Friday, November 30, 2007

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

This is being prepared as a contribution to the APACALL Newsletter, I've been asked to write a 'three-page blurb on Webheads.'

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, discussed in my previous posting here:

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 <>. 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:

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

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 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 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: 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 (the entity in whose newsletter this posting will soon appear), 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.

But if you're reading this blog, you probably already know that (and if you're not reading this ... beyond reach?? ... sigh ... what's the use?).

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:

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.


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

Downes, Stephen. (2007). Personal Learning the Web 2.0 Way. Presented at WiAOC 2007 -
Recordings: Part 1:;
Part 2:

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,

Siemens, George. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. elearnspace.

Warlick, Davd. (2007). Derailing Education: Taking Sidetrips for Learning. Keynote presentation at K-12 Online Conference.

Wenger, Etienne. (2007). Conversation with Suzanne Nyrop. Presentation at WiAOC 2007 -
Recordings - Part 1:;
Part 2 :

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).

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).

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:
  • 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

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

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

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 -


A Newsletter ready version of this post appears here:

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:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

WOW of the Week: Recidivism in teacher professional development

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 I was all ears when Derek was interviewed on a recent Women of Web 2.0 webcast #51

Derek said a couple of things during the conversation that I thought were well worth blogging. For one thing he said that in New Zealand they had selected individuals in institutes to receive funding in hopes that this would enhance technology at the entire institute through a trickle down effect, but post-studies revealed negligible evidence of trickle down. This doesn't suprise me given the tendency in many institutes for there to be just one or a few people really interested in technology and the majority of people at those institutes either ignoring them or at best largely avoiding the issue. This seems to indicate that funding the norm is not necessarily conducive to the spread of technology at educational institutes and that an institution-wide kick would be needed in order to impact change.

The second thing that Derek said that really grabbed me was to relate 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 (was it 7? I'll listen again).

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.

In conference presentations lately I have developed a set of ten aspects of change that are required by educators in order to undergo the shift in mindset that will lead to paradigm shift appropriate to integration of the latest technologies into educational settings. If a picture is worth 1000 words, then the one shown here represents what I normally have to say on this topic. The slide pictured is from the show here:

Incidentally, I realize that I have two lists of items numbered 1-5 (hey, do the math!). The problem is that I was not able to get Google Presentation to number a second column of bulleted items consecutively after the first. If you know how, you might leave me a comment.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Who's in charge here? WiZiQ and Elluminate

Late breaking news Dec 18 - I've heard from both Elluminate and WiZiQ by now and have finalized this piece. I'll reconcile this blog with the most current version eventually but for right now, to read the latest version of this article, please visit:
or Tiny URL:

Incidentally, if you wish to comment, please read the latest version and leave your comment below. Soon, the version here will mirror the latest version in its temporary location.

The ABOVE version should appear here within a day or two:

I wrote this in a hurry and posted it Nov 24 which was right before a publication deadline for TESL-EJ, as this article is intended for the On the Internet column in the December 2007 issue. But the deadline has since been extended to Dec 16 (and slightly beyond) and so there is time to get feedback from the developers at Elluminate and WiZiQ prior to the new deadline. This is being solicited, and also, WiZiQ have meanwhile announced the following enhancements to what I used to write my article:
  1. More Documents: Support for Word Documents and Excel Spreadsheets.
  2. Attendee rights: Off by default; presenter can transfer audio or video control selectively.
  3. Two-way video: You and your attendee can share each others’ live video during the session.
  4. Whiteboard Tools: The drawing and writing toolbar now includes a “Delete” button. “Undo” and “Redo” also added.
  5. New Look and Feel: Panels for chat, attendee list and audio, video settings now occupy the right side.
There is more information at WiZiQ's blog here:

Meanwhile, here's the article as currently submitted to the December 2007 issue of TESL-EJ

Meanwhile still, Michael Coghlan informs me that "the latest version of Elluminate (v.8) has full duplex for up to 4 speakers if you choose to enable that feature." He says he most often opts to leave it off, and this was discussed last night at Webheads, Svetlana wanting to replicate a f2f classroom online, and me pointing out that the technology wasn't up to it because of feedback when participants don't wear headphones (moderators always having to troubleshoot that one) and also DELAYS ... in a meeting the other day we had one participant appearing rude interrupting other speakers (on full duplex) when in fact he was simply experiencing delay and was responding at appropriate junctures ... we have also experienced this when attempting guitar jams online .. impossible to synch up).

