This manuscript was prepared for TASK-BASED INSTRUCTION IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE EDUCATION: PRACTICES AND PROGRAMS, Betty Lou Leaver and Jane G. Willis, Editors. This working version includes references used in this article as well as illustrations submitted with it, but it is not the latest one published. This version is intended only as a record for the author, and for the benefit of those interested in the work of this author. No citations are to be made of this work. Please site from the published article only, thank you. - gvs

May 10, 2003. Time 22:30 GMT
May 11, 2003. Time 10:30 GMT - changed ref to Stevens & Altun 2002

Chapter 10. Webheads Communities: Writing Tasks Interleaved with Synchronous Online Communication and Web Page Development

Vance Stevens

Vance Stevens is consultant and computer-assisted language learning (CALL) Coordinator for the Amideast MLI Project in Abu Dhabi. His interests include multimedia CMC (computer-mediated communication) and the development of communities of practice utilizing web-based software tools.


"Webheads" is an umbrella term for an online community of language learners and teachers that has developed in two distinct directions. Writing for Webheads started in 1998 as a synchronous reincarnation of an email-based online writing course. Meeting in text- and avatar-based chat areas, a community of students and teachers gradually formed online. The community was based at a website which served not only as a platform for displaying corrected student writings but as a focal point for community members to get to know each other's faces, voices, and stories. A community of practice has formed where, although much of our interaction is done in writing (hence, Writing for Webheads), improvement in writing has always been a secondary goal of the 'course' if indeed this could be called a 'course' in any traditional sense. Rather, community members seem to be motivated primarily to keep in touch and interact with one another for interpersonal reasons. In so doing they learn as much as they can about the synchronous online multimedia CMC (computer-mediated communication) tools that make this possible and enhance the experience, with development in writing being only a secondary focus of the program.

The community has also attracted interest within the wider community of educators on the forefront of using technology in language learning. This has been accomplished through assimilating teaching peers into the course, often through Webheads participation in online events and conferences, and has seeded the formation of two additional professional Webheads communities, most recently Webheads in Action. (Footnote 1: the other community was Teaching for Webheads, which formed before its time and lapsed after a brief period of interest and support.) Webheads in Action started as an online workshop in community-building using CMC tools under the auspices of the TESOL EVOnline program (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Electronic Village). Although these sessions had a specified duration of January to March 2002, throughout the year that followed, the Webheads in Action community members continued to interact and learn from each other, prompting work on projects of mutual interest in spontaneous development of what we have come to call a 'community of practice'. This has resulted in a follow-up TESOL EVOnline session in early 2003, an introspective study of Webheads in Action as a prime example of a robust community of practice.

Proponents of participation in such communities feel that they encourage scaffolding among members of the type suggested in the socioculture theory of Vygotsky (Gallagher, n.d.), which underpins constructivist (Ryder, 2002) approaches to language learning, such as that embodied in the work of Bruner (Kearsley, 2002). Bonk and Cunningham, 1998, develop a cogent rational favoring the efficacy of technology-enhanced collaborative learning from learner-centered, constructivist, and sociocultural perspectives. In other words, it is felt that learning is best effected when learners are able to construct knowledge from elements that they have internalized in a meaningful fashion, and in a highly social environment where learners interact and learn from others in their immediate surroundings, or zone of proximal development. More recently there has been increased interest among educators using CMC in how these principles mediate the formation and functioning of communities of practice, a construct articulated particularly well by Etienne Wenger (e.g. Wenger, 1998; and see Snyder, n.d. for an easier overview of how communities of practice apply to professional development). Essentially, communities of practice are groups of people who meet to discuss a topic (technically, a 'domain') of so much interest to community members that they will be intrinsically motivated to enhance their understanding of the topic through frequent interaction in order to further their work or interest in the field to which the topic pertains. Thus it comes as no surprise that CMC tools should promote the development of communities of practice over distances.

To achieve their aims, the two flourishing Webheads groups have explored and successfully exploited the potential of a great variety of free Internet text, voice, and video CMC tools. Members' skills in utilizing these web-based tools have been developed through constructivist methods; i.e. scaffolding one another by means of interaction within each other's zone of proximal development. We feel that the Webheads projects model the benefits to elearning of adopting a pedagogical stance that is much more flexible and interactive than teacher directed models, which are being widely supplanted in any event in both physical and virtual classroom environments. Given that there is a trend toward learner centered, constructivist approaches to learning, it is convenient and more than coincidental that the greater empowerment personal computing has brought us all should be a strong factor in this development, especially the ability of computers to facilitate exploration and communication in any target language.

How do our CMC tools facilitate tasked based approaches? According to a report of the Curriculum Development Council of Hong Kong every learning task should include the following features:

Writing for Webheads is the result of engaging learners in purposeful activities (i.e. tasks) carried out in a constructivist learning environment. Its targets and objectives are broad (geared toward developing proficiency in English by getting a heterogenous group of language learners communicating at a distance with other group members). Keeping in mind that Writing for Webheads comprises a unique target group of students (non-fee paying, highly heterogeneous, self-motivated) in a distinct setting (completely online, tasks spontaneously undertaken, students not evaluated), elements of the model can be applied to curricula in which there are other specific targets. In our case, much of the language involved revolves around the vagaries of online communication (exchange of URLs, logistics of broadcasting web cams, adjusting microphones, developing web pages, etc.). Clearly such language emerges from within a purposeful context, where all involved (learners and teachers) have to constantly invent novel ways to use the available tools and then give directions and explain processes to one another. Thus all participants draw upon their respective frameworks of prior knowledge and skills (with skills so distributed that students often help teachers over technical hurdles as well as visa versa). Our successes are often documented in web pages, which facilitate the production of further products in the form of student writings and chat logs.

It is important to clarify that technology does not drive the process. Technology is a vehicle through which the most viable pedagogical principles can be delivered so as to optimize their impact and success. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that the pedagogical models underlying elearning courses be compatible with the uses envisaged for the technology. In the case of language learning, technology not only serves to provide a framework for discourse but leads students to a limitless source of relevant, authentic and communicative target language, by putting information and interactants literally at the learner's fingertips, and then help the learners take meaningful advantage of these language resources.


Support for Webheads communities

The Webheads projects have developed through the efforts of numerous individuals, but those associated with three entities promoting online learning have been especially supportive. These are:

These three entities have provided supportive frameworks in which Webheads have operated, and have all in one way or another had roles in funneling newcomers into our programs, and contributing to the robust and varied nature of our community.

Webheads thrives and is managed through the interest of a growing community of teachers and students who find they benefit intrinsically from involvement with each other. In order to maintain its appeal to as wide a range of users as possible, Webheads relies entirely on free software and free websites. There has never been any institutional backing for the Webheads projects other than that available to individual community members. No funding for these communities has ever been requested nor granted (except in the form of occasional offers of beta-test software), nor is there any budget whatsoever. No fees have every been charged students nor is any expenditure required from them other than access to a computer and the Internet. In order to maintain broad appeal the Webheads communities have utilized freely available CMC tools, and incidental expenses (cost of internet and web hosting, often free) have been born by the individuals involved as part of normal expenses for professional development and continuing education. All concerned must feel that return on investment is high, as many have remained actively involved in these communities (from as long ago as 1998).

How Webheads got started

The Webheads projects reach back to 1996 when I migrated from a 20-year computer-oriented ESL teaching career to work full-time in educational software development. In order to keep my hand in teaching, I responded to a call for teachers to volunteer to conduct online courses with EFI (English for Internet), with whom I started an online email writing and grammar course. Students who signed up for the course received my directives by email. I encouraged them to write to each other but they exchanged emails mainly with me, the teacher, and almost never with each other. Such exchanges tended to dwindle once I had sent around 'assignments,' which the learners for the most part had no intention of doing, and which I did not pursue in the face of learner apathy. These learners were exploring options on the Internet in hopes they might have fun using it constructively. 'Work' (e.g. homework) was not what they had bargained for, and the word 'assignment' carried connotations of obligation, which didn't interest them.

The course was not entirely without merit however, and one of my students took it upon himself to prepare a web page for it. Now this was fun! Just collaborating on the project was enjoyable, and the activities we came up with were interactive and graphically attractive. I was so impressed with the potential of web documents to serve as a class focal point that I quickly learned HTML myself, registered with a free web host, and started to put up pages to anchor all my online materials. Meanwhile I was dabbling in synchronous communication tools such as ICQ (one of the first really popular instant messagers) and the Palace (an early avatar-based chat environment). Then in 1997, when in 'real life' I moved to Abu Dhabi to help set up a language institute with a fast Internet connection accessible through its LAN, I was able to 'hang out' in these chatrooms and meet others interested in online learning, both as students and teachers.

