Showing posts with label communities of practice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label communities of practice. Show all posts

Friday, April 9, 2010

Modeling your PLN: Backchanneling with Students

When many of us think about PLN, or Personal Learning Network, what we envisage involves colleagues sharing information in a social network or community of practice (see and for numerous examples; and I've always liked Scott Leslie's nice collection of PLE diagrams:

We less often think about setting up PLN's with students, but at I list one of the ten paradigm shifts that I think educators must make as they move into facilitating learning in the 21st century as being "transfer [or] using technology and social media in one walk of life and then transferring those heuristics for learning into the classroom and other teaching situations. For example, people who frequently use Facebook or Twitter might tend not to use social networking or backchanneling in the classroom, because they don't see how to transfer what they do in one part of their life to how they manage their more formal teaching and learning environment, because it's not in the curriculum, etc."

Educators backchannel through their PLNs but in fact we should all be doing this with students (see "Where 3 R's meet 3 C's" about what we should be teaching as 21st century life skills: creativity, communication, collaboration - We should be modeling how we network in order to show students how they can do the same in order to become productive knowledge workers in those jobs in the future that haven't been invented yet, as articulated in

The problem is where networks might collide, as when we mix our social networks on Facebook or Twitter with the very different worlds of our students, and risk distracting clutter in our professional networks if students are allowed into them, or suspicion of impropriety at worst.

Twitter itself has introduced a solution: LISTS. Now you can create a list for your students or separate classes of students and add them to the appropriate list without having to "follow" them. In this way, they don't appear in your Twitter stream, but you can open a LIST and catch up with what they are up to that way.

There are other means of backchanneling in classrooms. Edmodo is one which I have used with students. It works well if people in the class monitor it, but the problem is, it isn't 'real'. We go to Twitter every day in the course of our normal workflow. You check Edmodo only when it occurs to you. Your students do the same. It lacks traction. But many teachers use it as a backchannel tool similar to Twitter, and because you need a code to join a group, it's safe for students.

Another good backchannel tool is Etherpad. This tool was so good that Google bought it to use its technology in Wave. Consequently the tool at is shutting down this month ( However its code has been released as opensource ( so it has already been resurrected in other implementations, and its code will live on as part of Google Wave, which could serve as a model for backchanneling with students or on any kind of project in their productive lives in the future (though a tool that would be effective with students needs to be a lot simpler to use than Wave is right now).

You can use Delicious or Twitter or Google to find other sites that have used the Etherpad code already; e.g. and Readers of this post could help one another by leaving links in comments below to sites that use the Etherpad code; for example: and

As to why we'd want to backchannel with students, I've found a couple of articles that explain the rationale and suggest some tools:
This posting derives directly from my PLN.  It was originally a response to Lori Teng's comment on my post in one of my other blogs here:  If Lori hadn't commented on that post, and triggered in my brain all the synapses there I'd been storing up related to backchanneling with students, this article would never have been written.

This post therefore is yet another example of how a PLN works to cause us to model and demonstrate for one another, to reflect on and practice what we are learning, and to percolate how we develop our knowledge back into our communities and networks in an ongoing process of lifelong learning.

This post figured into a presentation I gave for a TESOL Arabia chapter event April 10, 2010.  The blog posting for that event, including a link to its recording, is here:

Here are some Twitter reactions to this post:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Who are you and what have you done lately?

The last time I was asked to write a personal assessment of my work I turned it into a blog post:  That was in November 2007 but now two years later, the time has come again to take stock of my professional self-perception, and here it is.

I feel that my work is having an impact on the field of social networking in education, and is getting some attention in the area of learner independence as well. I was invited in 2008 for example to participate in a Learner Autonomy SIG Pre-conference event at the annual IATEFL conference in Exeter, and I was asked to contribute an article to the SIG Newsletter on the topic. My take on the issue is that teachers must first become truly autonomous; and this in fact is the connection with social networking.