A recent Women of Web 2.0 webcast (and subsequent podcast, on the Worldbridges EdTechTalk channel discussed the hottest Web 2.0 applications these days (obvious grist for an On the Internet column editor). Honorable mention went to NetVibes <>, VoiceThread <, and WiZiQ <>, among others.

This article is an attempt to compare the free and open source, social networking Web 2.0 tool WiZiQ with Elluminate, one of its more successful enterprise counterparts, not just as per features of the two programs, but regarding the use of each tool that the design of each respectively forces or allows

WiZiQ currently is all the rage on Webheads and Learning with Computers, two email lists with around 1000 tech using educators interacting constantly in dozens of email messages each day (message archives viewable online or via RSS feeds from and, repectively), and it's also a popular topic in the edublogosphere. For a quick overview of WiZiQ, there's a slick promotional video on YouTube: What WiZiQ is and why is it so popular with tech-crunching educators is what I have been reflecting on recently, in conjunction with the critical issue in education of who exactly is in change here?.

First I should explain that WiZiQ is a free presentation software working entirely online, no download to your computer, that allows you to interact with other participants in a common virtual space. The space contains a whiteboard, which users can turn into multiple whiteboards, and upload PowerPoint slide shows to one or more of them. The slide shows are hosted more or less permanently at WiZiQ where they can be searched on by content, tags, or groupings, a feature reminiscent of Slideshare <>. Users can also converse synchronously in full duplex, and if the moderator has elected to enable web cams, he or she can select one to display from participants who have theirs on. On the down side, there is no web tour, though URLs can be posted to the text chat.

All sessions are automatically recorded and are available at the URL where the session was hosted. Sessions can be hosted by anyone registered with WiZiQ and anyone registered can attend any other session to which they have been invited. The system is similar to Skypecasting, where any registered Skype user can start one, and only registered Skype users would be able to attend, which seems not out of the ordinary in the case of Skype, since you need the software on your computer and a Skype ID to skype (the verb) someone anyway.

WiZiQ takes advantage of registration in a way not exploited by Skype, however. WiZiQ has set itself up as a social networking site. Users can update their profiles with concepts they are interested in (i.e. tags) and presumably this will help link up users with common interests, though the system is new and (at time of deadline) we haven't yet found how a tag which many users share evolves into a more formal 'group'. The system does allow members to create and join groups, and to form networks of associations between users. For example, if you set up a session, you can choose to invite everyone in your group or limit the invitation to selected members in your network and they will all receive a message which not only informs them of your session, but to which they can conveniently reply. This is a feature that seems to work well with WiZiQ, though I have received messages from people I didn't realize I was networked with. WiZiQ is clearly a work in progress, under development, but with social networking sites, unless you directly probe the developer, many of the features will become apparent only after extensive usage and interaction.

One reason that WiZiQ has attracted so much attention is that educators are always on the lookout for free tools that promote synchronous interaction coupled with information dissemination within a network, especially one that lends itself to a formal venue, such as a class or a 'presentation' online. WiZiQ is the first product of its kind to emerge since the recent DimDim effort, a similar, and open source, project which somehow seems to have receded from the periscope views of the instructor networks mentioned above. In that project, network members such as Moira Hunter had been working closely with the developer of DimDim. In the case of WiZiQ, the developer Harman Singh, appears to be similarly approachable, and responds personally to feedback from users.

Preferences vary, but one popular choice of an integrated set of online presentation tools has been Elluminate Although Elluminate is not free, it is often used for free by educators when they participate in sponsored or funded online conferences or sessions, or work through a community like Learning Times, which has provided free access to an Elluminate "Meeting Room" on its left sidebar for years. Learning Times has also been gracious in providing access to Elluminate meeting rooms for individuals and events which in turn provide educational services for free. For example, they have donated their services as sponsors of two WiAOC Conferences now Elluminate itself has just started offering free 'rooms' to educators, but supplies each with only enough bandwidth for three participants:

Elluminate has proven to be a very robust platform despite being heavy on the front end at low bandwidths (it checks to see if the most recent version is on your computer and takes a few minutes to install the latest, and then it checks three proxies -- your browser, Java, and Elluminate itself -- which must all be set correctly, but which you would notice only if trying to connect from behind a firewall). Once connected, it generally works pretty well. It's cross platform and fairly intuitive to use, which is to say that in practice few complain of problems figuring out how to use it. The room will have been assigned a URL, but once this is given out, guests can enter the room with or without a moderator present. The moderator can assign other moderators to share power, and can remove those privileges as easily. The moderator can also grant individuals the right to use mics or web cams. With Elluminate, speech only works one direction at a time, but this works well since it imposes a turn taking order. The moderator can also 'take back' the mic in case a participant neglects to relinquish it (resulting in too long a silence).

