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You've Got E-Mail -- But Can You Make It Really Deliver?


So you want to do a classroom project on-line? Don't even think about hitting that Send button until you read this article in which author and educator Judi Harris shares what it takes to create a valuable on-line project. Included: Ten tips for completing telecollaborative projects successfully.

"The notion that kids 'go to computer class' is ridiculous. Kids learn how to use technology very quickly. What they need to learn is how technology can be used -- in their own classrooms."

Judi Harris, Associate Professor,
Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Texas at Austin

Your school is fully wired. Your classroom is connected through the Internet to virtually the entire world -- and you're itching to make full use of this powerful technological tool. In fact, you've got a great e-mail project in mind. How should you begin?

Let's start with a short quiz:

Which of the following is a good enough reason for your students to participate in an e-mail project?

   a. to learn how to send and receive e-mail messages
   b. to communicate with e-mail pals from other cultures
   c. to practice letter writing
   d. to research the chemical composition of the sun's atmosphere
   e. none of the above

According to Judi Harris, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin, the correct answer is e. none of the above. In fact, Dr. Harris told Education World, there's really no good reason to do an "e-mail project."

"All classroom projects need powerful, clear connections to the curriculum," said Harris, adding, "The most worthwhile projects connect to more than one area of the curriculum and involve more than one learning process. The most motivating on-line projects encompass both collaboration and research. Telecollaborative and teleresearch activities should only be done as part of curriculum-based projects.

"Teacher time is limited," said Harris, "and there's very little classroom time available for projects whose sole purpose is to teach students how to use technology."

"Teaching e-mail is not reason enough to do a project. Technology is a tool, not an end."

So how do you determine whether a project that uses collaborative technology is a good use of classroom time? Harris suggests the "Is It Worth It?" test.

"Before you begin a telecollaborative project," she said, "Look at the plan critically and decide whether it's worth it in terms of learning outcomes. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this use of the Internet allow students to do something that can't be done in another way?

  • Does this use of the Internet allow students to do something in a better way?

"If the answer to either of those questions is yes," said Harris, "then your project is probably worth doing."

"As teachers, we need to do what is our art and our craft -- which is teaching, not technology."

The challenge, Harris writes in Virtual Architecture: Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing, is to learn to "use telecomputing tools and resources in powerful, curriculum-based ways that are 'worth it,' without overburdening an already-challenging workload and schedule." You can do that, said Harris, by designing your instruction around "activity structures."

An activity structure, according to Harris, is simply a description of what students do in an activity, without reference to content or grade level. For example, kindergarten students mixing paints, elementary students forming compound words, and high-school students creating chemical compounds are all using an activity structure that involves combining existing elements to form new elements. The content and grade level are strikingly different, but the basic activity, the structure of the activity, is the same.

Existing activity structures, said Harris, are usually supported best by existing instructional tools. If Internet tools are going to be used to enable students to do something they haven't been able to do, or do as well, before, new activity structures, structures that are best supported by new instructional tools, must be identified and implemented.

"Focus first on the learner. Think about what kids need to learn and how they can learn it best. Don't be distracted by the question 'What can I use these tools for?' Ask, 'What can these tools do for the students?'"

Harris identifies 18 telecollaborative activity structures in three genres of on-line activity. Her site includes links to a number of activities and projects that support each activity structure. The activity structures include these:

  1. Interpersonal exchanges -- activities in which individuals or groups communicate electronically with other individuals or groups, such as
    • keypals
    • global classrooms
    • electronic appearances
    • telementoring
    • question-and-answer activities
    • impersonations

  2. Information collection and analysis -- activities that involve students in collecting, compiling, and comparing information, such as
    • information exchanges
    • database creation
    • electronic publishing
    • tele-field trips
    • pooled data analysis

  3. Problem solving -- activities that promote critical thinking, collaborating, and problem-based learning, such as

    • information searches
    • peer feedback activities
    • parallel problem solving
    • sequential problem solving
    • telepresent problem solving
    • simulations
    • social action projects

"Kids tire quickly of just talking about things. They need to be using information for a purpose."

Whether you choose to join an established telecollaborative project or dorganize a project of your own, some questions are bound to arise. What should you do first? What problems will you face? How can you ensure that the project is a success? To help you get started, Harris provided Education World with some tips for telecollaborating, with this observation:

"At first glance," Harris said, "the major problems of telecomputing appear to be technical ones. However, with appropriate support, technical problems are the easiest to resolve. The most difficult practical problem is time; finding time, scheduling time, and managing available time. Ultimately, however, the most important factor in the success of telecollaborative projects involves the culture of the classroom, the school, and the community. Telecollaborative projects will succeed best where the use of technology is part of the culture of the community and part of the teachers' professional work, where technology has strong administrative support, and where ongoing in-service programs exist."

"The most worthwhile telecollaborative projects are authentic projects, not those that are manufactured to promote computer use," added Harris.



  1. Develop a project plan that's specific and logistically manageable. Spell out guidelines for frequency and continuity. Telecollaborative projects, which involve getting kids on-line regularly, are hard to sustain.

  2. Establish a clear schedule, set interim deadlines, and send out reminders as deadlines approach. As organized as a classroom teacher has to be, he or she needs to be ten times more organized when working on-line.

  3. Be sure students have regular access to computers. Once a week in a computer lab is not enough time. For students to get the most out of a telecomputing project, they must be able to participate at least two or three times a week.

  4. Focus on the use of the tools, not on the tools. Ask, "How can I best use technological tools to help kids do things that are best done with those tools?"

  5. Manage projects in ways that encourage cooperative learning. Working together motivates students to think about questions when working in a group, assess what they've learned, think about and effectively formulate the questions they want to ask, and determine where they want to go. Cooperative projects help students develop critical thinking and questioning skills.

  6. Group-oriented activities prevent problems. Even absent any problems, it's almost impossible to manage projects if students have their own accounts.

  7. Studies show that most projects are actually less successful if kids have their own Internet accounts. Students get much more from projects in which teachers and students compose e-mail messages together, with teachers using techniques such as guided questioning.

  8. Expert advice available by e-mail is usually best for specialized information or clarification, and therefore most valuable for students with specific interests. Students should thoroughly research topics before contacting experts by e-mail.

  9. Most schools have acceptable use policies. Follow them, provide adequate supervision, and teach students how to behave responsibly while telecomputing. In addition, community education is essential, because the media has greatly exaggerated the dangers of Internet use.

  10. Most importantly, ask "Is it worth it?" -- and make that question part of a continuous questioning process.

"Telecollaborative projects require a community atmosphere in which teachers are also seen to be learning and in which that learning is seen to be a good thing."


Note: All quotes throughout this article are from an Education World interview with Judi Harris.