Developing a Community in Online Language Learning

A presentation by Vance Stevens, Amideast UAE/MLI Project

Prepared for publication in
the Proceeds of the Military Language Institute's
Teacher-to-Teacher Conference 2000 "Tools of the Trade"
May 3-4, 2000 Abu Dhabi (UAE)

This paper reports on an experiment in community development online which had been in progress for almost two years at the time of its presentation at the international professional conference held at the MLI in Abu Dhabi in May, 2000. At the time of the conference, the community was in the process of branching out from one of language learners and its facilitators to include the wider sphere of language teaching professionals interested not only in the ramifications of the experiment but also in participating in it themselves. The paper examines what we were discovering about community formation online in the context of the event staged at the conference.

Introducing 'Webheads'

'Webheads' is a community of online language teachers and learners who have been meeting in various cyber-venues since 1998. The community stemmed from a writing class conducted entirely by email in 1996 under the auspices of English for Internet (EFI) <>, which served as a clearinghouse bringing together students with volunteer (but qualified) instructors for free ESL courses proposed and created by the instructors. In my "writing and grammar" course, it proved difficult at the time to achieve substantive interaction among students solely via email, but one of the students was inspired sufficiently to create a web page for the course (at a time when this was novel, before I had acquired web-building skills). Then in 1997 a reincarnation of the online class included the option of meeting synchronously online at the Palace, an avatar-based chat room where the EFI had arranged to use a "Virtual Schoolhouse". In the course of experimenting with synchronous communications tools potentially useful for language learning, I would occasionally encounter Dave Winet, coordinator of the EFI, in one chat client or another, and it was he who coined the term "webheads" in the course of an online discussion on ICQ about where I was going with my EFI course (Dave was in California and I had by then moved to Abu Dhabi). By now I had learned enough about web page design to create a space where students could display their writing, thus adding a third dimension to our existing synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication. Writing for Webheads became established in its final form when it became an 'egroup' (now called YahooGroups, a free email list service managed through a listserv) <>. By this time, students could get together for regular weekly synchronous meetings online in chat rooms such as the Palace, or communicate through the listserv in what we called the 'eclass', or post their writing to our web pages, accessible from our main page at

Although conceived as a 'writing' class, WFW was never a class in the traditional sense of the word. That is, there has never been a syllabus beyond an awareness of the steps in the process of writing, and encouragement of students to communicate (most often through writing) in whatever ways they could be inspired to do so. Since it is difficult and possibly demotivating to attempt to steer people who are meeting regularly and of their own free will online, and with as many agendas as there are people, into a course of study following one person's agenda, I often suggest that online 'teaching' (on a voluntary basis) has more in common with herding cats <> than with conducting classes at a brick-and-mortar institute. Thus the class - or more accurately, the community - has always revolved around real and authentic communication, in whatever form that might take. Indeed, the community dynamics have been of equal if not surpassing interest to the writing aspects, beyond the extent to which the two are inextricably interlinked. In this respect, what is most remarkable about the community would not be revealed in a traditional study of language improvement outcomes; rather its value is more connected with the phenomenon of the community's perseverance in its cohesiveness over the years of its existence.

At the time of the Teacher-to-Teacher conference held at the MLI in Abu Dhabi in May, 2000, the class had branched into two significant directions. First, we were experimenting with synchronous online voice chat, particularly HearMe, a now defunct voice and text chat client whose code was freely disseminated and could be copied to any web page. And secondly, and largely because we realized we were onto something revolutionary with the HearMe voice chat, we had started bringing applied linguistics professionals into our chat sessions. We had already appeared at several live and online conferences, and for the latter, we had begun issuing invitations on several language teaching professional lists for wider peer participation in our conference appearances, and we had met with some success in engendering interest in and support of our projects. In this respect, the event staged by Webheads at the Abu Dhabi T2T conference was a part of a series of community-wide professional appearances we were engaged in giving at the time.

Touring the Webheads community

Here is a parable of continuing education in the 21st century. Imagine you are Pon. Pon is in his late 40's. He's a government worker in Thailand. He wants to practice English in his spare time and he has access to the Internet. Somehow, he comes across the site of English for Internet and he decides to apply for a class there. He fills out a form online and clicks on Submit.

