COLLEGE COMES TO THE COMMUNITY:
TEACHING K-12 STUDENTS ON-LINE
Assistant to the Chair, Department of History, UIUC
8:30-10:30 AM, Hilton, Bryant Room
Dear Learned Sage,
Did women in the Middle Ages wear make-up?
In the Middle Ages, is it true that the princesses wore cone-shaped
hats? And what type of duties did the pages have to do?
Were all the queens and princesses dressed real fancy for no apparent
How did monasteries print copies of books and bibles? And, what
types of teachers did they have in their schools? What was the
queen's and princesses' schedule for the day?
Did monks have to shave their heads in order to be in religious
These questions, and many others, were addressed to me-the
Learned Sage-by the Seekers of Knowledge, sixth-grade students
at a school in Houston, Texas. The queries came via e-mail as
part of the Electronic Emissary Project headed by Judith Harris
at the University of Texas at Austin. The Electronic Emissary
Project began in 1993 as a way of bringing the specialized expertise
of academics to students and teachers in elementary, middle and
In a recent article on the Emissary project in the "Mining
the Internet" column in Learning and Leading with Technology
(October 1996, International Society for Technology in Education),
Judith Harris and her staff define the Emissary project as
an Internet-based interpersonal resource that has been in operation
since February of 1993. It is global in scope, but is coordinated
from the University of Texas at Austin, and is funded by both
the Texas Center for Educational Technology and the JC Penney
Corporation. The Emissary is a "matching service"
that helps teachers with access to electronic mail 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 experts asynchronously via
Other support came from Project CIRCLE, which is a grant from
the U.S. Department of Education for the study of computer-supported
collaborative learning. Additional funding will allow the project
to continue to grow. The Electronic Emissary has a valuable web
site available and prospective participants may sign up via the
web site (http://www.tapr.org/emissary/) for possible inclusion
in the program. The web site also contains sample project descriptions,
project summaries, and research presentations. The Electronic
Emissary project is not confined to history. Topics that have
been explored by students, teachers and subject-matter experts
over the past few years include "geometry, geology, human
genetics, world events, desktop publishing, rainforests, marine
toxicology, chaos theory" and more.
Linking academic subject-matter specialists and public school
teachers and students may sound easy, and in fact, I as well as
the researchers at UT Austin, thought it would be easy. As Judith
"This is easy!" you might be thinking now. "Just
give people each others' Internet addresses and a few suggestions
about netiquette, and the conversations are sure to be successful!"
That's what we thought and had expected, also, nearly four
years ago, during the pilot phase of the project. We assumed
that if folks already knew how to use electronic mail and wanted
to communicate with each other, all that we needed to do was to
act as a virtual introductions service. We were wrong. We had
overlooked the very real challenges of time, medium, and differing
expectations. We quickly discovered the critical need and important
role for the online facilitator.
As I will note later in this paper, much more is involved in successful
collaboration than merely matching up a class with a subject-matter
expert. In some cases the project has had great success, in other
cases such as my own experiences, the results were mixed.
For each of the projects that I participated in, an account was
set up at UT Austin for the group and all of us-subject-matter
expert, classroom teacher, students, and online facilitator-
communicated through that account. All of the exchanges were
monitored by Judith and her team. For my own records I tried
to keep all of the various bits of correspondence.
As a subject-matter expert who has participated in the project
twice, the following remarks are based on my own experiences working
with both a sixth-grade class and a twelfth-grade class. In each
case, the students were working on projects having to do with
medieval studies. The sixth-graders were preparing for a medieval
fair to be held at the school, while the twelfth-graders were
doing projects that were to be presented to students in lower
grades. Both of these experiences had rewards and frustrations
for me as the subject-matter expert and I am sure this was also
the case for the teachers and students involved.
Before discussing the actual projects, I should give you a bit
of background about myself and why I was interested in participating
in the project. My own background is in education. I received
my bachelor's degree in the teaching of social studies
in 1972-the beginning of the teacher glut-and I
hold valid Illinois certification for grades 6 through 12. I
have a master's degree in library science and another in
history, and my PhD is in the history of education. While I do
not teach, I am the undergraduate advisor to about 465 history
majors and about 35 teaching of social studies students at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Now, back to the first project, which was with sixth-graders
at an inner-city school in Houston. The students were in the
gifted/talented program. The project coordinators carefully set
up the preliminary schedule for us. For the first two weeks,
the teacher and I were to come up with a project plan and then
communication with the students would begin. The projected time
allotted for working with the students was six weeks. Later,
all participants would complete project feedback forms and a one-page
summary of the project.
In our early communications, the teacher told me a bit about
the class. The ethnic makeup of the students was diverse-one-third
African-American, one-third Latino, and one-third white and other.
She described the project as follows:
Our students will be starting a major unit on the Middle Ages
during which they investigate all aspects of life in the Middle
Ages as much as a sixth-grader can get into this. We will have
interdisciplinary activities culminating in a big Middle Ages
Festival complete with lords and ladies for the day. Usually
the children make various articles they can barter, they make
castles, we have lunch of some foods of that period, and they
have a grand march. We even have had a siege of the castles with
the weapons they made. So, at this point, I think we will select
a small group to investigate with you your special expertise and
that small group will report back to the rest.
