[Electronically reprinted with permission from The Computing Teacher journal, published by the International Society for Technology in Education. This article appeared in two parts in the February (vol 21, no 5, pp 21-22) and March 1994 (vol 21, no 6, pp 48-50) issues.]

Organizing Electronic Network-Based Instructional Interactions:
Successful Strategies and Tactics

Michael L. Waugh
James A. Levin

University of Illinois

Kathleen Smith

Champaign Unit 4 School District

The practice of using electronic networks for instruction is becoming increasingly wide-spread. In 1990, Kurshan described thirty electronic networks which were being used for instructional purposes. Since then, educationally-oriented electronic networks have continued to multiply, along with increasing numbers of teachers and students interested in finding ways to use these electronic networks as an instructional medium that can enhance motivation and learning.

During our studies of electronic networks as a new instructional medium, we have found a number of instructional strategies uniquely suited to this medium. Some of these strategies are specific to particular instructional tasks and may not be applicable to all instructional tasks. Others are more general. Yet even the domain-specific instructional strategies contain certain common organizational elements that reflect the nature of the medium itself rather than any specific instructional goal. The purpose of this paper is to describe some of the common organizational elements which can be employed to enhance the organization of network-based activities, and thus to sketch out some of the strategies and tactics of successful educational networking.

Project Organization

Over the last several years, we have worked on more than 75 instructional projects in many different content areas and involving numerous project partners from K-12 schools, colleges and universities (Stapleton, 1991; Chung, 1991). We conducted these projects primarily on the FrEdMail network but also on several other electronic networks, and our experiences in organizing, coordinating and analyzing these electronic network-based activities have revealed a set of strategies and tactics which are repeatedly associated with successful instructional projects in this medium.

Organizing for instructional delivery might seem to be a relatively straightforward process, especially for teachers, and one might easily imagine that the medium of electronic networking would not be so different from that of the typical classroom environment. However, our observations have revealed that organizing to deliver successful instruction via electronic networks requires careful consideration of the unique attributes and dynamic nature of this medium.

Macro-organization: Project organization as a function of network affiliation.

Currently there are numerous electronic networks which enable schools to find partner schools and classes and to work together on instructional activities to accomplish various instructional goals. These networks vary widely in the degree to which they allow the project participants themselves to participate in the development and organization of the instructional activities conducted on the network.

The organizational structure continuum.

As an example of how different networks vary with regard to project management and organization, we will briefly compare the different approaches to project organization employed by three different popular electronic networks: the FrEdMail Network, the National Geographic Kids' Network, and the AT&T Learning Network. The three organizational approaches embodied in these networks are representative points on a continuum of possible approaches to successful project organization, yet currently two of the three approaches appear as mutually exclusive options for network activity participants because of the "organizational framework" inherent in the activities promoted by that particular network.

The FrEdMail Network. Of the three networks mentioned, the FrEdMail network is the most "loosely" organized. Network participants "advertise" their project ideas and issue a Call for Collaboration from other networks participants. Generally, respondents to the initial Call for Collaboration contact the individual who proposed the project and the major details of the project as well as the roles of the participants are determined through subsequent communications among the project collaborators.

This type of organization has been called "anarchistic" by some. However it holds the most potential for identifying and promoting the unique and creative ideas of the widest possible group of participants. The negative side of this type of organization is that it depends entirely upon the willingness and determination of the participants to share creative thoughts and to volunteer for "duties" involving additional work. Since no single individual may be "in charge", nobody is empowered to require that the other participants fulfill their often critical responsibilities, and so many projects never progress to completion. This result can generate a significant amount of anxiety among the participants.

We have also seen many exciting project proposals fail to succeed because network partners did not emerge to join the activity. Sometimes the introduction of the project was mistimed, i.e. the project topic did not appeal to the group of participants available at that time, or the individuals most interested in the project topic were busy with one or several other projects at that particular time. On other occasions, it seemed that the project had not been "advertised" appropriately. At other times, we felt that the proposal failed because of some combination of these and other reasons. Regardless of the actual reasons for the proposals' failures, we have repeatedly found that beginners have difficulty accepting these potential explanations for why their project failed to generate responses. Rather, they often conclude that their idea was not valued by others. And, this negative experience combined with the technical difficulties associated with networking has resulted in some beginners abandoning their fledgling networking efforts (Chung, 1991).

