[Electronically reprinted with permission from The Computing Teacher
journal, published by the International Society for Technology in Education.
This article appeared in 1989, volume 16.]
Observations on educational electronic networks:
University of Illinois
The importance of appropriate activities for learning
San Diego County Office of Education
University of Illinois
Champaign School District
The uses of long-distance computer networks are becoming increasingly attractive
for educators, as the price of modems and communication decreases, and as
communication software slowly becomes easier to use. Once we have purchased
modems and interface cards and mastered complex communication programs,
several questions remain to be answered: what are appropriate network-based
activities? How can networks be most effectively used for education?
Since this is a new frontier for education, these questions are by and large
unanswered. However, in this paper we will describe several network-based
activities, and by contrasting successful with less successful ones, try
to sketch out some general guidelines of how to explore this new educational
An obvious but not-very-successful use of electronic networks.
Once a teacher thinks of electronic networks as a means of communication
rather than just a way to access information, one activity that occurs to
many new users is some form of "electronic pen pals". Teachers
have their students write pen pal letters on their word processor, send
these out on a network, and then hope that teachers and students elsewhere
(hopefully somewhere exotic) will respond. Here are two of many such messages
from new users on the FrEdMail network, an electronic bulletin board network
distributed across more than 70 schools across the United States (Rogers,
Sent: Mar 29, 1988, 11:48 AM
Subj: looking for correspondence
IM A SIXTH GRADE TEACHER AT [school name] LOOKING FOR AN INTERESTED PARTY
TO EXCHANGE CORRESPONDENCE WITH MY CLASS. PLEASE RESPOND ASAP.
Sent: Mar 29, 1988, 3:38 PM
Subj: pen pals
Hello! My name is [teacher's name], and I am a Jr. High School Science
teacher at [school name] in [city name]. Our home room is looking for a
class that would like to be pen pals with us. Any grade level is welcome.
If you are interested, please contact me as soon as possible. We look
forward to hearing from you!
These are fairly common initial messages from teachers who have just joined
a long-distance communication network. In fact, we ourselves went through
this process - in one of our first explorations of long-distance networks,
we started with exactly this same kind of activity (Levin & Kareev,
1980; Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1986). Electronic Pen Pals seems
like a productive way to start out a network interaction: students are motivated,
they can write for a distant audience, they may learn about different cultures
through their interaction with their electronic pen pals. However, there
are a number of non-obvious problems with this activity, especially when
used as a whole-class introduction to the use of electronic networks. Here
is a message that was sent in response to the two messages asking for electronic
Sent: Mar 31, 1988, 12:32 PM
Subj: Why pen pals is a bad idea.
I've been noticing several calls for "electronic pen pals".
While this seems like an attractive use of the network,
especially as an initial project, I would like to warn folks
against this activity, and instead urge several alternatives
as kinds of network activities to become involved in. Here
is the sequence we've seen too many times in the course of
our work with instructional networks.
1. Your students work hard to write pen pal letters on a
word processor. There is a lot of excitement and
motivation, and this seems like a productive activity.
Finally, you send off the pen pal letters to another site.
The next day your students ask if responses have come back
yet (they know they have been sent electronically, and so
therefore their pen pal messages got there "instantly", or
at least overnight). There are no responses. The next day
they ask again, and the next, and the next ...
2. Finally, weeks later, responses come back, but only for
SOME of your students. Those who got responses are excited,
but the others are disappointed. You try to get them to
respond, but its difficult to motivate those who didn't get
responses to write again. You try to get rapid turn-around,
but school assemblies are scheduled, Johnny misses his turn
at the computer because he's sick, Mary misses hers because
of a field trip, etc. Finally, weeks later you send out
responses, but only from SOME of your students (MOST of your
students that got responses). NOW you understand why only
SOME of your students got responses. Also NOW you
understand why YOUR students didn't get instant responses.
It takes weeks to organize a set of responses, and all
during the time you've been working hard to get your
students organized and scheduled on the computer to write
their responses, the students at the OTHER school have been
asking their teacher every day why your students haven't
3. Since only a smaller and smaller fraction of the students
at each school get responses, this activity rapidly dies
away, leaving everyone feeling vaguely frustrated and
What to do instead of penpals?
