Articles on Professional Development

[Electronically reprinted with permission from The Computing Teacher journal, published by the International Society for Technology in Education. This article appeared in 1989, volume 16.]

Observations on educational electronic networks: The importance of appropriate activities for learning

remote.gif (536 bytes)James A. Levin, University of Illinois
Al Rogers, San Diego County Office of Education
Michael L. Waugh, University of Illinois
Kathleen Smith, Champaign School District

The uses of long-distance computer networks are becoming increasingly attractive for educators, as the price of modems and communication decreases, and as communication software slowly becomes easier to use. Once we have purchased modems and interface cards and mastered complex communication programs, several questions remain to be answered: what are appropriate network-based activities? How can networks be most effectively used for education?

Since this is a new frontier for education, these questions are by and large unanswered. However, in this paper we will describe several network-based activities, and by contrasting successful with less successful ones, try to sketch out some general guidelines of how to explore this new educational tool.

An obvious but not-very-successful use of electronic networks.

Once a teacher thinks of electronic networks as a means of communication rather than just a way to access information, one activity that occurs to many new users is some form of "electronic pen pals". Teachers have their students write pen pal letters on their word processor, send these out on a network, and then hope that teachers and students elsewhere (hopefully somewhere exotic) will respond. Here are two of many such messages from new users on the FrEdMail network, an electronic bulletin board network distributed across more than 70 schools across the United States (Rogers, 1988):

From: $IDEAS
Sent: Mar 29, 1988, 11:48 AM
Subj: looking for correspondence
From: [teacher]

[teacher's name]

From: $IDEAS
Sent: Mar 29, 1988, 3:38 PM
Subj: pen pals
From: [teacher]

Hello!  My name is [teacher's name], and I am a Jr. High
School Science teacher at [school name] in [city name].  Our
home room is looking for a class that would like to be pen
pals with us.  Any grade level is welcome. If you are
interested, please contact me as soon as possible.  We look
forward to hearing from you!

These are fairly common initial messages from teachers who have just joined a long-distance communication network. In fact, we ourselves went through this process - in one of our first explorations of long-distance networks, we started with exactly this same kind of activity (Levin & Kareev, 1980; Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1986). Electronic Pen Pals seems like a productive way to start out a network interaction: students are motivated, they can write for a distant audience, they may learn about different cultures through their interaction with their electronic pen pals. However, there are a number of non-obvious problems with this activity, especially when used as a whole-class introduction to the use of electronic networks. Here is a message that was sent in response to the two messages asking for electronic pen pals.

From: $IDEAS
Sent: Mar 31, 1988, 12:32 PM
Subj: Why pen pals is a bad idea.

I've been noticing several calls for "electronic pen pals".
While this seems like an attractive use of the network,
especially as an initial project, I would like to warn folks
against this activity, and instead urge several alternatives
as kinds of network activities to become involved in.   Here
is the sequence we've seen too many times in the course of
our work with instructional networks.

1. Your students work hard to write pen pal letters on a
word processor.  There is a lot of excitement and
motivation, and this seems like a productive activity.
Finally, you send off the pen pal letters to another site.
The next day your students ask if responses have come back
yet (they know they have been sent electronically, and so
therefore their pen pal messages got there "instantly", or
at least overnight).  There are no responses.  The next day
they ask again, and the next, and the next ...

2. Finally, weeks later, responses come back, but only for
SOME of your students.  Those who got responses are excited,
but the others are disappointed.  You try to get them to
respond, but its difficult to motivate those who didn't get
responses to write again.  You try to get rapid turn-around,
but school assemblies are scheduled, Johnny misses his turn
at the computer because he's sick, Mary misses hers because
of a field trip, etc.  Finally, weeks later you send out
responses, but only from SOME of your students (MOST of your
students that got responses).  NOW you understand why only
SOME of your students got responses.  Also NOW you
understand why YOUR students didn't get instant responses.
It takes weeks to organize a set of responses, and all
during the time you've been working hard to get your
students organized and scheduled on the computer to write
their responses, the students at the OTHER school have been
asking their teacher every day why your students haven't
responded yet!

