Friday, May 25, 2018

The Enduring Spirit of Webheads in Action

In March of this year I attended the International TESOL Conference in Chicago, where at the Wiley publishers' booth I was able to lay my hands, literally, on a copy of my chapter in the TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching.

Vanessa Vaile. who shared on my timeline the picture I had posted to Facebook earlier, has been a participant in many MOOCs I have participated in myself, including the one I founded in 1998, before the term was coined, Writing for Webheads, and after 2002, Webheads in Action,

Here was the byline of my original post:

There were numerous replies on my post. Here is a sampling taken off the top of the feed:

Communications with the publisher suggest that I am permitted to post a pdf of my chapter on my personal website, so here it is: Stevens, V. (2018). Webheads. In Liontas, J. (Ed.). The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching. Wiley-Blackwell. 5824 pages. This work is also available as an online resource at Pdf available:

The posts and book chapter make great testimonials to the impact that Webheads in Action has had on hundreds if not thousands of colleagues, associates, and acquaintances in language learning and educational technology, many of whom have become good friends over the years.

I imagine my virtual work and social networking with Webheads in Action will continue for some time to come. However, the face-to-face teaching and CALL coordinating I have done in UAE for the past 20 years is coming to an end shortly.

I've been clearing out the papers I have accumulated here, making pdfs (now that the technology is not only available but ubiquitous, not the case when many of these were produced), and posting as much as I can at my papers repository at

This has led me to relate a story. This one starts when Curt Bonk gave a talk at Abu Dhabi Women's College early this century. I was a fan of his due to his writings on learner-centered, constructivist, and sociocultural components of collaborative educational learning tools (e.g. Bonk and Cunningham, 1998, available on Curt's page, one of his many web pages where he shares whatever he can of everything he produces). I made it a point to attend the talk, which was inspirational, and at the end of it he asked those in the room to share how they would make changes in their practice as a result of what they had learned in his talk. He went around the room drawing effusive promises from participants, and when it came my turn I stood up and said I was going to invite him to come online and speak to colleagues virtually in the group that I had been interacting with, Webheads in Action. He looked at me oddly, nodded, and quickly moved on to the next person.

When Dr. Bonk was next in Abu Dhabi I sat near him in the audience between presentations and told him more about Webheads and he took enough of an interest that when we put on our first Webheads in Action Online Convergence in 2005, he agreed to give not one, but two keynotes. All of our keynote speakers at that seminal event are listed here:

Curt has kept in touch over the years, and when Curt's friend Jay Cross came to Abu Dhabi, Curt encouraged him to get in touch with me. On the afternoon of the last day of the conference Jay was involved in, not one to which I had been invited, he called my mobile cell phone, and I agreed to come and get him at the Abu Dhabi Hilton and show him the town. His first request was to visit a beach, so I took him to the nearby stretch of sand where the Emirates Palace Hotel now stands and he got out of the car, took his shoes off, and walked on the beach happy as a kid, squishing the sand in his toes. I don't recall where else we went but we had a delightful time, ending at a fish souq on the piers where the dhows used to moor, and I picked up a kilo of shrimp and I brought him up to our apartment with its night view of the Abu Dhabi corniche where my wife Bobbi fixed it for dinner. When I returned Jay to the Hilton late that night he was well refreshed.

I stayed in touch with Jay through his Internetime Ning. Fast forward a bit to 2007, and Jay had been invited to speak at a conference on "New Learning for Sustainability in the Arab Region" taking place 30 August - 1 September 2007 at the famous library in Alexandria, Egypt (actually the famous one burned down; the modern reconstruction is engaged in making digital copies of as many books as possible). The event was subtitled "Motivating Change: New Learning in Formal Education for Sustainable Development", and the conference was hosting regionally-based experts working in informal learning, web 2.0, active bloggers, etc. I hardly considered myself an expert on sustainability, but Jay could not attend and was asked to recommend someone else in the region who might fill in for him. I would imagine Jay was planning to talk about informal learning, since he wrote a book on that topic, but I agreed to come and address Web 2.0. I wrote out everything I intended to say on that topic here:

In my notes of the event, on my web page here,
I noted that there was a conference blog. The blog address is still good, but I had to search on the term 'sustainability' to find that the posts pertaining to the event in Alexandria were still online:

The chronologically earlier post,, mentions that I gave a "very interesting presentation" and promises a post about it "later" (still waiting :-). But it also mentions that Buthaina Al Othman was one of the speakers at this conference. And as this post is about the spirit of Webheads, this requires another aside.

