Webheads as agents of change in overlapping clouds of distributed learning networks

November 30, 2007 at 3:27 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

This article has since been published here:
Stevens, Vance. (2007). Webheads as agents of change in overlapping clouds of distributed learning networks. APACALL Newsletter 11, pp. 3-8. Retrieved December 18, 2007 from: http://www.apacall.org/news/Newsletter11.pdf.

Having listened twice to Derek Wenmoth’s Professional Learning Networks keynote “Holding a Mirror to our Professional Practice” at the recent K-12 Online Conference http://k12onlineconference.org/?p=181 I was all ears when Derek was interviewed on a recent Women of Web 2.0 webcast #51 http://www.edtechtalk.com/node/2594. In that conversation, Derek related how a colleague had been studying the effects of programs of professional development and had come to the conclusion that in cases where teachers did not pursue a course of PD beyond a particular salient event, they were likely to revert to teaching in the way they had been taught within a certain number of months.Given the vogue in considering learning networks as ecologies, here is a case of ontogony recapitulating philogony, or the offspring or product of a training program reverting to features inherent in a long line of previous trainers. This is to say that something more than a one-off course or training session is needed in order to really cause change in teaching methods. Calling forth a phlosophy of Zen and the Art of Maintaining a Respectable Commitment to Professional Development, it behooves us to realize that change must come from within. It is something that must be worked at continually, through blogging and reading blogs for example, or listening to podcasts such as the one I refer to here, through podcasting oneself occasionally, and through familiarity with what is involved in doing all that in order to inculcate similar learning heuristics in students by MODELING for them, through a teacher’s personal professional development habits, what techniques and methods will help keep learners (lifelong-learning students and peers) connected to professional learning networks wherein new-age knowledge resides.

Webheads is a group of enthusiasts keen on learning as much as possible about the role of technology in education and just as eager to help one another on our individual paths to learning and discovery. In this respect we have networked, or converged, or grouped together, as an anecdote to the problem of recidivism in teacher professional development.

Webheads started in 1998 as a community of language learners and teachers who began meeting online about then, at a distance, to develop their skills in the learning and teaching of writing in English. In these days before blogging and the advent of the read-write century, Webheads were enabling learners to get to know and interact with one another by posting writings on mailing lists (interactive) and websites (static) with faces of writers appearing in thumbnail portraits next to their compositions, an idea that only later became well-known as a feature in Moodle and other socially oriented educational environments <http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/efi/webheads.htm>. Participants in Writing for Webheads strengthened their bonds by meeting synchronously each Sunday noon GMT. At the start, meetings were in a compelling avatar-based space called The Palace, but when around the turn of the century it became possible to mount synchronous voice chat at our website, Webheads lost no time adding this new dimension to our weekly interactions, and from that time on we began attracting the attention of other online teachers, whom we invited to interact with us at first informally, but then at online events which we mounted at conferences, frequently online.

But with increasing frequency we were invited to appear at face to face events to show delegates at international conferences firsthand how easy it was to engage students in communication with one another using online tools freely available over the Internet. As more teacher voices joined our community, those of the students began to be suppressed. Seeing the need for separate teacher and learner groups, I formed Webheads in Action (WiA) as a session in the second TESOL/EVO annual training event in 2002. EVO, or Electronic Village Online, is a set of free grass-roots professional development seminars on various topics in language learning which take place the first two months of every year (see: http://academics.smcvt.edu/cbauer-ramazani/TESOL/EVOL/portal.htm).

The timing was impeccable as WiA was at the cutting edge of a movement that was soon to define use of the Internet in the read-write Web century that had just begun the new millennium. We were yet to see the tools which would carry this movement foreward, tools such as blogs, wikis, YouTube, and the proliferation of social networking sites. Yet the impetus was well in place and that first group of teaching practitioners became a dedicated core who have for the most part remained loyal to this beginning in 2002. “Becoming a Webhead” has been offered at every EVO event since 2004, and has in each instance been put on by participants in prior Webheads EVO sessions. Meanwhile, the Yahoo Group which served the first EVO session in 2002 has grown to well over 600 members (and anyone is welcome to join at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evonline2002_webheads).

Webheads have morphed in how they perceive themselves. In 2002 we thought of ourselves as a phenomenon which had emerged online from a YahooGroup, but this feeling of group quickly developed into the idea that we were a community, and for our first few years we explored the notion that we were a community of practice. This attracted a number of studies, including a dissertation on our group by Webhead Dr. Chris Johnson, which in turn led Etienne Wenger, perhaps the best known writer and researcher on communities of practice, to alter his notions of the CoP paradigm and explain how WiA had influenced his thinking at one of our online Webheads in Action Online Convergences, WiAOC 2007 (referenced below).

