This was a trip of many 'firsts'. It was my first time in Seattle, my first time attending a TESOL conference, and my first time to meet the Webheads. Here is the story...
8 pm, Wednesday night, March 21. We are stuck at Pearson International waiting for our flight to Seattle. The flight is delayed by two hours; it looks like it's going to be a LOOONG night. We board the plane finally, and I spend a couple of hours reading George Simmens's article on Connectivism (long overdue read) and looking over the conference program to decide what sessions to attend. Everything looks interesting and worth attending. I decide to focus on technology and academic preparation workshops as those seem to be most aligned with what I do. There is a lot of interesting titles and my hopes are high. The plane finally lands and we get to our hotel. It's 3 am Toronto time.
7 am, Thursday morning, March 22. I throw my notes and my camera in my bag and run out to grab a quick breakfast on the 33rd floor - great view! Then, I sprint to the Convention Center and I experience a total confusion. The place is humongous; there is a multitude of escalators and literally millions of people going up and down, all equipped with bright aquamarine-coloured bags hanging over their arms. The whole place looks like a scene from The Island, the bags are a branding of some sort; everyone belongs. Of course, I get one too. Then, I realize that I need to go back to the hotel and leave my coat there (of course I overdressed; it was -10C in Toronto). It's 8:30 am already, so I run to my first session. There, in a tiny room packed with rows of chairs, all taken, it's a fight for a centimeter of the floor; people are sitting everywhere. Well, I start my three days of conferencing on the floor. I also realize that I have absolutely everything with me except one thing: a pen. There is only one solution; I need to make some friends - CONNECT! I do that and that sets the tone of my conference experience. It's going to be about connecting, I decide. Now I am glad I read that Siemens article.
On sessions and workshops. The 8:30 session proves to be interesting; the title, "Implementing iPods in the Language Classroom," made me decide to attend and I don't regret it. At 9:30 I go to my next workshop which proves to be a complete disaster, so I leave after 15 minutes and try another one. The next presenter talks about Calibrated Peer Review, a free online tool that he uses to help students develop critical thinking skills. Not bad. My only criticism, however, is that I can do the same thing without the technology. I already do peer-reviews and peer-feedback with my students in class; we don't need the technology to do what can be done without it. 10:00 am. I meet Bee (a lot of hugs) and we work on our presentation for Friday for the Electronic Village Online. Then, the 12:30 to 1:45 poster sessions prove to be fantastic! Each presenter has a huge poster board on which they present their projects. We stand around and listen and then ask questions. It's phenomenal - very interactive and participatory! I love it! It's also great because I quickly learn about many things in a short period of time: "Peace meal knowledge" delivered in short chunks of time. I find it interesting that this mode of presenting seems to be the most appealing and effective for me. I wonder why. At 2:00 I head to a session on "Building Collaboration Into Online Reading Classes" which proves to be a disaster mostly for the same reasons the morning session was disappointing. Two presenters talk about offering a reading course through WebCT in which the collaborative part consists of two classes socializing in the first part of the course, and that's it. Then, it's 3:00 and I pay 6 dollars (outrageous!) for a mish-mash of green leaves and a nondescript dressing sold by Starbucks. Equipped with some vitamins, I head to our hotel room to prep for our presentation. The workshop is on teachers' cognition and knowledge building done through sharing of ideas, beliefs, and experience. The presentation goes well but not without some problems. It's 6 pm by the time we are done. It's the end of the first day and I have a couple of revelations:
On workshops. I assumed that because TESOL is such a big conference and there is such a high scrutiny over who presents and what is presented, the quality of workshops would be outstanding. In fact, however, it is a 'hit-and-miss' situation. The titles and descriptions are often fantastic but the content of the presentations does not always live up to the fantastic titles!
On technology. I also quickly realize that presentations on technology fall into two categories, none of which is what I am looking for:
a) technology is often considered a means to deliver the old content via the new mode (e.g., let's do a reading course on WebCT)
b) technology is used to do new things without any underlying justification or reasoning for why we're using it (e.g., let's use the ipod for students to improve their listening skills).