David Winet, who has been channeling students through into online classes of volunteer teachers' devising since around 1995, passed Pon's email over to me along with numerous others, and I sent each an email explaining how anyone can join Writing for Webheads simply by subscribing to our efiwebheads listserv at and/or dropping by our online class. I of ten receive such queries and out of ten, perhaps one replies to my follow-on invitation. In this case, it was Pon who responded with gratitude for his acceptance in our class. Despite his limited English skills, he visited the Java-enabled text chat site at at noon GMT the next Sunday, the time the class has met each week since 1998.

Pon must have enjoyed the experience because during the week he sent the list a picture of himself, which I received and made into a web page containing what little Pon had told us about himself. Next Sunday when Pon came online at noon GMT, other people in the synchronous chat were able to see his picture by consulting his web page at In fact, since it was a voice chat, we could talk to Pon and hear his family in the background. One of the people in the chat, Arif from Turkey, himself a drop-in newcomer, was so impressed with being able to relate so closely with Pon as well as others in the chat that he dashed me off a picture of himself by email attachment while we were all chatting. I checked my email and quickly put the picture at our website and invited the others in the chat to have a look at John, a professor in the chat planning to use our group interaction as part of his dissertation, then invited us to meet his family at and I showed off my own family photo at Rif meanwhile sent in the email making him a member of our listserv and quickly followed this with an introduction, which I then combined with his picture into his own 'Webheads webpage', which you can see at

Any chat participant, or anyone for that matter, can see a transcript of the chat where all of this took place by visiting There you can read the Homestead text chat log and the HearMe voice chat text chat log where Pon, Arif, and the others all interacted with one another on that day. At the top of that page you can see a picture of each person in the chat. If you click on a picture you are taken to that person's Webheads webpage, where you can find out a little more about each person. The effect is to bring each person in the chat closer together through greater familiarity through as many senses as is feasible online: aural, visual, and engagement of the cognitive and affective aspects of the psyche as far as is possible through text.

If you want to meet all the students at once, you can do so. A visit to lists all of the facilitators and students in the class. The list is sorted by when each person last got in touch with the class, so you can see who is active and who is not. Best of all, you can again see the pictures that the students have sent linked to each one's website through a click on the picture. From each individual website, you can link to articles the students have written and threads they have participated in. On a page where students have exchanged ideas, you can see a picture of each participating student and, from the picture, link back to his or her web page. There is a main page as well at where all the students can be seen together in a gallery, each picture again linkable to each individual page.

On their web pages, students have provided varying degrees of information about themselves and their interests. In the case of Ying Lan, a student from Taiwan who has been with us for as long as we have been conducting the class, if you click on her picture, you can find out about her travels and interests <>. Everything she (and any student, including Pon) has written for Webheads has been corrected before being placed on that person's web page, and the writer has been invited to compare what he or she originally wrote with what is posted to the page (and some let us know that they do that and appreciate the feedback, while others repeat the same mistakes time and time again, as is to be expected). This plus occasional feedback in the synchronous chats addresses the accuracy aspect of Writing for Webheads, while fluency is promoted in live chat and listserv interaction. The emphasis is on fluency in the Webheads class, as is evidenced by the body of materials generated by students over the past couple of years. Webheads have openly discussed this dichotomy, and recorded the debate at In one of my contributions to this debate, I said, about the way we teach writing:

"We give you opportunities to use and practice your English skills. Language is communication, so we also give you real reasons to communicate. All of us in this community, the teachers and the learners, give you an audience. We are interested in what you have to say and we encourage you to say it. Eventually you come to like the others in the community, and it's interesting to get to know them. You want to communicate with them and you want them to communicate with you. So you have real reasons to write and speak to them."

Since the Webheads class is a group of students and teachers who have never met but who have forged a bond of friendship and understanding that transcends nations, putting faces to names and written accomplishments is an important part of the Webheads ethos. "Faces" is one of the things that helps make our class a community that constantly attracts newcomers like Pon and Arif while suffering very little attrition (class size doubled in the year before this conference, with the loss of only half a dozen students). Voice and video are other media which can be propagated over the web and which also serve to help the various Webheads become familiar with each other and become aware that they are part of a living community of sentient souls, and not as some would believe, disembodied fingers relating only through tapping on keyboards.