More recently, I have come to think of ourselves more as a network than as a community or group. I have been influenced in my thinking largely by George Siemens and his writings on Connectionism (2004) and by Stephen Downes and his numerous writings and podcasts, including his appearance at WiAOC 2007 at which he drove the point home (see also his slide show from a presentation on Distributed Learning, April 3, 2006, at http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/distributed-learning). Indeed, what Downes refers to as a distributed learning network seems to me to characterize the connections in Webheads and our overlap with a Venn diagram patchwork of other communities often largely populated by Webheads members.

The question of what constitutes a Webhead ‘member’ often comes up. I suppose you are recognized officially as a Webhead if you have enrolled in the YahooGroup, or in the Worldbridges drupal portal at http://www.webheadsinaction.org. Or you might consider yourself a Webhead if you frequent any of the sites listed in the portal that links to all the other Webhead portals here: http://webheads.info. I tell people that being a Webhead is like being a hippy. You know if you are one. And if you are one and see another one, there is likely to be an affinity between the two of you.

This notion of membership dissipates with the degree to which you consider yourself to be more a node on the network than a member of a group. The grouping is then defined by its connections, not by a particular sense of membership. In this perception, each node connects to many others and one cloud of connections might be called Webheads whereas many of the Webheads nodes might have tentacles linking to another cloud called EVO, which in turn would have nodes networked elsewhere but not necessarily directly to Webheads. To take another example, there is a cloud of networked nodes referred to as APACALL, and many of those nodes reach back into Webheads. At each of our WiAOC convergences, APACALL members have interacted with Webheads as members of panels mounting presentations at those online conferences, so in a network sense, APACALL participants might feel themselves to be a part of the Webhead cloud of networked nodes, though they may not have necessarily joined the WiA YahooGroup, so they wouldn’t in that sense be considered as Webheads ‘members’. But they might have enrolled in the Worldbridges portal, and here would be another stimulating network, many of whose nodes reach also into the Webheads cloud.

What’s interesting about this is what happens with “knowledge” in a network. Downes has a ‘Where’s Waldo’ definition of what it means to know. You don’t know where Waldo is until you know, and once you know, you can’t not know it. This is a personal definition of knowledge, but we can’t all know where Waldo is every time we need to find him, and this is where Webheads rely on their networks. Jay Cross says in his book on informal learning that “The work of the future is knowledge work.” David Warlick pointed out in his recent K-12 Online Conference keynote that whereas his father learned in college what he would need to know for the remainder of his working life, his children would have no such assurance. In a so-called ‘flat’ world where the jobs we teachers train our students for have not been invented yet, those most competitive in the most likely future will be those whose networking skills are most sophisticated and refined.

This I think is what Webheads are about. We encourage one another to enhance our networking skills, learning the tools most appropriate for this as we use them with each other. We model for one another the most appropriate systems for enhancing connectionism and the sharing of knowledge within our distributed learning networks. As we ourselves become more familiar with the basic essential tools, we carry them into our workplaces and classrooms. As we involve our peers and students in effective ways of learning, we model for them, to try and break that cycle of recivitism, of going back to ways of teaching and learning that are becoming increasingly outmoded the further we get into the read-write century, the century where the knowledge worker will prevail.

Webheads are change agents. We work on the easy part first, to change one another. It’s harder to effect change with those who are not yet networked or not so committed to learning that they will pay more than lip service to the pursuit of learning full time, which is what lifelong learning is. But the secret is not in teaching, not in assembling groups of students, like horses led to water. The key is in modeling, in showing people how to successfully network, to aggregate content, to work toward the creation of folksonomies through tagging, to pull in knowledge through imaginative use of key technologies like RSS rather than relying on what is pushed their way in email spam and glut of attachments. Another key is to connect, to interact with a network, to touch base frequently with other nodes in your distributed learning network.

