February 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.]

The information on this page is provided for archival purposes only. Most of the links that it contains have expired. More recent articles on similar topics can be found here: http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~jbharris/Virtual-Architecture/Foundation/index.html .

People-to-People Projects on the Internet

by Judi Harris

New uses of new tools often first resemble more familiar ways of using traditional tools. Do you know someone who, when first learning to use a word processor, for example, insisted upon writing and editing the text of their document on paper before typing it into a word processing file? If so, they were probably using the word processor as they would use a typewriter: merely for creating the final copy of the document. Perhaps later they learned to plan, compose, edit, and format their documents using only computer-based tools.

Many educational applications of telecomputing tools resemble instructional uses of non-electronic media. Others don't. One of the most popular electronic mail activities, for example, involves students from different towns, states, or countries exchanging "keypal letters" with each other, much in the same way that children write with pen and paper (sent via surface mail) to "penpals." As teachers are becoming increasingly comfortable and competent using a variety of telecomputing tools beyond electronic mail, though, we are seeing different educational activities being created and tested that have not been modeled upon familiar uses of traditional media.

For the next three months, "Mining the Internet" will feature examples of three different general classes of Internet-based educational telecomputing activities: interpersonal exchanges (this month), information collections (in March), and collaborative problem solving (in April). Each general class of educational telecomputing activities includes 5 or 6 different activity structures, and each structure will be presented with at least one example activity that has been classroom-tested and shared by teachers on the Internet. The applications that will be presented first are those that most closely resemble uses of non-electronic media. Later, applications which exploit the unique characteristics of telecomputing tools (as compared with other media) will be reviewed.

It is my hope that by providing you with activity structures, rather than a potpourri of lesson plans, you will be empowered to design effective educational telecomputing experiences for your students that are curricularly-based and adapted to suit their particular learning needs. This idea (and an earlier version of these activity classes and structures) was first presented in the May 1993 "Mining the Internet" column. The sample activities that follow are expansions upon the content of that article.


The most popular types of educational telecomputing activities are ones in which individuals "talk" electronically to other individuals, individuals "talk" to groups, or groups "talk" to other groups. Since all teachers with Internet access can use electronic mail, many of these project types employ Email (sometimes via LISTSERV discussion groups) as the common context for exchange. Other teachers and students use newsgroups and Internet-connected bulletin boards for projects such as the ones listed below.

Keypal projects are probably the most commonly-used telecomputing activity structure. While student-to-student keypal exchanges involve more managerial work than many teachers have time to devote, group-to-group exchanges (called global classrooms, and presented in the next section), especially those with a particular study emphasis, can evolve into fascinating cultural explorations without overwhelming activity facilitators with the transfer and processing of multiple electronic mail messages sent to a single account.

Keypal projects often combine use of newer and more traditional media. Here, for example, is a well-structured call for participation that was posted by teachers and students from a suburban area of Pennsylvania:

Subject: Partner Class in Reading, PA

As an on-going year long project funded through a local
educational grant the sixth grade at Twin Valley Middle School,
Elverson, Pennsylvania, USA, would like to exchange cultural
information with educators and their classes in Europe (or other
foreign countries) via letters, and Electronic Mail for the
school year 1992-93. This project, coordinated by sixth grade
teachers Nancy Newpher and Felice Marrongelle, will involve all
disciplines of sixth grade students.

To further enrich this project, the sixth grade team felt the
exchange of cultural items and gifts would be highly
motivational to the students.  The sixth grade social studies
curriculum includes the study of other cultures.  We hope to
enhance our students' studies by enabling them to have a direct
link to the outside world and other cultures.  This project will
involve approximately one hundred sixth grade students including
students with special needs.

1.    Twin Valley Middle School students, ages 11-13 will
correspond with individual students, a small group of students,
or an entire class/classes of students 11 to 15 years of age.
Affirmative response should be received no later than October
15, 1992.

2.    By October 31st a pen pal exchange using FrEdMail/regular
mail should have been started and will continue throughout the
1992/1993 school year.  This correspondence should enable the
students to share the following information:
     a.  biographical/family, hobbies, sports, and other
     b.  geograpical and historical information about their
     c.  political information about their region/country
     d.  social customs/foods, clothing, holidays, etc.
     e.  religious information about their region/country
     f.  educational information about their region/country
     g.  literary
     h.  environmental issues that affect their region/country
     i.  other. . .