Buthaina, whom we knew as Buth, was one of our original Webheads in Action participants in 2002, but we did not meet until Sunday, November 16, 2003, when Michael Coghlan and I were scheduled to be presenters at the annual and entirely online Global Learn Day VII event. Michael was one of the co-founders of Writing for Webheads, and our presentation was on "Meet the Webheads: An experiment in world friendship through online language learning." Our presentation was unusual in that Michael happened to be in Abu Dhabi, so we had arranged to cybercast our presentation live from the Lecture Hall where I worked at the Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi.

I had invited my colleagues at PI to come and witness the event, but it was late in our working day, and I was told later that we were competing with a rugby test on the telly, so only 5 or 6 of my real-life colleagues were there to occupy a few of the 100 some odd available seats. But Buthaina flew from nearby Kuwait to Abu Dhabi especially to be on hand to join us in the live presentation. Buthaina posted pictures and archived the event at her website:, which amazingly remains online.

Michael became the Webheads community troubadour after composing and recording our theme song, "Webheads all over the World", available on Wikispaces until July 31, 2018.
Listen soon! (or maybe Michael will post it elsewhere for us.
Note from Jan 2019, I found a capture here; no mp3 link though

To bring this aside to a close, I next met Buth in person at the 9th EFL Conference at the American University of Cairo, held in January, 2004, where I had been invited to deliver a plenary address (Stevens, 2004) and a few workshops. As a guest of the conference organizers, including the US Embassy in Cairo, I was invited to many events in the course of my stay, and as Buth and I were often seen together at the conference, she was usually included in the invitations. To the many people we met, I was introduced by my proper credentials and as one of the speakers at the conference, and Buth was introduced as "a Webhead." Buth was first to notice this pattern, which we interpreted as a sign that Webheads had taken on a stature in the context of this conference whereby it was as natural to introduce someone as a Webhead as to give their affiliation in the normal way, and it seemed to be accepted on as equal a par by the professors at the event as with any other identity.

Buth and I both met again in Alexandria a few years later at the conference in 2007 on New Learning for Sustainability in the Arab Region, again by coincidence, and both of us were mentioned in the same blog post as the conference got under way. That part of the story continues on the web page where I record my papers and presentations:

In addition to my formal presentation at the conference in Alexandria, I had been offered an opportunity to mount a poster session at an event called the New Marketplace at New Learning for Sustainability exhibition (with wireless available), so I was able to illustrate some of the concepts I'd brought up in my talk by demonstrating some of the tools we use in Webheads and Worldbridges Webcast Academy, The computer-mediated communications tools I was using at the time would have been similar to those described in Stevens (2005), and presented at the METSMaC conference in Abu Dhabi that year. The Alexandria presentation worked well, the conference delegates were interested, and I was offered an additional slot for a workshop on Saturday Sept 1, the last day of the conference, from 9 a.m to 11:30 a.m. in Egypt

This would be an extemporaneous event. I dubbed it "F.U.N. Fare - UnWorkshop on Computer Mediated Communications Tools for Distributed Social Learning Networks." F.U.N. was an acronym I had coined standing for Frivolous Unanticipated Nonsense, which I was arguing in those days that teachers should tolerate, even encourage, in their teaching in order to push their lessons toward the bleeding edge of the envelope of what was possible in engaging their students (and each other) with the newly emerging enabling Web 2.0 technologies.

At the TESOL conference in March, 2004 I had given a presentation entitled "Voices heard having F.U.N. in online communities of practice" as part of a Colloquium on “Multiple perspectives on the on-line conversation class” organized by David Nunan:

Buth appears in the picture at the top of that web page, taken at the conclusion of the colloquium; she used to often attend TESOL conferences in that era. David Nunan appeared on the program (with Curt Bonk) at our Webheads in Action Online Convergence the following year, 2005. The gentleman on the right is another Webheads participant, Jeong Bae Son, president of APACALL.

I introduced that final, unplanned and unanticipated, unWorkshop event in Alexandria as a concatenation of two convergent communities of practice, Webheads in Action and, who were constantly together exploring new computer-mediated communications (CMC) tools for percolating knowledge through their overlapping distributed learning networks, and leveraging many properties of social networking (Lebow, 2006). I promised that members of those communities would be invited to join us online, and the (un)workshop would take place informally, without fixed agenda, and in response to the direction suggested by the online participants and those present in Alexandria.