As a final illustration of the points made here, an example means by which a distributed learning network might aggregate content, let’s look up blog postings tagged webheadsinaction in Technorati, searching for blogs with ‘any’ authority: http://technorati.com/tag/webheadsinaction?authority=n&language=en

The result yields some insights into connections within our networked community. The first that I find today is a post by Nancy White entitled Community Indicator: Condolences,
citing “a blog that allows a distributed community of practice to share their condolences with a member whose father died.” This might not be the kind of knowledge you would expect to be shared in a distributed learning network promoting professional development, as it refers to a personal situation not normally discussed among professionals. Yet read on to the next post, “Miso stalks Spike,” an installment in the adventures of a Webhead from Canada who is on an extended trip by van to Mexico (and whom I had encouraged to tag her blog posts ‘webheadsinaction’ so we in the community would be able to locate and read her posts). Next, there are YouTube videos, including one of Carla’s son Dudu explaining the meaning of thanksgiving (Carla is from Brazilia but has just moved to Key West, where her son is showing off an remarkable command of assimilated language and culture). What is all this, you might ask? Not what you expected? It’s another key ingredient of Webheads, from the days of thumbnails next to writings and voices in synchronous chat. That ingredient is personality.

Caring about one another is the secret ingredient that has held this community together for almost ten years now. That, plus a proven track record of keeping one another at the cutting edge of educational technology over the past decade while introducing newcomers to the process in an effective and non-threatening manner.

This article appears in blog form here: http://advanceducation.blogspot.com/2007/11/webheads-as-agents-of-change-in-ever.html

You are welcome drop by and leave comments there.


Cross, Jay. (2007). Informal Learning. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Downes, Stephen. (2007). Personal Learning the Web 2.0 Way. Presented at WiAOC 2007 – http://www.webheadsinaction.org/wiaoc2007/StephenDownes.
Slides: http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/personal-learning-the-web-20-way.
Recordings: Part 1: http://streamarchives.net/node/84;
Part 2: http://streamarchives.net/node/83

Johnson, Christopher M. “Establishing an Online Community of Practice for Instructors of English as a Foreign Language.” Ph.D. Dissertation in Computing Technology in Education from Nova Southeastern University

This case study examined an online group’s degree and presence of CoP characteristics, as gleaned from CoP theory. The study analyzed the group’s synchronous and asynchronous communication to determine what areas received the most and least “airplay”, and how they changed over time. One topic for discussion is how this type of analysis can be used (e.g., comparison to another type of online group, maturity stage of a CoP, “health” of a CoP, etc.). – From CPSquare News, September 7, 2006, http://www.cpsquare.org/News/archives/000073.html

Siemens, George. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. elearnspace. http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm.

Warlick, Davd. (2007). Derailing Education: Taking Sidetrips for Learning. Keynote presentation at K-12 Online Conference. http://k12onlineconference.org/?cat=7

Wenger, Etienne. (2007). Conversation with Suzanne Nyrop. Presentation at WiAOC 2007 – http://www.webheadsinaction.org/wiaoc2007/EtienneWenger.
Slides: http://www.flickr.com/photos/netopnyrop/503628210/in/set-72157600229137116/.
Recordings – Part 1: http://streamarchives.net/node/56;
Part 2 : http://streamarchives.net/node/55

Bibliography on Webheads

Stevens, Vance. 2006. Guest Editor’s Introduction: Proceeds of Webheads in Action Online Convergence: Volume 2. In Stevens, V. (Ed.) IATEFL Poland Computer Special Interest Group Teaching English with Technology A Journal for Teachers of English ISSN 1642-1027 Vol. 6, Issue 3 (August 2006). http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_edit25.htm

Stevens, Vance. 2006. Guest Editor’s Introduction: Proceeds of Webheads in Action Online Convergence: Volume 1. In Stevens, V. (Ed.) IATEFL Poland Computer Special Interest Group Teaching English with Technology A Journal for Teachers of English ISSN 1642-1027 Vol. 6, Issue 2 (May 2006). http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_edit24.htm

Stevens, V. (2004). Webheads communities: Writing tasks interleaved with synchronous online communication and web page development. In Leaver, B. and Willis, J. (Eds.). Task-based instruction in foreign language education: Practices and programes. Georgetown University Press. pp. 204-217.