Stevens, Vance. (2007). The Multiliterate Autonomous Learner: Teacher Attitudes and the Inculcation of Strategies for Lifelong Learning Independence, Winter 2007 (Issue 42) . Retrieved November 9, 2007 from

There is no good comprehensive handbook on social networking of which I am aware (the best references on the topic tend to be circulated around the network). Social networking has to be done. In other words, in order to learn about it, people have to teach themselves through informal learning and collaboration with peers. The collaboration is important because in order to DO social networking, you have to have a network with which to experiment. So my work recently has been to promote and examine the formation of social networks and how they work. It is complex but intuitive at the same time; still the complexity makes it difficult to introduce the concept to those who are not engaged themselves (overtly) in social networking. This is again the link with learner autonomy. Teachers who know something about the topic introduce its many components gradually to those who want to learn, a premise which I have exercised in my several annual renditions lately of my course in Multiliteracies taught for TESOL (, parts of which I have included in materials on Computer Literacy for students I teach face-to-face (, and also a short course for teachers taught for the first time in January of 2010 (

My work with this process of introduction of both the content and process of social networking has evolved from looking at the topic from the evolution of groups to communities, to arrive at a perspective of distributed learning networks (I was invited to talk on groups, communities, and networks at the most recent TESOL conference, This has taken me through a line of inquiry examining the perspective of communities of practice, which had great traction earlier in the decade, and which I have been often asked to speak on recently. When I was asked to design and teach my TESOL course on multiliteracies a few years back this gave me further perspectives on the issue and brought my inquiries to bear on social networks, and the new theory of connectivism, which is considered to be a participatory or connection multiliteracy, depending on how that topic is viewed.

The many views on the topic are part of a paradigm shift for education, the nature of which my work has also examined ( The many aspects in perspectives that this shift impacts deeply influence my view of the role of computing in learning, and how students and teachers should be learning to prepare themselves for changes that can be expected in the way they will work and learn into the next decade. Most of us can sense that this change is impending, and I feel that my work helps educators to grasp the nature of that change and see how they can leverage it to their advantage and to the benefit of their students. I have feedback on this as I participate in communities of hundreds of teachers worldwide, and coordinate several, including a significant community called Webheads, much appreciated by its members ( As I am often asked to speak on the topic, or am followed on Twitter (, or re-tweeted, or as comments are added to my blog posts, as people ask me to write articles, or to edit sections of professional journals, I become aware that my work is trickling out over networked communities and having some impact and is earning a modicum of respect among others interested in the topic ( I’m also encouraged my work is gaining in interest where I teach at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi: .

Another aspect of my work is change agency. I realize how difficult it is to be a change agent, and that change typically takes a long time to first penetrate and then filter up through an institution, but I’m getting some indications that the filtering has begun at the PI, and I hope to be a part of that through some aspects of social networking that might benefit colleagues where I work, and which could be taught (that is modeled, demonstrated) in turn to students (e.g.  After all, students are the focus of this work, but students by definition are learners, and that includes all of us.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Proposed chapter on Online Distance Training for ESL/EFL teachers: Case Study of a Community of Practice and its Distributed Learning Network

Have you ever submitted a proposal for something and sent it off and then forgot where you'd put it, so when your proposal was accepted and it came time to act on it, you couldn't retrieve it or remember exactly what you had proposed?

I have just submitted a proposal for a chapter which might appear in a book on teaching ESL online, assuming the book proposal itself is accepted.

In writing the proposal I realized that it answers succinctly in 300 words what people frequently ask me, how did Webheads come about, and what is Webheads anyway, and how does it fit into a framework of professional development? I have referred to this 'fit' as 'teacher autonomy' in this post here, for example, and also in the Slideshare presentation embedded below.

So here's the proposal. It would be useful if it attracted feedback, but apart from that, since it's here, I'll be able to retrieve and remember it later, and in case anyone asks me again about Webheads, this will be a convenient place to point them.


Webheads started in 1998 as an online community of EFL students and teachers learning together how technology facilitates language learning through computer-mediated communication. By around the turn of the century it was being dominated by teaching practitioners who in 2002 came to see themselves as a community of practice (CoP) known as Webheads in Action (WiA). As communication over the Internet expanded rapidly into voice and video, and with Web 2.0 making it possible for many users to create content online and share it in cyberspaces promoting social networking, many such communities arose and began overlapping in multiple memberships. This paper explores the concepts of groups, communities, and networks, and relates how WiA evolved from a group to a community (specifically, a CoP), and how this CoP developed contacts with others to function as part of a much wider distributed learning network (DLN) of teachers training one another.