On my and not only my learning. I also realize that the best way for me to learn is in chunks via different delivery modes, my favourite being a mode where a lot of interaction and exchange of ideas takes place (what does that tell me about how my students learn?). The more traditional 45 or 90 minute long presentations with a presenter armed with a PowerPoint, lecturing to a crowd of sheepishly looking individuals passively taking notes is not appealing at all. It reduces that whole professional development to the basic formula of: I came, I listened, I took a handout, and I left. The interactive poster sessions, on the other hand, prove to be much more social and constructive in nature. This final observation stays with me the whole three days of conferencing. I make a mental note in my head to observe myself more to see if learning in chunks and in more social and interactive situations would be most effective and productive. If it is, I am not surprised that the students are having a hard time learning in our traditional classroom settings.
On Webheads at Cutters Boathouse. Now it's 7:00 pm and I meet up with the Webheads. I met Bee, Carla, and Erika earlier this morning. Now I meet Veronica, Jane, Teresa, Nina and Benez. We walk over to the Pike Market Place and we chat. It's actually pretty incredible because, in one sense, I don't really know these people. This is the first time we talk in real life. In another sense, it seems I have known them for ages. We are walking by the Green Tortoise hostel and Nina casually mentions, "Oh, this is where Rita and Moira are staying." The way she says it is as if we've always taken walks on this street, in this town, and as if we have always talked about Rita and Moira. Meanwhile, I have never met Rita and only know her from two chat sessions, have a vague idea of who Moira is, and met Nina 5 seconds ago in real life. The whole experience is pretty incredible because it doesn't feel as if we don't know each other. The whole evening turns out to be a fantastic gathering around a humongous round table, great food, and fantastic story telling. Jane switches into a different language every 5 minutes; French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. Carla and Erika talk about Brazil. Nina tells us about loosing a wedding certificate on her wedding day (!). Bee describes a wine drinking and wine disintegrating episodes from New Zealand and I try to explain the rather complicated story of how Bee and I met. And Teresa decides to make a podcasts of all of these: PODCAST. Somebody passes by and takes a picture of all of us. Ladies night at the Cutters Boathouse turns out to be unforgettable!
7 am, Friday morning, March 23. I get up and decide to give up on the 9:30 session "Is CALL Important in TESOL Teacher Preparation?" The answer seems to be obvious and I am tired of listening to the obvious. I head instead to a colloquium on linguistics and teaching pedagogies. It's pretty interesting but I can't stay for the whole thing because the presentation I'm doing with Bee, "Open Webpublishing Environments,"
starts at 10:00. I head to the Electronic Village Online and we prepare for our sessions. It's my preferred format; participants can talk and ask questions - it's really interactive. We do two rounds and get a lot of questions. Bee shows them excellent examples and I talk about the philosophy of doing it. The response is fantastic; people ask a lot of great questions. One woman says that coming to the EVO center was the best thing she's done at the conference. She leaves with an intention of joining the workshops next year. Glad to hear that. We finish and I meet a couple of other Webheads. There is Dafne (Berta's friend), Leanne, Paula, Moira, and Anna. I see a couple of other people I want to talk to but, unfortunately, there is no time. Need to email them. At 12:30 I do another round of the poster sessions but they are not as interesting as the day before. It's 2:00 o'clock and I am heading somewhere with a vague idea of a plan for the afternoon. Then I bump into Bee who is heading to the plenary session for the award ceremony; we go together.
On language and creativity. The plenary session starts with Bee, Teresa, and another person receiving their awards. Dafne and I watch the ceremony and chat. She leaves shortly after and I stay to listen to Ron Carter and his talk on language and creativity. I listen with fascination; this is exactly what I have been waiting for since the beginning of this conference. Carter is a story teller; his stories are fantastic. He talks about being creative, using language to create new forms, empowering and encouraging students to not only learn the language but also to use it. He tells a story of one of his students who after checking out the website that Carter had created sent and email, "I came, I saw, and I logged off." He also tells a story of the MSN language his students use while chatting. Finally, he talks about using literature in the classroom. I am fascinated; the argument about creativity in language use that he puts forward is only the surface meaning of his talk; he really talks about freedom. Freedom to play with language; freedom to create new forms, freedom to remove the linguistic constraints and eradication of learned formulas. It's really about interaction with the language and participation in language creation. This is, I believe, what we should be aiming for when helping to develop our students' linguistic abilities. Not learned formulas, not learned transition words with no content in between, no quantitative measurements of the number of utterances per minute. A couple of people I know who are still stuck in the quantitative era of research on language learning and who continue to statistically measure their students' progress would have been appalled. I am relived.
