August/September 1994 "Mining the Internet" column, The Computing Teacher

[Electronically reprinted with permission from The Computing Teacher journal, published by the International Society for Technology in Education.]

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The Electronic Emissary: Bringing Together Students, Teachers, and Subject Matter Experts

by Judi Harris

By the time that you read this sentence, there will probably be more than 60 million people worldwide with access to global electronic mail. Many of these millions are subject matter specialists whose knowledge encompasses a wide spectrum of expertise. What if connections could be made so that volunteers from among this group could communicate directly with students and teachers who are studying about the experts' specialties? This article will describe a service that helps to form those connections.

Students and teachers of the Information Age need to be able to make connections outside the geographic and temporal bounds of their communities. Their mentors should include subject matter and pedagogical experts from both down the hall and around the globe. Fortunately, a networking system that can facilitate these asynchronous connections between mentors and mentees already exists. It is an international network of networks called the Internet.

The Internet offers an awe-inspiring array of informational resources to account-holders, such as interactive access to databases, text-based virtual realities, and university library catalogs. In addition, thousands of Internet sites maintain archives of anonymously accessible text files. Many sites also offer opportunities for account-holders to interact with each other through public discussion groups conducted via electronic mail or distributed conferencing systems. Such interpersonal resources are among the most powerful and promising for use in K-12 education, because they can assist professionals in forming and maintaining cross- disciplinary, inter-institutional working relationships. What is needed is a way for people working in different disciplines to find each other on the Internet so that collaborations can be planned. In a sense, an emissary is needed to bring collaborative teams together.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Gove, 1986) describes an emissary as:

an agent or representative usually empowered to act more or less independently (as in collecting or conveying information or in negotiating); a messenger (p. 742).

An "electronic emissary" would help teachers by locating Internet account-holders with subject matter expertise relevant to their curricula who are willing to volunteer some of their time to share their knowledge via electronic mail. The same "electronic emissary" would help subject matter experts ("SMEs") by coordinating requests from classroom teachers so that the experts' generosity is not repaid with an avalanche of pleas for communication. Finally, a service such as this would help students by enabling them to communicate directly with subject matter experts from all over the world.

The Project

Such a service exists. The Electronic Emissary Project is a new type of Internet-based interpersonal resource that has been piloted during the 1993 and 1994 spring semesters, and is currently being expanded. It is based at the University of Texas at Austin, in the College of Education. The Emissary is a "matching service" that helps teachers with access to the Internet locate other Internet account-holders who are experts in different disciplines, for purposes of setting up curriculum-based, electronic exchanges among the teachers, their students, and the experts. In this way, the interaction that occurs among teachers and students face-to-face in the classroom is supplemented and extended by exchanges that occur among teachers, students, and SMEs asynchronously via electronic mail.

Several examples of such exchanges from past semesters of Emissary-arranged matches follow.

Additional topics that were collaboratively explored among students, teachers, and subject matter experts via electronic mail during the 1992-93 and 1993-94 academic years included geometry, geology, human genetics, world events, desktop publishing, rainforests, acid rain, marine toxicology, chaos theory, sharks, skates, and rays, subatomic particles, folktales, mathematical models for ecological systems, folktales, AIDS, and more. The number of teams (approximately 30 during the first year of the project, and more than 50 during the second year of the project) was limited only by the available support for the project; more than 300 subject matter volunteers offered their services, and many more teachers requested matches than the project's facilitators could support.

How it Works

Support for the Electronic Emissary Project was has been provided primarily by the Texas Center for Educational Technology (TCET), and secondarily by Project CIRCLE, a U.S. Department of Education grant that was awarded to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studying the use of computer-supported collaborative learning tools. At the present time, additional funding from corporate foundations interested in educational technologies is being sought to allow for expansion of the project.

Subject matter expert participants are periodically requested by posting announcements to selected Internet-wide LISTSERV groups (subject-specific electronic mail distribution lists). These postings include directions that the prospective volunteers can follow if they would like to add an information form about themselves to an interactively-accessible online database. These forms are searched by topic, in turn, by classroom teachers wanting to request "matches" with SMEs for their students. A sample information form can be found below.

	Application to Serve as a Subject Matter Expert

1. Enter your Full Name (as you like to be called):

2. Enter your full Internet address:

3. Enter your Work Address:

4. Enter your City, State, Zip:     Example: Austin, TX, 78731

5. Enter your Home Phone Number:     Example: (817) 555-1212

6. Enter your Work Phone Number:     Example: (817) 555-1212

7. Enter the institution for which you work:

8. Enter a brief description (1 line) of your current work:

9. How many times each week can you send and receive e-mail
   to/from teachers and students during the project:

     1)  Once a week
     2)  2 - 3 times a week
     3)  3 - 4 times a week
     4)  More than 4 times a week

         Enter item NUMBER and press <return> -->
Please list up to five areas of expertise that you would be willing to share with pre-college students in an inquiry-based exchange via electronic mail below, ** in prioritized order. ** Please use language that is understandable to the layperson. Keep to short statements, and please enter after the -->. After you list the five areas, take a moment to describe each area in the second section of this document. Example: 1 --> Criminal Justice focusing on race and gender legal issues BEGIN BELOW THIS LINE ------------------------------------------------------------------
1 --> 2 --> 3 --> 4 --> 5 --> ------------------------------------------------------------------ Please describe each of the listed areas above with a short paragraph. The aim is to be able further explain your above short statements. Use as much space as you need. Keep your text between the beginning and ending lines. ------------------------------------------------------------------ [material deleted] ------------------------------------------------------------------ Please describe any past experience that you have had as an educator of students (formally or informally), ages 5 - 18. BEGIN BELOW THIS NEXT LINE. ------------------------------------------------------------------ ------------------------------------------------------------------ Please supply any other information that we should consider while reading your application. BEGIN BELOW THIS NEXT LINE. ------------------------------------------------------------------

