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Webheads in Action:
Community formation online and its role in language learning

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Week 8 - March 15-25

Wrap-up and where do we go from here?

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  1. Characteristics of an effective online community
  2. Effective uses of CMC with students
  3. Reflections on what we've accomplished
  4. Let's create and administer a survey instrument
  5. Where do we go from here?

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1. Characteristics of an effective online community

Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2002 05:25:03 +0000
From: Arthur_McKeown <>

What, in your experience, are THREE characteristics of an effective group?

He was asking the question in relation to differences between groups which are made up of NS only, or NNS only, or both NS and NNS, but there are close parallels in this discussion to our own community formation. Let's eavesdrop on a few of the responses ...

1) have a strong sense of teamwork and cooperation (and this implies openness on the parts of all the members of the team;
2) a clear understanding of the objectives and the tasks that must be carried out with a fair division of responsibilities and/or assignments within the group itself; and,
3) the ability of the group to look at critiques and feedback from students and supervisors--and, especially, from each other--to learn from these.

-motivated to work together on their own initiative, without being ordered to
-have a clear understanding of the chain of command within the organization and also the need for teamwork
-when no member of the group has a secret agenda of making an impression on the boss

1) trust and good personal relations between group members
2) high motivation level and clear common goals
3) openness for new ideas.

1) members know and have taken personal responsibility for the (obligatorily) agreed upon clear objectives;
2) there is freedom of expression based on trust (no one should be *marked* as pro-this or anti-that and thence frowned upon) and communication really happens;
3) members are humans but accept challenges - professionally speaking, I may translate this as a) they are afraid of new techonologies but are willing to give it a try and b) they are against *old* techniques but bow to them if they work for the students.

These strike me as decent points of departure for getting at what allows a community to form and function on the Internet.

Obviously there are unique aspects in that almost none of the members have ever met each other. Yet these people are able to work together to further their goals in a way in which participants stimulate each other beyond what each would do individually. What is it that sparks and maintains such group dynamics among totally remote participants?

Any thoughts?

Lisa Harshbarger writes from the Managing_NS_NNS group: Two things, Vance--enough mutual interest on the topic at hand to want to share your thoughts on it with like-minded souls, and the fact that you have much more control over how, when and why you communicate electronically with colleagues than you normally do at your workplace (unless you work electronically at home). Lisa

I think that as members of this community, we share a common goal or goals. And the idea that we could achieve something as a group brings us together. We may share one or all of the following:

1) the prospect of learning from one another- by sharing to the group what we know, what we don't know

2) belongingness- gives us the feeling that we are not totally alone,

3) professional development- for what it's worth

4) curiosity- yes, we have members who are simply lurking around. Or curiosity in a way that we are curious to what people may have to say

Fiona Thomas writes: This is in response to an area which is much more in my line of work - virtual communities.

One main comment concerning the very interesting characteristics outlined by Writing for Webheads group is the issue of motivation. In my experience "most" adult foreign language learners on distance learning courses are not highly motivated people. This is both unfortunate but understandable. Language learning is often a means to an end: I need it for my job, I need it for my studies etc. Therefore somebody who is working or studying full-time finds it difficult enough to follow a course let alone take part in a virtual community. Ironically it is the success or failure of these online communities which can lead to the successful and enjoyable completion of an online language course. With this in mind, I would say that 3 of the most important characteristics of an effective online community are:

  1. Community building tasks are made an integral part of the course (with marks awarded for contributing rather than content)
  2. Tasks should not only include posting messages but also responding to messages
  3. All synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication need to simple to use, attractive and rewarding. There's nothing more disappointing than going into a chatroom and finding no one there.

An extremely good book on the subject is: Teaching and Learning Online - Pedagogies for New Technologies (Edited by John Stephenson - Kogan Page London 2001)

Food for thought


Natalie Kimbrough writes:

Hi all,

I believe Fiona brings up a very important aspect here... one that is of great concern for me and my colleagues putting out an online course with the start date being march 4th. However, I have heard quite the opposite in regard to motivation from other colleagues who are currently mentoring online Reading Maintenance Programs. They have reported a very high level of motivation on the part of their course participants.

Therefore, I wonder whether the motivation is also connected to the level of expressive in the field one is learning. In our cases languages. Does that mean that we have to be more worried about beginners' motivation and less worried about advanced participants'? Obviously all this also depends on individuals but currently writing up the curriculum and guidelines for an online program these are issues of great interest to me. Maybe someone else can help enlighten me in regard to where the difference in motivation lies?

I have also found, that at times the job and job advancement as a stimulus can be quite strong -- yet, it can also cause anxiety so it seems to be a double sword...

One of the most important things regarding keeping a high level of motivation seems to be the fact that is has to be relevant to the participant/student. Yet, we also need to make sure that there are no surprises in the syllabus because the online participants usually plan around their "real world" life. If the mentor/teacher is highly responsive and responsible it seems to positively affect the motivation. that way everyone knows they can rely on the mentor/teacher and they always know whether s/he is available or not.