There are other ways that Webheads demonstrate that they are a community. One of the first indications came in a manifestation of trust from one of our original students. Bahia joined us in 1998 and got to know us in live chat week after week, but persisted in using his pseudonym while suggesting that there were ways people on the Internet could hack your identity. The better he got to know us the more he dropped his guard. Eventually he gave us his complete name, and invited us to visit him in Bahia, which is where he lives (Felix, his real name - or so he tells us - remains a frequent participant in Webheads activities) <>.

Another indication of trust was the submission of pictures. I requested students early in our relationship to send their pictures but at first we had only pictures of the three teachers and two or three students. It took months before the next picture came in and perhaps a month for the next one, but as trust has developed, pictures have been coming at a much faster rate, culminating in Rif's sending us his on the spur of the moment in our recent chat. Some have gone further, sending pictures of their houses, neighborhoods, and schools, and even experimenting with mounting real media videos of themselves on their web pages; for example, <>.

Other aspects of the Webheads community are consistency and support. It continues to amaze the teachers in the class that some students have not only chosen to remain with us since 1998, but that they continue to turn up in live classes week after week. Ying Lan is almost always there, as a glance at our logged chats will show <>. Others come for a few weeks in a row and then disappear for a while, but sometimes resurface later. One student, Deden from Indonesia, rejoined us after a hiatus of several months. He used to write on most of our topics, but then dropped out of communication after a move to Taiwan. Suddenly he has written again, but in a way that suggests he has gone to our web site and dug out (and read) our old writing topics. We have a flurry of emails from him now, each with the title of a different topic from our website.

Conference participation by Webheads

We as education professionals naturally want to demonstrate our techniques and explain our success as a language learning community to our peers through conference presentations. Our first presentation was a modest showing at TESOL 1999 as part of the Internet Web Fare <>, where teachers show web sites they have developed to facilitate language learning. Our presentation was unique because I had arranged to have a live Internet connection with my co-teachers Michael Coghlan and Margaret Ann Doty joining me from Australia and Germany, respectively, and via the Palace client, where they chatted with visitors physically present with me in New York. I had meanwhile signed us up for the 4th annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 7 - 9, 1999 <>. Here we produced a paper <> that links to a chat log showing budding interest in what we were doing.

Some students indicated that they might like to be more involved in our conference presentations. The next opportunity was again a "face to face" conference held locally at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. In a workshop setting, I configured a number of computers for the conference attendees to make them honorary class members, which enabled Michael and student Ming to enthrall the handful of conference attendees from their respective locations in Australia and Oregon, though they could have been anywhere in cyberspace. The handout and report are at

Our next big event was at TESOL 2000 in Vancouver, where I presented at several sessions on topics relating to Webheads. Most were discussion sessions and cameo appearances at other people’s presentations, but as part of a special session at which I had been invited to present on the community building aspects of the class, we mounted a demonstration at which Michael, Maggi, Ying Lan, and Moral performed live online from Australia, Germany, Taiwan, and China before an audience of around 100 who viewed their interactions on two screens at the front of the room and listened the voice chat over the P.A.. system. It was a stimulating performance whose handouts and reports can be found at

With several of our students now comfortable with the idea of chatting with language learning professionals at conferences, we participated next in the Fifth Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 12-14, 2000 <>. Unlike at our previous face-to-face conference appearances, the attendees at this conference were themselves all online, and interaction between Webheads and the conference-goers was therefore more intimate for all concerned. This time we had all three teachers present (Michael, Maggi, and I) as well as students Gloria from Paraguay and Ying Lan from Taiwan, plus MaggiE and Dave Kees, a student and teacher from China (we call her MaggiE to distinguish her from the teacher, Maggi). Michael’s report on the conference is at: and the log of the chat can be found at From a reading of the chats, and keeping in mind that these are non-native speakers being treated as experts in interactions with language professionals at an internationally held conference, you imagine how motivating and truly communicative it was for the students, and how keen the sense of audience.