Among the spaces we would explore were:
  • Slideshare, Bubbleshare, Webshots, Voicethread, Flickr
  • Facebook, Moodle, Pageflakes
What ensued was a definitive display of the Spirit of Webheads

The BrightGreenLearning blogger observed the following

Vance Stevens, of the Petroleum Institute (Abu Dhabi) and founder of Webheads in 1998, gave a two hour Un-Workshop this morning at our Arab Region New Learning for Sustainable Development Workshop that he titled F.U.N. * Fair: Computer Mediated Communications Tools for Distributed Social Learning Networks. This was a face-to-face un-workshop, a veritable souk of activity, connectivity and interaction both in our training room at the Library of Alexandria, where we are now in Egypt, and with his online colleagues from Barcelona, the West Coast of the US, and so on, who joined us in Second Life, on skype and on

The Un-workshop had an open door policy, people were popping in and out. Laptops and terminals all on different pages, the clattering of keypads, exploring and trying out the URLs that Vance was introducing to us, talking us through, answering ten questions simultaneously. There were plenty of technical challenges, and at the same time lots of patient people who were excited by the possibilities, mystified by Second Life (one Egyptian participant said it should be called “Second Wife” instead), and eagerly starting their journey in the technology-mediated environment. It was great to have Vance as a guide. What you can learn from seeing it, trying it, and being able to query it in real time is so valuable, plus his enthusiasm is catching. You could tell that we weren’t the only ones having F.U.N.*
* Frivilous Unanticipated Nonsense


I wrote a report on the plane on my way back to UAE and sent it out to the Webheads Yahoo Group list so everyone could see what F.U.N. Buth and I had had in Alexandria running this particular session. The report can be found online here:,
and here is the full text from that message:

Today was a case of if anything can go wrong it will. The Alexandria Library is about a ten min walk from my hotel. There was no point in arriving at the conference hall too early because the rooms would all be locked until just before the start time of my session, though once I got into the center, wireless Internet would available from anywhere inside. So I left my hotel 45 min before I was due to present, carrying two laptops, wires, a USB mic, webcam, adapters, etc. Though the presentation room was locked when I got there, I got out my computer and booted it, and waited for someone to open the door to let me in.

At 20 min before the start of my session, someone came around with keys, so I got into the room, plugged the laptop into the mains, the one with webcast software installed and ready to go, and discovered my first problem of the day. My a/c adaptor had not been working well, I was having to massage it over the past week to get the charge light to hold, but today it didn't want to charge at all. I worked with it for a couple of minutes, decided to leave it for a while, and started Skype to keep my appointment with Jose Rodriguez who had kindly offered to backup my stream at

Jose was online and on task. He informed me that he was streaming at that moment on Sandbox B. I was expected to take A since I'd been planning to demonstrate streaming at my unWorkshop but working with the charger required two hands and was taking valuable time. Nevertheless I managed to keep up some kind of chatter in the Skype stream, and Jose reassured me that all was well there. Meanwhile I turned on my second computer, which I planned to use for Second Life.

A technician arrived and helped get the projector on my webcasting laptop projecting onto the wall. I looked for Nick Noakes in Second Life but didn't see him, so I left it and went to the Webcast Academy chat room and texted to the people there. Sasa (one of my Webheads collaborators on the Writingmatrix project, (note from 2019; we moved this to and Stevens et al. 2008) and someone else were listening to the stream but unable to Skype in, so no voices were joining Jose and I. Graham Stanley meanwhile offered me a teleport to a space called Egypt in SL. I completely forgot about Twitter.

With battery depleting on my laptop, I worked the charger every chance I got, trying to find the magic fit for plug in socket that would get it working. My battery was a quarter low when participants started showing up fifteen minutes into start time. They had been delayed by a previous event that had run overtime. I asked the first person to arrive at the un-workshop in Alexandria Egypt, Ule from Germany, to take over talking with Graham in Second Life Egypt. Three or four others followed and I tried to explain to them what I was doing while also addressing participants online in the stream.

It was clear that the on-site participants in Alexandria were most interested in SL and they came around behind that computer, while the EdTechTalk chat (Worldbridges) displayed on the big screen. There wasn't much Graham could show us in Second Life Egypt so he moved to Boracay and teleported us over. Ule passed the chat to the next person, and so on as newcomers arrived, and Graham was very welcoming to each newcomer. My wife Bobbi, from her computer in the UAE, arrived in World and we teleported her to Boracay. Graham was by now speaking to us, voice having started working by magic in SL, and we started voice-chatting with Graham there.

I moved the USB mic connected to the Worldbridges stream to the speakers of the SL computer and the face-to-face participants were able to talk to Graham in such a way that the conversation was
clearly audible in the Webcast Academy stream being maintained by Jose, according to feedback from Jose.

