ, drop by the Palace for text chat, and then speak to one another in Hear Me. We were now on our way to becoming a group who despite having never met phyically knew a lot about one another: what we looked like, what we sounded like, and through our writing, a lot about how we perceived the world with respect to one another. We had in short become a community.

This screen shot shows how our desktops were starting to get busy with the multiple chat windows we kept open at one time. In this one I have made contact with Mysailing in Yahoo Messenger while conversing with the class at the Palace. I am also engaged in an audio dialog in Hear Me. Meanwhile someone has sent me a Real Media file which could contain sound and/or video.

Webheads students gain worldwide recognition

We had by this time branched out from meeting online to participating in other online events. For example Webheads had given a presentation at the Fifth Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 12-14, 2000, a number of our students had participated, and we realized that having them meet and interact with language teachers exposed them communicatively to authentic language, and it helped develop their confidence and motivation when they found they could hold their own in this milieu (Coghlan and Stevens, 2000; and Our use of Hear Me at this time was cutting edge and combined with our foray into online conferencing, gave us an opportunity to invite outsiders to our online gatherings. Accordingly, we proposed online events at live conferences and when they were accepted, we posted to listservs frequented by language teachers to get the word out that we were hosting voice conference events online at certain times, and in this way we started engaging live conference audiences in interactions with remotely participating Webheads and other teachers worldwide.

A listing of events that Webheads attended through live Internet connection to conferences during this period 2000-2001 can be found at these URLs

Two significant events two occur during this period were

The latter event was another milestone for Webheads because it was our first opportunity to apply the technologies we had been using successfully in isolated demonstrations to broadcasting large portions of a conference to people not actually in attendance. We used our community connections to find someone with a server that enabled us to use Windows Media Encoder to stream many of our presentations out, and we streamed one presentation into the conference, from Michael Coghlan in Australia. It was and remains a conviction of mine that conferences need not be restricted to those who can physically attend them. These days it is not uncommon for presentations to be streamed from conferences and made available to audiences worldwide. One of the thrusts of Webheads is to promote familiarity with easily used tools that allow this kind of remote interaction.

Initially it was with some trepidation that I put my integrity on the line and hoped that my calls for participants would be answered, not only by teaching practitioners worldwide but by Webheads teachers and students who had promised to participant. Happily, not only did these events work, they worked realiably. We came to realize that in addition to enjoying meeting weekly to explore synchronous online communications tools and generally chat with each other, we could count on members within the group to make and keep appointments online. This was another important step in community development.

Our discovery and effective use of Hear Me proved to have an impact of a different kind in Webheads, one that changed the character of our community. Whether this change was for the better or worse is a moot point, and probably not meaningful, as it was simply a change in direction for our movement away from our roots working primarily with students, and branching out more to teaching professionals. Voice chatting and its potential in reaching learners and peers online brought attention to our work, and involved us in another community, that of teaching professionals wanting to know more about what computer-mediated communcation could do for them and their students.

Coming to terms with 'chat'

By forming a community of practice we have been able to expose teachers to synchronous communication in safe and healthy environments and make them realize that such environments can be created for their students as well. What we usually call 'chat' is forbidden in many language learning settings because of its association with telegraphic discourse and paucity of content. It's 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 themselves or reveal too much of their identity and expose themselves to abuse. There is some truth to these notions but they are only a part, perhaps a very small part, of a much bigger picture. The telephone also can be succeptible to these pitfalls. People can waste time on the phone, or use their mobiles to arrange trysts. Yet the telephone is perceived more for what it is, 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. 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. Eventually they will be recognized as the boons they are, but at the moment unfamiliarity breeds contempt, and their use in education is misunderstood, their potential as powerful learning tools nowhere near fully realized.

Webheads in Action

In order for teachers to gain a more realistic perspective on the use of chat and its value it is necessary for them to use it themselves. Webheads had been able to demonstrate synchronous communications within the communityof language teaching professional in a number of on-site and online conferences when at the end of 2001 our proposal was accepted to give an online workshop in the second annual TESOL-sanctioned EVOnline program. The workshop was entitled "Community formation online and its role in language learning" and it was meant to show participants how a community could be formed online by involving participants in such a community This was yet another milestone as it gave us a chance to model our community building techniques on a group of peers and assess their effectiveness.

The goal of the workshop was to apply the techniques for community building that had worked well with students to forging a cohesive community of language teaching peers. These techniques included:

The content of the course was instruction in use of the free text, voice, and video-enhanced synchronous and asynchronous communications tools, in learning environments where these tools featured, and how these tools could be used to help bind a group of diverse online participants into a cohesive community. Through use of the tools the 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 archive.

Examples of the tools used were:

Once group members had acknowledged that a community had formed, many went on to recall how the community had come together and to extrapolate from their own experience to what could be generalized about the social and mechanical aspects of community formation online. Some members of the group related what they had learned to courses they were teaching; e.g. This led to a later more formal examination of how what is learned through participation in online communities can inform the way that community members teach.