3.   Another goal is to have Twin Valley students prepare and
mail a box containing students' work, cultural items,
photographs, video tapes, and other items characteristic of our

Twin Valley is located 45 miles northwest of Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, USA.  Several years ago the community consisted of
mostly farming areas with a large influence of Mennonite and
Amish customs.  Presently, industry and construction of
individual homes have contributed to a change in the social,
cultural and wealth of the area.  The cultural box is to be
mailed by March 30th.  Twin Valley students would appreciate
receiving similiar items from students involved in the project,
but it is not manditory inorder to participate.

Some keypal projects ask students to utilize only electronic media, but are structured to include more traditional forms of communication. In the following request for participation posted by a teacher in Virginia, for example, an activity for new electronic mail users incorporates the creation of a "letter of introduction."

   +-------------+  +--------------------------------------+
   | INTRODUCING |  | Moderator - Anne Pemberton           |
   +-------------+  | CAMPUS 01:CLK005                     |
                    | Internet apembert@vdoe386.vak12ed.edu|

   An excellent first project for the new user. Students are
   paired and each student should write a formal letter of
   introduction about the other, to be sent to our friends
   abroad via INTRODUCING@sjuvm.stjohns.edu

   We recommend that it should be about 30 lines long, and
   that it should follow this pattern:-

   Paragraph One -- a brief description of X
   Paragraph Two -- the interests/opinions of X
   Paragraph Three -- an amusing story about X (gentle fun 	
   Paragraph Four -- the strengths/talents of X.

Many keypal projects emphasize the importance of students learning about each others' cultures through direct (albeit asynchronous) contact with other students. In this well-designed project, written by two teachers in Ohio, students use multiple references and higher-order thinking skills to research and clarify information about each other's everyday lives.


     The Geography Project is designed to link students from
different countries together for the purpose of studying foreign
cultures as well as research techniques.  The major goals of the
project are to:

     A) hone students skills in researching scientific and
        social information and map interpretation.

     B) promote students to communicate with others in other

     C) help students to develop an understanding of the
        differences between scientific fact, presumption and
        errors based on misinformation based upon stereotypes
        and prejudice.

     The project will link individual students, or small groups
of students together via Electronic Mail.  After exchanging a
few letters, the students will then be instructed to learn as
much as possible about the other student's country through
research.  They may look at maps, books, magazines, and any
computer generated data they can find.  One example of a
resource on our side is the World Book of Facts, which is
compiled by the American Central Intelligence Agency.  It has
facts about climate, population, major businesses and major
economic influences in most major cities and countries.  The
book is available on our local Information System. Students will
use that and other sources to learn as much as possible about
the other country.

     After the research is complete, each student must write "A
Day in the Life of the other student."  The paper should include
what each student thinks the other student's life is like.  What
are schools like?  What do the students do for fun?  What kind
of work/responsibilities do they have outside of school?  What
is family life like?  What are most students' attitudes about
the future?

     These questions should be answered to the best ability of
the student who has researched the other country.  So If John
Smith, of Reynoldsburg, is working with a student in Japan, he
would communicate with a student from there, and then begin
research, using as many sources as are available to him.  He
will then write a paper entitled "A day in the life of ______."
The student in Japan will do the same thing, studying the
American student.

     When the papers are finished, they are sent to the student
in that country.  When each student receives the paper about
their life, they will critique it. Obviously, they will discover
mistakes.  John Smith may not understand how Japanese life has
become modernized while the Japanese student may have false
assumptions about what Americans do with their leisure time. 

     In the critique, each student should point out which
observations are correct and which are wrong.  Then each will
write about what their day-to-day life is really like.

     In this way, the students will use research tools to learn
about real people in other cultures, and have the opportunity to
separate myth from fact - stereotypical prejudice from actual
social behavior.

As engaging as projects such as these are, please don't stop reading here and race to your lesson planbook! There are other powerful activity structures to follow.

Global Classrooms

In this variation upon the "group-to-group keypals" activity structure, two or more classrooms (located anywhere in the world, of course) can study a common topic together, sharing what they are learning about that topic during a previously-specified time period. For example, students in Strongsville, Ohio invited others from around the world to join them in their study of environmental issues related to the observance of Earth Day with this call for participation:

Join high school students around the globe in a shared
commemoration of Earth Day 1993 by reading and responding to
Robert Frost and Maya Angelou's Inaugural Day poems.  Students
from Strongsville, Ohio, USA will compile and re-post your
writings, dreams and reflections as a collective vision for a
cleaner, healthier and life-enhancing planet.  Ideas you might
want to consider:
     - Do you share either poet's feelings about the Earth, her
	peoples, our shared destiny?
     - Which poem speaks to you, and the '90s, most clearly?
     - Are Frost and Angelou writing about the same issues?
     - How has the state of the planet changed since John
	Kennedy's day?
     - How will Bill Clinton live up to the challenge voiced in
	each of the poems?
     - What sort of response is implicit in each poem?