I was by now calling my EFI course English for Webheads and I had restructured it to include twice weekly meetings at the Palace, where I frequently ran into another group of EFI students and their facilitators Michael Coghlan and Margaret Doty, and we soon agreed to join forces. Meanwhile I was setting up web pages to both introduce the students to each other and publish their writing. Then in late 1998 I restructured the course yet again so that participation in the course and distribution of emails could be managed through eGroups, a free listserv. In order to implement the change, I announced that I was closing down English for Webheads (where I was forced to maintain class rolls and manage distribution lists for class emails myself) and resurrecting it under the name Writing for Webheads (where eGroups kept tabs). I invited all involved to enroll in the new system, and most (probably around 50 teachers and students) made the changeover with me. (Footnote 2: eGroups has now been taken over and perpetuated by YahooGroups,

Self-enrollment (and unenrollment, and a whole host of learner-managed features) was a strong appeal of the move to eGroups, now YahooGroups, not only as a means of relieving the moderator of mundane record-keeping duties, but also in allowing learners to come and go in the community as they pleased without having to send requests through a potentially judgemental moderator. This was a great step in focusing the course less on the moderator and more on the learners. Since learners could vote with their feet if they didn't like the course and unsubscribe at will, it was heartening that in the restructured course, they didn't. With the precursor email-based courses, where attrition was palpably down to just a few correspondents after only a week or two (while the moderator's distribution list remained unchanged), it was impossible to tell who was lurking by choice (because he or she perceived benefit from following the discourse in the emails) and who would have unenrolled from the course if there was a way out other than writing the instructor directly. Since control over membership was placed directly in control of the participants, not many have exercised that option, and the low rate of attrition in the Writing for Webheads 'course' (or, more correctly, 'community') is interpreted as positive feedback by the community's facilitators.

As of this writing, there are approximately 250 students and teaching peers enrolled in the Writing for Webheads YahooGroup (footnote). The amount of activity among group members has varied but at its lowest volume is consistent enough to sustain the list between peak periods. Active participation occurs between 10% to 20% of the group members, so that the great majority of these people hardly or do not at all contribute to our discussions. We often ask ourselves, and occasionally even ask the list, why they continue to receive our emails. Boundary members are by definition not inclined to respond (boundary membership is characteristic of online communities, where it is normal for many group members to 'lurk' or remain silent). But we have received messages from some inactive participants over the years to request that we keep them on the list because they appreciate what they learn from our list traffic. As one such member put it, she was a silent participant but a LOUD reader. As our popularity increases by word of mouth (or its Internet equivalent) and links to us on other people's web pages proliferate, we have a constant influx of new members. The new members sometimes simply lurk (we don't know who they are or anything about them other than what we can infer from the email address, a real name or a country perhaps), sometimes join us in a flurry of emails and then lapse into boundary member status yet remain on our rolls for years, and sometimes become active participating members. It is the latter group of newcomers who constantly rejuvenate our communities. We are tolerant of the others and tell them over our lists that we welcome their participation at any time that's convenient to them, we don't mind if they're there, and we appreciate their participation in whatever measure they choose to give it. This sometimes elicits a voice from the boundary articulating appreciation for that attitude.

The student community was slow to develop, but after an initial period where gaining trust became crucial to course success, a threshold was crossed and numbers grew steadily. The threshhold was in the form of getting students to divulge and share personal vignettes, especially items of personal identity such as their photographs (and even their names - one early participant confessed that he had concealed his true identity until he decided that we had we had finally earned his trust to the point where he could reveal it). At first my requests for photos to put on our web pages went unanswered, but when someone finally responded, and then someone else did as well, and then another, it opened a floodgate and I soon had the portraits of many participants. As Writing for Webheads accumulated students and, not insignificantly, their pictures and/or enough writing to reveal personality, its online presence continued to grow in the form of web pages and in synchronous meetings at the Palace and in other chat areas each week at Sunday noon GMT. The effect was the formation of a community whose members, despite never having met, felt they were getting to know one another, and thus a climate favoring trust and sharing of knowledge through scaffolding was fostered.

(Footnote for this section: As of May 2003 there are approximately 350 Webheads involved in Writing for Webheads and Webheads in Action. There are about 110 participants only in Webheads in Action, about 220 solely in Writing for Webheads, and perhaps 20 involved in both groups. Given current trends, these numbers are likely to increase in the near term.)

Real-world tasks

The thrust of the Writing for Webheads project has been to help students develop their English skills not so much through a syllabus but through tasks accomplished in a communicative exploration of free online CMC tools. Learning takes place through a two-way channel between native and non-native speakers of English in a flourishing online community, where all concerned experiment with and share their knowledge of the technology, with language development taking place incidentally and on demand, and as a secondary focus of activities.

As it gradually proved itself successful (in terms of learner enthusiasm for the program, as evidenced through growth in numbers and almost negligible attrition), this approach to target language development could not help but attract the attention of teaching practitioners, especially when in the new millennium we starting to use synchronous voice communication and invited the general world community into our chats by announcing them on listservs frequented by like-minded peers. Voice chat being a novelty at the time, our events proved to be quite popular, as we managed to stay just ahead of the new wave of chat applications becoming freely available to online language learners.

We had already been involving our students in live online demonstrations of our use of CMC in language learning at both face-to-face (me presenting while Webheads appeared virtually) and purely online professional conferences, but at the turn of the century our innovations with voice chatting resulted in our being invited to demonstrate firsthand our skill with voice and avatar enabled chat at several international conferences. Our first breakthrough was our performance at a special 'invited session' at the International TESOL Conference in Vancouver in 2000 where a large live audience was able to interact with remote Webheads by means of their amplified voices and avatars projected from a computer with live Internet connection to the Palace. After we had repeated the feat at a few smaller conferences, each time attracting (by means of listserv announcements) remote online participation from around the world, we were invited to present at the IATEFL CALL SIG Conference in Barcelona in the summer of 2000. Here, conference delegates sitting individually at about 50 computers were able to speak with Webheads in Hear Me voice chat and interact with them in the Palace. Largely as a result of our success and attention received in Barcelona, I was invited the following year to be a plenary speaker at the IATEFL CALL SIG conference in Cyprus. Using experience gained with CMC, we managed to webcast portions of the conference, and I was thus able to have Webheads come online to assist my presentation. Later at the TESOL Arabia conference in Dubai in 2001, delegates again interacted with Webheads individually in a lab setting. By the time of the CALICO Annual Symposium in California in 2002, we had added video to our repertoire and were able to not only hear and see our remote participants, but broadcast our own web cam from the conference so that Webheads in the online audience could see the live one interacting with their webcams being projected from afar on the on-site presentation screen. We put this expertise to good use shortly thereafter at the annual 2002 TESOL conference in Salt Lake City, where using our free CMC tools we webcast the CALL Interest Section's academic session for that conference. We also webcast a colloquium given by Webheads in Action at the TESOL Conference the following year, again arranging it ourselves using our own free software. These have been the only events ever webcast from TESOL conferences, so we are pioneers among presenters at this large annual conference venue.

In addition to our face-to-face conference demonstrations (where I was physically present at the conference though the other Webheads participants appeared virtually) we also participated in a number of purely online conference venues (e.g. the The ELT online conference in 2001, Global Learn Day 6 in 2002, and the Teaching in the Community Colleges Conferences in 2000 and 2003). In all of these venues our students had the opportunity, if they wished, to interact meaningfully in authentic communication with conference-goers who were very interested in finding out more about our students and how they were responding to using the tools being demonstrated. When the task is to prepare for and participate in an online conference, these purely online venues have proven to be a highly appropriate medium because all participants start out on equal footing. The old joke (New Yorker cartoon showing mutt at computer) "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog" works well at online conferences, where interactants tend to take each other at face value, and students find to their pleasant surprise that that they can hold their own in real conversations with native speakers who make no effort to patronize them. For an example of this, see the logs from our presentation at the Fifth Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 12-14, 2000:, where Gloria, Ying, and Maggie are Webheads non-native English speaking students from Paraguay, Taiwan, and Peoples Republic of China, respectively).