As an alternative initial activity to "computer pals", let
me recommend that you join one of the "project" oriented
activities currently ongoing on the network. Read through
the $IDEAS postings for the past month or so and select the
one that is most interesting. Its much easier to start out
by joining in with an ongoing activity, and then once you've
gotten a feel for how these networks work, suggesting new
ideas for activities. When a new message relevant to the
project you're participating in arrives, all students will
be interested in it, and many will read it several times in
the process of carrying out the project. When a "computer
pal" message arrives addressed to one student, other
students are much less interested in reading it, and none of
the students are very interested in reading it in much
If joining into an ongoing project seems too ambitious, or
if none of the ongoing projects seems appropriate for you
and your students, a better initial activity than computer
pals is to create and post a "class directory", in which
each student in your class writes a short description of
him/herself and what s/he is interested in. You can post
this directory on $KIDWIRE and then any students elsewhere
who read it and who have matching interests can establish
contact with your students. If a cluster of common
interests appear in the directory, then someone (you, one of
your students, or someone elsewhere on the network) can use
that as a basis for organizing a new network activity
centered on that interest.
($IDEAS is a bulletin board for teachers to exchange ideas about network
projects, and $KIDWIRE is a bulletin board for students to exchange messages
on the FrEdMail network.)
This discussion is not to say that electronic networks should never be used
for Electronic Pen Pal exchanges, but our experience strongly suggests that
Electronic Pen Pals is not the best way to start out interacting on a network.
Let us contrast the less appropriate Electronic Pen Pals activity with a
more successful one, The Noon Observation Project. This project involved
students in a number of locations in measuring the length of a shadow at
noontime on a specified day, in order to determine the circumference of
the Earth. Here is the first message that proposed and described this project.
Sent: Mar 26, 1988, 6:49 PM
Subj: AROGERS:Math Collaborators Needed
Attached is the description of an interesting project for gifted junior
high or high school trigonometry classes.
This project has students making simple measurements of the sun's shadow,
sharing their data, and then calculating the circumference of the earth.
This is a replication of the Eratosthenes of Cyrene experiment of over
2000 years ago in Ancient Greece. A real, practical experiment which
will provide lots of practice using trigonometry.
Project name: ERATOSTHENES OF CYRENE EXPERIMENT
Purpose: Use simple measurements and trigonometric calculations to
determine the north-south circumference of the earth
Content Area: Math, trigonometry
Grade Level: Gifted 8th, 9th, or higher math Trigonometry classes
Background: Background information below describes how over 2000
years ago Eratosthenes made a remarkably accurate measurement of the
earth's north-south circumference. This project requires collaboration
of students in the northern and southern latitudes of the US to make
some simple measurements, share data, problem-solve the algorithms
required, and then replicate and share their results.
1. At least two sites must collaborate whose latitudes are different
enough to give a significant difference in measurement.
2. When at least two sites have signed up, a date will be set to
3. On the given date (or within a day or 2 on either side, depending
on weather conditions) students will conduct their measurements outdoors
at high noon, local time. Local time must be used, as with standard
time the sun varies in altitude depending on location within your time
zone. You can use this observation to discuss the whole concept of time
zones, looking at their locations on the map, etc.
4. Using a standard meter stick, at precisely high noon local time,
each team of students (probably 2/team) will:
a. hold the meter stick perfectly vertical
b. use another meter stick to measure the length of the shadow
cast by the vertical meter stick to the nearest cm.
c. Several measurements should be made by several different students
or teams of students... the more the better.
d. The longest length and the shortest length should be discarded.
All others should be averaged.
5. This averaged shadow length, along with the standard time at which
local high noon was observed, will be modemed to the other sites
involved in the project.
6. This data, along with the precise latitude and longitude measurements
for each site, should be enough information to use trigonometry to
make a fairly accurate calculation of the earth's circumference.
Additional Details: Additional details need to be worked out. I will work
with you in developing the remaining details.
1. I am not a mathematician myself, and thus don't have the actual
algorithms required. However, it strikes me that this could be the
basis for some really good problem solving for your class. Using your
own "secret" algorithm, this could be a "contest" to see who, using
this data, gets the closest results.