Emergence of a Community of Practice

Unlike every other EVOnline session that met this during this eight week period, our group did not disband. It continued throughout the year to meet at its regular Sunday noon GMT meeting times. It continued to participate in special online events and at face-to-face and online conferences, and even launched its own traditions (such as the annual HalloWebhead party at the end of each October). It picked up new members, in particular ones who became interested in the group through their research into communities of practice. Through interaction with these new members the CoP (community of practice) paradigm was embraced as a model for the learning that was taking place through our loose yet strengthening association with one another.

For the next annual EVOline sessions therefore we proposed an introspective study of ourselves entitled "Communities of practice online: Reflection through experience and experiment with the Webheads community of language learners and practitioners." We divided the topic among a core group of volunteers who each took responsibilty for one week of the session. We submitted a similar proposal for consideration at the annual TESOL Convention in Baltimore to be delivered as a colloquium The proposal was accepted and would have brought those involved face to face for the first time except that the vagaries of educational funding, outbreak of SARS, and war in Iraq prevented half our presenters from attending the convention. Undaunted we rented a phone line and went ahead with the colloquium as we had so many conference appearances before, beaming in our remote presenters via our synchronous online voice-chats to the live audience that managed to turn up in Baltimore. Aside from this reaffirmation of community spirit, and the opportunity to collaborate in Baltimore, the introspective study had another salient outcome as articulated in one of the topics for this session entitled "How participation in a community of practice informs and influences the participants' personal teaching practices."

This is where we come to the thesis of this article, and that is that in order for community building techniques to be applied to online or blended teaching practices, teachers will find it useful, if not essential, to have experienced participation in a community of practice where similar techniques have been used as a model for learning. It is necessary primarily that teachers learn about the range of CMC tools available to them, and acquire the expertise to orchestrate the tools. But more importantly it is necessary to understand what it is like to learn within an online or blended zone of proximal development, what scaffolding feels like in such an environment, how rewarding it is to learn at one's own pace what the community has to offer, and to reach the point where it is possible to put expertise back into the community in extending scaffolding to others in the community.

How techniques for training teachers in communities of practice can inform teaching in blended learning environments

Before going further I should perhaps define '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. I will attempt one nevertheless. 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 to transactions within a blended community that take place online.

In the constructivist school of thought learning is a social phenomenon, and the presence of a community (others within one's zone of proximal development) is a strong influence on learning, where community members 'scaffold' one another as they interact within the community (Bonk and Cunningham, 1998). 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. Now I am finding that the community building techniques which I apply to my online classes, where students get to know each other through development of their web presence, applies in my face to face classes as well, in helping to enhance the feeling of community within the class, where students work is made available 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 which I use in my 'blended' (largely face to face) classes are:

Blogging is an important element in online community building. The big advantage with blogs is that students can get themselves online instantly. They don't have to bother with creating web pages or deal with any of the normal aspects of web hosting and file transfer up to the host. Furthermore, students can personalize their blogs spaces with their photos and links to other web spaces. Blogging gives students a voice on the Internet. I compare blogging to a 'message in a bottle' because it also grants students access to an audience of readers and interactants going well beyond their immediate confines.

More about blogs:

Stay tuned ...

In further work on the concepts touched on in this paper, I intend to elaborate on my own techniques for community building in my blended learning situation as well as examine those of other Webheads. One is Dafne Gonzales, who used her experience with Webheads to create her own online and video-enhanced English course for architecture students in Spain Dafne has eloquently documented the influence of working within a community of practice to develop blended (partially online) teaching skills A second teacher is Buthaina Al Othman. She two has left a web archive comparing her work before her encouters with Webheads to her more recent work as influenced by the community of practice and Buthaina has recently announced that her Kuwait University end of term student presentations would be delivered online through a voice chat portal placed at the disposal of the Webheads community, and invited community members to listen to and help evaluate the presentations. This is a unique development in that it illustrates a direct transfer of community practices to apply to student work. A third Webhead who has applied computer mediated communication techniques to her face-to-face classes is Aiden Yeh in Taiwan. Aiden has created web pages introducing her students and documenting their work with other Webheads community members, for example her arranged meeting with Webheads songwriter Michael Coghlan, where her students listened to his songs online, then met the composer to discuss with him the lyrics


The paper supports the assertion that if teachers pursue professional development in the context of communities of practice then they will work within models of constructivist learning environments, where scaffolding occurs among those in a shared zone of proximal development. Then, and perhaps only then, will they be in position to apply these principles to their own classrooms and workplaces.


Bonk, C. and Cunningham, D. (1998). Searching for learner-centered, constructivist, and sociocultural components of collaborative educational learning tools. In C. Bonk & K. King (Eds.), Electronic Collaborators: Learner-centered technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse (pp. 25-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Coghlan, M. and Stevens, V. 2000. An Online Learning Community -- The Students' Perspective. Paper presented at the Fifth Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 12-14, 2000. Retrieved July 9, 2003 from both (conference archives) and (presenter website).

* Footnote: Mark Schlager and Judith Fusco make this point at the beginning of their paper to appear in a forthcoming book Designing Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning, edited by Barab, Kling, and Gray, Cambridge University Press. Whereas a draft of the paper is available online at it is expressly forbidden in that version of the paper to cite it.


Vance Stevens is a Computing Lecturer at Petroleum Institute in 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 has developed communities of practice for students and teachers based on the 'Webheads' model of online community development.

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