But I am eager to hear what others have to say about keeping motivation up and running among virtual community members.



Hello, cyberpals!

Natalie, I feel that "keeping motivation up and running among virtual community members" not only depends on personal and/or professional interest, but also on the coordinator or instructor's commitment, availability and responsiveness, as Dafne referred.

Last October I took my first three-week online course and felt totally committed the whole time, because 1) I was really interested in the course content, 2) I wanted to learn as much as possible, and 3) I wanted to do as many of the tasks as I possible could. I was not doing it for credits, though I could have. I did it for the experience and the challenge of doing something on line. And certainly to get something out of it that I could apply in my teaching and that would motivate my students.

The instructor was always there for us, as Vance is. I consider that a 'must', be it for their expertise or moral support. A 'pat on the shoulder' at a distance can be very encouraging and boost your ego.

Knowing that you have a community of colleagues to exchange ideas with is also great. Or just reading some of their postings and finding out they are going through the same problems you are can be comforting. You don't feel alone!

However, I do feel that distance learning is not appropriate for everyone. Curiously, a couple of weeks ago I came across (don't remember where) a self assessment questionnaire to try to find out if distance learning is right for you. Luckily, I kept a print of my result (yes, DL is a suitable option for me). You'll find it at

It belongs to the Distance Education site of the Community College of Philadelphia at

Natalie, I hope this will help. And good luck with the online course.

Cheers, Teresa, 01 Feb 2002

Hello All,

I think Natalie brought up 2 crucial issues in creating communities: topic relevance and the role of the coordinator: "One of the most important things regarding keeping a high level of motivation seems to be the fact that is has to be relevant to the participant/student...(...)... If the mentor/teacher is highly responsive and responsible it seems to positively affect the motivation. that way everyone knows they can rely on the mentor/teacher and they always know whether s/he is available or not."

I can talk about my own experience. I am completely new to this field, but I am highly motivated to learn because of personal and professional reasons, so I get involved and try to absorb as much as I can. But at the same time, what has kept my initial motivation has been the responsiveness of the coordinator (in this case, Vance). Vance has taken care of all of us, he has been there to answer individual and group questions, he has taken the time to organize all the contributions made by the members in a structured syllabus, he has shown us the way to get in touch with other members, and, at the same time, we have not felt that he is the "owner" of the group. He has shown us the road and we have followed his lead.

As someone said before, if your are looking for examples on how to create an online community successfully, take a look at this one.

Highly motivated,


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2. Effective uses of CMC with students

Dear friends:

A couple of days ago I came across what I consider a very curious and interesting experience that I'd like to share with you:

Giving Exams in an Online Chat Room

Hope you like it! Teresa

Susanne asks: One important question raised is: How can one be sure that an online chat exam is a valid foundation for student evaluation? Janet K. Marta, the author of this paper, is sharing her several years of experience. I'd like to hear your opinion: would YOU like to make a synchronous examination, using chat or MOO, (like Tapped In)?

Vance replies: If it were me, I would write out the answers to all the questions and have a set of points ready to cut and paste in response to the professor's questions. I would imagine some students would have a friend standing by to assist. Of course, in this respect it's not much different from accepting papers written at home. You have to ask the student later what s/he meant by such and such, and see if there is anything there in the way of an explanation.

Teresa responds: Dear EVonliners: I've just added my two cents about a chat exam to the GEN SIG. It's at . Teresa

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3. Reflections on what we've accomplished

After these 7 weeks of working, having fun, sharing, learning...I decided to self-evaluate my learning. You will find my reflections on these 7 weeks at this URL that I have added to my webpage:

I will very soon be able to apply what I have learned here. I am designing a 7-week online course (May-June)where I will be using many of the tools I have been exploring in theses sessions: yahoo groups, wimba, chat, groupboard,webpages, and most important of all, I will make Vance's e-moderating style, be my role model. Of course, I will not forget the Tapped In team, their patience, empathy,good humor, that is, their "human spirit" to introduce us to their MOO environment and the possibilites it opens for EFL/ESL students and teachers.

I have to say that if I had not learned anything, I would be as happy as I am, because I have made some very special friends :-)

I have no words to express my gratitude to Vance and all of you.

Yours, Dafne

Dear friends!

I had promised myself that I would write at least about my first impressions with the Webhead community. I finally did it a week ago. It's at

I do hope to continue, because there are great episodes!

Enjoy! Teresa

Dear friends:

My self-assessment page is still a 'draft', but I'd already like to share it with you. I hope to upload the final version by next week.

It's at

Comments are welcome!