The SL computer now had the attention of the face-to-face audience so we switched the one monitor projector to that computer which was configured for hi res. This caused the projection screen to split down the middle but I didn't notice at first. I was still text chatting in the EdTechTalk chat room, working out who could and who couldn't join us in SL, and trying to talk to those who could access SL and help them reach the location where we were in SL by offering friendship, and then extending a teleport. This took us up to the top of the hour, 10 a.m. in Alexandria.

At about that time Buth and several others arrived from elsewhere at the conference in Alexandria, and we had to explain to the on-site newcomers what was going on. At about that time the mic on my Skype chat simply stopped working. I became aware of it when one of the distant participants, Jason, kept dropping out and trying to reach me. He would call, I would answer, but he couldn't hear me. I called him, he answered, hello? Hello? And then he would ring off. I tried troubleshooting, but couldn't find the problem without being able to drop everything else and focus on it. I was also trying to give the newcomers some clue of what we were doing, and prevailing on Buth to get into Skype on her laptop and tell Jose what was happening. Meanwhile the battery on my Skype computer was getting worryingly low. I still couldn't fix the power supply, and I decided to just switch that computer off so I could do a controlled shutdown rather than lose power and not be able to retrieve my most recent files later. This removed me from the stream and EdTechTalk text chat.

Meanwhile Graham was taking the conference delegates around Better World, a water conservation simulation, and they were greatly interested. At one point Graham suggested they fly to another part of the island and the delegate at that moment on the keyboard held down the up button and soared into space. We didn't realize what he was doing till he was well out of earshot of Graham (in SL you can only hear people talking when you are near to them in-world). He was very much enjoying the sensation of flying but I had to take control and get teleported back to where Graham was.

Meanwhile there was a request in the face-to-face audience that we show them Elluminate so I decided to start it on my Second Life computer. I launched Mozilla and was surprised when I typed in the URL that an IE window was launched separately. At the same time a McAfee notice came up demanding action. This was a month-old computer and McAfee had been bundled with it free for one month (but with a debilitating Catch-22). In fact, this was Bobbi's computer and she had noticed before I borrowed it for my trip that McAfee was about to expire. She had installed Avast on it but had not removed McAfee. Now McAfee was informing me that it was no longer protecting my computer and that another program (Yahoo Messenger) had wanted to visit the Internet and I would need to type in my credit card details right there and then in the middle of my unWorkshop. This being a very unwanted distraction at that point I tried to dismiss it and close the IE window but that window froze and the browsers ceased to function.

I discovered later when I had a chance to look at it that McAfee had basically blocked my browsers from accessing the Internet (though SL and IM chats continued to work) and only when I removed the program completely was I able to browse the Internet again. But at this moment in my presentation I went to the Task Manager and tried to find IE in order to kill it. It was open and frozen on my computer screen but it wasn't listed under applications running, so I switched to processes, found explorer listed there, and zapped it. This turned out to be windows explorer so I lost my task bar. At that point there was nothing to do but reboot, goodbye to Second Life. I informed the SL crowd of that. Graham had gone to breakfast by that time anyway, having taken everyone to Camp Dharfur, on our way to what I had wanted to show them: Meteora.

We were now at the top of the second hour, and had half an hour to go in the unWorkshop. We still had Buth's computer in Skype and the Webcastacademy text chat. So while my computer was rebooting I decided to make Buth's computer display to the room via the projector, and meantime to run Elluminate from one of the 6 other computers in the room. One of the participants was talking to Jose, who was still doggedly streaming the proceedings via Worldbridges. We hooked up Buth's computer to the projector and hit the key combo that should have toggled screen modes. However we got an error at the projector, illegal resolution (not just a 'no signal') and Buth's screen display disappeared! We toggled over and over, no projector display, with Buth's screen now unusable. Our on-site participant was still chatting with Jose, Skype sound being unaffected by the problem, however we had to explain to the stream that we were going to have to go off the air for yet another reboot.

With 15 minutes left in our presentation our face to face participants had nothing to see except as they were milling about behind us watching us try to recover. When my computer came back on I adjusted screen resolution down so that it now synched with the projector and no longer gave a split screen and I returned to SL. Richard, another distant participant, was there, having found us via the Worldbridges stream. His voice in SL was working well but he was hearing his echo because I had no headphone on my SL computer, so I decided to plug in the USB mic there because there is an on-off switch on it which would allow us to mute our mic while he was talking. This new computer had the new Vista, and of course Microsoft in its wisdom has changed the interfaces for configuring sound from the familiar XP way, so I was having to figure out how to get at my mic controls and disable the onboard one and configure my computer to accept the USB one.