2. Or, this could lend itself to some interesting discussions
between the students at the cooperating schools to come up with
a joint algorithm.
3. Preparation could include the drawing of pictures to illustrate
the original Eratosthenes solution. Also of value would be pictures
illustrating this experiment. You could mail these drawings to me.
I will write up the results derived by participating schools and
include samples of the best of these drawings, print them, and publish
them for every participant in the project.
4. Plotting of each site on maps using latitude & longitude to nearest
second will enable each site to calculate exact north/south distance,
east-west distance, and then exact straight line distance between sites.
North-south distance is essential to know to solve this problem.
How to participate: Send a message to Al Rogers at SDCOE!AROGERS stating
your intent to participate. I will set up a private conference which will
give us easy access to one another as we develop this project.
Deadline to Respond: April 22 (giving everybody plenty of time to
have spring vacations, etc.)
Observations: Week of May 2
Final Results Shared: Week of May 9
The following background information was downloaded from Grolier's
Academic American Encyclopedia featured on Compuserve.
Eratosthenes of Cyrene
(air-uh-tahs'-thuh-neez, sy-ree'-nee) The Greek geographer Eratosthenes,
c.276-195 BC, is best known for his accurate calculation of the Earth's
[several more pages of encyclopedic information were included here in this
Following this message were several messages from adults at different sites
around the United States agreeing to participate in the project, which became
known as the Noon Observation Project. Here is one such follow-up message:
Sent: March 27, 1988, 11:02 PM
Subj: Al's Noon Observation Project
We're excited by Al Roger's proposed Noon Observation Project. I just
checked my world atlas, and the north-south distance between Alexandria
and Aswan is about the same as the n-s distance between San Diego and
Champaign. So we should be able to do at least as well! We're interested
in giving this project a try. I'll start working on an AppleWorks
spreadsheet template, both for storing the data and for computing
circumference from two sets of shadow measurements. Also, I'll send
tomorrow a simple method to calculate local noon, given your longitude.
After several weeks, enough such messages were sent that the project could
proceed. Then there were a set of messages organizing the effort. Here is
an example organizational message:
Sent: April 17, 1988, 2:29 PM
Subj: Noon project...
... getting a nice array of participants... SF Bay area, Montana,
Orange County, and perhaps a couple of sites in San Diego.... Will put
all the pieces together this week.
Finally, the first week of May arrived, and shortly thereafter, messages
reporting the data were sent. Here is one from Montana:
Sent: May 2, 1988, 9:02 PM
Subj: NOON PROJECT
From: [teacher's name]
OUR MEASUREMENT FOR MONDAY WAS 29.6 DEGREES. AM EAGER TO HAVE OTHER MEASUREMENTS.
And here is one from Helix High School in California:
Sent: May 12, 1988, 1:14 PM
Subj: HELIX DATA
From: [teacher's name]
HI! MY NAME IS [student's name]. I'M A JUNIOR AT HELIX HIGH SCHOOL.I'M
IN [teacher's name]'S ALGEBRA II CLASS. MY FRIEND [another student's name]
AND I DID THE MEASUREMENTS ON MAY 5, 1988. OUR RESULTS WERE ANGLE 15.3
DEGREES. THE LONGITUDE IS 117.09 DEGRESS WEST. THE LATITUDE WAS 32.43
DEGREES NORTH. WE ARE LOCATED IN LAMESA, JUST OUTSIDE OF SAN DIEGO. THE
LATITUDE AND LONGITUDE WERE FOUND FROM AN ATLAS USING SAN D AS OUR REFERENCE.
Then a week later came the report of the Illinois data:
Sent: May 17, 1988, 8:56 AM
Subj: Noon Data
From: [teacher's name]
The eighth grade Pre-algebra class of Columbia Middle School in Champaign,
Illinois has arrived at the angle needed for the "Noon Project". The angle
is 23.04 degrees. We measured on May 5, 1988. We will be glad to hear of
eight-grade Pre-algebra class
of Columbia at Champaign, Illinois
There were then a set of messages discussing the analysis of the data. Although
data came in from four sites, various problems arose that in the end only
allowed the project to use the data from Champaign, Illinois and La Mesa,
California, reported in the messages above. The estimated circumference
of the Earth derived from the measurements in these two sites was within
1% of the current best measures. This is a surprisingly good estimate.