3. Since only a smaller and smaller fraction of the students
at each school get responses, this activity rapidly dies
away, leaving everyone feeling vaguely frustrated and

What to do instead of penpals?

As an alternative initial activity to "computer pals", let
me recommend that you join one of the "project" oriented
activities currently ongoing on the network.  Read through
the $IDEAS postings for the past month or so and select the
one that is most interesting.  Its much easier to start out
by joining in with an ongoing activity, and then once you've
gotten a feel for how these networks work, suggesting new
ideas for activities.  When a new message relevant to the
project you're participating in arrives, all students will
be interested in it, and many will read it several times in
the process of carrying out the project.  When a "computer
pal" message arrives addressed to one student, other
students are much less interested in reading it, and none of
the students are very interested in reading it in much

If joining into an ongoing project seems too ambitious, or
if none of the ongoing projects seems appropriate for you
and your students, a better initial activity than computer
pals is to create and post a "class directory", in which
each student in your class writes a short description of
him/herself and what s/he is interested in.  You can post
this  directory on $KIDWIRE and then any students elsewhere
who read it and who have matching interests can establish
contact with your students.  If a cluster of common
interests appear in the directory, then someone (you, one of
your students, or someone elsewhere on the network) can use
that as a basis for organizing a new network activity
centered on that interest.

($IDEAS is a bulletin board for teachers to exchange ideas about network projects, and $KIDWIRE is a bulletin board for students to exchange messages on the FrEdMail network.)

This discussion is not to say that electronic networks should never be used for Electronic Pen Pal exchanges, but our experience strongly suggests that Electronic Pen Pals is not the best way to start out interacting on a network.

The Noon Observation Project.

Let us contrast the less appropriate Electronic Pen Pals activity with a more successful one, The Noon Observation Project. This project involved students in a number of locations in measuring the length of a shadow at noontime on a specified day, in order to determine the circumference of the Earth. Here is the first message that proposed and described this project.

Attached is the description of an interesting project for
gifted junior high or high school trigonometry classes.

This project has students making simple measurements of the
sun's shadow, sharing their data, and then calculating the
circumference of the earth.

This is a replication of the Eratosthenes of Cyrene experiment
of over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece.  A real, practical
experiment which will provide lots of practice using
Al Rogers

Purpose:       Use simple measurements and trigonometric
               calculations to determine the north-south
               circumference of the earth
Content Area:  Math, trigonometry
Grade Level:   Gifted 8th, 9th, or higher math  Trigonometry
Background:    Background information below describes how over
               2000 years ago Eratosthenes made a remarkably
               accurate measurement of the earth's north-
               south circumference.  This project requires
               collaboration of students in the northern and
               southern latitudes  of the US to make some
               simple measurements, share data,  problem-solve
               the algorithms required, and then replicate and
               share their results.

General Procedures:
1.  At least two sites must collaborate whose latitudes are
    different enough to give a significant difference in
2.  When at least two sites have signed up, a date will be set
    to conduct measurements.
3.  On the given date (or within a day or 2 on either side,
    depending on weather conditions) students will conduct
    their measurements outdoors at high noon, local time.
    Local time must be used, as with standard   time the sun
    varies in altitude depending on location within your time
    zone.  You can use this observation to discuss the whole
    concept of time zones, looking at their locations on the
    map, etc.
4.  Using a standard meter stick, at precisely high noon local
    time, each team of students (probably 2/team) will:
     a. hold the meter stick perfectly vertical
     b. use another meter stick to measure the length of the
        shadow cast by the vertical meter stick to the nearest
     c. Several measurements should be made by several
        different students or teams of students... the more
        the better.
     d. The longest length and the shortest length should be
        discarded. All others should be averaged.
5. This averaged shadow length, along with the standard time
   at which local high noon was observed, will be modemed to
   the other sites involved in the project.
6. This data, along with the precise latitude and longitude
   measurements for each site, should be enough information to
   use trigonometry to make a fairly accurate calculation of
   the earth's circumference.