This took another pregnant couple of minutes but meanwhile Buth had restored our presence in the Skype event and in the EdTechTalk text chat, and technicians were working on getting the third computer into Elluminate and projecting that onto the screen. They left when that was done but we discovered that whereas we could now text chat in Elluminate we could neither hear nor speak there. We had Elluminate on our overhead projector, text only, we were in the Skype stream, and we were talking to Richard in Second Life at Camp Dharfur, and to Graham who had by then returned.

We were at the end of our allotted time but the master of ceremonies for the plenary coming up in Alexandria was with us and enjoying the show. The technicians had by then returned and got us speaking in Elluminate, and we could hear what was being said. Since the master of ceremonies was the one who had requested that demo, she was in no hurry to make us stop. So, something interesting happened.

We were talking to Graham and Richard in Second Life and to Jose, Sasa, and Moira (who had participated in our Webheads in Action Online Convergence in 2005; see Hunter, 2006) in Elluminate (Hala, a Webhead participant from Sudan, had just left). Graham was in no space other than SL, and as these were separate spaces, I was going to my SL mic to talk to him and to the Elluminate computer to talk to the others. But Richard noted that when I spoke in Elluminate, he could hear what I said on his computer. It clicked that Jose was streaming Elluminate into the Webcast and Richard was hearing that. So I could talk to Richard as well as everyone else in Elluminate and he could respond to us in SL voice. It occurred to me then to include Graham in the conversation by talking into the tethered USB and Elluminate mics at the same time. This caused Richard to hear my SL chat (and then get the delayed rendition in the stream so he had to turn that off) but we had successfully patched a conversation taking place in SL into one going on in Elluminate, and for those in the unWorkshop it was one of those WOW moments.

I'm not quite sure how we got there. In the past three hours we had had almost every conceivable meltdown. Starting with equipment failure, power adaptor failing to function, relegating the prime presentation laptop to limited use -- we had moved on to browser crash brought on by McAfee crapware, that sort of design being the reason I had declined to purchase the program in the first place, and subsequent reboot. We had lost Buth's display at about the same time, and had been working with split screen projection up to then where my computer video signal was incompatible with the projector resolution (easily resolvable, but when you are juggling so many balls that some are bouncing on the floor, what would be more obvious at a calmer moment remains ellusive). With two computers down we had fought through technical problems with a third computer and managed to get all computers running in the end and bring the unWorkshop to a close on an epiphany moment.

Later in a plenary recap session, feedback on our unWorkshop was positive, with all concerned saying they had learned a lot from Webheads. The only criticism was that SL appeared to be perhaps too addictive, potentially could take time away from family, and of course that it would be perhaps inaccessible to a majority of stakeholders the sustainable ecologies people were trying to reach in places where the pinch of limited resources is being felt most. Other than that the participants seemed to be quite taken with the potential, and spoke of having eyes wide opened.

Many thanks to Buthaina for her competent and timely support! Amazing dedication Rita (Zeinstejer, another Writingmatrix collaborator, Stevens et al. 2008). Thanks John for your kind encouraging words (John Hibbs perhaps, founder of the Global Learn Day movement), and Graham you were the star of the show, taking everyone on voice tours of eco simulations in Second Life.  As this was for a conference on environmental sustainability, the conference delegates were really putting the twos and twos together as a result of their encounter with Webheads in Action.


And that, dear children, is the true and enduring spirit of Webheads in Action.


Hunter, M. (2006). Are You on the PD Cybertrain or Still Hesitating? 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). Available:

Lebow, Jeff. (2006). Worldbridges: The Potential of Live, Interactive Webcasting. TESL-EJ 10, 1.

Stevens, V. (2005). Computer-mediated communications tools used with teachers and students in virtual communities of practice, in S. M. Stewart and J. E. Olearski (Eds), Proceedings of the First Annual Conference for Middle East Teachers of Science, Mathematics and Computing (pp. 204-218). Middle East Teachers of Science, Mathematics and Computing: Abu Dhabi.
The PDF file of the paper as it appears in the conference proceeds is here

Stevens, Vance. (2004). The Skill of Communication: Technology brought to bear on the art of language learning. TESL-EJ 7, 4 (On the Internet).

Stevens, Vance, Nelba Quintana, Rita Zeinstejer, Saša Sirk, Doris Molero & Carla Arena. (2008). Writingmatrix: Connecting Students with Blogs, Tags, and Social Networking. In Stevens, Vance & Elizabeth Hanson-Smith, Co-editors. (2008). Special Feature: Proceedings of the Webheads in Action Online Convergence, 2007. TESL-EJ, Volume 11, Number 4:

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