  • There is a full text of a late draft of my article here, though references are not included: http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/efi/papers/taskbase_ch10june192003.htm.
  • Here is a Commentary: from the Linguis list, May 2005. AUTHORS: Leaver, Betty Lou; Willis, Jane R. TITLE: Task-Based Instruction in Foreign Language Education SUBTITLE: Practices and Programs PUBLISHER: Georgetown University Press YEAR: 2004 “CHAPTER TEN: Webhead communities: Writing tasks interleaved with synchronous online communication and web page development (Vance Stevens) Another instance of virtual classroom implementing writing tasks is described in this chapter. The author reports activities of groups of learners and teachers involved in online writing practices. The writing tasks were aimed at purposeful interaction and technology was a vehicle of implementing pedagogical principles not the driving force. The author’s initiative for conducting an online writing and grammar course is reported to have been the starting point of this community of online writers called Webheads. The group interactions involved various topics including projects on which teachers interacted and themes and tasks of interest to learners. Cost, ease of use, multicasting capability, and cross platform adaptability were the criteria in selecting the tools for computer mediated communication. Email groups, web pages, and synchronous chat were the major modalities of interaction and implementation of tasks. After a brief discussion on evaluation and in the conclusion section the author mentions lowering affective obstacles and promoting a sense of community as the main message from the project and recommends that the model be applied in other situations. In an appendix some technology related issues are dealt with.

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. There is a pre-publication version of this paper at http://sites.hsprofessional.com/vstevens/files/efi/papers/t2t2001/proceeds.htm

Stevens, Vance. 2001. Developing a Community in Online Language Learning. In Syed, Zafar, and David Heuring, eds. Tools of the Trade: Teaching EFL in the Gulf. Proceeds of the Military Language Institute’s 1st annual Teacher-to-Teacher Conference, May 3-4, 2000, Abu Dhabi (UAE) pp 85-101, and on the web at http://lightning.prohosting.com/~vstevens/t2t2000/gvs_t2t_paper.htm.

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 May 6, 2005 from http://www.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/TCC2000.htm

Stevens, Vance. 1999. Writing for Webheads: An online writing course utilizing synchronous chat and student web pages. A paper submitted for the 4th Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference: Best Practices In Delivering, Supporting & Managing Online Learning, April 7-9, 1999 – http://sites.hsprofessional.com/vstevens/files/efi/hawaii99.html

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Jobs that haven’t been invented yet

January 8, 2007 at 4:03 pm (Uncategorized)

I was listening to a podcast the other day … I listen to podcasts every chance I get.  I actually filled up a HDD the other day.  My Juice refused to function, not enough space for downloads, it informed me.  Sure enough, the disk was full.  It came as a surprise to me – I thought HDD’s were bottomless on late-model computers.  Anyway, it was easy to delete a few hundred mp3 files to make room for more.  Anything over a month old is ancient history these days.

I was listening to the Worldbridges network, http://www.worldbridges.net, my favorite podcast network.  The Worldbridges difference was illustrated when Jeff Lebow interviewed a triad of podcast luminaries for the purpose of having them make predictions for the new year, 2007.  Nevermind the predictions but at one point the luminaries tried to make distinctions between podcasting and webcasting.  The two were mutually exclusive they thought, and webcasting? what was the point?  Why engage in webcasting when with podcasting people can listen at their leisure, asynchronously, on their iPods and iRivers, without having to be tethered to the Internet.  Jeff humbly pointed out that having live conversations during webcasting added value to the subsequent podcast.  The luminaries didn’t seem to get it.  Funny so few people do.  But that’s why it’s my favorite podcast network.

Jeff is doing what he can to spread the technique through his Webcast Academy, http://webcastacademy.net .  I’m supposed to be helping facilitate the next one coming up in mid-January.  This has been in the works for some time, but (see previous posting) the powers that be in the country in which I reside really do NOT want people here using VOIP.  The reasons are most likely corporate, but they are having an impact on the education sector, one example being that my facilitation of this event is blocked at every turn Jeff and I can think of.  Skype has been subject to nation-wide blockage in the UAE for some time.   Jeff and I tried Gizmo, but that too seems to be relegated to the nether world of disconnection.  Even the call button on Yahoo Messenger is greyed out here.  That’s too bad because previous renditions of YM using HTTP protocol were working fine.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that without some breakthrough in the VOIP problem here, I simply cannot be of much use in this session.  An opportunity of state of the art professional development and a chance to help and interact with other educators is once again being compromised.

But I digress.  I still have my podcasts.  I can learn from others even if I can’t join in their conversation.  The podcast that gave me the grist for this posting was from Women of Web two point oh!  http://www.womenofweb2.com and the notion that got my attention was, “We’re preparing students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.” 

I’m a teacher of computing, and that notion pretty well sums up one side of a divide in what should be taught in computing.  It gets right at the concept of computer (multi)literacy, and what skills should be taught in a curriculum of computing education. 