<Footnote 3: At all of these venues, participants used whatever audio chat client was in vogue at the time (Hear Me, Excite, Chatterbox, Windows Media Encoder, Yahoo). The handout for the TESOL Arabia conference in Dubai in 2001 gives a good overview of these clients at that point in time:>

Note also to editors: In response to one round of feedback , I removed to Appendix 1 a fuller description of these clients. If there is space and if you would like to retain that description, it would go here. If space is a problem, this chapter can do without that appendix, in my opinion - Vance)

Students and other community members

Writing for Webheads

The students in Writing for Webheads range in age from early teens to septuagenarians, and come from dozens of countries all over the world. The most typical Writing for Webheads students are looking for ways to augment language skills, either in time after work or if they are students in 'real life' as an adjunct to more formal classes. Some of our 'students' are non-native English speaking teachers of English in their own countries, and their proficiency in English varies, with some frequently requesting help from the group on matters of translation or nuance, while others in this category are almost indistinguishable from native speakers. Thus their distinction blurs with members of a third group of Webheads: native English speakers wishing to learn about CMC tools in order to gain experience using them with students and then implement them in ways that will foster community development in their own teaching situations.

Teachers and students coexist in symbiotic relationship in Writing for Webheads. The teachers all volunteer, and students sign on without concern for fees. Essentially the teachers gain through firsthand experience with CMC tools while using these to facilitate language learning in a live community of learners online. Students appreciate the opportunity to develop their language skills in conjunction with learning the same computer skills favored by instructors.

The following table shows how teachers and students interact and what they gain from their part in the process.

  Teaching practitioners Students
Motivation Volunteer Take advantage of opportunities for free English development in a communicative, supportive environment
Skills learn how to use CMC tools to teach Develop language skills according to inclination
Tasks Use CMC tools to facilitate language learning through maintenance of communities online Learn how to use CMC tools for communicative and personal purposes
Outcomes <-- Teachers learn how to use CMC tools for personal / professional / pedagogical purposes,
and correct what students write for their web pages -->

Webheads in Action

More recently, teaching professionals have joined our groups in such numbers that student participation has waned as that of teachers predominated. A way of introducing practitioners to methods of promoting community formation in online language learning was needed without diluting the integrity of student participation in the original project.

Webheads in Action began as part of the Electronic Village program of online sessions which have preceded each TESOL conference since 2001. The original intent was to generate interaction leading to sessions given at each annual TESOL conference but in practice the sessions are offered on any topic that contributes to the field of teaching English to speakers of other languages. The sessions last 6-8 weeks, are taught on a volunteer basis, and are open to anyone without fee, not just TESOL members. These being conditions under which the Webheads had thrived since 1998, I became involved in the second year of the program, offering to conduct a session on community building online. The plan was to bring the techniques that had worked so well in developing a community of students and teachers to bear on a community of teaching professionals who would learn not through being 'taught' in a lecture environment but by working with a model which was set up to enable them to experiment with the concepts under consideration. Webheads in Action was thus a laboratory for creating communities so construed as to develop into the real thing. Accordingly the community did not disband in March 2002, as did every other session at the end of 8 weeks, but continued to function organically until one year later, the experimental community embarked on its second EVOnline session on the topic of a principled inquiry into communities of practice through introspective study of its own development.

How the two groups interact

At time of this writing the two active groups, Writing for Webheads and Webheads in Action, remain very distinct in aims and in the nature and topics of postings to the respective groups. However, there is much overlap of membership, with many teaching Webheads participating in the student group and some bonafide students participating in the Webheads in Action group.

Aiden Yeh in Taiwan is a non-native English speaking teaching professional who is a member of both groups . An English teacher at National Kaohsiung First University Of Science and Technology, she has utilized Writing for Webheads in several projects involving her students, who are frequent posters to the Writing for Webheads list (Yeh, 2003). In one such project, for example, she had her students listen to a song by Michael Coghlan, one of the original teachers in Writing for Webheads. Besides being an active member of that group, since 1998, and in Webheads in Action from its inception, Michael is an accomplished guitarist and composer, and posts links to his music and accompanying exercises for ESL on his website. Aiden developed a web page to set the task: The students were asked to listen to one of Michael's original compositions, "Fear of Being Too Good" and then give their own interpretation of the song (i.e. what is the writer trying to say, what do the words mean, etc.). After her students had listened to the music, Aiden invited Michael to meet the class online and discuss the deeper meaning of the song. Finally, she followed up using the transcripts of the conversation with Michael and posted a web page recording the event: Here she posted her students' reactions to the song and their interpretations of it in both text and student-recorded sound files.

Some of Aiden's students pose for us in this picture. Associating names with faces is an important tenet in the Webheads concept of social learning.

Arif Altun presents another example of how the one group affects the other through its network of overlapping affiliations. 'Rif' is a non-native English speaking professor dividing time between two universities in Turkey. With a Ph.D in CALL from an American university, Rif teaches classes in methodology to Turkish students grappling with English as a second language. He recently had his class join a regular Webheads Sunday noon GMT chat session, and this resulted in a follow-up meeting with a class in China headed by yet another non-native English speaking teacher of English in Liuzhou, Yaodong Chen. (Yaodong, whom we'll meet again below, is yet a third example of a teacher who started out as a Writing for Webheads participant but whose participation in the Webheads communities now spans both that group and Webheads in Action; see Stevens 2002.) The two classes later repeated the meeting as remote participants in a presentation which I orchestrated live at a conference in Abu Dhabi (Stevens and Altun, 2002). More recently, like Aiden, Rif has encouraged his students to sign up with Writing for Webheads on an individual basis.

Aiden, Rif, and Yaodong all have in common that they began as a participants in Writing for Webheads, but their professional interests have been more closely compatible with the Webheads in Action group, which all three eventually joined. Aiden and Rif began interacting with the language-teacher peers associated with Webheads in Action but have since integrated their realtime students with Writing for Webheads. These participants and others like them push both communities to evolve and interact, thus maintaining the vitality of each community.



In face-to-face courses I have arranged in countries in the Middle East for myself and colleagues to learn Arabic, I have found that all we really need is a teacher to moderate our use of the language. All students in these courses agree to communicate only in the target language during class, and the students bring materials to class from whatever they find in the local environment. This could take the form of flyers left in apartment doors, memos written in Arabic at the office, digital photos of signs on shops from busy streets, Arabic films, or recordings of advertisements, music, or talk programs from the radio or TV, websites in Arabic, or even newspapers picked up on the way to class at the last minute. Classes can ensue spontaneously from such materials, but for greater exploitation students might be given (or themselves initiate) tasks designed to exploit these materials. For example, they can create an illustrated worksheet (in Arabic) asking comprehension questions about these materials, or create a website presenting the material in some way, with links to sites in Arabic with associated material. The teachers in these courses (whose concept of teaching might have previously been that it was difficult and tedious to teach Arabic to foreigners through grammar exercises) are often pleasantly surprised at how resourceful the students can be, at how little they actually need to do (other than act as informant and moderator), and how enjoyable the experience is. All concerned, students and teachers alike, generally look forward to such classes, and teachers find they learn about teaching almost as much as the students do about developing skills in the target language.

The methodology inherent in classes where students take responsibility for gathering and preparing materials draws from cognitive and constructivist principles, content based learning, and tasked base learning. It derives from a belief that authentic communication is a prime catalyst in intermediate and above language learning, and that little is gained beyond primary stages from learning through grammar instruction as opposed to learning by using the language in meaningful situations. Tasks designed to exploit these situations take the form of projects negotiated with students, and are carried out in an environment rich in scaffolding provided by others in the zone of proximal development. Discourse in classes where students initiate content engages them in a struggle to communicate, with encouragement not only from the teacher but from other students who sometimes are able to supply words and expressions needed, but at other times are hard pressed to follow the words and expressions used by each other.