The case of WiA models professional development through connectivism. At each node in the DLN, there is a person who is passionate and knowledgeable (and wants to learn more) about some aspect of teaching through technology. Collectively the nodes comprise the knowledge-base to which each member in each overlapping community has access. Connectivism provides a framework by which the development of pathways of access to that information is of primary importance to the information itself. Professional development then becomes a matter of educators blazing pathways to create channels through which each other's knowledge can be shared and made to flow in all directions, creating a dynamic system conducive to informal, just-in-time learning.

This paper describes how members of WiA utilize such connections to maintain conversations that enable everyone to learn about and practice with latest innovations in educational technology, and contribute to innovative and transformative teaching practices.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Global and local visions: Webheads and Distributed Communities of Practice (Denver TESOL 2009)

This posting encapsulates my remarks at a colloquium entitled:
Global and local visions: Evolving communities of practice
Panelists: Vance Stevens, Suresh Canagarajah, Jane Hoelker, Yuko Goto-Butler, Takako Nishino, Perin Jusara, Golge Seferoglu, and Toni Hull, presented March 27 at the annual international in TESOL conference in Denver.

The abstract for the colloquium was:
Whether learning or teaching English in the EFL context, the model of Communities of Practice moves individuals and groups forward in their development. Examples of shared practices implemented in elementary, secondary and tertiary institutions as well as in programs of teacher professional development conducted on worldwide communication networks are discussed.

My contribution was entitled
"The Webheads and Distributed Communities of Practice"

Abstract for my presentation:
In these times of globalization and worldwide communication networks, distributed communities of practice (e.g. any CoP that cannot rely on face-to-face meetings and interactions as its primary vehicle for connecting members) are becoming more common. The concept of distributed CoPs has been addressed by Etienne Wenger. This presentation discusses CoPs implemented for educational technology specialists, many particularly concerned with language learning, in ongoing teacher professional development, foremost through Webheads in Action and in various other communities and offshoots from these, such as TESOL-sponsored EVO (Electronic Village Online). How Wenger’s concept of CoPs has evolved after his encounter with the Webheads online will also be discussed.

In my talk I didn’t rehash a definition of communities of practice except to mention that they are most frequently understood, as defined by Etienne Wenger, to:

• promote knowledge of a domain
• revolve around a practice
• form spontaneously, voluntarily

Wenger further characterizes distributed CoPs as, among other things, having a particular space to interact in. Not many of Wenger’s writings are available online, but these include:

• Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice Learning as a social system. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from:
• Wenger, E. (2004a). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. Retrieved April 22, 2005 from:
• Wenger, E. (2004b). Cultivating communities of practice: A quick start-up guide. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from

The ostensible purpose of my talk was to explore where Webheads intersects with these characteristics of communities of practice.

Webheads in Action,, formed as a 2002 session of EVO (TESOL sponsored 6-week courses given free each year via Electronic Village Online, Webheads membership has since increased to hundreds of educators who engage in helping each other pursue lifelong, just-in-time, informal learning through experimentation in use of social-media and computer mediated communications tools. Among its accomplishments, the Webheads community has already mounted two free international online conferences, the Webheads in Action Online Convergences (WiAOC 2005 and 2007) with a third coming up this May 22-24, 2009 - see and

The question I addressed in my talk was, is Webheads a group, a community, or a network? In formulating my arguments I made a distinction between groups, communities, communities of practice, and networks, as illustrated on the diagrams in slides 6-10 in my embedded slide show:


A group is a gathering of people. It could be a mob or a friendly gathering at a pub. The impetus for its formation is chance or convenience; e.g. people walking near one another in a park, people who come together to observe a sporting event, or students who are grouped in furtherance of class logistics.

Downes makes further distinctions in a presentation anticipating my progression here of configurations from groups --> communities --> communities of practice --> and then to networks.

• From Stephen Downes’s slide show “Groups vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues” at;
• The slide cites his posting “Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts” from Stephen’s Web, September 21, 2006,, where these points are contextualized.

Downes's slide show covers each of these dichotomies in more detail.


Communities have more cohesion and permanence than groups. A community could form around a place where people live, or other groupings might consider themselves communities as they develop social bonds and identity to distinguish themselves from groups.

When Webheads in Action was started in 2002 it coalesced around a Yahoo Group As people started to join the group they identified themselves as such until they started taking on characteristics that made them think of themselves more as a community than a mere group of teachers.

What would some of these characteristics be?