Webheads list member (and EFL teacher in China) Dave Kees had been making a point on professional lists at around this time that there was something spurious about CALL conferences being held solely in fixed locations when there existed the means to broadcast them and make them interactive to the world-at-large on the Internet. After our experience with the entirely-online conference in April, I thought Webheads were becoming well-positioned to be proactive in rectifying this state of affairs, so I began experimenting with opening the Webheads concept up to remotely situated professionals. I started a Teaching for Webheads professional group both with an egroup and a web site based at I modeled the web site on the Writing for Webheads concept and encouraged participants to send in pictures and join us in chats online. I geared these chats toward our next scheduled presentation, to which I had invited not only the WFW students as before, but also the field-at large via invitations sent out on the various professional lists I follow.

At the MLI Teacher-to-Teacher Conference

This presentation was the one forming the subject of this paper, the Webheads' online (and my physical) presence at the Military Language Institute’s Teacher to Teacher Conference 2000 “Tools of the Trade” held May 3-4, 2000 at Al-Nahyan Base, Abu Dhabi, UAE. <>. Participating were Webhead students Maggie and Moral (both in China) at the Palace, and students Maggie as well as Nicia from Brazil along with teaching professionals Shabana from Dubai, Claudia from Austria, Jason at ESADE in Spain, and Chi-Chin in Illinois, all at the voice chat site. The presentation handout for our presentation is at

I was very careful to stage a practice session exactly one week before the actual conference (and at exactly the same time, to allow those wishing to practice to fit the session into their routine the following week), and I announced this on the lists . At first I was concerned about the capacity of our voice chat client, but it proved robust enough to handle the dozen communicants who answered the call to join us. In fact, the client proved adequate to handle a chat elsewhere during the MLI conference, with dozens of conference delegates engaging in live chat with Randall Davis, presenting online from his workplace in the USA <>.

At each conference where several students and teachers were slated to appear, there was always a professional risk. What if, for example, at a live presentation, no students appeared? What if the chat clients might suddenly shut down (we had experienced frequent difficulties with the Palace servers during our regular Sunday classes, for example, and the HearMe server was not always available; it had been down the two days before our Vancouver TESOL presentation)? Given these instabilities, I worried that my professional integrity was at stake each time I promised that my students would meet with conference participants on a given date and time. I had met none of these people in 'real life', but they always appeared when summoned. We were by then becoming a true community, truly supportive of one another, with real commitments being made and kept. The students apparently found that what we did improved their English or gratified them in some interpersonal way, and they were helping us with our professional development. And now we were expanding into a parallel community of interconnected teachers and associated professionals, and arranging intersections between the communities of language learners, language professionals, and conference goers, and bringing these all together at one place in time, from many places in cyberspace.

Beyond the MLI Teacher-to-Teacher Conference

A live online chat similar to the one at the MLI was staged the following week in Dubai at the May 10-11, 2000 conference on Current Trends in English Language Testing 2000 <>. (The Webheads presentation handout is at; logs of our conference chats are at

At both the MLI and Dubai online events, there were participants from ESADE in Barcelona. Their reaction was to invite us to put on our show the next summer at the 'CALL for the 21st Century' - IATEFL Computer Sig event held at ESADE, Barcelona, Spain. June 30th - July 2nd, 2000 <>. This conference included two days of MOO sessions plus mine using the very different chat clients. So we did in fact manage to use the resources described here to open up this conference up to international synchronous participation, as suggested by Dave Kees (above). The handout for the IATEFL conference is at, and the logs of the chat sessions, showing impressive contributions from Webheads students Ying Lan and Moral, can be found at At the time, I commented:

"In sum, another great presentation by Webheads at another successful conference. I was particularly impressed with the contribution of our two online students, Moral and Ying Lan, who gave what amounted to an eloquent presentation of their Writing for Webheads class and the work they've been doing in it for the past couple of years. You can read what they said at:"

What happens during presentations

A typical conference session (or regular online class for that matter) starts out with the participants finding each other online. To 'find each other online' we use a client that detects the presence of 'buddies' online. We normally use ICQ, available free from from Other clients that can also tell us when our buddies are online include Yahoo messenger,, MSN Messenger, and AOL Messenger,

ICQ is the best of these I think for several reasons. One, it keeps various records of your ICQ interactions on your computer and allows you to transfer these to other computers. It time stamps your interactions, which is useful if you sit down at your computer and find a message and wonder if it was there from a minute ago or an hour ago. It allows you to easily set up conference chats, and during chats, it lets you see what people are writing as they write it (and as they erase, etc. .. this can be itself communicative and can also save time when you can anticipate what someone is about to write). Finally it buffers your conversations and chats and lets you save them as log files (you can do this with the other applications, but with the exception of Yahoo, have to cut and paste to a separate application).