Please send your paragraph-length responses and any comments or
suggestions by e-mail only to: David Lackey, Strongsville H.S.,
at ar683@cleveland.freenet.edu.  This project is sponsored by
Project Common Ground, a student ecology network supported by
the Ohio EPA and The Ohio University Institute for Democracy in
Global Classroom projects often address current issues and problems for which there are, as yet, no solutions. Bill Parks, a UNICEF volunteer from the United Kingdom, for example, leads weekly discussions on such issues of direct relevance to children via the KIDPROJ electronic mail list (LISTSERV). Here is a sample of children's responses to his question concerning safety:

Keep Us Safe

No, kids are not safe. Kids should not be getting in people's
cars if you do not know the person.  Your parents can keep you
safe.  And your uncle and your aunt and your sister and your
brother can keep you safe.  Kids can be safe in school.  Do not
let anybody in the house if my mom is not home.  If a person
steals something I will call the police. We can get all of the
bad talking out of the world. But you can not be safe anywhere.
And wars can not save you. Dedrick will try to help some kids
when he goes to work. 
He will try to give medicine for the children.

by Felicia, Timeka and Dedrick
There are all kinds of war like World war 1 and worldwar II and
Vietnam war.  There is a Vietnam memorial. And my Poppop was in
it.  If children were in the middle of it they would be

by Phillip
We are not safe because of gangs, drugs, abuse, fires and crime.
And there has not been one day that I have not heard a fire
engine or a police car.  Safety is when you have shelter and
protection. We can get a metal detector so they can't bring
weapons to school.

by Alexis
Sometimes you are safe.  It is scary to get hurt.  You have to
be careful.  Watch out for each other.  In the future lots more
people are going to get killed.  There is too much violence in
this world.

by Darius
We can stop people from fighting each other and try to get

by Troy

Many teachers feel that by helping young people from different, often distant, places to come together to talk about the world's problems, real solutions may be implemented when these children grow to adulthood.

Electronic "Appearances"

Electronic mail, newsgroups and electronic bulletin boards can also "host" a special guest, with whom students can correspond either asynchronously, as is most commonly done, or in "real-time" (with the guest and the students typing back and forth to each other synchronously, using a chat feature that is available with many electronic mail systems).

One such "electronic event" was held in Academy One on the National Public Telecomputing Network's Cleveland Freenet this past fall. Nobel Laureate Paul Berg had a "virtual visit" with high school students from many different states, provinces and countries. The plan for participation in the electronic meeting was announced, in part, as follows:


General Description of the event:

When: Tuesday, September 21, 1993

Dr. Paul Berg, one of the principal pioneers in "gene
splicing" will be meeting with high school students in the
Los Angeles area to answer questions they might have on
the subject of gene splicing and the structure and function
of DNA..

Academy One will be extending this meeting to the online
community.  The meeting will begin at 0900 PDST.  A summary
of the progress of the meeting will be posted to a special
listserve (a-1special@nptn.org) approximately every 15 minutes. 
Schools can subscribe to this listserve following the directions
below and read the updates as they are released or when it is
convenient to them.

At 1000 PDST an IRC chat on the YFN will begin on channel
#Berg.  Schools may come together in this electronic "cafe" to
talk with each other about genetics and to "electronically" join
the meeting in progress in California. 

Students from the California audience will be able to view
the IRC chat via an overhead projection system.  This will make
the "local meeting" an international meeting via the online
environment and Dr. Berg will be able to answer questions from
schools in other areas during this IRC chat.

Dr. Berg supplied a paper that he had written on gene splicing, and a .gif encoded picture of himself via the Internet that students could use to help them to prepare questions for the electronic meeting. The fact that the Internet can connect subject matter experts directly with students, so that they can engage in inquiry-based dialogue either synchronously or asynchronously, is an exciting, but as yet underutilized aspect of the network.

Electronic Mentoring

Internet-connected subject matter specialists from universities, businesses, government, or other schools can also serve as electronic mentors to students wanting to explore specific topics of study in an interactive format on an ongoing basis. For example, a "matching service" called the Electronic Emissary, based at the University of Texas at Austin, helps volunteer subject matter experts from all over the world and teachers and their classes find each other, structure a mentoring project, and share what they learn together by communicating with electronic mail.