The National Geographic Kids' Network. The National Geographic Kids' Network is at the more structured end of a continuum of organizational structure. This network offers a series of project activities which were developed by curriculum experts who were jointly funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Participants subscribe to collaborate on a particular curriculum activity which has been carefully organized and sequenced by the network staff. A specific timeline is provided and participants must complete major portions of the activity according to the timeline in order to be included in subsequent parts of the activity. Generally, communications are among the participants and project staff and consist of information exchanges. At the end of the activity, the information is collected and processed by network staff and experts. Summaries of the experts' analyses are sent back to the project participants for their consumption. This network offers an example of "top down" curriculum development and administration. While this kind of organization simplifies the administration of such a network, it does not promote the creative exchange of ideas among participants nor does it appear to encourage student interaction with and analyses of the data collected by the other project participants. The National Geographic Kids' Network provides a specific, project-related structure which ensures that the various stages of the project will occur at specific points in time, ensuring that the project will conclude on a specific date.

The AT&T Learning Network. The AT&T Learning Network provides an example of a network structure somewhere in the middle of the continuum of network structure. The AT&T Learning Network organizes its project activities around the concept of Learning Circles (Riel, 1992). Approximately 4-7 participants are assigned to a specific Learning Circle based on their stated preferences to conduct projects related to particular themes at particular grade levels (language arts, math, science, social studies; elementary, middle or secondary levels). Thus, this activity theme becomes the common bond. Each Learning Circle has a mentor-coordinator whose primary function is to offer assistance, guidance and leadership during the semester-long activity cycle. Each of the Learning Circle participants is required to propose a learning activity of their own to organize and manage (participants may choose an activity from an existing list or develop a new activity from "scratch") and the other members of the Learning Circle are obligated to participate with their colleagues on each of their project activities. The AT&T Learning Network also requires that each project participant write up a summary describing their project activity which will be shared with others who use the network in future. This approach provides a degree of structure, yet also encourages individual creativity. However, one problem with the Learning Circle concept is that its structure restricts participants to interactions among a relatively small number of other participants (their own Learning Circle colleagues) during each semester-long project activity cycle.

There are various advantages and disadvantages to each of these types of project organization. However, in the absence of definitive data concerning the "most" acceptable form of organization, it would appear that there will likely be many forms of activity organization which will emerge as viable frameworks for conducting instructional activities and be identified as "best suited" to specific instructional situations. Because of this, it seems reasonable that network environments should allow for variations in the mechanisms by which projects are organized and conducted rather than be overly restrictive in this regard. This variability then would provide a type of dynamic support (Riel, Levin, & Miller-Souviney, 1987) for participants who might have one set of specific needs as beginners, and yet another set of specific needs as they develop expertise in this new learning environment.

Another aspect of this macro-organization of network-based instructional projects which we have observed is a "life cycle" of network-based activities. The life cycle of an activity is the sequence of events or stages through which an activity progresses from beginning until end. We feel that this concept is important because it offers a means by which project activities can be classified based on their progressive stage of completion. Thus, this offers a framework which can be used to compare projects and analyze the relative contributions of strategies employed during specific portions of the activities.

Based on our experiences with more than 75 network-based project activities during the past 5 years, we have seen that projects progress through a series of developmental stages: a) proposal, b) refinement, c) organization, d) pursuit, e) wrap-up, and f) publication (Levin, Waugh, Chung, & Miyake, 1992; Stapleton, 1992). We cannot simply say that a project which completes all these stages is a successful project, since there are multiple criteria for judging success. However, completing these stages is certainly an indication of success--it has been successfully "advertised" and it has attracted interested participants from a variety of geographic locations; it has been successfully clarified and adapted (as necessary, to suit the specific situation of each participant); it has been organized through group consensus and conducted as per requirements; and, it has been completed and the summary description of the project activities has been prepared and made available to share with others (Stapleton, 1991). The fact that a project completes this entire life cycle is a testament to the value of the project at least in terms of the commitment and dedication shown by the project participants.

In addition to projects which successfully complete this life cycle, we have seen a large number and variety of projects be proposed and end in various intermediate stages of the life cycle. Many projects never survive the proposal stage. Of those which do, a large percentage never survive the refinement and organizational stages. Those projects which do survive organization are usually conducted but often lose many of their network participants for various reasons. And, of those which are actually conducted, many lack a satisfactory summation or a spontaneous publication stage. Projects which have not completed the life cycle described above or which omit certain stages may have the potential to be as successful as those which complete all of the stages. However, we feel that completion of the life cycle is a significant indicator of the relative success of a project activity.

Micro-organization: Project organization as a function of interpersonal interactions.