Whereas only one web cam can be shown at a time, as long as the moderator has allowed it, participants can self-select to broadcast whenever the cam spot is available, and a preview mode allows for preening prior to going prime time. Participants also have access to a whiteboard onto which they can superimpose text, paint graphics, or image files from their personal disk drives, and a moderator can upload PowerPoint or other prepared materials, and can drive web tours in such a way that all participants visit the same URLs. Elluminate also allows moderators to share applications, for example a browser window. This differs from a web tour because with application sharing, the moderator can scroll and all participant windows will scroll as well.

Unlike WiZiQ, recordings are not made automatically, but when activated the recording is hosted on Elluminate servers, where it can be played back by anyone with access to the URL. As with WiZiQ, if there is a way to save a copy to a personal computer, I am not aware of it. However, some users make Camtasia versions of recorded sessions which can serve as personal archives or be hosted privately <>, and word on the street is that TechSmith has released the only slightly outdated version 3 of Camtasia Studio as a free (as opposed to trial) download: Camstudio, the open source version of Camtasia, should work just as well <>.

Elluminate lends itself well to a variety of styles of presentation. It works well with informal groupings where people just want to meet and discuss while sharing collaborative resources, and it works well for people who want to make more formal presentations but open participation to more audience interaction during or after the presentation. In my experience I have never thought it necessary to restrict anyone's access to the tools while moderating a session, though I have attended sessions where moderators have preferred to lock it down and force participants to request attention before being granted access to the mic once the moderator had notified them that such requests would be attended to (when the moderator has wished to restrict access during the presentation itself). Elluminate allows participants to raise hand icons to request attention, to clap hands, present a thumbs up or down, and control various other emoticons and graphical whiteboard icons as well, again assuming these have been allowed by the moderator. Elluminate, in other words, works well for moderators who wish to encourage peer to peer collaboration throughout a session, as well as for moderators who feel the stakes are high enough for them to exercise enough control to enable them to stage-manage an event.

However, what I have been reflecting on with regard to these two applications -- WiZiQ and Elluminate -- is not so much the descriptive differences between them, but the philosophical ones, the assumptions behind what a presenter's purpose would be which must have driven design of each system. What particularly interests me is WiZiQ's approach, so different from that of Elluminate, to the role of the presenter/moderator. Two other differences have been mentioned and are not really part of my reflection, though each is an important crucial difference in its own right. These are the fact that WiZiQ is free and is being developed obviously in hopes of attracting a following, and presumably feedback such as I am providing here, and secondly its social networking features, very interesting, but not a focus of this review.

A WiZiQ session develops very differently to an Elluminate one. First of all, the moderator will schedule a session, as is the right of anyone who has registered with WiZiQ beforehand. At this stage the moderator can elect to enable the web cam feature for the upcoming session in addition to voice. The moderator can schedule any amount of time for the session up to two hours (and I believe that once in the session, the moderator can top up the session with more time if needed).

However, the role of the moderator in WiZiQ is very different from that of the moderator of an Elluminate session. Most crucially, in a WiZiQ session, the moderator must be pro-active in driving the interaction from the point of appearing on time for the session to begin with. Let's say the moderator has scheduled the session for noon, and has invited a number of participants from his or her network. Those people will receive an email saying that the session begins at noon, and no one, not even the moderator, can enter the session before then. The moderator is then in a position of having to upload materials to the whiteboard with participants present who have been informed that the session was to begin at noon. One way to avoid this would be to not invite anyone from the moderator's network, so there would be no system-generated emails, and the moderator might then invite participants through a separate network to arrive for a presentation set to begin at 12:30, or whenever the moderator expects to be ready. However, this would obviate benefits inherent in the social network features, so what is needed here is the ability of the moderator to get in beforehand and set up the session.