The first things that I did was to send the teacher a couple
of recipes for typical medieval dishes. For instance, the students
were interested in making trenchers when I explained that frequently
trenchers made of bread were used as plates and after the meal
were given as alms for the poor. I also prepared a bibliography
of some books that the students might find useful. Because I
was not comfortable with deciding which books would be appropriate
for these students, whose reading level was at the eighth-grade
level or higher, I collected some books and had a friend who is
the librarian for a local middle school look them over and comment
on them. This list was then sent to the teacher. I also suggested
some currently available compact discs of medieval music that
the students might be interested in listening to. As part of
the project, the students also watched the film versions of David
Macauley's books Cathedral and Castle.
One of the problems we ran into very early on was the fact that
the Middle Ages covers approximately a thousand years. The students
had some difficulty grasping the idea that one answer would not
cover the whole time period and that there would be variations
both by country but also by regions within one country. This
was without discussing how borders changed over the period and
other complexities of working within a large geographical and
chronological span. Therefore, I prefaced my first answer to
questions by saying,
Before answering your questions, I should tell you that the Middle
Ages covers a very long period of time and many places. That
means change occurred over all those centuries, making the answers
to your questions very difficult. What was true in one time or
place is not necessarily true at another time and place.
For example, the question on the killing of serfs [If a serf was
killed by a higher ranking person in society would the murderer
be punished, an if so how?] would have to relate to early in the
Middle Ages. After the Black Death, serfdom did not exist in
most of Western Europe. However, in Russia it lasted until 1861.
So you see the problem. However, to answer the question, if
the lord killed one of his own serfs, he would probably not be
punished, because the serf was his property. If the serf belonged
to another lord, the murderer would have to pay compensation to
Early on it became apparent that the teacher did not want the
students to address me by my first name and that the students
were not comfortable addressing me by name. Therefore we ended
up with my being addressed as the Learned Sage. The students
became the Seekers of Knowledge. A more serious problem was that
after a while I would get the same question from different students.
It turned out that instead of sharing information, each student
felt that the answer was private property. That meant that I
answered some questions three or four times and also undermined
one of the most important aspects of the Internet-collaborative
For me, one of the interesting aspects of the project was that
the students were very interested in tying in contemporary problems
to the medieval context. What that meant was that an issue, such
as wife-beating would be raised. I then tried to explain how
medieval attitudes would have differed from our own. My own participation
on lists having to do with medieval studies sometimes meant that
a piece of information would come my way and I could pass it on
to the students. For example, in the discussion of wife-beating,
I wrote to the students:
A question came up a while ago about wives killing their husbands
because they mistreated them. I thought you might be interested
in this note I received on the subject of wife-beating in the
Middle Ages and what attitude medieval people had toward it.
The Nibelungenlied is a medieval German story that was
the basis for the operas by Wagner.
"I've got one tidbit I was recently reminded of.
In the Nibelungenlied, after Krienhild and Brunhild have
had their fight, Krienhild expresses regret for her rash accusations,
and adds: ëI have since repented of my fault, and Siegfried
has beaten me soundly and taken ample vengeance for my having
said anything that vexed her' (trans. A.T. Hatto, Penguin,
p. 120). Both my students and I thought this approving mention
of wife-beating a little jarring, though we didn't do much
more with it."
As the subject-matter expert, I did feel some frustration during
the six weeks of working with the students because I really wasn't
sure what they were going to do with the information that they
received and I also had no idea whether or not they really understood
what I meant when I gave them answers. Part of the problem was
that the teacher was busy and so was I. Instead of a teaching
collaboration, my role was really that of Ms. Answer Lady. We
did not set up any sort of system so that the students would have
to put together their material and send it to me so that I could
get an idea of what they were coming up with from my responses
and any other materials they were using. The teacher wrote me:
The students have been working on their reports. I am not sure
what they are writing because I needed to teach classes so I just
let them work together on the computer to send their messages.
However, I did overhear some of their conversations and they
were very positive about what they learned.
Eventually she sent me a tape of the part of the festival so
I could see and hear the students' reports. My first reaction
was dismay. It was obvious that the students had frequently misinterpreted
my responses. On the other hand, as an experience in learning
how to use electronic resources, our sessions had obviously been
a success. The other encouraging outcome was that the students
genuinely seemed interested in the Middle Ages, no mean feat when
medieval studies is languishing in some institutions of higher
education. The teacher summed up her feelings, saying
Looking back on the whole project, I think it was a great success;
you were a source of information to those kids who did not have
access to other sources for those answers. Most of those youngsters
would find it difficult to get to a library that would have the
answers to some of their questions. In addition, they really
were proud of themselves. I heard one of them bragging about
their friend at the University of Illinois who was answering their
questions on the computer.
My conclusions at the end of this project were:
[The project] made me think about various questions and how to
answer them for a younger age group than I usually work with.