Additional Details:  Additional details need to be worked out.
I will work with you in developing the remaining details.

1. I am not a mathematician myself, and thus don't have
   the actual algorithms required.  However, it strikes me
   that this could be the basis for some really good problem
   solving for your class.  Using your own "secret"
   algorithm,  this could be a "contest" to see who,
   using this data, gets the closest results.
2. Or, this could lend itself to some interesting discussions
   between the students at the cooperating schools to come up
   with a joint algorithm.
3. Preparation could include the drawing of pictures to
   illustrate the original Eratosthenes solution.  Also of
   value would be pictures illustrating this experiment.  You
   could mail these drawings to me. I will write up the
   results derived by participating schools and include
   samples of the best of these drawings, print them, and
   publish them for every participant in the project.
4. Plotting of each site on maps using latitude &
   longitude to nearest second will enable each site to
   calculate exact north/south distance, east-west distance,
   and then exact straight line distance between sites. North-
   south distance is essential to know to solve this problem.

How to participate:  Send a message to Al Rogers at
    SDCOE!AROGERS stating your intent to participate.  I will
    set up a private conference which will give us easy access
    to one another as we develop this project.

Deadline to Respond:  April 22 (giving everybody plenty of
                      time to have spring vacations, etc.)
Observations:         Week of May 2
Final Results Shared: Week of May 9

The following background information was downloaded from
Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia featured on

Eratosthenes of Cyrene
(air-uh-tahs'-thuh-neez, sy-ree'-nee)   The Greek
geographer Eratosthenes, c.276-195 BC, is best known for his
accurate calculation of the Earth's

[several more pages of encyclopedic information were
included here in this message]

Following this message were several messages from adults at different sites around the United States agreeing to participate in the project, which became known as the Noon Observation Project. Here is one such follow-up message:

Sent: March 27, 1988, 11:02 PM
Subj: Al's Noon Observation Project

We're excited by Al Roger's proposed Noon 
Observation Project.  I just checked my world atlas, 
and the north-south  distance between Alexandria 
and Aswan is about the same as the n-s distance 
between San Diego and Champaign.  So we should be 
able to do at least as well!  We're interested 
in giving this project a try.  I'll start working 
on an AppleWorks spreadsheet template, both for 
storing the data and for computing circumference 
from two sets of shadow measurements.  Also, I'll 
send tomorrow a simple method to calculate local 
noon, given your longitude.

Jim Levin

After several weeks, enough such messages were sent that the project could proceed. Then there were a set of messages organizing the effort. Here is an example organizational message:

Sent: April 17, 1988, 2:29 PM
Subj: Noon project...

... getting a nice array of participants... SF Bay area, 
Montana, Orange County, and perhaps a couple of sites in 
San Diego.... Will put all the pieces together this week.

Finally, the first week of May arrived, and shortly thereafter, messages reporting the data were sent. Here is one from Montana:

Sent: May 2, 1988, 9:02 PM
From: [teacher's name]


And here is one from Helix High School in California:

Sent: May 12, 1988, 1:14 PM
From: [teacher's name]

HI! MY NAME IS [student's name].  I'M A JUNIOR AT
HELIX HIGH SCHOOL. I'M IN [teacher's name]'S
ALGEBRA II CLASS.   MY FRIEND [another student's name] AND

Then a week later came the report of the Illinois data:

Sent: May 17, 1988, 8:56 AM
Subj: Noon Data
From: [teacher's name]


The eighth grade Pre-algebra class of Columbia Middle 
School in Champaign, Illinois has arrived at the angle 
needed for the "Noon Project".  The angle
is 23.04 degrees.  We measured on May 5, 1988. 
We will be glad to hear of the results.
        eight-grade Pre-algebra class
        of Columbia at Champaign, Illinois

There were then a set of messages discussing the analysis of the data. Although data came in from four sites, various problems arose that in the end only allowed the project to use the data from Champaign, Illinois and La Mesa, California, reported in the messages above. The estimated circumference of the Earth derived from the measurements in these two sites was within 1% of the current best measures. This is a surprisingly good estimate.