BFN, Teresa

First, congratulations to all participants who managed to build and publish their websites succefully. I didn't have enough time lately to visit them all, but had the chance to see some of them. Second,I would like to announce that although I wasn't an active participant, but I have learned a lot of new skills during the past few weekes, and gained new useful information within a remarkable, short period of time, and for free! Most of the sessions have answered a lot of my questions regarding webistes develpment.

Third, because I am very busy, as I am a new EFL teacher at the Language Center of KU, I went under a tremendous amount of technical frusteration. I don't have a Pc yet in my office; I had to do all my computer work at home; I had to stay until the early hours of many mornings to follow the sessions,to check and practice new materials and services of each session, and to read the useful suggestions and feedback from most of you while updating and developing my website trying to implement new materials at the same time ... As you can see, despite these difficulties, I believe that the sessions are valuable and you guys all are great and worth my struggle.

Best wishes, Buthaina Al Othman EFL teacher LC- Kuwait University

Our threaded discussion in GEN SIG is growing, we are still in the intro and problem solving phase, so we will welcome you to take a look and give us some input for discussion. Daf has started a thread on self assessment, which is a very interesting topic, also related to this week in the WIA syllabus. I still need some time to ponder how I can best express in a few words what I feel in my heart: most of all, a deep gratitude to be with you in an active and enrichening cooperative!

I also made a homepage with my own personal reflections and a self assessment list. Like most of the other stuff I am currently dealing with, this is "to be continued". The dilemma about publishing your thoughts online is that you may have a second chance to make changes and new versions. When I opened the page in the browser, I felt it was OK this time. Just a few links to our projects, and a backling to my Webhead homepage (where I have a general index on top). I am still experimenting with format and color. Besides, the small drawing is from the HotPot page where you may find an interesting library of useful clipart meant for EFL students.

here goes:

Comments are more than welcome, even more so if you would like to share your thoughts about Webheads in Action with us, as well. you don't have to make it a homepage, just a few lines here will do just fine. Those who have worked hard with this free learning commitment, like a little pat on their broad shoulders, or some relevant critics.

Lena writes: Hi, Vance. I have definitely benefited from the course. The necessity to edit the web page became the part of my life, as well as brief messages from the webheads.

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4. Creating a survey instrument

This might be composed after reflecting on the reflections (above)

I'll start sketching out a few things I'd like to ask ...

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5. Where do we go from here?

'Exploring with fun! Communicating with fun! Learning with fun!' What better way is there? Thank you, Vance, for everything you've made possible during these 6-7 weeks. Personally speaking, I have advanced a lot, but there's still a lot of sorting out and sinking in to do. That's why Susanne's idea of the GEN "Special Interest group (SIG) for Webheads in Action where we can experiment further with our community building and cyberspace niche carving experiments" is a fabulous idea. She knows she can count on me for this project. BFN, Teresa

I have created a thread in our GEN Seminar (please join us there),that I called "Self-assessing our learning" Where we would like all of us to share what we have learned in these sessions. And "not to stop working", I have created another thread :"Our comments about GEN" where we can express our impressions about this OLE and compare it to the others we have explored, pros and cons considering our academic needs.

There are other threads, one is about acronyms, and you can create new threads (We would love it!)

Waiting for your comments, Dafne

I have just found out that there is a TESOL board to start threaded discussion on the topics of the different presentations. I have a discussion group entitled: "How to evaluate ESP/CALL learning. If you are interested in posting your comments this is the URL:

WE would like to invite you to join the EVONLINE 2002 Webheads In Action SIG (Special Interest Group).

Dafne,Teresa, Vance, Nigel and Susanne have discussed how we may use GEN (and explore the underlying programme VirtualU) for our collaborative research on community building pros & cons in Virtual Learning Environments.

An Open House session in Tapped In with Sylvia Currie Thursday was a kind of brainstorm where we decided to go ahead and see where it will take us. We may use the TeamBB procedure and take up some chunks from earlier discussions here in the list.

We are making a scaffold of separate threads to see how a threaded discussion works in this version. The discussions are shown either by date, by author or by thread. Follow up in these topics, or add your own aspect to the knowledge pool:

Sylvia invited us to an upcoming seminar in GEN exploring and testing the beta version of the offline Course Reader, developed in cooperation with the research group behind GEN, as mentioned earlier. This would be of interest to those of you working with distance students at a low speed or paid internet connection.

Teresa provides the following (tested and corrected) urls:

In this case,

After you've entered the necessary information, follow the cues.

HTH, Teresa

Susanne, 23 Mar 2002: Just want to point you to our GEN SIG, where I have added a few new messages about our reasons for keeping an eye on the GEN developers. The Course reader usability testing seminar has started, and the free online Course Reader (still a beta version looking for GEN testers) will be a useful tool for all those who are to pay for their online connection, as well as a security against server breakdowns. Also take a look at the very important older seminar called Tools and Needs, a summary is posted at the end of the seminar by Sylvia Currie.

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