• Photographs and voice/webcam communications enable group members to see the human behind the text message and enhance bonds leading to a sense of community
• Not only helping one another’s practice by answering each other’s questions, but also showing evidence of caring, such as interest in personal vignettes, individual accomplishments and setbacks
• Developing and defining a group culture through various forms and modalities of communications

Communities of Practice

Shortly after its formation as an EVO session in 2002, participants in Webheads in Action were exploring their interactions and sense of cohesion in the framework of communities of practice, leading to an EVO session and two subsequent presentations at the 2003 TESOL conference examining the community in that light

• EVOnline workshop: Reflection through experience and experiment with a communities of practice online:
• Colloquium: "Case study of a community of practice":

More rigorous examinations were conducted by several PhD candidates who sometimes joined Webheads in order to study our dynamics. Chris Johnson, who joined Webheads in order to study the community as a possible example of a distributed CoP, had Etienne Wenger on his doctoral committee. Johnson found that Webheads fit (all) nine characteristics unique to distributed CoPs except on one independent variable associated with “emergence with respect to boundary practices;” meaning, Webheads tended to neglect boundary members and expected them to bring knowledge into the community on their own.

Chris left some artifacts for us online here (and none of these three links work - Vance is writing Chris to see if there is a definitive link somewhere that can be shared):

• Johnson, Christopher. (2003). Annotated Bibliography: Web version. Communties of practice bibliography created for Webheads in Action EVOnline sessions, at
• Johnson, Christopher. (2003). CoP Theory Overview. Retrieved February 12, 2004 from:
• Johnson, Christopher. (2005). Establishing an online community of practice for instructors of English as a foreign language. Unpublished dissertation, available for private distribution:

Meanwhile Etienne Wenger agreed to be a keynote speaker at our 2007 WiAOC (Webheads in Action Online Convergence His keynote took the form of a conversation moderated by Susanne Nyrop. When Cristina Costa entered the conversation, Etienne asked her when she felt that she was a member of a CoP. Cristina replied that she realized this when her practice began to change. Etienne referred back to this later when, during the question period, I asked him whether his concept of CoPs had evolved after his encounter with the Webheads online. He said indeed it had. He said that the fact that Webheads met in so many spaces while clearly being a CoP was a revelation to him. He now realized he could relax his previous thinking on constraints on SPACE occupied by a distributed CoP.


Meanwhile I’ve moved in my own thinking beyond the CoP model, following on the work of Stephen Downes and George Siemens (whose writings on connectivism are cited in Downes, 2001-2008). Downes has written and presented much on the concept of diffusion of knowledge within distributed learning networks, and Siemens of course has long espoused the notion of connectivism, famously summarized as “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.” Here, Siemens means that it is more important to nurture a system of connections between knowledgeable people (the pipe) than to be concerned with what these knowledgeable people know (the content within the pipe) since this content can be directed to anyone with appropriate connections with the pipe.

• Downes, S. 2001-2008. E-learning 2.0. eLearn Magazine, retrieved from
• Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Elearnspace,

Distributing knowledge is what communities and networks are all about. Downes has a simple illustration of what it means to ‘know’: Where’s Waldo? Once you know where Waldo is, you can’t not know. But these days it seems, there is too much information available, and it seems we need increasingly to get our minds around more of it in order to keep up with and ‘know’ how to perform competently in our work.

Wenger (2002:6) promotes the CoP model as an anecdote to the fact, as he puts it, that “increasing complexity of knowledge requires greater … collaboration; whereas … the half life of knowledge is getting shorter.” Dave Cormier suggests a rhizomatic model of learning to deal with increasingly rapid obsolescence of knowledge. In this model, knowledge is seen as springing up wherever the tendrils, given its rhizomatic nature, are able to reach.

• Wenger, E. (2002). Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder. Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 284 pages.
• Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum. Innovate: Journal of Online Education.

Downes often expresses himself in analogies, and one oft repeated is that no one knows how to get a plane from London to Paris. Engineers must design the plane, someone has to build it, pilots are trained to fly it, but they in turn need an infrastructure of crew working in the plane as crew and outside as mechanics, and all those who work in airports and weather and navigation, etc. No one can actually on his or her own take a plane full of passengers from one place to another; this requires a network and all the knowledge within that network.