Now it's 2:00 and I hit another mediocre session on collaborative projects. Then at 4:00 I head to "ESL College Students' Difficulties With Research Writing" which proves to be one of the most interesting sessions at the conference. It's insightful, well-presented, and very interactive. Love it! AT 5:00 I head to listen to a session on Mongolian teacher training program done by my colleagues. It's quite interesting and I am glad I came. We take a lot of pictures and then head for dinner. Dinner is almost a disaster as it turns out that the restaurant, Ray's Boathouse, where we have reservations is a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown. We get stuck in traffic but finally make it to the other side of the town; it's more like another town altogether. The place is nice, though, and we enjoy a great view of the bay, good food and wine. I chat with the waiter and can't help noticing that the people on the West Coast are more relaxed and easy going than the East Coasters; this proves to be true again when we meet our taxi driver, probably the most interesting cab driver I've met in my life - a fantastic chit-chatter; it's a memorable ride back to the city.
On Webheads at the Elephant's Pub. It's 10:30 when we finally get back to town. I head to the Elephant's Pub where all the Webheads have relocated. I get there and join in amidst peals of joy and laughter. I look at Carla who is sitting across the table taking a lot of pictures of Rita who is laughing so hard that she almost falls off her chair. Thankfully, there is Teresa who is trying to calm her down and find out what made her laugh so hard. Once she does that though, she starts to laugh herself so hard that I almost have to help her stay seated on her chair! Carla keeps taking pictures. There is also Chris and Vance whom I meet for the first time. I say hello to Moira with the most fashionable glasses and a very bright red lipstick (which soon proves to be quite an important asset at this table!). The atmosphere is fantastic, people chat and laugh, there is a lot of information exchange happening. I try to put together bits and pieces together; Chris has just come back from Germany, Moira is from France but she speaks with a British accent. There are some other people I haven't met. I see Bee, Nina, and Leanne. A lot of smiles. Finally, Rita and Teresa stop laughing (only for a minute) and pass on the message. It finally reaches Moira! And the rest is in in the pictures :)
I think it is really hard to describe what it was like that night at the Elephant's. From the more tangible objects, a glass of beer, a red lipstick, a broom, and a chair were the important elements that made all of us laugh so much. From the less tangible things, the warmth of each person, the friendliness, and the easiness with which all of the people were able to add to this fantastic night stood out. Fantastic meeting these people!
7am, Saturday morning, March 24. The last day at the conference. The convention centre is much deserted with only a few of the aquamarine-coloured bags hanging around. I try a session on academic listening strategies but am more than disappointed. Finally, and unexpectedly, I end up going to a session on pronunciation, "Teaching Emotional Speech," which is really good. At 11:30, I wrap-up my conferencing experience with the plenary special session that includes D.H. Brown, Betty Azar, the former TESOL president, and Ron Carter. Now, whenever my students bring Azar Grammar to class I always tell them I saw Betty Azar in Seattle. They are mesmerized. Too bad I never use her book. Oh, well...
On Seattle. The walk around the town later this day is nice. It rains a lot and a fishmonger with a Mohawk haircut tries to throw a fish at us (Seattle fish market tradition). We escape. The streets are steep and the first Starbucks is packed with many a tourist taking pictures (can a coffee counter be more famous?). Another coffee place proves to have the best cappuccino I have drunk in months! At 5:00 we head to the airport amidst pouring, pouring, pouring rain. A lot of rain. Then at the airport, it turns out Jane and I are on the same flight to Vancouver! We chat while going from one plane to another. It's good to see her at the end of the trip. We part. The plane takes after 11 pm; the flight lasts 4 hours, we get to Pearson at 6:05 am and the conference is just another memory.
I have been reflecting both on the first part of the EVO2007 Open Webpublishing Session that I co-moderated with Barbara Dieu and on the Connectivism Online Conference that took place from February 2 - February 9.
As I was listening to Will Richardson speaking at the conference, I noted down his thoughts. He pointed out that teachers are networked learners, flexible and nomadic learners, reflective, social, and passionate learners. As I was listening to his discussion, I was thinking about EVO2007 Open Webpublishing Session and drawing parallels there.
When I found out about the EVO sessions the first time, I did a bit of research to see what all the fuss was about. From the EVO website, I traveled to previous EVO sessions offered in years before. My overall impressions about the initiative can be summarized in a couple of words: I thought it was a good example of a comprehensive, innovative, and in-depth discussion of the newest technologies and their application in language learning. As I was looking at the pictures of the experts and the sea of text below, I also thought it was a pretty static, overwhelmingly textual (very linear, it seemed), and, I thought, probably a 'top-down' approach to learning.