Developers of curricula have to justify what they teach.  One way to do that is to conduct a standard needs analysis; i.e. determine where those matriculating from your program of study are going and ask those at the other end what skills are needed.  For example, I teach in a foundation program that sends students to freshman studies, so the obvious people to ask are the professors in that program, and based on their responses to our survey, gear our curriculum to the needs of the students as perceived by those professors.

The problem here is that those professors are all digital immigrants, as would be anyone born before 1980.  So computing to them is a tool, but not a way of life.  And their use and knowledge of computing as a tool tends to be limited to applications that would help students do calculations, write lab reports, and make presentation, all offline.  They are engineers and scientists whose expertise does not extend into my field, computer literacy, any more than mine would allow me to comment knowledgeably on what maths skills would prepare students for the next level, let alone sophomore through senior years at college, and more importantly, into life beyond. 

The foregoing approach is unfortunately the most defensible one in case what one is teaching is questioned.  It is easy to point to the needs analysis survey and win the argument that the curriculum is the one that is most appropriate based on the evidence gathered.  Depending on how a department within an institution is evaluated, it might be necessary to be able to produce such evidence.

This situation is less than ideal if one favors a second approach to how to determine what computer skills should be taught to students embarking on college careers and productive work-lives thereafter.  This approach suggests that students need to learn how to use interactive Internet tools, how social networking works, and how blogs and wikis and other net artifacts can be collaborated on and linked through imaginative tagging.  I think that these skills will not only make their learning more social, but will show them ways that projects can be and are increasingly being organized in real life. 

I could say quite a lot on this topic.  For the past three years I have been teaching a course on multiliteracies in collaborative learning environments: http://www.opensource.idv.tw/moodle/login/index.php .  This portal to the course has numerous resources referencing  the above topics in relation to constructivist learning environments, connectivism, informal learning, etc.

But it may be typical that your physical workplace is possibly the last place you will find colleagues interested in such concepts.  The people reading this blog for example are not likely to be people where I work, but others with whom I have connected online.  The people reading this are also likely to be saying yeah, he’s right, there aren’t many where I work either that I can really relate to, as I can to others, my closest and most respected colleagues, in the online environment.

Many of us work in environments where the read-write web is looked on as threatening (economically, exchange of ideas, productivity in a top-down management structure) or misunderstood as being frivolous.  And worse, misunderstood by other teachers or administrators locally who simply fail to inquire, to learn about it, to bone up on it, because they don’t use it in such a way as to integrate these tools with many aspects of their personal and professional lives, and therefore they question why they should teach it.

It’s especially frustrating to be shut off from vehicles of professional development like Skype which could serve to rectify the situation.  It used to be, in many educational institutes in the UAE, that chatting was blocked for all of the above reasons, plus the perceived threats to the network (letting others in from outside).  This is generally not so much the case now (though sites might be restricted if they are considered frivolous and subject a network to large media downloads).

I used to give talks in the UAE on the benefits of chatting and reaction was sometimes, “Why do I need to know this? Chatting is blocked where I am!”  I would respond that it would not be blocked for long, and that educators had best get themselves in position to take the lead once it became available to students.  That is of course the real danger of blocking VOIP and ignoring social networking as a way of innovative classroom and job/project management.  Teachers will be in no position to lead once the groundswell of user demand succeeds in breaking down the firewalls.

However, if we can prepare students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet, then there is some chance that their leadership will save the day.  To me, the greatest validation of my teaching is when a student I have positively influenced shows me something new.  The fact is we all have much to learn from one another and social networking facilitates that process.  Learning how to learn about and harness the emerging tools is the best guarantor of success in life where jobs are yet to be invented, though it is very hard to do a needs analysis that will provide evidence for that contention when the people being polled are doing jobs that were invented long ago.

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October 18, 2006 at 2:46 pm (Uncategorized)

Yaodong Visits the Webheads Hut at EduNation

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And then it hit me …

October 18, 2006 at 4:58 am (Uncategorized)

For an avatar who was almost born just yesterday, it’s no mean feat to catch the attention of the venerable Stephen Downes in just your 5th posting.  My First Life counterpart heard Stephen mention on a podcast once that he has scripts that search the blogosphere for what people are writing about him, and I think that’s how he came on the posting below, which he mentioned at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?topic=186 .  He didn’t say much about it but he did say “Yes!” twice, which I take to be some measure of agreement.  Stephen’s work obviously has helped me to find a framework for my ideas.  In any event, Webhead Link is off for a short break for a week or ten days and is going to try and avoid computers for much of that time (would that be Third Life??).  Meanwhile, enjoy the posting that caught Stephen’s attention …