Writing for Webheads is a virtual counterpart to classes where students organize the activities and take responsibility for bringing materials to class. Initially there is no plan of action beyond an agreement to meet online and use English as a medium of discussing a topic or engaging in a loosely directed activity (or a somewhat formally constructed one, as in the case where we meet for conference presentations). More directed activities have included variations on Webquests; for example, where several NNS students and teachers collaborated on a website describing Carnival and how it was celebrated in different parts of the world (Nyrop, 2002). Going from the theme of 'carnival schools' a group of Webheads discovered they had in common an interest in preparing national dishes and so they collaborated on a 'cooking school' where they produced web pages with pictures showing how they made their dishes and 'projected' them (on the browsers of virtual participants) during a joint presentation in Tapped In during one of its Summer Carnival events to showcase progressive uses of that medium. We have made other imaginative uses of seemingly simple features of Tapped In, such as the ability to create and project text notes. It has become a tradition at Halloween time for Webheads to hold a fancy dress party, where we 'design' elaborate costumes by describing them on these 'notes' and then project them so that others present can imagine what we look like. The result is a collective role play, with teachers and students acting out roles of fantasy creatures, which students very much enjoy, especially for the cultural insights, which we have supplemented by collectively preparing a website on Halloween themes (Stevens 2002 website; also see our chatlogs from two such events: October 28, 2001 and November 3, 2002.)

In a sense, participants in such chats are constantly role-playing through what is known as 'emoting'; for example one participant might give another a virtual 'hug' (or worse ;-):

ChristopherMJ [sleepy] exclaims, "Hi everyone!"
VanceS [^-^] gets bucket of water ready to pour on Chris
ChristopherMJ [sleepy] says, "Hi Ying"
SusanneN hugs Chris and ying
VanceS [^-^] says, "Hi Chris, Hi Ying"
ChristopherMJ [sleepy] enjoys the feeling of ice water running down his back
ying [guest] says, "hi"
ChristopherMJ [sleepy] says, "Thanks, Vance, I needed that"

Role play can get even more elaborate. In one synchronous chat at the Palace the participants each spontaneously took on roles and put on an impromptu play (August 15, 1999). In this case, it started when one of the participants said she would like to write a play but didn't know how, so we offered to help her conceive one:

Vance: Another idea is to come to class prepared to take on roles and use the chat logs as a script, or the start of one.
Maggi: and the teacher is only a monitor or helps to jumpstart things when they stall
Vance: But we'd have to have a storyline and characters defined.
Michael C: That would be interestimg Vance. Kind of develop the play as we go!
Felix: let's start one now?
Michael C: I'm willing Felix.
Vance: Well, we could start on a plot now.
Maggi: who wants to start

The characters were defined as the participants dreamt them up. Here, Ying Lan creates the role of a beautiful doctor named 'Sam':

Ying-Lan: Sam is a doctor.
Vance: Good start.
Ying-Lan: ^she is a beautiful woman too.
Maggi: What kind of doctor
Michael C: Sam is a woman?
Ying-Lan: ^Like thrapist
Maggi: good...a beautiful female doctor

In this way a set of roles was conceptualized. Then the participants in the chat changed their name designations to assume the roles of the characters they had hypothesised, and made up dialog as they went along. It was easy for participants to become emotionally involved in their roles and in the impact of other roles on their character. Here is an excerpt from the resulting role-play:

Bill (FBI): Joyce - while you're waiting could you get out the files on all Dr Sam's pateints please?
Joyce: ^Sam, I have already noticed the lawyer, he will be here after one hour. Actually he is in court now.
Sam: those files are the my property dective
Bill (FBI): Did you speak with the dead woman jack?
Sam: and you need a court order to have them
Joyce: ^But,, sir.. all the files are still in our office.
Jack: Yes, we had a small talk..
Sam: dead women can´t speak
Bill (FBI): I have a court order. Here it is.
Bill (FBI): Very funny Dr.
Joyce: ^ I did not bring those file.
Sam: excuse me a second while I read this over
Bill (FBI): Well go and get them would you Joyce.
Joyce: But what do you want to know?
Bill (FBI): jack - are friends with Jseph?
Sam: Jooyce stay right here
Bill (FBI): I want to know everything Miss JOyce.
Jack: yep.. we used to play tennis together.
Bill (FBI): Dr - you are not being very helpful.

In other instances the projects can be more personal. For example, Ying Lan, one of our original Writing for Webheads students, likes to write about her travels and feelings, especially in appreciation for something she has read or heard, such as the songs of Leonard Cohen, the poetry of Shel Silverstein, or the fantasy of Harry Potter (which she was reading in the original before the books and film became popular). Felix likes to tell us about his country, especially about the beaches and carnival, as well as get help with his studies. His web pages show the nature of his region in Brazil and tell something of its history (and he was the first Webhead to broadcast video to the rest of the group). An-Lian sends instant messages when she gets stuck translating documents for her school. In these cases the tasks are instigated by the students according to need perceived by each student, not the teacher.

an_lian: hi, vance, i have a question to ask: which sentence is better? "pls take your belongs well." or "pls carry your belongs well." thank you very much.
vance_stevens: carry your belongings
vance_stevens: (hi)
vance_stevens: or take your belongings with you
an_lian: both are ok,irhgt?
an_lian: :-))
vance_stevens: 'your belongs' is not correct
vance_stevens: 'belong' is a verb, so I can say, 'This belongs to me'
an_lian: but belongs is a noun here,right?
vance_stevens: No, we often make nouns from verbs by adding -ing to them
vance_stevens: It's called a gerund construction
an_lian: So it should be belongings,right?
an_lian: oh, yes, that is right.
vance_stevens: So "Don't forget your belongings' is correct (for example)
an_lian: so it can pls take your belongings well,right?
an_lian: GREAT!!!!
an_lian: thank you very much.

These examples give a sampling of the range of topics broached and illustrate some of the many genres of writing possible when students are given, or better, allowed to invent, purposeful tasks designed to facilitate their language learning.

CMC Tools

Primarily our materials are our CMC (computer mediated communication) tools. These tools comprise text, graphics, voice, and video based chat clients, which are often nominated by participants in the community. New CMC tools are not always discovered by the instructors, who are also participants, but often by the students. These tools are selected according to suitability to the purpose. For example, participants often enjoy using voice and video for communication, but there are times when text chat seems more appropriate to the purpose at hand. For example, there may be people in the chat who have no sound capability, so the group will opt for text chat mode. At other times, groups of voice chatters and those broadcasting web cams will form breakout groups and find it hard to pay attention to the text chat. Higher than usual demands are placed on participants who fiddle with managing chats in multiple modes, which one of our participants characterized as 'chaos navigation' (though once she started to get the hang of it, she changed that to 'intuitive chaos navigation'). All of these modes of CMC interaction, whether challenging or phatic, contribute to the cohesion of the community of users that comprises the Webheads projects.

This brings us to the question of what CMC tools best lend themselves to distance language practice and formation and cohesion of communities of practice. Here are some considerations in selection of such tools (See Appendix 1 for a fuller description of specific tools used):

  1. Cost - must be appropriate to the means of the institution. In an implementation such as Webheads, where there is no funding and the appeal to participants is to as broad a spectrum of users as possible, these tools must be free (to members of the community); that is, simply 'downloadable' by anyone in the community with an Internet connection.
  2. Ease of use - there should be easy installation, no complicated registration, and intuitive interface
  3. Multicasting capability- in order to engage groups of people, the ideal CMC tools need to broadcast one-to-many. Text chat easily meets this test, but the choices for multicasting voice and video (for free!) are limited.
  4. Cross platform adaptibility - this is a hard one, but the ideal CMC tools run on Mac and PC

There is no need to look for an all-in-one CMC tool. Several communications tools can usually be run simultaneously over slow Internet connections on common denominator computers (although users can normally have only one sound and one video device running from the same computer at any given time). Thus CMC enthusiasts should be able to select from a choice of clients according to suitability to perform a give task. Webheads, for example, favor Tapped In for text chat, but Tapped In doesn't have multimedia capabilities. Therefore, we text-chat in Tapped In while using other CMC tools to effect our voice and web cam sessions. There is no one tool that meets all our needs at all times, so we choose the tool that meets the occasion as one would select an arrow from a quiver to dispatch the target at hand.

Yaodong and his smiling young students, broadcasting from Liuzhou, China

Yaodong Chen) is an excellent example of a teacher who uses CMC to interact purposefully with the Webheads community. Yaodong is a non-native English teacher in Liuzhou, China who originally joined Writing for Webheads but later gravitated to Webheads in Action due to its many intersections with his professional interests. He has very large classes of smiling young students, as we can see from images broadcast from his web cams, and he uses CMC tools to arrange for his students to have communicative language practice and exposure to authentic target language through interaction with native speakers of English. Since Yaodong is willing to experiment with CNC on the Internet, he is able to bring native speakers to his large classes quite often. Yaodong also participates in our online chat activities predominated by Webheads in Action members and at other times finds individual Webheads in instant messagers for CMC practice online. Yaodong's cultivates online habits that contribute to his optimizing benefits from the communities of practice he participates in:

  1. He joins communities of like-minded educators who help him practice with the tools and keep him informed of latest developments.
  2. He uses these contacts to experiment with the tools he finds.
  3. He keeps current through interaction with other teachers using CMC regarding what tools are available and appropriate for language learning.
  4. He percolates what he learns through cycles of sharing information and learning more about CMC technology.
  5. He uses his online contacts to experiment with what he has learned, thus being in a position to learn more, and help scaffold his colleages.