What these notions, theories if you will, suggest is that connection with others in a network is of prime importance in having access to a repository of knowledge. On a personal level we experience this when we turn to Google or Wikipedia to answer in minutes if not seconds a question that in the past might have sent us to a library, but more often than not would have remained unanswered due to the logistics involved.

Of even greater importance in this day and age, another available resource is direct (and indirect) contact with many people in one’s network, each possessing a reservoir of knowledge which contributes to the entire pool of knowledge residing in the network. This can be accessed through listservs or sometimes almost instantaneously through Twitter or RSS feeds, or instant messaging. Thus the knowledge possessed by any individual, or node, in the network, is the sum total of all aggregated knowledge within that network. It is to this that we ascribe the incredible power inherent in distributed learning networks which often comprise to some extent communities of practice.

• Downes, S. (2005). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge. Stephen’s Web,
• Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing Knowledge. Ebook available via Creative Commons license:

I conceive CoPs as bubbles overlapping in a Venn diagram. The total of all the bubbles would be the network as conceived in connectivist terms. The CoPs are themselves important to sharing of information within a community, but the fact that nodes within the CoP are connected with nodes outside the CoP in essence brings infinitely more knowledge into the community. I think it is something along these lines that Wenger is trying to accommodate in re-envisaging the notion of space in which distributed communities of practice work.

This has tremendous implications for professional development. Just before we held our colloquium, Jack Richards delivered a plenary address in which he touched on what teachers need to KNOW in order to practice effectively. He said research indicates that teachers often tend to revert to traditional methods rather than activate what they are exposed to in training curricula. Derick Wenmoth (also from NZ) mentioned similar research findings in his keynote at the K-12 Online Conference in 2008:

• Wenmoth, Derek. (2008). Holding a Mirror to our Professional Practice. Keynote address given at the K12 Online Conference 2008,

This means that the key to success in keeping current is in expanding productive contacts within a network. One problem is that teacher-trainers without sufficient experience with technology and who are rooted in old-school methodologies are simply not modeling new age learning behaviors for the trainees.

The increasingly inadequate model of reliance on face-to-face exchange of knowledge is apparent in the way that many annual conferences are organized and structured. Many such gatherings do little to encourage connectivity for either presenters or participants. There was just recently a very interesting online conference, AACE's Spaces of Interaction:, which suggested that face to face conferences were falling ‘unacceptably’ short on utilizing networking potentials for participants.

This was acceptable in the past because participants who relied on having the opportunity to touch base with each other once a year traditionally might have only been able to exchange letters or emails during the intervening months between conferences. But the new dynamic suggests that connectivity where contacts only meet face to face falls far short of interacting with them in online environments as well. Fortunately there are many venues for doing just that, and for many practitioners these are taking on greater importance in professional development than interaction in face to face environments. At the very least, one could say that interaction in online spaces facilitates greater productivity when the interactants eventually do meet face to face.

The bottom line is that it does not hurt and most likely maximizes productivity to interact with colleagues as frequently as possible in online spaces, and this is where distributed communities of practice interacting with each other through greater networks is key to practitioners’ keeping current and confident in their level of competency at work.

Some means for doing keeping current are participation in:

• Social networks: Ning, TappedIn, EVO, WiAOC
• Social bookmarking: Delicious, Diigo
• Groups: YahooGroups and GoogleGroups
• Microblogging: Twitter, Plurk
• Instant messaging: Yahoo Messenger, Skype
• Blogging and podcasting: keeping currect via RSS
• Wikis: PBWiki, Wikispaces
• Aggregation: Pageflakes, Netvibes, Protopages

I finished my talk by asking which construct of knowledge distribution was more productive, communities or networks? I answered rhetorically that perhaps this was a matter of scale, where networks can handle an almost infinite number of participants. The evolution of Webheads is instructive. Seen as a community, members interact within the domain of practice. Networks imply more widespread, perhaps opportunistic, contacts, with looser characterization of domains and practices. So which is more productive? Given the spontaneous and voluntary nature of such constructs, the answer is ‘whatever works’ and therefore probably moot.