Now, at the end of Week 4 of the EVO2007 workshops, I would definitely scratch the 'static, overwhelmingly linear, and top-down' descriptors and add new ones that emerged for me while the session was in progress. Now, in retrospect, I would describe it as participative, cooperative, dynamic; a very social network of passionate learners engaging in flexible learning and co-construction of knowledge. The deeply social and participatory aspects of the EVO workshops were not that clearly apparent to me until I immersed myself in one of them. Learning by experience!
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the Open Webpublishing Session was the gradual emergence and the subsequent evolution of the social dynamics of this network of learners. The beginning of the session reminded me of the careful appraisals one experiences during the first half hour of a party when strangers and semi-strangers lurk and try to get the feel for each other. That's how it all began at the Open Webpublishing YG with individual introductions and short and curt exchange of pleasantries.
Then, with the discussion moving to participants' blogs, longer and more interesting discussions ensued. The problems, challenges, questions, and solutions arose; initially, those were addressed to and answered by the moderators. However, as the workshop progressed and the networked ties strengthened themselves, the participants began to engage in the process of collective knowledge building. Thus, there was a more dynamic discussion; everyone shared ideas, tips, solutions, and frustrations. It was clear that the network was becoming so much more dynamic; a larger discussion with smaller, more active networks becoming stronger. Some participants joining only sporadically; others leaving the environment altogether. But it was clear that the dialogue was becoming more dynamic; there was a greater number of daily posts and comments; they had the characteristics of a real life community; some were supportive, congratulatory, critical, analytical, others questioning and doubting. One thing for sure: the discussions were dynamic, the voices were too.
What was most fascinating for me, however, was that the voices of the moderators began to fade away as participants' voices grew stronger. The learners then began to eclipse the mentors. This evolution into a dynamic, egalitarian, and democratic forum from one of careful detachment characteristic of the first couple of days was quite fascinating. It was reassuring and fascinating to watch. It was networked learning at its best. It was what Will Richardson described in his theoretical discussion; the difference here was that it was clearly observable in practice.
The Open Webpublishing Session grew to become a community of people who never had a chance to meet each other in person, but who, given the possibilities offered by digital technology, were able to co-construct and co-create knowledge together in a community of learners. Those were George Siemens's ideas; ideas that he expressed in his talk on Connectivism: Learning Conceptualized Through the Lens of Today's World. In this talk, Siemens discussed the concepts of co-constructing and co-creating knowledge as well as the value of what emerges when one creates knowledge in a networked environment. What did we co-construct, co-create? What emerged from the Open Webpublishing Session?
We started by looking at the tools: wordpress, bloglines, flickr, 43places/people/things, flock, and suprglue. We constructed our personal learning spaces with text, images, and hyperlinks. Then, we engaged in dialogues. Through the discussions of these tools and by sharing our perceptions of the methodological possibilities and limitations these tools bring, we co-constructed our pedagogical knowledge. The phenomenal value of the co-construction of this knowledge base lies in the fact that it was an egalitarian process, a process unlike the processes that are so characteristic of most standard TESL teaching programs. In such programs, the designated experts comment on the applicability of various tools and the passively listening flock of learners absorbs the knowledge (I even vaguely remember the instructor, there were so many people that I continued to get stuck at the back of the room).
The EVO2007 knowledge co-construction was phenomenal because it does not yet exist in any methodological textbook as it is a rather uncommon thing for 15-something people to co-author a methodological text together. It was phenomenal because it was a discussion about tools that are not even discussed in any text on SLA (see my post: "CALL: from "drill-to-kill" exercises to Mobile Assisted Language Learning"), let alone a methodological textbook. It was also phenomenal not only because it was social and spontaneous but also because it was democratic. We agreed, we disagreed, we compromised; we looked at these tools and assigned them similar/different/conflicting values, a great deal of value or no value at all. Most of all, we continued to critically and democratically discuss their pedagogical applications; we didn't preach, we didn't impose. We negotiated the value of these tools, and by doing that, we really negotiated our knowledge base.
So, what really emerged from these past three weeks of the Open Webpublishing Session knowledge co-construction and co-creation? A valuable lesson for me:
Most of all, by looking at the patterns and the dynamics that have emerged during the Open Webpublishing Session, we can see that the world of learning is becoming very different.