The notion of community is crucial to this process. A community is an aggregate of individuals whose interactions impact on one another. Yaodong’s community of teaching colleagues spans the globe. The community expands as members introduce each other to other colleagues online or gather either spontaneously or by design in common chat areas (which might even include face-to-face meetings at international conferences). It becomes obvious to anyone wishing to start out with CMC that the first hurdle is to find a remote partner to experiment with. Once you begin to interact with a community, partners appear out of the virtual woodwork. Thus the community serves not only to inform, but also to assist with experimentation.

Partners are essential to the percolation process. For example, suppose I install a web cam and want to see if it works. One good way to find out is to go online and check my buddy lists to find someone else who is online at the same time I am. I use several programs that tell me when other users of those programs are online; for example, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. My buddy lists are full of people I have met over the years whom I can see online and who can see me online. Chances are there will be someone online that I can ask if he or she can see my web cam. Most (probably all :-) people in my virtual community are more than willing to take a few minutes to help each other with online troubleshooting or items of this nature. If called upon, I will try to respond, because I might need a similar assist tomorrow, and more importantly, helping others with what they are trying to do online is how I gain greater familiarity with the tools and learn how to use them myself.

Yaodong, for example, has often asked me to help him surmount this or that technological hurdle, join him at an interesting Internet site, or take a moment to speak with his students or with his colleagues before whom he is using or demonstrating techniques with CMC tools. In one such instance he met some of our students at the MLI online (using a dialup connection in my office; Webheads chat logs from December 11, 2001). In another, we engineered a meeting between students in his class and one in Turkey (Webheads chat logs from October 29-Nov 3, 2001). That encounter presaged a reunion of the two classes before a live audience at the Teacher to Teacher 2001 conference in Abu Dhabi (Webheads chat logs from November 7, 2001), as reported in Stevens and Altun (2002).

Yaodong is also a great one for trying things out online. Once for example, he asked me how to broadcast a PowerPoint presentation running on his computer to mine. I had no idea how to do it, but together we figured it out, and eventually I was running the application on my computer from his, using Netmeeting. The point is, before Yaodong asked me about it from half a world away in Liuzhou China, I had no idea you could do that with Netmeeting, let alone how, and after our encounter, we both knew. On another occasion Yaodong contacted me for help in answering riddles in English. It turned out he was at a MOO called Grassroots. One characteristic of MOOs is that they can have 'bots' to interact with real people who visit the MOO. Yaodong had found a bot at Grassroots that asks riddles and handles attempts at answering them. Yaodong was doing these with his students who were getting language practice not only with comprehending and attempting to answer the riddles, but through interaction with native English speakers in the 'greater' online environment who were available at the time to help them understand the riddles and their possible answers. And Yaodong was making use of the native speakers in his online community to successfully compensate for his own shortcomings in the language he was teaching, thus overcoming a common problem often faced by non-native speaker teachers of foreign languages. This kind of interaction is an almost daily occurrence among Webheads community members who might find each other online and ask for help to test a Netmeeting connection or troubleshoot a firewall, or even join each other in conference presentations.

Modalities and tasks

In a classroom or blended learning environment, an implimentation such as Webheads would have a face-to-face component, but because Webheads is a purely online phenomenon, it has no classrooms, but uses instead virtual spaces on the Internet. In these spaces, Writing for Webheads bases its interactions with students around three modalities. These are (1) email funneled through our YahooGroups listserv, (2) web pages for publishing introductions and writing 'assignments', and (3) synchronous multimedia chats. In this section we will see what tasks are distributed throughout these modalities.

Email via YahooGroups listserv

We have already seen how the YahooGroup for Writing for Webheads not only distributes email but also allows individual members to self-regulate whether they want to receive this mail by choosing to remain on the list or not. It also provides other useful features such as allowing members to determine how email from the group is delivered to them (choices are receive messages individually, in digest form, on none at all in case web access is sufficient). However they prefer to receive email, members are also able to read Webheads email and post replies directly from any Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world. Besides archiving all Webheads list traffic at its website, YahooGroups also provides convenient (and generous) upload and access to Files and Photos areas on each group's website, also accessible from (in theory) any Internet connection anywhere in the world. All these features are available for free to anyone who wishes to start a YahooGroup.

Webheads make use of all these features, but the email list facility is particularly well utilized. Most writing in Webheads is geared toward developing fluency, and email is a good vehicle for this. Webheads are encouraged to post on any topic they like, and the list can attract over 100 messages in a given month. The list moderator takes some of the messages (introductions and those that address threads under discussion), corrects them, and posts them to web pages. Students are encouraged to compare their email with what they see posted at the site. We do have some evidence that this is done: one student writes for example, "About other emails that you sent to me I print all of them and I study, compare, and underlined your corrections" (Denilson, Florianópolis, 1st March, 1999). Other than offering corrections when asked, posting corrected emails to web pages is the extent of attention paid to accuracy by Writing for Webheads.

Some of the tasks associated with this modality are:

Web pages for publishing introductions and writing 'assignments'

This leads us to the second modality of communication available to Webheads, web pages. Although training and assistance have been offered, except for cases where the participant already has a web site, most of the Webheads web pages have been created and posted by the main Webheads instructor. Although students would ideally be trained to create their own web pages, in the case of Webheads, the content of the students' pages derives from the students and is harvested as follows: once students find us on the Internet and subscribe to our Yahoo Group, they might eventually be invited or take it upon themselves to send an introduction message to the group. This introduction will be made into a web page linked from the Student page where all Writing for Webheads students are listed. If a student supplies a picture, it will be put on the web page in near-original form, and a thumbnail version will appear on the Student page and in the gallery of all available student portraits on the main portal page. When that is done a message is sent to the list indicating how everyone can meet the new student at the new URL. Often this is the first time that these students will have had any kind of a web presence and they are usually pleased and impressed to see their writing made so widely accessible.

The portals for all the Webheads projects follow a formula that we believe enhances community building. The ingredients in this formula are all items that project pictures and personalities of community members in an effort to introduce participants in the community to one another. To accomplish this, the group portals each have a main page with a description of the group and a gallery of thumbnail pictures of everyone in the group who has sent a photo. There are no names on this page, but if a photo intrigues you and you click on a it, you are taken to a web page with information particular to that person. With over 50 such portraits on each portal page at present, the portal becomes a tableau of our community. When the pictures are clicked on, details of community members are revealed. One result is that people more easily come to know one another.

To get at the names and bio-details of each person in the group (those who have sent photos along with those who have not) you can link to a 'community' page. On the Writing for Webheads community page there are links to a separate page for each person who has contributed any kind of writing to the group. These pages will have photos on them if available, but if not, they will at least have whatever information the writer has sent up about his/herself and/or on any writing topic(s). Through this network of pages, visitors to the site can get to know the person behind the face by clicking on the portraits, or can access complete lists of participants through the community pages and explore the rich variety of interests held by fellow community members by browsing through their web pages.

As members address various topics, their writings are collected onto pages devoted to each topic. Each message as it appears on the page is illustrated with thumbnail portraits (where available) linking back to the student's page, so that visitors to the site can read a message or essay, click on the adjacent portrait, and read about the person who has written that piece. The student's page can serve as a portfolio for a student's work and link to other pieces the student has written. As many such pages accumulate over the years, an interesting gazette is developed which effective records and contributes to the culture of the community.

Some of the tasks associated with this modality are:

Synchronous multimedia chats

Chatting online is the third modality through which Webheads bases its interactions with students and other participants in the community. In addition to numerous other virtual venues, Webheads have met every Sunday noon GMT synchronously online in one place or another since late 1998. Most of these chats have been logged and placed on the Internet with graphics showing screen shots of our interactions and pictures of people in the chats. These chats are accessible through our web site at:

The 'base' for our chats has varied over the years. At first, we used ICQ to find each other online. ICQ was unique in the late 20th century for being one of the first chat clients to tell you when other people you wanted to meet had actually logged on to the Internet, and this knowledge has always been essential in consummating group meetings online. We used ICQ to chat with each other and to even engage in multi-user conferences, though its multiple windows, one for each user, were not ideal for following such conversations.