This article has been updated at the invitation of Jane Hoelker on behalf of the editors of the EFL IS
Newsletter, who intend to publish a summary of the EFL Academic Session from Denver TESOL 2009. The article (October 2009) resides online at

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

CALL Consultancy

It's past time for another blog post (school just started, 5 classes, busy!). I'll make one here from a recent email. It's in reply to someone here in the UAE who asked me if I could make a proposal for a modest computer-based language lab. His company is involved with vocational training of national oil company employees and these companies like to buy a 'package' that they can build to spec and then plug their students into. I used to do this kind of work when I worked for the Military Language Institute here in Abu Dhabi, and we were frequently invited to scout remote locations and propose computer-based facilities for satellite clones of what we had done at the MLI. My feeling at the time was that what we had done in our context was to put tools in the hands of the knowledgeable practitioners we had with us at the MLI in Abu Dhabi, but that if you grafted the same thing onto another location minus the skilled practitioners, you were unlikely to achieve the same results. Not only that but our proposals were frequently warped and sidetracked by the commanders at the bases who had their own ideas of what students should be doing for language training, and these ideas would be best served by purchasing shrink-wrapped software and inflicting that on students, rather than encouraging teachers and students to flourish in the constructivist learning environments we had in mind.

It's been a while since I've been involved in such projects, but the following is in reply to someone who requested that I submit a proposal for such a language learning facility. He was asking that this proposal be comparable to that submitted by a well-known vendor of educational software in the UAE:

"I've worked a lot with [that vendor]. They are good people. Competent too. But they are not teachers. They can sell you a product and support it and display decent command of that product, but they can't really advise you on how to use the product, and in this situation the product you buy might not really be what you had in mind, or what some teacher you've yet to hire has in mind, to accomplish what you had in mind when you bought it.

"I don't sell products commercially. My expertise is as a consultant. I think I know how people learn languages and I know what tools exist online to support my view of how people learn languages, and as most of these are free, I'm surprised when people go for what commercial vendors have to offer without examining their underlying premises. I think this is often through some basic misunderstanding of what is needed and what is available, and such misconceptions can usually be traced to the person in charge who has the money and who is hiring the likes of us to find the products that can be bought that will support what might under fine or perhaps even rough focus be a bogus view of language learning.

"I think it is essential to define what you think the students should be doing in your lab. That's what I might help with, but it would not be to prescribe, but to discuss with the stakeholders what their view is and to try and apprise them of the most current thinking on the topic, and maybe put them in touch with current thinkers. There are several communities of tech savvy educators who are in perpetual discourse on this topic. If I were to have input on this process think it would be to put your practitioners in touch with this community, through its blogs, podcasts, live webcasts, presentations, and seminars etc and get some dialog going as to what you want the students to do. Otherwise THAT crucial aspect is driven by the vendors, which will sidetrack you until someone comes along and sees what you have in hand, and figures out how THAT can be used to instantiate a viable view of language learners and how your students can best learn via technology."

So that's my thought for today. Any other thoughts out there you'd like to share in comments to this post?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Multiliteracies and Curriculum

The computer-culture in the UAE, where I teach Arab-national first- and second-year college students, tends to be high relative to other countries in the region. Still, with developments in the field racing ahead in the year 2007, teachers as well as students are challenged to keep up with concepts driving the emerging literacies. There is an opportunity in the courses I teach now to revise the literacy aspects of our curriculum to help learners understand some of the ramifications of evolving uses of the latest technologies.

Basic premises

In the materials I'm involved with, the focus is to raise learner awareness of changes to the social structure of software. I don’t intend to call it exactly that at this introductory level, but perhaps a good starting point, one directed at a wider sophisticated audience, is Time's declaration of YOU as its person of the year.

In recognizing all of us as people of the year, Time has acknowledged that there has been a dramatic shift in alignment of control over the power structures traditionally used to convey and arbitrate media. One aspect of this shift is that software (and publishing and other social orders impacted by that software) have moved from the enterprise model into a more user-centric one where normal people and smaller, even individual, entities and groupings have increasing power over software and the Internet, and over content provided in both domains. This shift has important ramifications for the way people can now work both individually and collaboratively with software running either on their PC's and/or over the Internet.


I look at software as falling into these main categories: Enterprise, Open Source, Web 2.0

Enterprise software can be characterised by companies like Microsoft, which create software for sale and profit and guard its code, revealing only what is necessary to allow others to design products that will work with it, in such a way that the company retains control over the process and retains its dominance over aspiring competitors. One result, apart from satisfaction of the shareholders in the company, is software that sometimes gets 'published' without adequate testing, so that users are vulnerable, and the company, as in the case of Microsoft, is constantly having to supply patches, since the real testing of the software occurs only after it has been purchased and shipped.