The data reported from Montana was collected on a different day from the other data, and so couldn't be used directly. Finally, the data collected from a second California site deviated quite substantially from expected, and would have predicted a negative circumference when combined with the La Mesa data. An exchange of messages revealed that this site collected their data an hour before local noon, having failed to take into account Daylight savings time, which had gone into effect shortly before the week of the data collection.

Finally, the students in Champaign sent out a summary of the project:

Sent: Jun 16, 1988, 11:10 PM
Subj: Report from Columbia 8th Grade

Here is a report from the 8th Graders at Columbia Middle
School, Champaign, Illinois on the Noon Observation Project
proposed by Al Rogers that theyparticipated in during the
first week of May.


Final report on the Noon Project from Columbia Middle School

   The 8th Grade Pre-Algebra Class at Columbia Middle School;
   Champaign, IL would like to take this opportunity to thank
   all the other schools who participated in the Noon Project.
   We enjoyed the experiment very much, especially since our
   readings with Mt. Helix were so accurate!  That was the
   best part.

  Let us tell you a little about how we arrived at our
  reading.  Well on Tuesday, May 3rd we broke the class up
  into 10 groups of 3 each and with meter sticks taped to book
  ends we went out to the black top playground.  We all split
  up and using computer paper taped to the ground we tried to
  measure the shadow our meter sticks cast.  We measured every
  minute for 10 minutes.  It was very windy so one person held
  the book end, one steadied the meter stick & the third
  measured.  We had a rough idea of what pattern the shadows
  should have  - a lot of them didn't fit the pattern.

  On Wednesday our teacher showed us all the data and we
  decided we hadn't been very accurate. There was more
  than a 10 centimeter difference between the longest &
  shortest shadows in some minutes, and no two groups agreed
  on what minute (actual noon) had the shortest shadow; also
  there was some question as to whether we had missed absolute
  noon.  So we decided to try again with a bit more
  organization and experience.

  On Thursday May 5th, armed with our meter sticks taped to
  book ends, we went out again.  This time we had 11 groups,
  and we lined ourselves up on the painted end line of the
  basketball court (in an area we thought looked most level).
  We took 12 - 60 second interval readings.  The wind was not
  as bad, and we were much better at keeping the stick still
  and marking an accurate shadow (where the dark edge

  When the data was displayed on the over-head on Friday we
  were delighted.  There was only a 3 centimeter difference
  between the longest & shortest shadows over the entire
  12 minutes, and 9 of the eleven groups reached their
  shortest shadow in minutes 6, 7 or 8.

  We decided then to use only those 9 readings.  We then threw
  out the longest & shortest of those and took the average
  of the remaining 7.  This is how we got the length for the
  shadow we used to compute our angle.

  Our teacher then told us about how to find an angle in a
  right triangle using the tangent ratio and we came up with
  our angle.

  After we sent it off we couldn't wait to get the
  results. When we found out how accurate we were with the
  California reading, we were proud of our effort.

  Aside from getting two class periods on the playground, we
  also learned a lot from the experiment.

  It was interesting to learn about what Eratosthenes figured
  out so long ago, and to do it ourselves in 1988.  We also
  learned about the solstice, the Tropics of Cancer &
  Capricorn, the way the sun shines at an angle, the pattern
  the shadows made, and how careful you have to be to be
  accurate.  We also felt the concept of circumference became
  clearer and we could almost visualize the curve of the Earth
  between here and California.

  So again, thank you to all the other sites, and we hope you
  enjoyed this Noon Project as much as we did.

       The Pre-Alg Class        at Columbia Middle School
       Champaign, Illinois


As indicated by this message, students learned a variety of things from this project, many of which bridge the content areas in the conventional curriculum. They learned mathematics in a meaningful context, got a better feel for geography, learned first hand the importance of careful measurement, they participated directly in dealing with the issues of data analysis and reduction, and learned some of the values of working jointly with others.