Students can also serve as mentors to other students. Kurt Grosshans' advanced placement chemistry students in Virginia, for example, are providing answers to science questions that students from all over the country pose as part of a service called Ask Mr. Science.

Once again it is time to ASK MR. SCIENCE. This is the third year
of the project and I would like to thank all of you who have
participated and to encourage those who have yet to write to do

    Project Description.
    Have your students post any science based question to:


    There is no limit to the possible topics they can draw from.
    Astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, ANY

The question(s) are then assigned to my ap chemistry students
and they will research and formulate a reply within 48 hours.
Answers will be returned to the sending address. I only ask that
you limit the number of questions per posting to five. However,
you may post to Mr. Science as many times as you wish.

Other online mentors can take on more fanciful characterizations, as in the case of impersonation activity structures.


Impersonation projects are those in which any (or all) of the participants communicate with each other "in character." At the University of Virginia, for example, educational history professor Jennings Waggoner "became" Thomas Jefferson via electronic mail for several local elementary classes studying Virginia history. In Characters Online, an Internet-based project sponsored by the Nebraska State Department of Education and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, undergraduate preservice teachers used electronic mail to impersonate the main characters from books that students in elementary classes in eastern Nebraska were reading with their teachers.

A favorite telecomputing impersonation project has been conducted on the FrEdMail network in November and December for the past nine years. The project's primary character is one familiar to many students in the world.

Project Name:  The SANTA LETTERS                
(c) October 1, 1993
By Dennis Cowick  FrEdMail Foundation
a favorite annual FrEdMail project since 1984.

Date:    November 12, 1993 to December 10, 1993

Purpose: Improve writing skills in primary and upper
         grade students, and produce many student-authored
         papers for reading.

Subjects: Language arts

Grade level: Students in grades K-1 or 2 write letters to
"Santa."  Students in grades 7-12 reply as "Santa."

Summary: This letter exchange, pairing classes of elementary
students with Jr/Sr High students is one of the oldest and most
successful telecomputing projects. Best of all, it is simple:
1) Primary students write letters to Santa using a word
2) Secondary students write back, pretending to be Santa.
3) The letters are exchanged as electronic mail

Number of participants: Unlimited

  Dennis Cowick
  Mark Twain Junior-Senior High School
  San Diego Unified School District
  San Diego, California

In the California Missions project, coordinated by Nancy Sutherland from the FrEdMail Network, 21 fourth grade classes in California (one for each of the 21 California missions) wrote and shared fictitious journal entries that described the lives and aspirations of people who participated in the missions in the early and middle 19th century. Ray Medeiros, from Dighton Middle School in Somerset, Massachusetts, organized a collaborative exploration of Colonial America by posting an article on a FrEdMail bulletin board that began like this:

Have your students ever read the heartwarming letters written by
post-Revolutionary war settlers Patricia and Peter Carpenter of
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Or those of their children--David, a
fur merchant, and Sara, who married a Susquehannock Indian?
Probably not, because my students at Dighton Middle School made
them as part of an American history project we would like to
share on-line with 3rd through 10th-graders around the country.

Registration information, a project overview, and materials are
in the attached file.

In the context of his project, Colonial Computing, students at different sites formed fictitious Colonial families, and exchanged letters that contained historically accurate details of Colonial American life.

Clearly, this is a rich and motivating way for students to use telecomputing tools to help them to explore history, literature, and current events in dynamic, interactional contexts.

An Educational Telecomputing Archive

Would you like to learn more about any or all of these innovative educational telecomputing projects? If so, there is an Internet file archive subdirectory made just for you. Use the ftp command (described in the December/January 1992-93 "Mining the Internet" column) from your electronic account, or the ftpmail gateway service (presented in the April 1993 "Mining the Internet" article) via electronic mail to anonymously access the Texas Center for Educational Technology's server at this address:


Once connected, look in the subdirectories contained inside:


...to find additional details on the activities mentioned above, plus descriptions of telecomputing projects from other "activity genres."

In the next "Mining the Internet" column, I will share examples of educational telecomputing projects that can be classified as six different types of information collections. Until then, if you would like to share your ideas for telecomputing activities with me (and with other visitors to the tcet.unt.edu archive), please send your activity descriptions, via electronic mail, to me at the address listed below.

[Judi Harris, jbharris@tenet.edu; 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.