Meanwhile we had discovered the Palace, one of the most enjoyable text-chat clients we have encountered even since then. The Palace was rich with features conducive to language learning. It allowed us to make our own avatars with our photos or graphics of fanciful objects. The avatars displayed cartoon bubbles when speaking, so it was easy to distinguish who had said what, and meanwhile a chat log was generated so that learners could recoup what they couldn't follow in the chat itself. From the log we could copy URLs we showed each other and paste them to our browsers. Designers have created numerous 'Palaces' (virtual spaces) with multiple rooms and objects, each accessible through a URL entered in the Palace browser, and we (the users) would have fun exploring the virtual labyrinths, in which were doors that led to other spaces, and whiteboards for creating graphics visible to all, and objects that enhanced the experience; notably glider rides in one palace we used to visit. We started logging our chats at our website in an effort to share the experience with members in our community vicariously, and to give those who were there a record which they could use to study what had been said and thus improve their English.

This graphic shows a log window and the Virtual Schoolhouse Palace portal, as well as examples of avatars, and illustrates how features such as positioning of avatars (in this case Ming on the edge of Maggi's chair) can in their own right enhance the communicative aspects beyond what transpires in text chat alone.

A significant portion of the discourse generated in the Palace was about using features of the Palace, explaining to newcomers how to make their speech bubble stay on screen for example, and thus it generated a rich matrix of contextualized comprehensible input for students. It was also not at all beyond the capabilities of second language learners to use. We would often encounter students on line in ICQ, invite them to the Palace, find out they had never installed the program, and have them with us in the Palace and using the software within about half an hour (and most of that was download time).

This graphic shows a side-room at the Virtual Schoolhouse with a whiteboard, which Marina has just drawn on. Once when I took a group of students here, each put his/her avatar on one of the stools (also a communicative gesture).

Meanwhile we were exploring other playgrounds to enhance our chat. We early on experimented with voice-enhanced communications across the web, sending each other emails with Real Media or Pure Voice attachments, sometimes putting the Real Media files up on web pages. This was at a time when expensive phone calls were considered to be the only option for most people to hear each other's voices from half a world away, so it was a significant breakthrough to have a means of speaking to one another at no cost, and to the students' advantage, be able to attend to pronunciation issues (one of which was learning how to pronounce each other's names). The students often took the lead in this. Ying Lan for example thought it would help her pronunciation if she could send us compressed sound files of her reading poetry and short stories, and we could give her feedback on her pronunciation in real time using our voice tools during our Sunday chats. It was also a student, Felix from Brazil, who broadcast the first video to be seen on Webheads, leading others among us to follow in his footsteps once greater availability of bandwidth made possible our efforts along those lines to push the envelope on how we used the technology.

At left, one of Arif Altun's students contacts Webheads from a laptop in Turkey. Below and at right, what it looked like on Vance's computer.

The real-time voice tool that had the biggest impact on our development at the turn of the century was Hear Me. This was a tool that allowed multiple users to gather in voice chat rooms and not only talk clearly to one another but converse in text chat. Inevitably someone would join the chat who could hear us but had no microphone, so this person would respond in text while others talked. The text feature was also valuable when we wanted to convey certain information such as proper names or URLs, or when there was a breakdown, or breakup, in voice communication. Sometimes several of us would be interacting in combination text and voice when someone would appear online who had no sound capabilities. Rather than break off and regroup elsewhere, this person would be invited to join us, and then the chat might proceed in silent text for some time, so as to include the newcomer.

What is the purpose of these chats and what would be their counterpart in 'traditional' education, usually conducted face to face? Classes in brick and mortar institutes meet regularly for class business, and transactions in class assume some degree of formality in order to enhance the efficiency of time spent there. After class, classmates might retire to a more social venue and talk about whatever they like. Though this is not seen as part of the class, any college freshman understands that this is a valued aspect of life at college. There is a lot in the literature to suggest disappointment in the efficacy of chat 'classes' when their purpose is to emulate face to face classes in a brick and mortar institute, when again, any college freshman can tell you that chatting is more naturally a part of the after-class culture.

Thus in Webheads, chatting is carried out in after-class mode. The moderators quickly learned that, well, there was really no place for a moderator in these chat sessions. If there was ever any attempt to set regular topics for the chats, this was abandoned early in our interactions together, since any attempt to keep participants on topic was invariable met with asides on the weather and greetings and interruptions from people coming and going (this applies to a long term course of interaction; perhaps not for a course of limited duration).

It has become clear that the modalities of email and websites are the places in our online environment where business is conducted, not, as one might extrapolate through false analogy to face-to-face learning in a bricks-and-mortar institute, the chatrooms. Chat venues create good opportunities for people to come together to expound briefly on central themes, and in fact these might be discussed out of interest, and this is important, not because a moderator has made any sustained effort to keep people's noses to the grindstone. It has become clear over the years that people value these chats for social reasons, the same way villagers might gather regularly in pubs or tea houses, not to conduct business but to socialize. But there might be some business conducted in these gatherings, and in fact the socialization is critical to the way business is conducted when it comes time for that. So in the same way that a village sustains its community spirit around its after-hours meeting places, Webheads has sustained its community spirit in large part by virtue of its weekly chats. Furthermore, the fact that people regularly turn up by the dozens week after week and year after year for these chats lends credence to the assertion that they do so due to their enjoyably interactive nature; whereas it is hard to imagine that they would remain so loyally committed to events run week after week more like business meetings.

Another draw of these online meetings is their exploratory nature. Webheads are generally eager and willing to experiment with each other's new discoveries. Willingness is important; Webheads do not respond 'not now' when asked out of the blue in an instant message suddenly appearing on one's computer screen in the middle of the work day if they can stop what they are doing to help the interlocutor test a web cam or see if PowerPoint slides can be made to launch remotely on the former's computer. This kind of thing happens at any time when Webheads leave their instant messagers up and running, but of course during the regular Sunday chat times, when so many Webheads are online at the same time, the urge to experiment can lead to challenging dimensions in multitasking.

Vance gives a live demonstration of a regular weekly Sunday noon GMT Webheads online session at the e-Merging e-Learning Conference at Higher Colleges of Technology Men's College, Abu Dhabi, UAE, September 2002. Juani is shown on the screen broadcasting from Chile.

Below, Claire Bradin, Dafne Gonzales, and Aiden Yeh broadcast from Pennsylvania, Spain, and Taiwan, respectively, while Vance pulls levers in Abu Dhabi.

Some of the tasks associated with this modality are:


There have been a few efforts to evaluate Webheads through qualitative methods (see for a listing of all such reports). Stevens and Coghlan (2001a-c) did study in which students in Writing for Webheads were asked what was important to them about the class, and from responses a questionnaire was drawn up and commented on by many of the students (Stevens, 2001c). The most interesting offshoot of this limited study was that it started an introspective dialog between students and practitioners in the group, the latter forced to explain and defend their methods against the more traditional views of the students. This airing of views was a healthy outcome for a community trying to reconcile its focus on communication and socialization with lack of assignments of grammar and reading 'exercises' for the students.

There is however a wealth of anecdotal evidence on how individual Webheads are responding to the learning environment created on their behalf. Coghlan (2000) cites a remark made by Ying Lan, one of our original Webheads students from Taiwan: "We could find a lot of English grammar books in bookstores, libraries and other websites. But only the Webheads teachers give us a response fast. That's our Webheads' wonderful treasure. I can not find such a good precious pearl in the world as Webheads."

More comments from Writing for Webheads students have been collected at For example:

"I've been connecting on the Internet since last year and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because as I don't have any English native speakers living down here, it was difficult for me to correct my accent, mistakes and the like. But now I have lots of help. The classes at The Palace have been an important source of information for me. They have good teachers: Vance, Margaret, Vera, Michael, Claudia, and Begum to name but a few." - Felix, Bahia, March 1999

"English For Internet is new way of learning language which seems to me a combination of learning and pleasure. I take this course because I want to and I believe that I will take some advantages. I think I will improve my English because somehow I will not be aware of my learning, it will be a fun for me, a pleasure." -Gosia, Poland

We have also had interaction with passersby to our web pages. Bicknell (1998), in one of the first reports ever done on Webheads, found "the public nature of their discussions and the work on their web pages/sites is the ultimate evaluation as the other students ... and any Internet user who happens on their site ... are free to comment on the English content of the pages." Accordingly, another visitor, Nick Virgo, wrote on December 6, 2001 (quoted with permission 07 Dec 2001) "My intention was to hunt down fairly simple sites, with the odd picture and basic biographies or project work. Your site, however, felt like it was much more. I really liked the spin-off interaction that was taking place and enjoyed the sense of community that was being generated; especially - I have to say - with ex-students (?) who continued to check-in from time to time. Thanks again, it's great stuff."