WiZiQ allows for fully duplex voice chat, as you get with Skypecasts, which start similarly to a WiZiQ session. WiZiQ at least deals with one problem with Skypecasts - in WiZiQ participants arrive muted until granted permission to speak. This is both bane and boon, boon to the moderator who is the sole participant who is able to speak until he or she decides to start granting others the mic, and bane in case the moderator is not there for whatever reason. In that case participants must text chat, as there would be no one available to allow them to talk. With Elluminate, it should be recalled that participants who gather at a working Elluminate room will be fully voice empowered unless a moderator arrives who wishes to switch them off.

Because of its simplex, one-person-speaks-at-a time functionality, Elluminate users do not encounter the problems faced by users of Skype and WiZiQ when everyone is able to talk at once -- these issues being background noise and feedback. With Elluminate, it might also be recalled that users in general need little or no training in order to participate, but with Skype and WiZiQ considerable time and effort often has to be expended on mic etiquette. Users of duplex synchronous voice chat tools need to wear headsets so that their mics don't pick up what others are saying from the speakers and feed it back into the voice stream with delay, giving an echo effect that can disrupt speech in the person trying to speak. In worst cases, this can cause high-volume whine until the offending user self-mutes or is muted. Similarly when participants are in an area with loud background noise, they need to mute their mics when not speaking so that the noise doesn't distort the conversation being played to everyone else.

If the moderator has to deal with sound issues while trying to present, this increases task load, so a course of least resistance for moderators is to simply leave the default settings in place, so that everyone but the moderator is muted. The moderator then opens up one mic at a time in response to a hand raised, the icon provided for participants to get attention. Similarly, if the moderator has activated web cams for the session, then the moderator's web cam will appear from the moment it is switched on, but for others to have the cam, the moderator must select that person and pass web cam control on. If the moderator is on the ball, this might be a good way to ensure that anyone who is speaking is pictured while speaking, but then the moderator would be taking on a role of director or puppeteer, constantly switching between speakers and web cams by granting the appropriate privileges at just the right juncture in the presentation.

Another odd thing happens in WiZiQ when the moderator grants voice permission, and that is that permission to use a microphone brings with it permission to have moderator control over whiteboards, including the option to create new ones and toggle from one to another. It's hard to second guess the developers of the product on this one, but the ramifications are several-fold. In particular, the moderator cannot grant many participants microphone privilege without a corresponding increasing in chance of chaos occurring with whatever presentation materials are on the screen. If the moderator stopped on a particular slide for example and invited comment and then threw the floor open to all participants, all participants might start seeing the slides and whiteboard changing without anyone knowing who was making the changes, and when the moderator regained control there might be a few whiteboards more than when the chaos started.

So it must have been assumed in designing this system that the moderator would not think to do this. In our experiments with this system we have found that the moderator would be in any event unwise to un-mute all mics due to the sound issues mentioned earlier, so the system seems to have been designed with less flexible view of how a moderator might want to conduct a session than that allowed by Elluminate.

What then must a moderator do in order to make an effective presentation in WiZiQ, and what would a group do in order to hold an effective brainstorming session in WiZiQ? These are important questions to raise at this time, while WiZiQ and perhaps other similar products are under development, and while the developers are still in a position to respond to feedback from the educational community.

In its present rendition, WiZiQ is designed for a moderator who wishes to have control. In practice, that moderator is kept a bit busy to be both moderator and presenter. There are a lot of balls to juggle, trying to sort out the duplex audio issues, manage the web cams, plus toggle the whiteboards, in addition to making a presentation which entails conversation with participants. Even in Elluminate, where moderation is not quite so hands on, moderators find it convenient to work in tandem, one person presenting and another handling the back channels. This is possible in Elluminate because one moderator can appoint another (but is not yet an option in WiZiQ). It might be wise for WiZiQ to go the same route, and provide this option to the main moderator. Also, it would help to allow moderators finer control over privileges, instead of bundling such a wide set of privileges with anyone who is able to use a microphone.

So to answer the first question above, to make an effective presentation in WiZiQ, the moderator needs to keep control of it, and this is best done by withholding control from others, or by being careful and abstemious in how that control is parceled out. In my experience with similar tools, and due to my idiosyncratic personal learning and presentation style, I do not take as great pleasure in participating in discussions where participants are not free to interject as in those where they have this right. Here preference of style would be a matter of personality, but with Elluminate one has the choice of adopting the approach one prefers. With WiZiQ that choice is made of necessity.

As to the next question, how best to run a brainstorming session with more relaxed participants, WiZiQ would be a good choice for this because it is free, and would likely be adopted by members of a community, who might also wish to take advantage of its social networking aspects. In such a community, where members would interact over time, they would likely get to know one another and would educate each other in proper use of the tools (how to mute mics and wear headsets for example). WiZiQ appears to me to have its strengths in situations which would benefit from access to social networking tools, and connectivist philosophy.