In addition to the macro-organizational aspects of project organization discussed above, there are numerous micro-organizational aspects which we have seen to be related to the success of network-based instructional projects. We would like to describe our observations about how to be successful in working with other people using electronic networks. Our experiences have been gained through using a variety of networks and thus should offer some insights for networking participants regardless of the specific network being used.

Although electronic networks are very "high tech" environments, they are populated by people who respond very positively to a "high touch" approach. One simple step toward this kind of personal contact is to sign your electronic messages. FrEdMail, for example, uses a system where the first letter of the first name and the first seven letters of the last name are contracted to form a unique username. Other networks use even more obscure usernames, sometimes an arbitrary combination of letters and numbers. Usernames are essential for computers, but developing a working relationship with another individual is greatly facilitated by using people's names, since names are more meaningful to people (Rogers, Andres, Jacks & Clauset, 1990).

As more and more people begin to use electronic mail and conferencing, participants develop large groups of active correspondents. Because of this, it is important to realize that between when you send a message and a subsequent message to your correspondent, he or she may have communicated with a very large number of other people and so it is quite possible for him/her to lose the context of the discussion which the two of you are having. The best way to avoid this problem is to be sure to include a brief synopsis of the discussion so far rather than to simply answer their question or ask a vague question. It isn't necessary to include in each message the total content of all previous messages (even though some software allows this to be done quite easily), but it is helpful to include some information to provide a context for the message recipient. One way to do this is to use a descriptive term(s) on the subject line of the message. Another way is to start the message by saying something like "Two weeks ago, I asked you for your advice regarding how to... I tried your suggestion and haven't been able to get the device to work properly. Any ideas?" This approach is definitely better than sending a cryptic message like "It didn't work! What else should I try?" If you are asking a person who might have been answering lots of such questions, your specific problem is likely to have been long forgotten.

For beginners, using electronic networks can be rather confusing. How does it all work? Even beyond the bits and bytes, beginning teacher-networkers want to know what this medium has to offer them and their students and how they can use the network to accomplish their instructional purposes. As they become more experienced in using networks, things become easier to accomplish. There are several reasons for this, but one reason is that through using the network a person is establishing a presence and is beginning to establish a reputation. When people interact using an electronic network, information is flowing from those who have it to those who are seeking it. For this to work properly, those who have it must be willing to share it with those who need it. Thus, individuals who are willing to contribute as well as receive and who are willing to "hang in there" and work with the system over the long term will find that they build up a credibility which enables them to develop an extended group of professional colleagues who are willing to work with them to accomplish almost any task. By contrast, those who are not willing to put in the time and effort to develop their credibility will have a more difficult time working in this environment.

Another point for consideration is the experience level of the other individuals working on the network. Most beginners tend to imagine that all of the other individuals working on electronic networks must be experts and their own inexperience makes them uncomfortable in asking about the experience level of others. In truth, most people using electronic networks are not experts. Very often they are people who possess a significant amount of enthusiasm, but considerably less technical expertise. However, one should not automatically assume that others using the network are more, less or equally skilled as they themselves. This is important because in working with others, one should not assume, for example, that they know how to do a formatted file transfer or how to decompress a file. If they don't know how to do these things, then you will need to be prepared to share what you know in such a way that you will not overwhelm or threaten them. Unless we are all willing to share in this way, the message we send to beginners is that they are not valued members of the "electronic community".

Successful Strategies and Tactics.

Now we will describe some of the specific strategies and tactics we have used in electronic network-based projects to facilitate their successful completion. Some of these techniques are useful across multiple stages of the project's life cycle, however they are introduced and discussed according to the life cycle stages mentioned earlier: a) proposal, b) refinement, c) organization, d) pursuit, e) wrap-up, and f) publication.

Proposal. On many networks, one of the first problems that newcomers face is how to find willing participants for their own project activities. The usual method is for the newcomers to post a description of their projects on a public bulletin board for posting project proposals or to respond to someone else's project proposal. However, we have employed another tactic with great success: co-opting penpals.