The weather is cooling off in Abu Dhabi and midsemester is winding down, and on my way to work this morning I was driving with my Japanese ear-rings playing Alex and Arvind off my iRiver, my second listen to 21st Century Learning #17 where the boys discuss ways of connecting real-live and remote conference participants, and then it hit me …

I think it was Woody Allen who once said, “There are two kinds of people in the world … ” and then something to the effect that there are people who classify the world’s population into two categories, and those who don’t. I guess that’s true, but the truism that hit me this mornng is that there are those who gravitate to client-server networkers and those who thrive in peer-to-peer networkers, which I’ll abbreviate as CS and P2P in this posting.

And it occurred to me that throughout my career I’ve been a P2P networker working in CS management environments, and when I’ve had the opportunity to carve out a management domain myself and run it as P2P this has brought me in conflict with CS people who have been uncomfortable with my management style.

However, my management style has produced some salient successes. In my last management position it resulted in the creation of a content management system before that collocation of words came into use. In an environment where the military liked to run a tight ship, one of my jobs there as CALL Coordinator was to constantly struggle against the tendency to lock it down so that teachers working with the network could productively network P2P. Some of these teachers learned Java programming and developed enough experience with scripting and database management that when the military eventually caught on that this was the way to go and then tried to direct the developers, they killed the initiative and drove the developers away. Shortly afterwards, I and my management colleagues left as well, and the institute imploded on itself and became no more.

The second great vindication of my management style is self-evidently: Webheads. (I once gave that as an example of my greatest management success at a job interview, and around the table I could see from the impassive, uncomprehending faces that I’d blown it – I think they were expecting something more CS).

Which brings me to the point of this post, the culmination of my recent third rendition of my multiliteracies course, a sudden idea for an abstract I need to get in soon for the METSMaC conference in Abu Dhabi, and the topic of a dissertation I’ve got percolating when I finally retire into academia and prepare for the final phase of my life while I still have strength and enthusiasm but at long last no kids to support.

And that is a departure on a mantra that Stephen Downes chants over and over in presentation after presentation: the power of the Internet is that it makes possible an aggregation of knowledge distributed over P2P networks whereas in a CS system knowledge resides in and is the property and responsibility of a single omnipotent yet not omniscent entity. Stephen gives the famous example of an airplane; no one person knows how to build and fly one, yet planes take off and reach destinations all the time, somehow. In the corporate world, or in any management system, you have administrations that try to dictate and control how things will go, and those that encourage decision-making and development through a communities of practice framework. Webheads have made compelling arguments, we think, for the latter approach.

The problem with the former approach is that the one entity cannot know, cannot have a broad enough knowledge base, to manage effectively through a CS system. A good, or very bad example if you will, would be the Bush administration and its approach to dealing with world problems, sending the ‘best and the brightest’ to manage Iraq, as was done previously in Vietnam, and then adopting a father-knows-best we’ll-do-it-our-way stance rather than tapping into the knowledge base, sort of like having your finger on the pulse and pressing too hard then ignoring the convulsions of the victim rather than attending to the information associated with that pulse beat.

The same conflict in management style, or let’s call it network configuration, is at the root of basic dysfunctions in education. In the UAE for example, the communications authorities have moved to cut off many Web 2.0 evironments such as Skype, Flickr, and YouTube. The motivation for blocking Skype seems to be simply that the communications monopoly in the UAE feels that its revenues are threatened, and is able to do something about it in a CS configuration where all Internet traffic into the country filters through proxy servers. Thus a central manager with limited view of the situation over-rides what is clearly the wishes of the people the system is supposed to serve, who see their interests as residing with freedom to choose a P2P system. What the manager can’t know is how this impacts education.

The impact is on two levels. One is that a generation of digital natives is being nipped in the bud, its digital passports are being revoked, the youth of a nation and its elders are being relegated to a few more years of immigrant status in an ever-more-wired and connected world, and last but not least, the central manager has no idea what I just said, what this notion of digital natives vs. digital immigrants is about, and how important that is. (p.s. here’s a clue).

The second impact is that it nips in the bud the opportunity to carry on conversations between educators who will use these opportunities to learn from interaction with others in the distributed learning P2P network.