The Webheads in Action group too has accumulated a collection of testimonials, which can be found on the Webheads in Action portal page. Some examples:

"You have all contributed to my personal development as examples of 'can do, will do' people. I am amazed at your skills, energy and dynamism and impressed by your talents and output." - posted to the evonline2002_webheads YahooGroup list, Feb, 2003

"We are so lucky to be part of Webheads, this resourceful and sharing group of human beings who have introduced us to the wonderful world of e-learning." - posted to EVOnline moderator training YahooGroups list, Nov 2002

"This CoP has been one of the best professional development opportunities of my entire career--thank you all for being so supportive and eager to work together!" - posted to the evonline2002_webheads YahooGroup list, Mar 29, 2003

Additionally, this group recorded some longer essays on what the experience has meant to them professionally at the end of the EVOnline 2002 8-week sessions (see "Reflections on what we've accomplished from the 2002 EVOnline sessions,"

In early 2003 the group hosted a second EVOnline session whose purpose was to study itself as an example of a distributed community of practice (and then give a colloquium whose panel comprised the session moderators at the annual TESOL Convention in Baltimore, March 26, 2003). In the course of this session and colloquium, several Webheads in Action members evaluated how participation in the community had informed their teaching practices. Some documents to emerge from this introspection are Teresa Almeida d'Eça's (2003) comprehensive listing of the many Webheads sites all over the Web, and Arlyn Freed's (2003) database approach at getting to grips with all the output and organizing it in a searchable web page. During the sessions themselves Dafne Gonzales (2003) organized a week-long session on "How participation in a community of practice informs and influences the participants' personal teaching practices" and documented her work at a web page with links to testimonials prepared by her co-moderators. One of the most intriguing outcomes from that session was Buthaina Al Othman's (2003a) impressive web page documenting her capabilities before and after joining Webheads in Action. The transformation is apparent and clearly illustrated from the relatively flat pages before the influence and the JavaScript and frames effects of the more recent pages. These pages also link to a list of things Buthaina learned from Webheads in Action (2003b).

I was once asked after a conference presentation how we handled evaluation in the Writing for Webheads group. I realized the question was about how we judged the students, but I answered that we judge ourselves highly on the fact that after several years we are still going strong with increases in student numbers, many participants having stayed with the community since the very beginning. Although there is no testing or formal evaluation in the Webheads projects, we receive constant and mostly unsolicited positive feedback in terms of growth in and enthusiasm for our endeavors.


In this chapter I have tried to explain the many facets of the Webheads projects in the context of current trends in the facilitation of language learning through constructivist and task-based approaches. In so doing I am hoping to provide a model that others might use to achieve similar implementations in their own learning contexts. For example, we show in our model how students might practice and improve fluency through chat, email, and postings of extemporaneous compositions to web pages. In your situation you might want to include other genres, or build in mechanisms for greater feedback or evaluation.

It is important to realize that application of such a model to one's own context will depend on many factors. For example, do you meet your students primarily face-to-face or, like in the Webheads projects, almost entirely online? Or are you working in a blended environment, where you see your students but are developing components for them to interact online? What performance objectives are set for your students and how do you evaluate them? Do you have enough flexibility in your situation that you can engage in exploratory learning, or can you write rubrics that will accommodate learning within constructivist frameworks? Your specific application of the principles explored in this chapter will depend on your answers to these questions. If you are in a position to change

The main message from the Webheads projects is that elearning environments can and should be set up to lower the affective filter and promote the formation of a sense of community among members of those environments. Techniques for accomplishing this online include the sharing of still and moving images, and voices as well as text messages that give participants in a community an indication of who they are and what values and aspirations they share. It is the contention of this chapter that tasks directed at sharing such information can be powerful catalysts for language learning. Certainly these contribute to the willingness and motivation of learners to want to communicate with each other, thus giving them a reason for wanting to use the language under study that can be lacking in learning environments where attention to community has not been well developed.

The Webheads experience has shown that our model can be applied successfully in language learning and teacher training in predominantly online, or distributed, communities of practice. It seems reasonable to assume that there are countless other situations to which the tenets of our project might be applied.

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Steele, J. (2002). Herding cats: A descriptive case study of a virtual language learning community. Dissertation submitted to the Graduate School and Research, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V. and Altun, A. (2002). The Webheads community of language learners online. In Syed, Z. (Ed.). The process of language learning: An EFL perspective. Abu Dhabi: The Military Language Institute. pp. 285-318.. Pre-publication draft retrieved December 23, 2002, from:

Stevens, V. 2002. A day in the life of an online language educator. TESL-EJ 6, 3. Retrieved April 18, 2003 from

Task Based Learning, in the Draft Chapters of the Revised CDC Secondary English Language Syllabus, Curriculum Development Council, Hong Kong. Retrieved December 24, 2002, from:

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice Learning as a social system. Retrieved December 24, 2002 from:

Whittington, D. and Campbell, L.(n.d.). Task-based learning environments in a virtual university. Retrieved December 24, 2002, from:

Willis, J. (1998). Task-Based Learning: What Kind of Adventure? The Language Teacher Online. Retrieved December 24, 2002, from: four optimum conditions for language acquisition, and thus provide rich learning opportunities to ... and learners during a task-based learning (TBL) lesson. ...

Yeh, A. (2003). CMC and Webheads: Hand in Hand in Education without Borders. Paper presented at the 2003 Annual TESOL Convention in Baltimore at the Colloquium: "Case study of a community of practice" Wednesday, March 26, 2003. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:


APPENDIX 1: Chat clients useful in CMC (as of early 2003)

The following are CMC tools we have used and their limitations:

Software mentioned and where to get it

Blackboard - Blackboard Inc. - (license required)
Chatterbox voice chat client - Talking Communities Online - (license required)
ICQ - - (free)
iVisit - iVisit - (free)
MSN Messenger - MSN - (free)
Netmeeting - Microsoft - (free)
Pal Talk - -
Wimba - Wimba - (license required for threaded voice and voice chat software; voice email still free as of early 2003)
Yahoo! Messenger - Yahoo! Inc. -

Recall our 5 considerations in selection of CMC tools for language learning. How do some of the CMC tools available in early 2003 come out against such considerations?


We find that some tools that have been used recently in language learning and other CMC contexts are no longer free. Wimba, for example, once gave users the ability to create threaded voice-boards without cost. Now, these voice boards are no longer freely available (although I have found that you can still send voice email in demo mode from the Wimba web site). Wimba is a great product and has working relations with Longman, IBM, and Blackboard; but users must now purchase the ability to create threaded voice boards. Webheads are currently helping to beta-test another Wimba product called Voice Direct, with features and voice clarity similar to our all-time (but no longer available) favorite, Hear Me (but Voice Direct is not likely to be free once it becomes available off the shelf). Another fairly robust voice chat client allowing the creation of voice chat rooms to accommodate numerous users is Chatterbox, but again, it's not free (however, Chatterbox can be tried out online, for free, at StudyCom English for Internet).

Ease of use

Most of the free CMC tools that I am aware of are fairly easy to use (with the possible exception of iVisit, where it is not immediately intuitive how you can create and join chat rooms where you can meet other online interlocuters).

Multicasting capability

Do not support multiple conference users:Some free chat clients, in their freely downloadable form, are strictly one-to-one. This is the case (in early 2003) with MSN Messenger's voice enhanced chat, and Netmeeting (which is especially easy to use when conveniently launched from an MSN Messenger session). Netmeeting is an excellent CMC tool, with a useful whiteboard in addition to robust voice and video broadcast capabilities. The whiteboard enables users, for example, to draw or paste an image onto the whiteboard of one computer and have it appear on the whiteboard of the remote computer (very handy). Server software to enable Netmeeting multicasting is available but, unfortunately, not for free.

