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
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
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),
Spitzer, Wedding, & DiMauro (1994),
Waugh, Levin, & Smith (1994),
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.
- Learning Circles: Riel (1993) developed the Learning Circles structure for
the AT&T Learning Network, in which approximately eight geographically
diverse classroom with a shared curriculum focus joined together for a semester.
- Teleapprenticeships: Levin & Waugh developed science, mathematics,
and teaching teleapprenticeships as long-duration structures within which
students serve a variety of roles in interaction with practicing adults (Levin,
Waugh, Brown & Clift, 1994).
- Reflective Dialogues: Spitzer et al. (1994) conduct reflective dialogues
for professional development over networks.
- Mathematics Learning Forums: CCT (1995) developed a course structure
called Mathematics Learning Forums, eight-week long classes conducted over
- Telementoring: Barbara Means and her group at SRI developed telementoring structures for
- Telecollaborative Projects: Harris (1995) describes sixteen different
activity structures for telecollaborative projects, which she groups into three
"structure genres": interpersonal exchanges, information collections,
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
- Roger, Andres, Jacks & Clauset (1990) point to the importance of a
timeline for organizing educational network interactions.
- Riel (1993) lists 5 steps in a Learning Circle: forming the Learning
Circle, planning the Learning Circle projects, exchanging work on the projects,
creating the publication, and evaluating the process.
- Waugh, Levin, & Smith (1994) list 6 stages in organizing network-based
instructional interactions: proposal, refinement, organization, pursuit,
wrap-up, and publication.
- Harris (1995) lists 8 steps in organizing telecollaborative projects:
Choose the curricular goal(s), choose the activity's structure, explore
examples of other online projects, determine the details of your project,
invite telecollaborators, form the telecollaborative group, communicate, and
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 "...group 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.
- Learning Circle Coordinators: Riel developed Learning Circle Coordinators
to guide each Learning Circle.
- Project coordinators, web weavers, electronic editorial assistants: Waugh,
Levin & Smith (1994) describe a variety of mediator roles that are needed
for success in educational networking.
- Collaborative learning project coordinators: Rogers, Andres, Jacks &
Clauset describe a number of things a project coordinator needs to do for
- Faculty "facilitators": CCT (1995) has provided faculty facilitators for
their Mathematics Learning Forums
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).
- Riel's Learning Circles (1993) start by exchanging "Welcome Packs" among
all the participating sites of a Circle.
- Spitzer et al. (1995) describe a number of techniques for engaging
participants in reflective dialog.
- Harris (1995) describes a series of steps for inviting
- Rogers (1994) provides a template for designing a call for collaboration,
that makes it easier for potential collaborators to decide whether to
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.
- Teleapprenticeships: One of the major focuses of the work by Levin &
Waugh has been to find ways to imbed educational network interactions in
broader institutional structures, either those that already exist or those that
can be created by modifying existing structures, to support the scaling up of
educational network use. The concept of teleapprenticeships attempts to find
ways to simultaneously embed network activity in the institutions of schools
and in the institutions of work outside of schools.
- Mathematics Learning Forums: CCT has built the educational network
activity of Mathematics Learning Forums into the institutional support of a
College of Education, using the existing structure of a course to provide
- Learning Circles: Riel has constructed Learning Circles within the
institutional structure of the AT&T Learning network.
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:
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.
- Participants are asked to search the network to find interesting
- Participants are asked to join in at least one ongoing educational network
- Participants are then asked to generate their own proposals, but to first
circulate the proposals within the class to get feedback.
- Finally, participants posts their own project proposals more
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.
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
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
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
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
- Community building
- Institutional support
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.
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
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.