So if one were to make the choice right now which client one were to choose, it would depend perhaps on how much money one had (WiZiQ is free), how high the stakes were within one's community (Elluminate is more stable and robust, and more flexible with regard to role of moderator), and whether or not the social networking possibilities with WiZiQ were worth exploring. WiZiQ is developing an enthusiastic following, and as part of a community of users that includes its developers, the possibility at this juncture of influencing the course of development is additionally encouraging.

Perhaps this article can contribute to the development effort. In order to encourage feedback I have blogged it at If you feel you have anything to contribute to this discussion, please visit the blog and add your two cents, and/or leave comments at the 'official' WiZiQ blog at You can also subscribe to Elluminate blog reviews at

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Who are you, and what do you do?

Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier often start their interviews with this question, and now they've got all their webcasters doing it. In case I'm asked ...

I'm Vance, and I aspire to doing significant work in the area of educational technology as it applies to formations of what I used to think of as communities of practice but which I am now starting to view more as distributed learning networks. My oeuvre explores the nature and ecology of those networks through application of emerging (also referred to as ‘transformational’ and ‘subversive’) technologies in appropriate ways to the intersections of the knowledge within those networks and the pedagogies that are felt to best impact students (e.g. constructivist, connectionist).

Update: I have characterized this oeuvre in a book chapter:
Stevens, V. (2014). Connectivist Learning: Reaching Students through Teacher Professional Development" in Son, J.-B. (Ed.). Computer-assisted language learning: Learners, teachers and tools. APACALL Book Series Volume 3. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
A pre-publication last-draft version of the chapter is available here:

My more recent work has involved Web 2.0 technologies and the many ways, such as through RSS and the blogosphere, that content can be tagged in evolving folksonomies over the Internet and then aggregated in such a way that it becomes knowledge within a distributed learning network. I have been exploring with likeminded peers and students, often students in the online environment, how this knowledge can be most effectively distributed throughout our respective networks, and how these networks can merge into broader yet ever more inclusive wide-networks.

Access to such networks requires an expansion of 20th century concepts of literacy into multiliteracies models. I have been working extensively within a multiliteracies construct, teaching courses on the topic, and practicing wherever possible multiliterate approaches to information dissemination throughout my own learning networks, including those of my face to face students. I have sought to be a change agent, achieving some measure of success in the broader distributed educational community, while making some inroads in the more local one where I work.

Locally I've had perhaps most impact on my own students, where I have been able to model for them heuristics that they can pursue in their own quest for knowledge in a world where the jobs we are training them for haven’t been invented yet, and where the information needed to perform those jobs must be gleaned from online communities of practice which in turn filter content through distributed learning environments, and aggregate and remix this content into knowledge applicable to whatever real-world environment our students find themselves in when they need to perform tasks they desire to do in a decreasingly predictable future.

Application of the expertise to do this requires an evolution in perception of pedagogy that I feel that educators are tending to, at a greater pace in some parts of the world than others. Whenever possible I try to take advantage of opportunities to help others to reflect on their practice and consider possible applications of technology to enhance their ability to achieve whatever they are trying to accomplish in the classroom, whether it be from a teacher’s or learner’s perspective.

That's my current theory at any rate, but I expect to be changing it due to unforseen developments in the near future, which I'm hoping I'll be equipped to adapt to through appropriate perspectives on knowledge acquisition and dissemination that I am trying to understand and apply today.

A 2010 follow-on to this post appears here:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Teachers as Change Agents: A Conversation with Doris Molero

Doris Molero, one of my WritingMatrix partners in Maracaibo, Venezuela, has invited me to chat with her students in Venezuela about tagging and RSS and using these tools to connect on line as we’ve been doing with the WritingMatrix project:


I found it when I was looking for blog posts on a conference I recently went to
Its conference tag was GLoCALL
I looked in Technorati at this URL
That's a search on blogs with the tag GLoCALL
So when I found this blog guess what??

Doris: What happened?
(checks out the blog …) Looking good in that Vietnamese hat!

Me: You guessed it. I found my picture there by surprise - just now
I'm leaving a comment now

Doris: What a small world!!!!

Me: the world has got smaller due to tagging
Are your guys blogging and tagging?