One of the first projects which seems to come to the minds of newcomers is "electronic penpals", a relatively unfocused type of project which calls for having a class of students exchange messages with another class. We have found that this type of project activity is often disappointing for beginners (Levin, Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989). In order to try to avoid the negative effects which can accompany electronic pen pals projects, we recommend that individuals attempt to co-opt a penpals projects by responding to those calls for participation with something like "I'm glad to hear that you and your class are looking for other classes to communicate with you. My class is studying a unit on pollution [or some specific topic] and we would like to communicate with your students by writing [or some other type of activity] about that topic. Would your class be interested in communicating with us on this topic?" Although at first this may seem a bit sneaky, in reality it is quite an effective strategy for finding activity partners. Generally, those newcomers who propose a penpals activity are saying something like "Hello, we are here and we are looking for partners and we are pretty flexible about the topic so long as the students become involved in writing [or in some other way]." As long as your topic is acceptable to them, then you've found an activity partner. If your project is not acceptable to them, then you are no worse off than you were before you contacted them and you might be much better off in terms of making a contact for possible future collaboration.

A related tactic is one which we refer to as the "back scratching" approach. With this approach, one responds to someone else's project idea and proposes joining their project if they will reciprocate. While it is possible that they might not be interested in your project, it is equally possible that you both will become involved in two good network projects. If you choose well, you will become involved with another related topic and secure involvement in your own project as well. In any event, you are bound to learn something during the experience which you can use in future projects. This tactic is systematically employed in the Learning Circles of the AT&T Learning Network. Each participant is required to join each other participant's project in exchange for their reciprocal participation.

A good tactic for finding partners is to be persistent and approach the problem in an organized way. We recommend that Calls for Participation messages be relatively short and concise announcements (approximately a screenfull) which describe an activity--but not a grade level or age group--and give a few details about what would be expected of participants. Following this announcement, we recommend that the lengthy details of project planning be exchanged via private email between the project originator and the participants during the Refinement and Organizational stages of the project. Should the original call for participation go without a reply for two weeks, then we recommend that another call for participation be issued for the same project. This is because beginners (and others) often do not take the time to go back and re-read old postings as often as they read the new postings.

We also recommend that the original posting not contain any reference to grade level or age group because we have found that the fact that participants are from different age groups does not generally inhibit their ability to work together--rather it often improves the project. Yet, this fact is not generally appreciated and the most common tendency is for participants to seek partners at the same age/grade level. Don't limit the group of potential project participants by arbitrarily assuming that the activity will only work with a particular age/grade level group.

Refinement. A powerful strategy for project management is being able to set up conference groups. A conference group is an electronic list of all of the project participants. This list can be established so that electronic messages sent to the list address (a single email address) are then re-sent to each email address on the list. One problem with conference groups is that it is easy for beginners to become confused about groups and how they work. It is often confusing for them to find mail in their mailboxes which is addressed to a group (a name which they don't recognize) and often the messages themselves seem as though they were intended to be private messages for some other individual (usually because the person sending the message to the group didn't realize that it was going to a group). This can easily happen because of the way in which a user's email software generates automatic replies to correspondence. A simple rule about groups is to remember that an electronic conference group is not a single individual and so any mail which is sent to the group should contain information of general interest to all group members. If that is not the case, then address the correspondence to the individual for whom it is relevant.

Organization. We have seen a number of management strategies used with great success in networking activities. A couple of important ones are the use of a timeline and distributed project ownership.

Probably very little needs to be said about the instructional value of using a timeline. Generally, it is highly desirable to be able to publish a scheduled sequence of events concerning any instructional activity. However, while we acknowledge the use of a timeline when possible, there are a number of instances in electronic networking when timelines are not practical. Thus, our advice would be not to think of a timeline as absolutely essential, but rather to use one as it seems appropriate. An example of an instance in which timelines are not as important is when a new instructional activity is being developed and piloted for the first time. In this case, it is often difficult to determine what comes next much less when it should happen in relation to the other aspects of the activity and how long it will take to accomplish.

We have also seen that when using a timeline to help organize an electronic network-based instructional activity, it is best to build such a timeline with considerable allowance for changes and unforeseen circumstances. For a wide variety of reasons, it is quite difficult to achieve close coordination when working with large numbers of groups in different parts of the United States and around the world. Ample allowance must be made to accommodate individuals who experience problems and require additional time. If the project must proceed at a specific point in time, then provisions should be made to accommodate the "stragglers" who would like to catch up at a later date and the "newcomers" who wish to join a project in progress.

Another management strategy which we have seen put to good use is that of allowing distributed project ownership. This concept is quite alien to many teachers who are used to working from an individually developed plan when conducting classroom activities. Many teachers are even more familiar with collaborative situations where there is a common lesson plan and all participants work through essentially the same sequence of events to arrive at essentially the same outcomes. What we are proposing is that, when possible, a group of people working together on the network determine the key elements and general timeline for the project activity through joint agreement and that even then the specific teachers be encouraged to adapt the project in unique and individual ways to suit the needs of their particular situations. When this occurs, each participant can come to "own" much more of the project and will experience more identification with and involvement in the project goals and outcomes--even while these goals and outcomes become highly variable because of this strategy. In actuality, the need for an immutable, identical set of activity procedures is relatively rare. In network-based activities that involve data collection, for example, once the data have been obtained and shared, there is no need for teachers to utilize the data in identical ways with their students. Instead, teachers can adapt specific procedures for utilizing the data in ways most appropriate for their specific students.