The data reported from Montana was collected on a different day from the
other data, and so couldn't be used directly. Finally, the data collected
from a second California site deviated quite substantially from expected,
and would have predicted a negative circumference when combined with the
La Mesa data. An exchange of messages revealed that this site collected
their data an hour before local noon, having failed to take into account
Daylight savings time, which had gone into effect shortly before the week
of the data collection.
Finally, the students in Champaign sent out a summary of the project:
Sent: Jun 16, 1988, 11:10 PM
Subj: Report from Columbia 8th Grade
Here is a report from the 8th Graders at Columbia Middle School, Champaign,
Illinois on the Noon Observation Project proposed by Al Rogers that they
participated in during the first week of May.
Final report on the Noon Project from Columbia Middle School
The 8th Grade Pre-Algebra Class at Columbia Middle
School; Champaign, IL would like to take this opportunity to
thank all the other schools who participated in the Noon
Project. We enjoyed the experiment very much, especially
since our readings with Mt. Helix were so accurate! That
was the best part.
Let us tell you a little about how we arrived at our
reading. Well on Tuesday, May 3rd we broke the class up
into 10 groups of 3 each and with meter sticks taped to book
ends we went out to the black top playground. We all split
up and using computer paper taped to the ground we tried to
measure the shadow our meter sticks cast. We measured every
minute for 10 minutes. It was very windy so one person held
the book end, one steadied the meter stick & the third
measured. We had a rough idea of what pattern the shadows
should have - a lot of them didn't fit the pattern.
On Wednesday our teacher showed us all the data and we
decided we hadn't been very accurate. There was more than a
10 centimeter difference between the longest & shortest
shadows in some minutes, and no two groups agreed on what
minute (actual noon) had the shortest shadow; also there was
some question as to whether we had missed absolute noon. So
we decided to try again with a bit more organization and
On Thursday May 5th, armed with our meter sticks taped to
book ends, we went out again. This time we had 11 groups,
and we lined ourselves up on the painted end line of the
basketball court (in an area we thought looked most level).
We took 12 - 60 second interval readings. The wind was not
as bad, and we were much better at keeping the stick still
and marking an accurate shadow (where the dark edge
When the data was displayed on the over-head on Friday we
were delighted. There was only a 3 centimeter difference
between the longest & shortest shadows over the entire 12
minutes, and 9 of the eleven groups reached their shortest
shadow in minutes 6, 7 or 8.
We decided then to use only those 9 readings. We then
threw out the longest & shortest of those and took the
average of the remaining 7. This is how we got the length
for the shadow we used to compute our angle.
Our teacher then told us about how to find an angle in a
right triangle using the tangent ratio and we came up with
After we sent it off we couldn't wait to get the results.
When we found out how accurate we were with the California
reading, we were proud of our effort.
Aside from getting two class periods on the playground, we
also learned a lot from the experiment.
It was interesting to learn about what Eratosthenes
figured out so long ago, and to do it ourselves in 1988. We
also learned about the solstice, the Tropics of Cancer &
Capricorn, the way the sun shines at an angle, the pattern
the shadows made, and how careful you have to be to be
accurate. We also felt the concept of circumference became
clearer and we could almost visualize the curve of the Earth
between here and California.
So again, thank you to all the other sites, and we hope
you enjoyed this Noon Project as much as we did.
The Pre-Alg Class
at Columbia Middle School
As indicated by this message, students learned a variety of things from
this project, many of which bridge the content areas in the conventional
curriculum. They learned mathematics in a meaningful context, got a better
feel for geography, learned first hand the importance of careful measurement,
they participated directly in dealing with the issues of data analysis and
reduction, and learned some of the values of working jointly with others.
The role of the network in providing support. In order to learn about
the role that the network played in this project, let us consider whether
such a project could have been done without an electronic network. In terms
of conducting a project which provides a practical context for mathematics
skills, the class could have gone out and used their meter stick shadows
and the shadow of the school's flagpole to determine the height of the flagpole,
as mathematics teachers have done for generations. However, the network
seemed to provide a highly motivating context for learning, both for the
students and for the teachers involved. More specifically, it provided support
in the following ways: 1) as a source of ideas, 2) as a supplier of tools,
3) as a source of diverse data, and 4) as a diverse audience.
First of all, the network serves as a source of ideas, suggested by students,
teachers, or other adults elsewhere. Ideas for projects appear on a bulletin
board, and those of interest can be picked up easily. Unlike source books
of teaching ideas, the network provides an interactive environment, within
which ideas can evolve through interaction.
Secondly, the network provides a means for distributing various diverse
tools for carrying out the project. This includes not only the instructions
and background information (such as those contained in Al Roger's March
1988 message above), but also computer-based tools (such as the spreadsheet
mentioned in Jim Levin's March 1988 message above).
Thirdly, the network provides access to a diverse range of data, beyond
that available at any one location. In this project, the diversity was the
different shadow lengths measured at each site. Phenomena that are common
to different sites, but that differ in some specific way are good candidates
for successful network-based activities. On one hand, phenomena that are
identical between sites provide little motivation for network communication
: a project in which each site measured how fast a ball rolled down a ramp
would provide little motivation since each site would report essentially
the same data. On the other extreme, network projects are impossible if
based on a phenomena that has no correspondence in some of the sites (a
project between Illinois and southern California schools that involved measuring
the depth of the snow on the ground outside the school wouldn't work very
well if the schools in California never had snow piled up to measure).
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the network provides a wider and
more diverse audience for the learning activity. Student data collection,
analyses and project write-ups are aimed not just for the teacher (the usual
audience) but also for a wider range of students, teachers, and other adults
across the country or even around the world. Students' writing has been
shown to improve when aimed at a wider audience provided by a network (Cohen
& Riel, 1989). Our observation is that the same holds for students engaged
in other sorts of network activities as well.
In general, the network allows us to use the diversity present in the world
in powerful ways for education. Appropriate network projects are those that
are located between the two extremes of too little diversity and too much
diversity, activities that are based on some common ground, but that use
diversity between sites as a point of focus.
The role of the class in providing support. Now that we've talked
about the various ways that the network can provide support for learning,
let us now consider some of the ways that the class structure can provide
support for network-based activities. Just as we have classroom activities
that don't involve any electronic network, so we can have network activities
outside the frame of a classroom. Students could participate after school,
or during their free time even while at school. However, one of the things
we have learned from this Noon Observation Project is some important ways
in which the classroom can provide additional support to network activities.
Let us contrast the Noon Observation Project with an earlier network-based
observational project we conducted, called the Moon Observation Project
(Waugh & Levin, 1988). In this project, students went home on the night
of a first quarter moon, and measured the angle that the points of the crescent
moon made to the horizon. This angle varies from place to place as a function
of latitude, just like the length of the noon shadow.
When we conducted this project, some students failed to bring in an observation,
others were not very careful about drawing the angle, and probably some
students were not careful about making the observation at the specified
time. The data reflected this by showing a large amount of variability,
large enough to wash out small differences between sites that didn't have
a very large deviation in latitudes.
One change we plan for this Moon Observation Project is to switch to observing
the last quarter moon instead (which appears in the early morning
sky rather than the early evening sky), so that the observation can occur
during school time as part of a class activity. It will be harder for students
to forget to make the observation, they will have peer models and teacher
help in making the observations, and the class as a whole will have a shared
context to make the analysis of the data more meaningful. It will also make
it easier for the teacher to integrate the whole process into the ongoing
curriculum. These are all ways in which the class can provide support for
a network-based project.
Improved observations on educational electronic networks
While we consider the Noon Observation Project a successful network-based
project, we still feel there are aspects that need to be modified. In this
section, we will describe what we would like to change to improve this project.
We will try to describe these changes in ways that point to general properties
of networks projects, as well as this particular one.
One of the strengths of this project were illustrated by the summary message
sent by the Columbia Middle School classroom, listed above. We would like
to increase this sort of student involvement in the post-data collection
aspect of the project. Part of the problem for this project was the lateness
in the school year that the data was collected. But we also think more emphasis
and planning should go into the post-observational phase. Students should
be encouraged to look in detail at the overall data, try to identify patterns,
and interact with the other sites to clarify any problems or issues that
Students should be encouraged to work jointly with other students to develop
presentations of the project, which could be a project for a school's science
fair, or even a project for a TeleScience Fair (Levin, Waugh, &
Kolopanis, 1988). This is a science fair activity conducted on an electronic
network, with project descriptions submitted electronically, posted and
judged by distributed judges, and then "visited" by students,
teachers, and other adults electronically.
Another post-observational activity would be to write up the project reports
for publication in a network-based newspaper or journal. In the area of
science, we have explored the notion of TeleScience Chronicles (Levin,
Waugh, & Kolopanis, 1988), an electronic journal with sections for student
reports of network projects, as well as sections for review articles, discussion
forums, book reviews, etc.
The main point of these suggestions is that networks can allow us to engage
students in the full range of activities of adult scientists, including
conference presentations, paper submission, review and publication, scientific
debate, etc., not just as data collectors for some distant expert.
Finally, we would suggest opening up these activities, so that as students
acquire the expertise, they can transcend the "known answer" aspect
of the project and tackle extensions that would challenge even adult experts.
Even with the Noon Observation Project, one such extension was suggested
in a message that pointed out that an alternative to the round earth with
distant sun hypothesis that Eratosthenes formulated is the hypothesis of
a flat earth with a fairly nearby sun. The differing shadow length data
fits both hypotheses. The challenge to the students and also to the adults
involved is to find other directly measurable evidence that the earth is
round. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to gather such first hand
These observations on educational electronic networks can guide the exploration
of the educational use of these networks. It is already clear that electronic
networks are very good for conducting certain kinds of educational activities
that would be very difficult in a conventional classroom. It is also clear
that they are not suitable for all possible activities. Discovering appropriate
network-based activities is the most important challenge to those exploring
education on the electronic frontier.
Cohen, M., & Riel, M. (1989). The effect of distant audiences on students'
writing. American Educational Research Journal, 26(2), 143-159.
Levin, J., Riel, M., Rowe, R., & Boruta, M. (1986). Muktuk meets jacuzzi:
Computer networks and elementary school writers. In S. W. Freedman (Ed.),
The acquisition of written language: Revision and response. Hillsdale,
Levin, J., & Kareev, Y. (1980). Personal computers and education:
The challenge to schools. La Jolla, CA: Center for Human Information
Levin, J. A., Waugh, M. & Kolopanis, G. (1988). Science instruction
on global electronic networks. Spectrum: The Journal of the Illinois
Science Teachers Association, 13 , 19-23.
Rogers, A. (1988). Executive summary of work in progress: FrEdMail Project.
Report submitted to the California Educational Technology Committee and
the State Board of Education, July 1988.
Waugh, M., & Levin, J. A. (1989). TeleScience activities: Educational
uses of electronic networks. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and
Science Teaching, 8 , 29-33.
Waugh, M., Miyake, N., Levin, J., & Cohen, M. (1988). Problem solving
interactions on electronic networks. Paper presented at the American Educational
Research Association Meetings, New Orleans.
We want to thank everyone who helped make the networking activities described
in this paper possible. The communication was supported by the State of
California, the University of Illinois, San Diego State University, and
by over seventy elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States,
each with one or more truly dedicated teachers pioneering this new instructional
frontier. We especially want to thank those teachers and students who participated
in this project: Chris Martin and D. Starshi from Helena, Montana; Danny
Blodgett from Montana City, Montana; Leigh Zeitz from Bell Gardens, California;
Marsha Korobkin and the students of Helix High School, La Mesa, California;
George Kolopanis and the students from Columbia Middle School, Champaign,
Illinois; Naomi Miyake from Aoyama Gakuin Woman's College, Tokyo, Japan;
Dick Riedl, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and David McMullen, Peoria,
Click here to see other guidelines
for effective educational network use.