At around the time of an appointed chat, buddies will show up online on each other's computers and as they appear, they ask each other where everyone is meeting. I myself will have gone to all our chat areas, so I'll be watching them all in different windows on my screen. At the time of the conference in Abu Dhabi, these were our Homestead text chat at, our HearMe voice chat site at, and our Virtual Schoolhouse at the Palace.

Homestead text chat

The most convenient chat available to us at the time was our text chat at Homestead, currently at The Homestead site is a straight-text Java applet which was created in minutes using the Homestead SiteBuilder. All that is necessary to set up a chat facility is to open a Homestead account, build a page using the SiteBuilder, and drag the icons onto the page where you wish them to appear. One advantage to our using Homestead is that it has not been blocked in China, whereas Tripod and Geocities are both restricted, so it is accessible to the widest range of students. In addition, it is simple to use. All that is required is that users enable Java and visit the URL; there is nothing to download or install. A disadvantage is that it doesn't buffer much chat or automatically log any chat at all, so to keep a chat log, someone has to copy frequently from the chat window and paste to another location. This is sometimes difficult to do if there are frequent interactions in the chat. Consequently, some of our Homestead chat has been lost. Furthermore, although Homestead still provides the chat 'element' on its SiteBuilder, use of Homestead is no longer free as of September 30, 2001.

The HearMe Voice Creator

Our HearMe site simply comprised a few lines of code provided us by email which, when pasted into a normal web page, displayed a listening console and gave participants the ability to speak to one another via the Voice Creator plug-in as well as to write interactively in text chat mode. We had no idea what the code meant; we knew only that when we put it in a page it worked on the web. The HearMe Voice Creator was a plug-in to a browser that allowed us to use it in simplex voice transmission by pressing the F9 key and speaking, as you would over a cb-radio. The code connected all users through HearMe's central server, and made it possible for them to hear each other using microphones and sound cards.

There was also a chat text option for those without sound cards or with comprehension difficulties, and it was this feature that made it particularly appropriate to second language learners (though most PC to PC phone clients have some form of text chat). I used to call the text chat window the "edgewise window" since it's where you typed to get a word in edgewise, in case you couldn't get the floor in the voice chat. Another great advantage of the text chat window was that it tended, at the end of a session, to contain the entire chat (other text chats seem to work in limited buffer areas, so that the first part of the chat can be lost if it's crowded out by the most recent chat recorded). Thus we were able to save whatever had been written in the text chat log after each HearMe session, and during periods of Internet instability, or when the voice chat was crowded with people, or when someone in the chat couldn't hear the others, the text chat window would often contain connected prose and make good reading.

Sadly, the Voice Creator ceased to function from December, 2000. But while we were able to use it, this facility gave us the opportunity to do what we had not been able to do before, hear each other's voices. It helped us to build our community by adding a vital human dimension to who we are, and to do this in a convenient, spontaneous, and easily implementable way. Hopefully, we will find a replacement which will let us continue this dimension of our interactions.

(We temporarily set up a replacement voice chat room at Excite, but this chat had fewer features than HearMe, and in May, 2001, voice chat rooms at Excite also ceased to function.)

The Palace avatar-based text chat

The other place that we often used at the time was the Palace, a compelling and versatile avatar-based chat environment. We have almost entirely avoided problems reported by others at the Palace by using the EFI's Virtual Schoolhouse provided by Coterie, (this site has also ceased to be supported, although there are other Palaces still running suitable for use as playgrounds for language learners). The Palace requires that a special browser be downloaded and installed (still available from or We like the Palace because it gives us many options for expressing ourselves and our personalities paralinguistically. Most people enjoy creating their own avatars, and I show students how to make one easily from their own 44 x 44 pixel photos (creating a 44 square pixel photo is the hard part). There are many objects you can wear or bring into the chat (Michael likes to leave parrots laying around), and you can whisper secretly behind people's backs. In the chat itself, people talk in cartoon bubbles, so it's not a busy chat. You can easily see who's talking at a given time. The chats are logged in a separate optional window, so students can recap what is being said, and we can cut and paste the logs, though the chat buffer has to be cleared every half hour or so or it will overflow (dumping the earlier parts of the chat). Of all our text-chat clients, we like the Palace best, though because of the browser download and installation, not all Webheads present at a given session are willing to take the trouble, so we often end up in one of the other places.