The manager works from a CS business model. The phone company essentially taxes businesses who use communications to earn profits. When businesses try to evade the tax, the manager uses its position in the CS network to track them into handing over a fraction of the proceeds. But education doesn’t work that way. Educational use of Skype is not in competition with the manager’s business model. Educators are not going to say, oh darn, guess I’ll have to use the phone now. Educators will say, oh darn, there’s one of a hundred conversations with other intelligence-bases in the community I can no longer have. I guess I’ll go back to my chalk board now.

At a level closest to the workplace, a common problem is that in CS networks teachers are thwarted by their own IT departments,  for seemingly good reasons of managing bandwidth or curtailing non-educational use of limited resources.  Teachers may regard certain internet sites as being essential to their work but the IT dept, being unaware of that work, blocks cites needed by that faculty, with obvious disruptions to that faculty’s teaching, research, or professional development, which will result in faculty doing creative work with an open and accessible Internet feeling suddenly constrained to be working under censorship.  In the words of Stephen Downes, a once functioning network is now broken.

In order that everyone can work in an atmosphere of innovation and creativity so necessary to the most successful teaching, network adminstrators must attend to the transparency with which network adjustments are done.  Teachers might prepare work using a site one day only to come to class and find that site is blocked, and then a lesson is ruined.  Or a site that was working one day in the teacher’s office is not working the next and the teacher wastes valuable time trying to troubleshoot the problem, and realizes only later that the problem must be at the firewall.

In the short run the CS manager is in control and can impose order on the system.  But in the long run, as people become more sophisticated and aware of appropriate uses of technology in education, this will be seen as detrimental to the big-picture goals of the educational community.  It would be nice if the goals of that community could be achieved sooner rather than later.  For that to happen, CS and P2P systems and people must find ways of having dialog with one another, learning from one another, and capitalizing on each other’s strengths. For that kind of knowledge transfer to occur, CS managers must accommodate more fully P2P network frameworks in their management systems.

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Why research is necessary into the educational value of Second Life

October 17, 2006 at 4:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Webheads have been writing in the list recenly about the importance of research on the educational benefits of second life; for example,

Sophie Hugo: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evonline2002_webheads/message/13554

which prompted responses suggesting that research was not going to get  at issues such as intuitive introspection and motivation, prompting me in turn to write:

Quantitative reasearch is only a part of the picture. There is qualitative research,  which in research terms would be measuring motivation through some qualitative protocol (i.e. the anecdotal evidence mentioned).   Research is clearly needed when people are forced to say things like, I don’t know what was happening exactly but I know it was powerful and potentially educational. How do you then articulate your position, as Carla needs to do in Brazilia, to collegues who have no clue? If you can’t speak from some sort of factual base, describe through someone having researched it what its processes and benefits are in terms that others can understand, how do we proceed (since we can’t get everyone there to see for themselves).

Failing to do that in fact has its downsides, as with the pending DOPA legislation, where the US govt has stepped in to legislate constraints on use of social networking sites (you want to use SL? sorry, against the law) in a sector, education, where is has no expertise relative to us educators who know better. Yet WHAT we know is difficult to communicate without there being some kind of research base. Anecdotal as it may be, it at least has to be formalized enough to where our advocates can articulate it.

Selber (2004) presents a framework in which he argues in favor of an awareness of multiliteracies on three distinct fronts: functional, critical, and rhetorical. In his book he suggests ways that these awarenesses can and should be incorporated in what educators teach their students, and each other.

For example, children these days are becoming so functionally literate that even elementary students can easily navigate social networking sites such as MySpace. This has challenged schools to take steps to regulate the use of MySpace, raising many issues of critical literacy such as how to appropriately consider ownership and privacy on the Internet (i.e. use of photos, exposure to pedophiles). Many schools avoid the issue by blocking MySpace, and the U.S. congress is on the verge of passing DOPA, the Deleting Online Predator’s Act [Wikipedia is a consistently reliable source for encapsulations of up-to-the-minute current events and terms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deleting_Online_Predators_Act_of_2006]. 

This brings up a rhetorical literacy issue: how to counter knee-jerk stances (which tend to prevail where litigation is a threat)? How can educators articulate the reasons why children should be taught to use MySpace appropriately, or why we should consider more than just the salient aspects of regulating student use of such sites via draconian measures like DOPA? The task of arguing cogently enough to counter conservative political expediencies by reaching policy-makers who don’t truly understand these issues in the first place requires vocabulary and expressions of concepts that must first be grasped and then explained.