The role of the network in providing support. In order to learn about the role that the network played in this project, let us consider whether such a project could have been done without an electronic network. In terms of conducting a project which provides a practical context for mathematics skills, the class could have gone out and used their meter stick shadows and the shadow of the school's flagpole to determine the height of the flagpole, as mathematics teachers have done for generations. However, the network seemed to provide a highly motivating context for learning, both for the students and for the teachers involved. More specifically, it provided support in the following ways: 1) as a source of ideas, 2) as a supplier of tools, 3) as a source of diverse data, and 4) as a diverse audience.

First of all, the network serves as a source of ideas, suggested by students, teachers, or other adults elsewhere. Ideas for projects appear on a bulletin board, and those of interest can be picked up easily. Unlike source books of teaching ideas, the network provides an interactive environment, within which ideas can evolve through interaction.

Secondly, the network provides a means for distributing various diverse tools for carrying out the project. This includes not only the instructions and background information (such as those contained in Al Roger's March 1988 message above), but also computer-based tools (such as the spreadsheet mentioned in Jim Levin's March 1988 message above).

Thirdly, the network provides access to a diverse range of data, beyond that available at any one location. In this project, the diversity was the different shadow lengths measured at each site. Phenomena that are common to different sites, but that differ in some specific way are good candidates for successful network-based activities. On one hand, phenomena that are identical between sites provide little motivation for network communication : a project in which each site measured how fast a ball rolled down a ramp would provide little motivation since each site would report essentially the same data. On the other extreme, network projects are impossible if based on a phenomena that has no correspondence in some of the sites (a project between Illinois and southern California schools that involved measuring the depth of the snow on the ground outside the school wouldn't work very well if the schools in California never had snow piled up to measure).

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the network provides a wider and more diverse audience for the learning activity. Student data collection, analyses and project write-ups are aimed not just for the teacher (the usual audience) but also for a wider range of students, teachers, and other adults across the country or even around the world. Students' writing has been shown to improve when aimed at a wider audience provided by a network (Cohen & Riel, 1989). Our observation is that the same holds for students engaged in other sorts of network activities as well.

In general, the network allows us to use the diversity present in the world in powerful ways for education. Appropriate network projects are those that are located between the two extremes of too little diversity and too much diversity, activities that are based on some common ground, but that use diversity between sites as a point of focus.

The role of the class in providing support. Now that we've talked about the various ways that the network can provide support for learning, let us now consider some of the ways that the class structure can provide support for network-based activities. Just as we have classroom activities that don't involve any electronic network, so we can have network activities outside the frame of a classroom. Students could participate after school, or during their free time even while at school. However, one of the things we have learned from this Noon Observation Project is some important ways in which the classroom can provide additional support to network activities.

Let us contrast the Noon Observation Project with an earlier network-based observational project we conducted, called the Moon Observation Project (Waugh & Levin, 1988). In this project, students went home on the night of a first quarter moon, and measured the angle that the points of the crescent moon made to the horizon. This angle varies from place to place as a function of latitude, just like the length of the noon shadow.

When we conducted this project, some students failed to bring in an observation, others were not very careful about drawing the angle, and probably some students were not careful about making the observation at the specified time. The data reflected this by showing a large amount of variability, large enough to wash out small differences between sites that didn't have a very large deviation in latitudes.

One change we plan for this Moon Observation Project is to switch to observing the last quarter moon instead (which appears in the early morning sky rather than the early evening sky), so that the observation can occur during school time as part of a class activity. It will be harder for students to forget to make the observation, they will have peer models and teacher help in making the observations, and the class as a whole will have a shared context to make the analysis of the data more meaningful. It will also make it easier for the teacher to integrate the whole process into the ongoing curriculum. These are all ways in which the class can provide support for a network-based project.

Improved observations on educational electronic networks

While we consider the Noon Observation Project a successful network-based project, we still feel there are aspects that need to be modified. In this section, we will describe what we would like to change to improve this project. We will try to describe these changes in ways that point to general properties of networks projects, as well as this particular one.