Doris: Yes... adding blogs to reader...
We are not using Technorati...
We are having trouble with internet and Technorati doesn't open
We are aggregating in Google reader

Me: looks like lots of nice posts in Technorati
I think if it were me I would IDENTIFY people whose blogs i like first, using Technorati and then follow THOSE in Google Reader
How are your guys finding blogs to follow?

Doris: but we don't have time for Technorati now... so we are adding and following in Google reader...since everybody is using Blogger... and are familiar with Google things... they have posted in Sasha's students blogs... and they have received some comments... this week we are going to start interacting more... this group is working on podcast for their final project...
they have to put a podcast together and post it in their blogs... as well as interact with the guys in the project.. as you can see it's a lot of internet skills and use of the language as well as critical thinking and all those things...

Me: for some reason none of my posts are coming up in Technorati, only my Slideshare tags, nothing from Blogger, and I’m looking in any authority too

Doris: I don't understand Technorati much... that's way we are using Google can always find blogs in Google by writing the right tag

Me: Blog Search?

Doris: yes

Me: (trying it out) yes, mine appear here
ok, I like this better

Doris: Yes... but how do you cope with teaching a syllabus and teaching how to work all these tools at the same time...?

Me: try to write the tools into the syllabus
become influential in other words
be a change agent

Doris: it's very demanding...sometimes it's frustrating ... so we got we the flow ... not everybody will be able to ride the wave but things are going to be accomplished ... and the more we use it the better and the more things students will learn...
Did that sound right...

Me: did you hear Konrad Glowgowski's talk at k-12 online?

Doris: This is going to be the subject of my research.... how we can integrate more techno tools in our learning for life.... but some people just want to learn English... multiliteracies... how do we say that in Spanish...? it's a whole new way of looking at things...

Me: you should look up Glowgowski's talk because he quoted a lot from someone using the metaphor of flow and it was on that topic

Doris: well, It just occurred to me....
I love your F.U.N philosophy, though...
lots of teachers love control... and chaos's something they can't control

Me: that's what's F.U.N. about it
someone said "I love to learn, I just hate to be taught"

Doris: that's what I meant by going with the flow... sometimes we want to control everything and have plans we can to carry out perfectly... we have to learn to relax and go with prior knowledge... trust each other..

Me: I think people learn better that way once they have become mature and responsible
How about your students? Can they learn through self motivation?

Doris: some of them are very nervous... some of them get frustrated... some of them love it... at the end of the level most of them agreed that all they did was worthwhile ...

Me: most people hate to pack and travel, but love where they end up, and have good reflections on the experience

Doris: they are university students and want to graduate in different fields... so English and technology is like something extra they have to worry about... but they say it's better than to have classes in the traditional way

Me: in the future there will NOT be LESS technology, and MODELING that technology is SOOOO important, like what you are doing
We are teaching people to take jobs that have not been invented yet
School no longer prepares you for a predictable future.
Check out David Warlick's K-12 keynote for more in that vein
to prepare for your future you need to know HOW to learn
and how to FIND information
and for that you need technology
and you need to know how to use it

Doris: That's the spirit... and that's exactly what I'm writing in my research

Me: and another thing David said: bringing people into school and forcing them to leave their networks behind, to cut them off from their networks, is an insult to them
David's keynote makes the point quite dramatically

Doris: networking... such a new idea for many
Especially in the English classroom, a lot of new things at the same time...

Me: David says that there are two kinds of people:
those who are connected
and those who are not
and those who are have POWER
that the other group has not
so by putting your students in touch with others
to teach them how to connect
is to empower them

Doris: it took me a long time to fully understand it myself
but connecting is more than just connect... it means to be able to do... and to do you have to understand first...

Me: yes, how to USE those connections to learn
or more accurately to know
because according to Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and others
what we 'know' is the sum total of what we can connect to
If you are connected then you theoretically know everything that the network knows
IF you can access that knowledge
and that's what we need to teach today
not facts, connections

Doris: new concept for many people... especially because you have to leave your controlling everything...
now how do we convince teachers of that.....? that's elemental... teachers are change agents

Me: I guess, get people connected
and they will learn it on their own
you can't teach them
there is no such thing
they have to be put in a position where they are willing to learn it

Doris: my guys are working... and they will start demanding more of what they have been using sometime... we have to wait for the right time... so everything runs smoothly...?

Me: speaking of time
I have to go
nice talking to you
connecting with you and your students
will chat later some time