For those not already familiar with the DOPA legislation, some excellent discussions of it have been held on the Worldbridges Network, in EdTechTalk, at:

http://edtechtalk.com/EdTechTalk58 and http://edtechtalk.com/EdTechTalk58_part2

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Second Life, ESL, Webheads, and Professional Development

October 14, 2006 at 5:55 pm (Uncategorized)

I’m writing now about the relationship between Second Life and Active Worlds. I remember Dave Winet and I using Active Worlds as far back as 1997. The reason I remember it was 1997 is that I had just moved to Abu Dhabi and I usd to be baffled by the environment because it appeared on my computer as a set of triangle coordinates. That was because the graphics load was not possible on my computer at my slow bandwidth at the time.

Eventually AW started to work for me and I remember the lady from Coterie who created the Scholastic schoolhouse in the Palace for the EFI taking us through a house she had constructed in Active Worlds replete with artwork, seeming not unlike in look and feel some of the buildings at Edunation. There has been at least one attempt at creating an ESL environment in Active Worlds by someone in Japan (the URLs no longer work, but there’s more information here:
http://www.geocities.com/vance_stevens/findbuds.htm#active_worlds) and Dongping Zheng, Robert Brewer, and Michael Young gave a presentation at ttp://wiaoc.org (on Sunday 16:00 if you want to zero in on it) on Quest Atlantis, which is an early version of Active Worlds licensed for education
http://atlantis.crlt.indiana.edu/ .

Dave Winet was heavily involved in the Palace back in the mid to late 90’s. He was signing students up for “3 D Classes” and those who expressed interest in that option he passed off to me or to Michael Coghlan and Maggi Doty who were conducting classes there just a couple of hours apart. It often happened that I would still be there when they appeared and that’s how we met and eventually formed a single class which we called Webheads. At some point in that era, after we had installed the HearMe plugin at our websites, Michael Coghlan and I met at AW and talked each other through flying lessons and soared about exploring the terrain from the air.

The Palace meanwhile was a compelling environment for those who SELF SELECTED to be there. We never conducted any serious research on why it was so compelling but we’ve given numerous presentations alluding to the fact,
and we’ve left extensive chat logs illustrated with screen shots from the Palace.

The reason the Palace was so successful for those who were drawn to it is that it was possible for people who met only online, and knew little more about each other than they had in common an interest in online social and educational environments, to communicate so many nuances of personality through interaction in that environment. It was possible to be creative. Even the kind of dialog webheads are engaging in now (I’m frustrated, HOW do I do this, ok I’m here, what now, what’s this for, this is cool, I just had an idea, here, try this …) … these are marvelous opportunities for truly communicative and authentic language interaction. That just doesn’t happen in many other environments you can conceive of, and often not even in face to face ones.

Second life carries over much of the idiosynchratic serendipity of the Palace and is an improvement over Active Worlds simply because it works better. Many of the limitations of Active Worlds have been addressed in Second Life. For example, in AW, unless you paid the fees, you could not make your avatar ‘cool’ – yours looked like everyone else’s and suggested a pecking order in that environment. I don’t know how much time I want to spend on it, but on my first visit there I gave my avatar a moustache, and Dudeney Ge’s looks very much like the man himself. Again, in working out that I could do that in the first place (right click on your avatar and select the appropriate option) there was language and interpersonal interaction between me and my scaffolder.

Now I can scaffold the next person. That person could be a teacher seeking professional development or a student hoping to learn my native language without my explicitly teaching it. This is very empowering for students, when what they learn today quickly positions them to scaffold tomorrow’s newbies. I’ve always liked John Higgins’s characterization of authentic language being anything linguistic not expressly created by a teacher for the purpose of teaching language. In my plenary in Cairo a few years back I debunked the notion of ‘teaching’ a language at all. I suggested that it was not possible to ‘teach’ a langauge
http://cwp60.berkeley.edu:16080/TESL-EJ/ej28/int.html . If I’m right, then for a language to be learned, there needs to be an environment that will nurture that learning.

I think that Second Life is one of those environments, or could be (it’s not automatic; Gavin and Nicky and Graham have done phenomenal work in putting some tools in place that might create that environment). AND in order for teachers to learn about these environments, they have to go to them and interact with one another. That’s what webheads has always been about.

For more information, there’s an intersting Wikipedia article here:

yours truly,
Webhead Link

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Second Life, ESL, and Webheads

October 14, 2006 at 5:33 pm (Uncategorized)

Second Life, ESL, and teacher professional development

Some suggestions for using SL in the above context:

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