Most often we use our chat clients in combination. Each has its advantages and its own unique atmosphere, and one of them will turn out to be the most useful for us on a given day, depending on the participants in the chat and what they are able to reach, or we might use them in combination with one another. We have also played a little with Active Worlds and various PC to PC phone clients, but Active Worlds is resource hungry due to constant 3D modeling, and the phone clients never worked as well or as simply as HearMe.

A particularly engaging experience for example is to meet other Webheads in Active worlds while talking to them in the voice chat client. Since Active Worlds allows you to move around a 3D space, having voice communications available is handy because there is a lot of explanation of how you jump from one world to another, fly, land, select an avatar, and so on.

What we are learning about online communities

Two questions I am frequently asked when I give presentations are: How do you handle evaluation? and Where do you get your funding?

I know that the first question is directed at most people's concern for how students should be assessed for matriculation through a program, but I always turn the question as if it were student evaluation of the program. I like to say that our class size continues to grow and most of our students are still with us year after year, some very actively and others passively, but they must like what we are doing or they wouldn't continue to accept our email, and even the less active ones often feedback their satisfaction with what we are doing. So, I say, evidence shows that we teachers are being evaluated fairly well. (See the student testimonials at

This does however call into question traditional institutional values in education and their relevance to online education. Traditional education is geared to being time and space-bound. In most institutions, students have to compete for seats in physical classrooms and get through courses paced by terms and semesters. Whereas this is important for situations where resources are constrained by physical plant and internalized systems, the concept of online learning leaves the barn door wide open (and lets the fresh air in as it frees students to graze in the fields).

Webheads is only loosely a 'course'. It grants no certificates, though it might bestow knowledge enabling someone to go on to gain a certificate. Its participants are motivated only by interest, and they work completely at their pace and whim. The interesting thing however, is that the students stay with the course even if they only return to active participation from time to time, and that they occasionally express their appreciation for whatever it is they are gaining from the course. In other words, they act as if they are at home on the Web, and their home is in a part of our community. They spend a lot of time at home, but now and then they go out into the community for whatever reasons to take advantage of resources conveniently found there. Webheads is a part of their community. Like parts of your own community, it is not here now and gone at the end of the term. It's always there and can be visited when the mood strikes. And this is what we are seeing with Webheads as the experiment continues into its 3rd year.

The question is, what relevance does this have to traditional education? The direct connection is tenuous in cases where programs are judged on what they produce, according to parameters that can be measured conveniently. Where students are prepared to accept more affective measures, such as pleasure derived in the course of improving one's proficiency in a language, and to the extent teachers are prepared to lay them on, courses like Webheads can provide a viable option. Or, such courses could create motivating and communicative learning environments as adjuncts for more traditional courses.

Regarding the second FAQ, Webheads requires no funding. It has never taken any money from students and the teachers are all volunteers who participate because they enjoy developing their skills in Internet-based tools that they think are useful for language learning. The tools are themselves freely downloadable from the Internet and can be used without charge. In fact, the special environment for students created for Writing for Webheads has all been done with readily available Internet downloads plus the software you would expect to find on a standard PC; e.g. a word processor that will also create HTML documents. To these ingredients we add the empathy and creativity that would be normally found in a dedicated teacher of languages, and the result is a web-based community.

In conclusion

Webheads is at least a phenomenon in online language learning and at best becoming an institution. We have shown through example how a community can not only form on the Web but sustain itself there. We have also shown that funding is not necessarily required to form or maintain such a community. Furthermore we have expanded the Webheads concept to encompass not only language learners but the wider community of language learning and teaching clients and professionals. This paper documents stages in that process, of which the presentation concerning these proceeds was a part. We continue to meet online each Sunday noon GMT, and anyone is welcome to join us.

Vance Stevens,
Date of this revision: July 11, 2000
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