In essence, the project activity should grow from the needs and interests and the skills and abilities of the participants; and each participant should feel as though the project ideally suits his or her needs. When this occurs, the group members should become aware that their unique talents have contributed to the development of a valuable project activity and also that the group's collective wisdom can be far greater than their separate contributions.

Pursuit. We have found another strategy to be of help to project organizers--the use of keeping-things-alive-messages. Network activities typically extend over longer time periods than classroom-based activities. Often there are multiple exchanges of information and each of these is preceded or succeeded by a classroom-based component, often involving student writing. The net effect of all of this is that the activities tend to take place over an extended period and during this period, network colleagues might wonder what is going on and when/if they will hear from you again.

Our solution to this problem is a variety of short messages which we call ping, return receipt, and cheerleader messages.

A ping message is one which briefly says that you are making progress and expect to have something to share soon or that you are waiting for some information from your colleagues. The idea is merely to say, "I'm here and will get back to you soon" or "I'm waiting for something from you before I can proceed". Often this simple reassurance or reminder is all that is necessary to maintain the smooth flow of the activity.

The return receipt message has the same basic purpose as the ping message except it is a reply rather than an initiation message. It says, "I got your note and am waiting for further communication." When you don't have anything major to report, don't waste a lot of energy but don't forget that your colleagues often need little reassurances to "keep on hanging in there". There may also be times when you might wish to expend a little more energy and develop and share an interim progress report of some nature. If you can find time for doing this, your personal example can often serve to motivate others to do likewise.

The cheerleader message should be employed when people have invested a lot of time and energy in writing and sharing something. When this occurs, it is a good idea to recognize their efforts, even if you don't want to join their project or elaborate on their comments in any substantive way. Something like this is particularly important to do for members of your immediate project group, but it is also a helpful strategy for those wishing to establish a network presence. And, related to the cheerleader message is the old-fashioned thank-you message. People like knowing that their efforts are appreciated and our experience has been that a few kind words go a long way.

Wrap-up. Wrap-up communications generally serve to coordinate the completion stages of the activity. This stage becomes very important in projects which have a loose timeline because with no precise timeline or plan for completion there is little to ensure closure without this stage. This can easily happen in projects where the participants each plan to modify or adapt the project to uniquely fit in their classrooms. In these instances, we have seen that the participants often feel that their own adaptations would be of little interest to the other participants and so they don't think about sending anything back to the others participating in the project. However, these local adaptations of projects are very important to preserve for the next occasion on which the project is conducted. Thus, this stage is particularly important in helping to ensure that the publication stage is completed and that the local curriculum adaptations are preserved.

Wrap-up communications serve to coordinate the date, time and format of the publication stage and they can also serve as a means by which the participants can discuss the question: "Where do we go from here?"

Publication. Another management strategy which we feel contributes significantly to the success of network-based activities is the creation of a post-project publication . This stage is the development of a written description of the project activity upon the completion of the activity, written for a broader audience than the other participants in the project. Our observations have shown us that this stage rarely occurs spontaneously and must be encouraged strongly if it is to occur at all. This publication stage helps the participants place what they've learned from the project into a more public arena so that others can apply the knowledge and successful procedures more widely.

In addition, since a great many network-based projects are unique curriculum development efforts, they should be preserved and shared with a much larger group than the immediate group which participated. Since much of the actual collaboration might be conducted via private email and not in a public electronic forum like a bulletin board, then the activity planning and data exchanges and any summary descriptions might typically be seen by only a few other individuals. The post-project publication stage should be included in the planning of all network-based projects in order to help facilitate the development and dissemination of these valuable curriculum development efforts.


In this paper, we have described some aspects of organizing instructional activities on electronic networks, both at the macro- and micro-levels. We have also sketched out some strategies and tactics that we have found can increase the frequency of successful network-based instructional projects. In this new and still rapidly evolving instructional medium, there are certainly many more strategies and tactics to be discovered, but we hope that those that we have presented here will help others who explore these networks to be more successful in their efforts to harness the instructional resources available on this new electronic frontier.


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