Humanising Language Teaching
Webheads in Action (WiA): An online community for professional development – from past to present
Teresa Almeida d'Eca, Portugal
Mario Rinvolucri invited me to write an article about the Webheads in Action online community for your magazine, Humanising Language Teaching, after he took part in an audioconference with a few Webheads during my presentation at the APPI 2003 Conference in Sesimbra, Portugal.
Webheads in Action is an online community of EFL/ESL teachers worldwide who got together in January 2002 for an eight-week training program, the Electronic Village Online 2002, sponsored by TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Language). Vance Stevens, who coordinated this program, established two main objectives: "to help each other learn about forming and maintaining robust online communities" and to "demonstrate and explore use of the latest synchronous and non-synchronous communications technologies, including video and voice" while learning about their role in language learning.
The title of the training program, "Community formation online and its role in language learning", and the challenging syllabus immediately caught my attention. During the first week we became acquainted with a Yahoo Group and with one another. Our first task was to get a Yahoo ID, join the Webheads Yahoo Group and explore its potential. Then we had to send a message to the list introducing ourselves and, if we so wished, uploading a photo. This gave way to the first surprise: the Community Members page that Vance created with our personal IDs: name, school, photo, introductory text and any other relevant information we had given. This was a wonderful way not only to get a first feeling of relating to the different members, but also to get a sense of 'belonging', two fundamental ingredients of a community.
Two days after joining the group I had my first major chat adventure at Tapped In (TI), a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), "the online workplace of an international community of education professionals", where Webheads meet every Sunday at 12.00 GMT. It was an unforgettable two-hour experience of meeting colleagues, getting familiar with the environment, seeing text scroll in a frenzy on the screen, in short, being involved in 'chaos navigation' (an expression coined by Webhead Susanne Nyrop), a feeling that was soon overcome with the help of everyone in the community.
During those eight weeks we used Tapped In for different purposes: as a discussion platform from where we often took off to other cyberspaces to experiment with synchronous communication tools, whether through text, voice and video, or all three simultaneously; as an environment for professional development where we also attended or gave presentations; and as a platform for socializing, yet another basic ingredient of online communities.
Exploring Yahoo Messenger (YM) came next in our agenda and soon became our second regular synchronous platform. Compared to TI, a text-only chat environment, YM allowed us to experiment with the three-in-one mode: text, audio and video. Two weeks into our program we were experimenting with sound and image. What a thrill it was to hear voices for the first time and then gradually associate them with faces on the screen! From that moment on, opening both platforms at the same time, commuting from one to the other, and experimenting with the different modes, or all three at the same time, became a very exciting and eye-opening component of our training.
The Yahoo Group - our Communications Center, as I like to call it -, allowed us to communicate at other levels: send email messages to all members of the group, keep a message archive, and post files, links and photos for everyone to share, among other things. Asynchronous interactivity took place on a daily basis, as can be seen by the message flow in that eight-week period (206 messages in January, 268 in February and 386 in March). Synchronous group interactivity took place once a week. However, with such a far-reaching community, there was always someone online at most anytime of day, so it was simple to have a one-on-one chat.
But our interactivity was not limited to email or chat. In addition to the numerous Web pages that Vance Stevens created to register anything relevant we did, including 'how to' pages, member feedback, opinions and comments, and the transcripts of every Sunday chat, Webheads started producing their own Web pages and materials, or commenting, reporting and registering significant moments and events, thus establishing their presence on the World Wide Web. For many this was their first venture as producers and editors of their work, a new and fascinating facet.
Amazingly, a few months into the training program, some colleagues were already taking their first steps in e-teaching. Dafne González, a Venezuelan member doing her PhD in Valencia, Spain, was teaching her first online course. Aiden Yeh, from Taiwan, was taking her students to Tapped In to interact with Webheads about What's in a name?. Buthaina Al Othman, a colleague in Kuwait, was presenting her first online lesson.
The production and publishing phase had such a boost that later on I felt the need to start gathering the widespread repository in a single page - the WiA Index -, where you will find links to files that already document a year and a half in the life of the Webheads in Action.
These eight weeks in 2002 were a thrilling, eye-opening, productive and extremely useful marathon of events, experiences and experiments in online communication tools and community building, which included our first live participation in a real life conference: Tesol Arabia 2002. Vance Stevens was presenting in loco and several Webheads joined him online for a text and audio conference with the participants.
But our attempt at community building consisted of other activities: trying out different synchronous and threaded chat tools and courseware (Wimba, Groupboard, Blackboard, GEN, WebCT, to name a few), setting up our web presence in different ways (using several html editors to create Web pages and different applications to keep track of bookmarks, and creating blogs and rubrics), getting into the details of a Web presence (developing html skills, and manipulating images and media files) and, finally, discussing community formation online and e-moderation.
Did we accomplish the objectives that were set out by our coordinator? Absolutely! I believe that we exceeded expectations. We not only carried out all the programmed activities, but also others that resulted from natural curiosity, learned about and formed an online community, reflected on the role of communication tools in language learning, and implemented learning activities. A year and a half later (at the time of writing, July 2003) it is interesting to go back and see the road traveled in such a short period of time.
Most important, though, is that we got on so well and acquired so much know-how in such a short time that we felt we could not stop then and there and follow our separate ways. This spirit highly influenced our decision to continue working together sine die and, since then, we have become an ongoing online community of practice for professional development with all members benefiting from the "community knowledge [which] is greater than the sum of the knowledge possessed by individuals", in the words of Chris Johnson, a Webhead finalizing his PhD. dissertation titled " Establishing an Online Community of Practice for Instructors of English as a Foreign Language", a case study if the Webheads in Action.
What factors contributed to the extension of our activity? A dynamic, enthusiastic, ever-present and knowledgeable coordinator, a motivating syllabus, permanent interaction, learning by doing collaboratively and constant mutual help that generated a sense of belonging, an atmosphere of trust and strong bonds.
Has the enthusiasm faded? Absolutely not. The online world of education and technology is a never-ending surprise box, so there are always new tools to try out, projects to pursue, research to carry out, colleagues who join our community and need our help. Above all, there has always been a strong motivation to move forward and explore a whole new world out there so that we can put it at the service of the number one priority of any teacher – the students!