As each new funding award becomes available to the project, a new set of exchange teams can be created. The funding is used primarily to support doctoral-level students in instructional technology who are paid to act as online facilitators to team members. An announcement is sent to the electronic addresses of a list of precollege teachers who have asked to be notified when new Emissary "matches" are available. The announcement contains directions on how these teachers can connect to the Emissary database, search it, and electronically file a request for communication with a particular subject matter expert. A copy of the request form follows.

	Request for a "Match" with a Subject Matter Expert

Please type only one line of text after each arrow that appears below.

If necessary, use <Control-H> to delete typographical errors. ------------------------------------------------------------------ 1. Enter three areas of subject matter expertise, listed in the
order of your preference. a. ---> b. ---> c. ---> 2. Enter your Full Name (as you like to be called): ---> 3. Enter your full Internet address: ---> 4. Enter your work (street) address: Example: Liberty HS, 123 School St. ---> 5. Enter your City, State, Zip: Example: Austin, TX, 78731 ---> 6. Enter your Work Phone Number: Example: (817) 555-1212 ---> 7. Enter the school's name and location: Example: Day Middle School, Austin, TX ---> 8. Enter the grade level(s) & number of students to be communicating: Keep to one line. Example: 5th Grade, 22 students ---> 9. How many times each week will you and your class send and receive/read electronic mail to the SME during the project? 1) Once a week 2) 2 - 3 times a week 3) 3 - 4 times a week 4) More than 4 times a week Enter item NUMBER here --> ------------------------------------------------------------------
Please describe in full the project you have in mind. Use as much space as you feel necessary to describe the planned project that involves communication by electronic mail with the subject matter expert (SME). This information will be shared with the SMEs before selection.
BEGIN BELOW THIS NEXT LINE. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Please describe any special requests or requirements that should be considered before your "match" is made with the SME. Use as much space as you need.
BEGIN BELOW THIS NEXT LINE. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Please supply any other information that we should consider while reading your application. Use as much space as you need.

These requests, collected electronically on the Texas Center for Educational Technology's Internet server, are then forwarded to online facilitators, who contact the subject matter experts who have been identified by the teachers. (Street addresses, telephone numbers, and electronic mail addresses for the SMEs are not revealed to the teachers searching the database, so that subject matter volunteers are not inundated with unsolicited requests for communication.) If the SME agrees to correspond with the teacher and student(s) at the time and about the topic(s) described by the online facilitator, the teacher is contacted electronically with the good news that a "match" has been made.

At this time, a special account on the TCET server is established for the new team. This account will serve as the address to which all communication will be addressed during the exchange. Each account contains a small computer program that automatically copies each message sent, files it in an ongoing mail log, then forwards the message to the intended recipient. The program also records and summarizes exchange statistics, such as numbers of messages sent in specified time periods and message lengths. The mail logs for each communicating team are retained, with participants' prior permission, for study by Emissary coordinators, who are researching the dynamics of adult-child conversation via electronic mail. These mail logs are also monitored by the online facilitators, helping them to know when it is appropriate to offer assistance.

The online facilitators for the project contact each team at least once per week during each exchange to offer technical, organizational, and interactional assistance. Specifically, facilitators help team members to shape their projects according to areas of interest and expertise, students' instructional needs, extent of Internet access, and scheduling considerations. Team members can contact the online facilitators as often as their needs dictate.

At the mutually agreed-upon ending of each exchange, the participants in each team are asked to prepare a joint summary of the project's goals, procedures, outcomes, and applicable suggestions for other electronic collaborators. All teams' summaries are then made available on the TCET server to the Internet community at large. Team members are also asked to complete electronic evaluation forms that the project coordinators use to help them to improve the Emissary's services in the future.

Want to Participate?

By the time that you read this article, the Electronic Emissary Project should be gearing up for another semester of "electronic matchmaking." If you would like your Internet address to be added to the distribution list that is used to announce when a new set of matches becomes available, please send a message stating that wish to me at the address listed below.

If you would like to read some of the project summaries that past Emissary participants have written and shared, and/or initial research reports associated with the project, FTP to:

...and look in the subdirectory path:


(Additional information about Internet-based file transfer procedures using FTP commands can be found in chapter 3 of Way of the Ferret: Finding Educational Resources on the Internet, which is published by and is available from ISTE.)

As the director of the Electronic Emissary Project, I think that I can speak for the project's programmer, Greg Jones, the current online facilitators, Teresa Acosta, Viki Ash-Geisler, Karen Ferneding Lenert, and Ellen O'Bryan, and the additional online facilitators that we hope to involve in the future. It is our hope that the services and research results that the Emissary offers to the Internetworked educational community will help others to explore and understand new forms of teacher-student interaction, and new ways to successfully utilize telecomputing technologies in K-12 instruction.


Gove, P. B. (Ed.). (1986). Webster's third new international dictionary of the English language. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[Judi Harris,; Department of Curriculum and Instruction; 406 Education Building; University of Texas at Austin; Austin, TX 78712-1294.]

Other "Mining the Internet" columns are available on the Learning Resource Server at the College of Education, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.