Allow multicasting: There are at least three free chat clients that will enable voice and video multicasts as of early 2003. PalTalk will allow one voice speaker at a time to communicate in conference with multiple listeners, and these conference participants can select up to 4 available web cams to view at any one time. Yahoo Messenger does even better than that, allowing voice users to meet en masse and speak in duplex in conference mode, with voice quality and users allowed seemingly limited only by bandwidth available. Yahoo also allows broadcast and reception of multiple web cams, again limited it seems only by system resources available to the computer (with Yahoo Messenger, I can easily get a half dozen web cams and a dozen voice users communicating over a 56k dialup connection on a PIII laptop, 500 MHz, with 192 meg of RAM, assuming a reasonable feed from the dialup). Further good news for Yahoo Messenger is that Mac users can broadcast and receive video, though it seems that they can't access Yahoo Messenger voice (as of this writing, but this appears likely to change).

Cross-platform adaptibility

Enter iVisit, a cross-platform Mac and PC chat client that allows free creation of chat rooms and the ability to get multiple web cams and voice users therein. However, in practice, I have found the down side to be that the interface is not intuitive (how do you create a chatroom?), voice can be erratic or not function at all, and the video display is inferior to Yahoo's. However, if the community contains both Mac and PC users, and if there is a need for voice and video enabled chat, iVisit is currently the only choice, with Yahoo Messenger however becoming increasingly friendly to Mac users.

Ability to fit into an eclectic approach to usage of CMC tools

The best in text chat: All the above clients are text-enabled, and this is important when sound is not clear, or when someone wants to copy and paste a URL that the others in the conference can click on. Most of these I believe will also allow you to save your chats (though Yahoo Messenger conference chat never saves when I do it, just gives me a zero byte file, so I have to copy from the chat window and paste to an application if I want to keep a record, which is supremely inconvenient). But the best free text chat client, in my opinion, is neither voice nor video enabled. This is TappedIn, the portal for a community of educators who can join for free, keep and decorate offices, have chat transcripts mailed to them, join in online community activities, have avatars, project URLs on remote computers, and avail themselves of other features ranging from the amusing to truly utilitarian.

The preferred choices for an eclectic approach to implementation of CMC in language learning: The ideal CMC environment available today is an amalgam of all that is useful above. My own choice for multimedia CMC on a PC is to meet in Tapped In and then open a multiple-user voice chat conference in Yahoo Messenger and share video windows with those who have web cams. If Mac users are present though, iVisit might be the best bet, but look for Yahoo to do more in the near future to accommodate Mac users.

APPENDIX 2: Webliography

Web archives cited

Fifth Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 12-14

Almeida d'Eça, T. (2003). Index of "Webheads in Action" web pages and related sites. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Al Othman, B. (2003a). How Participation in a CoP Informs and Influences Personal Teaching? Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Al Othman, B. (2003b). Why Am I Still Here? Things I learned from WIA. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Freed, A. (2003). Webheads in Action (WiA): Database of 2002 Discussion Topics with Links to Yahoo Group Messages, Ancillary Materials, and Artifacts. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Gonzales, D. (2003). Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V and Coghlan, M. (2001a). What students feel about Writing for Webheads Part 1: Preliminary reflections. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V and Coghlan, M. (2001b). What students feel about Writing for Webheads Part 2: Rank the questionnaire. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V and Coghlan, M. (2001c). What students feel about Writing for Webheads Part 3: Open-ended questions. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V. (2003). Reports, Studies, and Research on WFW: Writing for Webheads. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V. (2001). Writing for Webheads: Our Methodology. Retrieved March 31, 2003 from:

Stevens, V. (2002). Happy Hallowebhead. Retrieved May 10, 2003 from:

Meet Yaodong. Retrieved April 18, 2003, from:

Meet Aiden. Retrieved April 18, 2003, from:

Meet Rif. Retrieved April 18, 2003, from:

Chat with students Gosia from Poland, Felix from Bahia, Ying-Lan from Taiwan, and Gao from Brazil; and teachers Michael C, MAD Maggi, and Vance August 15, 1999. Retrieved May 10, 2003 from:

Webheads chat logs from October 28, 2001. Retrieved May 10, 2003 from:

Webheads chat logs from October 29-Nov 3, 2001, recording a session connecting live online in synchronous text, voice, and video-enhanced chat, two classes of non-native English speakers from Turkey and China - archived here with pictures from both locations. Retrieved December 23, 2002, from:

Webheads chat logs from November 7, 2001, recording transcripts and web cam shots of a presentation at the MLI Teacher to Teacher Conference. Retrieved December 23, 2002, from:

Webheads chat logs from December 11, 2001, recording a meeting of distance educators with students physically at the MLI. Retrieved December 23, 2002, from:

Webheads chat logs from November 3, 2002. Retrieved May 10, 2003 from:

Web portals mentioned

StudyCom English for Internet -
Grassroots - Enabling Support Foundation -
Tapped In - SRI International -
Teaching for Webheads -
Webheads in Action -
Writing for Webheads -

APPENDIX 3: Glossary and acronyms


avatar - a digital representative of a participant in an online environment. An avatar can be an icon of some kind (a flat graphic representation of the participant) or an animated object

blended - refers to learning environments where a curriculum has both online and face-to-face components (as opposed to purely one or the other)

boundary member - a passive participant in a distributed community of practice (an online community) who does not actively become involved with the core activities of the group; see also 'lurker'

chat client - an interface through which participants in a chat connect with one another. Each participant in a chat might download, install, and use the same client on each person's computer; for example all remote participants might choose Yahoo Messenger as their client, so that when they run the application on their computers at the same time, they can use its interface to talk to one another. Not everyone in a chat has to run the same client, but in order to be chatting, the clients have to be compatible with one another. For example, some chat participants might be using the Tapestry java-based browser interface to communicate through Tapped In to other chatters, while some users in the same chat might be using another client such as G-Mud, but they can still access and communicate in the same virtual space.

elearning - a learning environment where students have access to instructional materials delivered via at least one computer, though often via computers connected through a network to a server and/or to the Internet. The server can act as a repository for such materials and it can facilitate interaction with others on the network who may be a part of the learning environment.

firewall - software running on a server that prevents data that could potentially compromise network security from reaching other computers on the system

instant messager - a kind of chat client that registers a user's 'buddies' in such a way that they can 'see' each other whenever they log on to the Internet (and on to that particular chat client) from wherever they happen to be anywhere in the world. Using IM software, users can know when their friends have logged on to the Internet and thus be able to send messages 'instantly' to each other

listserv - a mailing list that can be subscribed to in such a way that members can send email messages to one another simply by addressing the 'list'

lurk - a term describing the actions of a 'lurker', who is one who enrolls in a list but does not participate through interaction with other members. A less perjorative term for lurker is 'boundary member.'

zone of proximal development - the people with whom one interacts and from whom one learns during a learning experience


CALICO - Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium
CALL - computer-assisted language learning
CMC- computer-mediated communication
CoP - community of practice
EFI - English for Internet
ESL - English as a second language
EVOnline - Electronic Village associated with TESOL
GMT - Greenwich Mean Time, or time at the International Dateline; also known as UTC
HTML- hypertext markup language, or code interepreted by a browser so it will display web pages on your computer
IATEFL CALL SIG - International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, CALL Special Interest Group
IBM - International Business Machine, one of the first makers of computers
ICQ - "I Seek You", one of the original instant messager programs
IM - instant messager software, a kind of chat client that allows users to see when others are online and send them messages they will receive instantly
LAN - local area network, or network of connected computers typically within a building or office
LMS - learning managment system; well-known examples are Blackboard or WebCT, although YahooGroups is used as an example here
MHz - megahertz, among other things, a measure of computer speed (how 'fast' or powerful the processor is)
MLI - Military Language Institute in Abu Dhabi

MOO - MUD Object Oriented (see MUD); object-oriented means it has graphics objects.
MSN - Microsoft Networks
MUD - Multi-user dungeon, from the game Dungeons and Dragons, a virtual navigable maze. A MUD supports multiple players connecting from remote locations to the same virtual maze space. A MUD is usually text-based (see MOO).
NS and NNS - native and non-native speaker(s) of a language
RAM - random access memory, the kind of memory your computer has that is erased when you turn the power off, and that you can increase by adding more 'chips' or memory cards; as opposed to ROM, 'read only memory' which is pre-wired to boot your computer and perform other essential tasks.
TESOL - Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages
URL - universal resource locator, or address of a computer on the Internet pointing to a file on that computer
ZPD - zone of proximal development