One of the strengths of this project were illustrated by the summary message sent by the Columbia Middle School classroom, listed above. We would like to increase this sort of student involvement in the post-data collection aspect of the project. Part of the problem for this project was the lateness in the school year that the data was collected. But we also think more emphasis and planning should go into the post-observational phase. Students should be encouraged to look in detail at the overall data, try to identify patterns, and interact with the other sites to clarify any problems or issues that arise.

Students should be encouraged to work jointly with other students to develop presentations of the project, which could be a project for a school's science fair, or even a project for a TeleScience Fair (Levin, Waugh, & Kolopanis, 1988). This is a science fair activity conducted on an electronic network, with project descriptions submitted electronically, posted and judged by distributed judges, and then "visited" by students, teachers, and other adults electronically.

Another post-observational activity would be to write up the project reports for publication in a network-based newspaper or journal. In the area of science, we have explored the notion of TeleScience Chronicles (Levin, Waugh, & Kolopanis, 1988), an electronic journal with sections for student reports of network projects, as well as sections for review articles, discussion forums, book reviews, etc.

The main point of these suggestions is that networks can allow us to engage students in the full range of activities of adult scientists, including conference presentations, paper submission, review and publication, scientific debate, etc., not just as data collectors for some distant expert.

Finally, we would suggest opening up these activities, so that as students acquire the expertise, they can transcend the "known answer" aspect of the project and tackle extensions that would challenge even adult experts. Even with the Noon Observation Project, one such extension was suggested in a message that pointed out that an alternative to the round earth with distant sun hypothesis that Eratosthenes formulated is the hypothesis of a flat earth with a fairly nearby sun. The differing shadow length data fits both hypotheses. The challenge to the students and also to the adults involved is to find other directly measurable evidence that the earth is round. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to gather such first hand evidence.

These observations on educational electronic networks can guide the exploration of the educational use of these networks. It is already clear that electronic networks are very good for conducting certain kinds of educational activities that would be very difficult in a conventional classroom. It is also clear that they are not suitable for all possible activities. Discovering appropriate network-based activities is the most important challenge to those exploring education on the electronic frontier.


Cohen, M., & Riel, M. (1989). The effect of distant audiences on students' writing. American Educational Research Journal, 26(2), 143-159.

Levin, J., Riel, M., Rowe, R., & Boruta, M. (1986). Muktuk meets jacuzzi: Computer networks and elementary school writers. In S. W. Freedman (Ed.), The acquisition of written language: Revision and response. Hillsdale, NJ: Ablex.

Levin, J., & Kareev, Y. (1980). Personal computers and education: The challenge to schools. La Jolla, CA: Center for Human Information Processing.

Levin, J. A., Waugh, M. & Kolopanis, G. (1988). Science instruction on global electronic networks. Spectrum: The Journal of the Illinois Science Teachers Association, 13 , 19-23.

Rogers, A. (1988). Executive summary of work in progress: FrEdMail Project. Report submitted to the California Educational Technology Committee and the State Board of Education, July 1988.

Waugh, M., & Levin, J. A. (1989). TeleScience activities: Educational uses of electronic networks. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 8 , 29-33.

Waugh, M., Miyake, N., Levin, J., & Cohen, M. (1988). Problem solving interactions on electronic networks. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Meetings, New Orleans.


We want to thank everyone who helped make the networking activities described in this paper possible. The communication was supported by the State of California, the University of Illinois, San Diego State University, and by over seventy elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States, each with one or more truly dedicated teachers pioneering this new instructional frontier. We especially want to thank those teachers and students who participated in this project: Chris Martin and D. Starshi from Helena, Montana; Danny Blodgett from Montana City, Montana; Leigh Zeitz from Bell Gardens, California; Marsha Korobkin and the students of Helix High School, La Mesa, California; George Kolopanis and the students from Columbia Middle School, Champaign, Illinois; Naomi Miyake from Aoyama Gakuin Woman's College, Tokyo, Japan; Dick Riedl, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and David McMullen, Peoria, Illinois.