Many software developers have responded with their support of an alternative Open Source model of software development. In contrast to the enterprise model, the software is developed by interested parties seeking not profit, but mainly to enhance their standing within a community of developers by being associated with the creation of the best possible software for a given task. The code is not guarded at all. It's made publically available in the hope that others in the community will create improvements to it. The result is generally software that gets thoroughly tested during the development process, so there are rarely unanticipated surprises for end-users (and if there are, the community learns about it quickly and moves together to correct the problem). Open source software is not created for profit, but business models are emerging whereby money can be made developing refinements and specific implementations of open source resources for companies whose profits rely on using that software effectively.

Open source software is by definition freely downloadable, but where it has to be set up on a server, this might be inconvenient for some users. Again the community has tended to share resources, so that server-based services are sometimes made available to all users. The concept has broadened into what has come to be known as Web 2.0, or the read-write Web. Lawrence Lessig has gone so far as to characterize the 20th century as the read-only century and the present one as the read-write century. Lessig's point is that whereas the enterprise model dominated media distribution until only recently, we are rapidly entering an era where this is no longer the case. It is important that this development be better understood by its beneficiaries (all of us) as the impacts are far-reaching in the way we organize ourselves productively through our understanding of what it means to be 'literate'.

I don't intend to include all that follows in the course, but as background and illustration of how these models apply in the real world, we can draw from the following cases:

Thomas Freedman in his influential book The World is Flat discusses how IBM gave up developing its own enterprise rival to Apache server and instead contributed its best engineers to the Apache community in order to be able to resume a business model on which the deliverables would be enhancements to the Apache kernel. That’s just one example of the power of community to produce a superior product (for free) compared to a commercial, patented, closed-source one.

Another good example is characterized in the Blackboard vs. Moodle approaches to development of learning management systems (background information regarding this controversy abounds on the Internet; here is a link to a Feb 2007 article in the well-respected T.H.E. Journal).

My own perception is that Blackboard is becoming regarded in the Open Source community as an old-school Goliath who’s made waves and rocked boats by taking out patents on certain aspects of LMS’s that other developers consider open source and unpatentable. On the day its patents were granted Blackboard brought suit against one of its competitors, Desire to Learn, for royalties owed under the new patents. This has sent shivers down the rest of the open source CMS community in case Blackboard were to use its fait accompli at the patent office to go after users of Moodle and others, including end users, for not paying royalties to the patent holder. But now we see this being reversed one slingshot at a time. Blackboard is seen to be undermining its own potential customer base at the cost of its reputation in the educational community, and more recently there are moves afoot to have the patent decisions reversed.

While this is going on, Sakai, another white horse open source project, is reaching fruition. If you agree that Moodle, arguably the strongest open source rival to Blackboard to date, scales well to enterprise settings despite its lesser polish, then seemingly the only real argument for paying licensing fees to Blackboard is that it might be worth the costs (to some customers) for an LMS solution that appears more crisply enterprise in a Web browser. Sakai apparently looks the part, slick and groomed for enterprise, yet has been developed for free distribution as an open source project by educational entities each taking responsibility for developing different parts of it. It seems that this could be a rather large nail destined for the coffin of closed-source enterprise ventures.

I find this of great interest in my own work context, but I see these two examples appearing, if at all, as text boxes in the materials I envisage , whose purpose would be to make the point that open source is on its way to significantly augmenting if not replacing the enterprise model of software development.

So to continue with a course outline, I am thinking ...

  1. Enterprise and Open Source software
  2. An overview of Web 2.0 tools
  3. Social Networking
  4. Implications for classroom (i.e. project) management


Example software products following the first three models of development and implemention are:

MS Office –-> Open Office –->



There are many hooks for a wider understanding and use of Web 2.0 tools in modern curriculum settings. Collaborative Google spreadsheets might be used in portfolio/project work for example. I’m not sure if you can format in Google docs to the extent you can in MS Word, but the potential is certainly worth exploring.

The two most salient Web 2.0 tools with application for our students are blogs and their close cousins podcasts and wikis, though there are many more -- online collaborative calendars, for example. I hope to list a few more here eventually; meanwhile:



The concept with greatest implication for collaborative and project work in education (and beyond, in the real world of collaboration and project management in the workplace) is that blogs and wikis can be aggregated.

