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:


Nina Liakos said...

I am very happy to call myself a member of this community or network or group or whatever it is! I have made wonderful friends and learned SO MUCH from the webheads.

Vance Stevens said...

I was looking all over for where I posted that I was listening again to the conversation between Etienne, Cris, me, Sus and others from WiAOC 2007. While listening I was documenting it here:

I finally found it in Webheads listserve messages here:

It's my notes on the recorded conversation between Etienne and I as WiAOC 2007. Etienne and Susanne presented for half an hour. At about the 30 min mark Etienne throws open the discussion and Webheads comes up at minute 33. We talk about community spaces and the value of chaos. Cristina Costa joins in and talks about her experiences with Webheads. Etienne is interested and asks her at minute 37:30 when she first felt she belonged to this community and how long it took her to achieve this feeling (he felt she had bonded with the community very quickly and Cristina explains how it happened - Mona joins at min. 45 and asks Cristina if she felt she needed to meet Webheads f2f).

From minute 50 in this conversation Etienne said he was rethinking his
views on CoPs as a result of his interactions with Webheads, especially regarding the nature of space occupied by the community. He said that we knew who we were in terms of domain and practice but that we had freed ourselves from constraints on space in spanning so many available spaces in distributing ourselves, and that this was a revelation to him in that we were clearly a CoP with very loosely defined boundaries. At the one hour mark, Chris Johnson joined us and talked about how in studying Webheads he had had to grapple with the amorphous nature of spaces we occupied. He noted that we extensively documented our experiments with various spaces and Etienne asked if there was a central repository for such documents. Carla Arena mentioned in the text chat that this would be the YahooGroup.

At 1:03 minutes I mentioned that another bit of glue was our weekly meetings at (at time of the recording there had been over 400 such meetings, at time of this writing nearly 500). We spoke about what goes on in those meetings and importance of informal learning, and learning in informal spaces as opposed to 'meetings'. At 1:10 Etienne noted that when he asked Cristina when she felt she belonged to this community, and she answered, when her practice changed. "That was so sweet," he said :-)

Vance Stevens said...

I also wanted to add to our documentation on Webheads the three PhD dissertations I am aware of:

Johnson, Christopher (2005) Establishing an Online Community of Practice for Instructors of English as a Foreign Language (unpublished dissertation)

Simpson, James (2003). The discourse of computer-mediated communication: A study of an online community. PhD dissertation:

Steele, John (2002). Herding cats: A descriptive case study of a virtual language learning community: