Organizing educational network interactions:
Steps towards a theory of network-based learning environments

James A. Levin
University of Illinois

Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco CA, April 1995.


Educational uses of electronic networks have been expanding rapidly. However, most of these efforts have not been guided by any systematic underlying conceptual framework, and thus have had difficulty systematically organizing effective network-based learning environments. This paper takes several sets of recommendations for effective uses of educational networks, synthesizes them into several different frameworks as steps toward a broader theory of network-based learning. This synthesis is evaluated in light of a particular approach to professional development that we have been studying over a number of years.

Guidelines to Educational Network Interactions

Teachers and students are using electronic networks in increasing numbers, in many cases conducting exciting new network-based activities. Yet an overall conceptual framework is largely lacking to guide such uses. Such an overall framework would be useful in helping network participants understand how a particular activity fits into the larger scheme of things, and would also help them generate newer, more powerful learning activities. It could also guide research and evaluation of this new educational medium, easing somewhat the difficulties of research and evaluation caused by the continuing rapid rate of development in this area - it could provide guidance for hitting this moving target.

Several different groups have provided guidelines and taxonomies for educational uses of networks. In this paper I will examine some of these in detail and, by comparing and contrasting them, attempt to develop a general framework for educational network activity. The papers I will focus on for this analysis are ones by Levin, Rogers, Waugh & Smith (1989), Rogers, Andres, Jacks, & Clauset (1990), Riel (1993), Rogers (1994), Spitzer, Wedding, & DiMauro (1994), Waugh, Levin, & Smith (1994), Harris (1995), and the Center for Children and Technology (1995). These are all available (with permission of the authors and publishers) on the World-Wide Web at:

Each of these papers presents a set of guidelines for conducting network-based educational activities. Each varies in the specific details from the others. In this paper, I will try to present five general features that span the different guidelines: structure, process, mediation, community building and institutional support. I will use those features to begin to develop a general theory of network-based learning environments.


One common dimension across the guidelines reviewed here is the notion that a social structure is important for supporting network interactions. One important common point to all these different ways of carrying out network activity is that a structure is important, and the nature of the structure is determined in part by the nature of the network and in part by the goals and constraints on the participants. Interaction on electronic networks is different in some ways from more conventional interaction, and thus requires modified and in some cases totally new social structures to support it.


Another feature that can be generalized from the diverse set of guidelines is "process". Network activity is episodic, unfolding over time through a series of different phases. The exact list of steps or stages listed in the guidelines varies, but there is generally some sort of initiation phase, a phase in which the educational activity is carried out, and then some sort of wrap-up phase.

This episodic nature of educational network interactions is important for several reasons. Even though the nature of the interaction is quite different in these different phases, the roles that participants in the activity need to play for success varies. Unless the participants are aware of the ways in which these interactions unfold, they may be disappointed in their expectations of the timing or nature of the interactions. In addition, knowing about the nature of these network processes allows the participants to integrate them more effectively with the other educational activities they're engaged in.

One of the ways that educational network interactions differ from other comparable face-to-face interactions is that the network interactions get stretched out over time. Riel describes it as " conversation carried over electronic mail in slow motion" (Riel, 1993). This time elongation is surprising to novices, who see electronic networks as enabling communication at the "speed of light". Compensating, at least partially, for this elongation in time is the fact that networks allow one to participate in several such interactions at the same time.


One key commonalty among the guidelines is the importance of active, effective moderators to initiative and sustain the interaction on educational networks.

Each of the varied set of guidelines specifies mediator roles necessary for educational network projects to succeed.

The role of mediation in learning has been a central construct in recent Vygotskian theories of learning. This role takes on a new appearance in network-based learning environment, and thus helps us better understand its importance even in more familiar face-to-face learning environments. Interaction on networks tends to stretch out over time, which also makes the importance of mediation and mediators easier to see. In our research, most failures of attempts to build successful network learning environments are due to the lack of appropriate mediation at the appropriate times in the unfolding process of a network learning interaction.


Several of the guidelines focus on the steps involved in building a sense of community among the participants. One important but often overlooked point about community building is that it takes work on the part of all involved, and that for it to occur, there has to be some perceived benefit to those involved to form a community. Especially in the case of the kind of voluntary on-line communities that characterize most of the current ones, there has to be enough perceived mutual benefit to make the costs involved worthwhile (overcoming technical difficulties, costs in time, monetary costs).

Institutional support.

Finally, several of the guidelines point to the need to embed educational network interaction within an institutional structure that will support and sustain the interaction over time. Each of these are embedded in a larger institutional structure which provides important kinds of support for the interactions.

These five factors will be important for determining the success or failure of an network activity. Let us now examine these factors in more depth by considering a specific example.

SATEX: Putting the Guidelines in practice

As a specific example, let us look at an extramural course that Michael Waugh and I have taught for the past eight years each spring at the University of Illinois. It is an extramural course titled "Electronic Networks for Education", aimed at K-12 teachers and administrators. Although most of the interaction is conducted on electronic networks, the class also meets face-to-face on four Saturdays throughout the semester, thus this extramural course has come to be known as "SatEx". Many of the course materials can be viewed on through World-Wide Web pages at:


Most inservice instruction follows either the "one shot, all day" model, the "one shot, one hour" model, or the "distributed series of one hour" workshop models. Other professional development activities have been organized as purely network-based interactions. This course, aimed at teachers from all across the state of Illinois, has adopted a different mix of face-to-face and network interactions. The class meets face-to-face only four times during a 15 week semester, with the rest of the interaction being conducted over the network. The face-to-face meetings are all-day meetings (9 AM to 3 PM) on Saturdays, so that practicing teachers can take the course while teaching during the week. Originally we scheduled one meeting at the very beginning, one in mid-semester, and one final meeting. However, many teachers taking this course are novices to telecommunications, and so a large number of technical difficulties arise for students at the very beginning. So we now schedule one meeting at the very beginning and one meeting the very next Saturday, to deal with the majority of technical difficulties right at the start, as well as the mid-semester and end-of-semester face-to-face meetings.


The goal for the class participants is for them to generate and conduct their own network-based instructional activity. In the past, we have found that without appropriate support, proposals from novices have a high probability of failure, leading to discouragement and disengagement. SATEX provides a "dynamic support" process (Riel, Levin, & Miller-Souviney, 1987) for this through the following sequence of activities:
  1. Participants are asked to search the network to find interesting educational activities.
  2. Participants are asked to join in at least one ongoing educational network activity.
  3. Participants are then asked to generate their own proposals, but to first circulate the proposals within the class to get feedback.
  4. Finally, participants posts their own project proposals more widely.
This sequence has raised the proportion of proposals receiving responses. In past years, when projects from this class were largely conducted on the FrEdMail network, the proposals from members of this class were regularly judged to be among the top proposals posted on the whole FrEdMail network each spring.


The SATEX course provided a wide variety of mediators. The faculty members set the agenda and provided guidance throughout the course. The teaching assistant closely monitored the online progress of the students and provided immediate evaluative feedback. He also organized a set of the on-campus students to serve as specific mediators: a help coordinator for Macintoshes, a help coordinators for Windows, a "Web weaver" to put the web discoveries of the class members in their explorations onto the class web page, and a project list maintainer. These are roles that are more easily conducted by the on-campus students, since they have easy access to the network but only difficulty access to K-12 classes. Conversely, the off-campus students, most of whom are practicing K-12 teachers or administrators, have easy access to K-12 classes, but more difficult access to the network. So this division of mediator roles worked out well.

Community Building

We established a class email reflector list and web page at the very beginning of the course. During the first class meeting, all class members who did not already have an email address created an account for themselves. They were also given public domain client-server email and web viewing software, along with public domain software for establishing a modem-based IP connection. Their first assignment was to send a description of themselves to the class list - this served as a good start for community building. During the second face-to-face class meeting a week later, pictures were taken of each student with a digital camera, and a personal web page was created for each student, connected to the web page for the class. This helped to personify each participant to the others (including personifying the students for the class instructors).

During the all-day class meetings, breaks were scheduled to aid in the community building. For example, lunch was arranged to optimize the amount of small group interaction. Pizza was ordered, and class members ate it at small tables in groups of six or so, with the instructors and teaching assistant distributed across the tables. This social function served to help build a sense of community among the class.

A second assignment was to search the net and find resources of interest. Each participant was to send a report of their exploration to the whole class. This helped not only in pointing to specific resources but also to provide inspiration for the explorations of the students who had not yet done this assignment and also general guidance of likely places to look.

Participants were encouraged to help each other in their assignments. When people have difficulties recruiting participants to their project, or have questions, or need specific information, they often address their messages to the whole class rather than just to the instructors. This aspect of community in fact provides a motivation for the effort that community building takes, since the community provides benefit for the individual.

The face-to-face meetings help to establish a sense of community as well. We pass out name tags at each such meeting, and by the mid-meeting, we commonly hear statements like "Oh, so YOU'RE JLEVIN." (thus connecting the person's on-line identity established through the network with the class member in person).

We also have invited back members of the previous SATEX courses, both for the face-to-face meetings and to participate in the email discussion. These SATEX alumni volunteer because it widens the resources available to them, and also helps them keep up-to-date with technology, a necessity given the rapid rate of development.

Institutional support

The institutional support for these teachers' learning is provided by the structure of a university course. The university's office of extramural studies provides assistance in learning about the course and registering, and in this case, provided network access to those who didn't have it otherwise. The course provided instructors and teaching assistants to help organize, moderate, evaluate, and provide assistance. The structure of the course helped to keep the learners on task, as they knew they would need to turn in a final report by the end of the course. In contrast to an extended series of workshops, the course provided a way for the learners to remain engaged and focused in their progression to expertise.


A variety of guidelines developed by many of the leading research and development groups have lead to specifying five main factors as important for the success of educational network activities: The importance of these factors are illustrated through a successful effort to use networks for inservice training, an extramural courses that combines network interaction and face-to-face meetings.


Center for Children and Technology. (1995). On-line learning, on-line communities. Electronically published at URL:

Harris, J. B. (1995). Organizing and facilitating telecollaborative projects. The Computing Teacher, 22(5).

Levin, J. A., Rogers, A., Waugh, M., & Smith, K. (1989). Observations on educational electronic networks: Appropriate activities for learning. The Computing Teacher, 16(May), 17-21.

Levin, J., Waugh, M., Brown, D., & Clift, R. (1994). Teaching Teleapprenticeships: A new organizational framework for improving teacher education using electronic networks. Journal of Machine-Mediated Learning, 4(2 & 3), 149-161.

Riel, M. M., Levin, J. A., & Miller-Souviney, B. (1987). Learning with interactive media: Dynamic support for students and teachers. In R. Lawler & M. Yasdani (Eds.), Artificial intelligence and education: The broad view. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Riel, M. (1993). Learning Circles: Virtual communities for elementary and secondary schools. Electronically published at URL:

Rogers, A. (1994). Keys to successful projects. Electronically published at URL:

Rogers, A., Andres, Y., Jacks, M., & Clauset, T. (1990). Keys to successful telecomputing. The Computing Teacher, 17(8), 25-28.

Spitzer, W., Wedding, K., & DiMauro, V. Fostering reflective dialogues for teacher professional development. Electronically published at URL:

Waugh, M. L., Levin, J. A., & Smith, K. (1994). Organizing electronic network-based instructional interactions: Successful strategies and tactics, Part 1. The Computing Teacher, 21(5), 21-22.

Waugh, M. L., Levin, J. A., & Smith, K. (1994). Network-based instructional interactions, Part 2: Interpersonal strategies. The Computing Teacher, 21(6), 48-50.

Here are other guidelines to educational network projects.