I have an explanation of how this is accomplished at This document explains how blogs for a class can be aggregated via an aggregator (e.g. Bloglines) in such a way that they can be efficiently read/followed by the teacher and others in the class, or by manager and co-workers in an enterprise project venture.


Blogs can be tagged, and tags also can be aggregated. One device for doing that is . Jon Pederson has developed a good explanation of how can be used to good effect by educators:

The concepts of tagging and aggregation lie at the heart of social networking. For example, my son posts family photos at his Facebook acct and tags the ones of me DAD. I then get an email that tagged photos are available. I get the URLs of only my photos but the whole albums are available as long as the owner has indicated that s/he trusts me with them. I don’t think we need to introduce our students to Facebook here in the Middle East, but participation in social networking sites like Facebook illustrate how the concepts work in a social context.


Podcasting is one highly productive example of how these concepts can be focused on two important literacy goals:

  1. achieving appropriate levels of digital competence in a changing world
  2. and staying abreast through lifelong learning.

In order to access podcasts, one needs to have a working knowledge of using an aggregator such as iTunes or Juice (a level of knowledge akin to knowing how to drive as opposed to knowing how to build or repair a car).

The working knowledge needed is two-fold:

  1. ability to subscribe to podcasts
  2. and to occasionally refresh subscriptions.

Internet search skills are needed to locate desired podcasts in the first place, and some multimedia and file management skills will help in downloading, storing, retrieving, and playing the files retrieved. A computer is all that is essentially needed for this, though most people like to transfer their files to an mp3 player and listen to them while away from their computer.

Although the only skill levels needed harvest podcasts are at the level of those needed while driving, higher education is pursued in order to achieve greater understanding, in the case of driving, of the mechanics and physical forces involved in converting energy to produce the torque to propel the car, etc. Similary, among the goals of a computer literacy course should be some understanding how RSS and aggregation works, and in theory how one can create one's own blogs and podcasts, and disseminate these to a wider audience through social networking skills.

Again, I have a Web document covering aspects of these issues:


Enterprise is the ‘beyond’ application of these principles. But I think that blogs and wikis could be very well worked into current curriculum in student collaborative projects and in all aspects involving reporting findings from Internet search. These techniques and concepts could become built into those modules, and enable the class to pull together while learning about team techniques based in social networking concepts.

In not only social and enterprise but also in educational project/class management contexts, I think that these concepts are important because they show the way teams are learning to work together using the latest shareable Web-based technologies once they have achieved the requisite level of computer literacy.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas 2006 to Friends, Family, and Community

It's the dawn of a new day, literally, a windy, rainy dawn in Abu Dhabi. It's CHRISTMAS day, and one of my New Year's Resolutions is to start using this blog more (I have several, blogs and resolutions) ... but I've started THIS one, as a central location to pull together some of my other projects (in which case if you want to track what I'm up to you could do so via this blog's RSS feed, in theory).

Right now, my project is Christmas. In Abu Dhabi, we work the day before and after Christmas, but our gracious hosts always grant us the day itself off. There is therefore a rare chance for pause and reflection in what is otherwise a routine work week.

I intend this blog to be about education, in particular adVances made possible through adVancED techniques in EDucation as facilitated through principled use of the read/write Web 2.0, but as I'm just starting out I'll introduce it as our annual season's greeting card. At this time of year, I try and spend time with family, friends, and community, and this post is addressed to all three.

Family: Dusty flew out from California and Glenn drove in from his workplace in the desert of Abu Dhabi, so the four of us were together again this Christmas, as you can see from our picture above or here:

Friends: For my friends I would like to offer a special holiday treat. The gift, properly wrapped, should appear below, and you can unwrap your gift by clicking here or on the picture:

Community: For my friends online, educators all, we have our Wiki: . Year after year we have what we call F.U.N. in this community, as you can see at the link and in the picture below.

You can click here or on the picture to see Vance's elf dance

Meanwhile, my family Bobbi, Glenn, Dusty, and (me) Vance and the cat, Musky, wish everyone a happy holiday season, and perhaps in this coming year, at last, an ascendancy of the common people, especially those in the groups listed above, whose collective activities online and elsewhere contribute to the realization of peace in the world.