It also made me realize that students need help in understanding
that a particular historical period, especially one as broad as
the Middle Ages, was not monolithic. They also need help in understanding
that people at other time are not exactly like us in the way they
think and react.
I think that cooperation among the students should be stressed.
Essentially this group of students jealously guarded their information
and I had to answer the same questions over and over. Perhaps
a group project where the students must pool their information
to create a picture of a particular medieval society (i.e., peasant
life under Charlemagne, the court of Henry II, gentry families
in 15th century England) might be more useful.
I also commented that "I could have used more guidelines.
Part of the problem was that I didn't know what the students
were doing (or learning) in class. It would have been useful
to tie the e-mail experience more closely to the classroom experience.
A ëchat' method of communicating on an occasional
basis would have been nice."
In discussing this project, and several others, in an article
published as "Redefining Expertise and Reallocating Roles
in Text-Based Asynchronous Teaching/Learning Environments,"
Judith Harris and her co-author, Karen Ferneding Lenert, wrote,
This team's experience demonstrate how vital it is for
the SME and the teacher to attempt to establish a rapport and
keep in communication. [The SME] noted how there was "very
little communication" between she and [the teacher]. [The
teacher] did not share information about what was going on in
the classroom or how the students were reacting to [the SME's]
correspondence. [The SME] did not have any idea about the curriculum,
nor was she very sure about what [the teacher] expected from her.
The result of this silence was the students' growing misunderstandings
about the subject matter. The experiences of this team also demonstrate
how the structure of the CMC learning environment can affect the
quality of the learning experience for the students. Extending
and defining roles was challenging for this team. [The teacher]
adopted a rather limited definition of the SME's role and
therefore made no attempt to invite [the SME] into collaboration
within her role as teacher.
In spite of all this, I was asked if I would be willing to take
on another project in the fall of 1995. In this case, the students
were seniors at a small high school in rural Texas and were studying
the Middle Ages in their honors English class. After corresponding
with the teacher about the project, I was more hopeful about the
results of my second attempt at working with a group of students
online. The project seemed well-defined and I brought up some
of my problems from my first experience in the hope that they
could be avoided this time. The students sent me e-mail introducing
themselves and asking for information about their specific projects.
I decided very early on that instead of giving them answers,
as I had for the sixth graders, I would provide them with sources
so that they could look up the information themselves. I felt
that this was appropriate for students who would in most cases
be going to college the next year. I did realize that their library
resources might be limited, so I tried to suggest books that were
in print. The teacher told me that the school librarian agreed
to order some of the books that I recommended, so the students
were able to use up-to-date materials in completing their projects.
One of the first problems that came up was that the computer
connection for the high-school students was not reliable. The
teacher e-mailed to the facilitator and me: "As it stands
now, our Internet connection is down indefinitely." The
students were able to use computers in places other than school,
like the public library. The teacher also told the students "to
type out their questions for you ... and then I'll send
them to you from home, where I am now, as well as relay yours
back to them. It's a cumbersome system, which seems to
characterize the whole computer scene more and more for me these
days." Another computer-related problem was that the teacher
and students were never able to successfully upload the students'
project descriptions, so I didn't always have a clear idea
of exactly what each student was trying to accomplish.
Another problem was that the students were busy with other school
projects and activities, so they did not communicate very often.
Although the aim was communication with each student at least
once a week, I frequently only heard from them once or twice during
the project. One student wrote me that he was playing football
and was also on the track team. Another was also playing football
and running cross-country. This was not atypical for a group
of high-achieving high-school students but it did limit the time
they were able to spend on their topics and certainly in communicating
However, in spite of the computer difficulties and the busy schedules,
I think the biggest problem from my point of view was that these
projects were independent study projects rather than an integral
part of the students' classwork. That meant that the projects
were not always a high priority for them. In addition, since
I was not answering questions for them, they may have been a bit
frustrated with my replies, which were usually questions to think
about and books to read. For example, one student wanted to look
at the life of Thomas Becket. He had tried an Internet search,
without much success. I suggested that he try searching under
Becket rather than the full name as well as looking at general
material on the reign of Henry II and gave him some suggestions
for web pages on medieval studies that he might find useful.
A bit later I wrote him, "I have been thinking a bit about
Becket. While I realize that your project is primarily a study
of his life, the question you might want to think about is why
an apparently loyal servant and friend of the king changed his
habits and views so radically when he became Archbishop of Canterbury
(or did they really change)?"
Two of the students were doing a research project on Joan of
Arc. Their first query was very general-along the lines
of tell us what you know about Joan of Arc. As I explained to
the teacher and the facilitator, this was similar to requests
received on internet discussion lists such as H-Albion. Instead
of reeling off what I knew about Joan of Arc, I responded with
questions for them: "Discussing Joan of Arc might be easier
if you could tell me what you have already looked at (if anything),
and what you are exploring about her. For example, are you interested
in women's roles in the late Middle Ages and whether Joan
does or does not conform to them? Are you interested in literary
representations of Joan of Arc? ... Or are you interested in
Joan as a representative of the medieval peasant class and how
she, as a peasant, is able to influence the aristocratic knights
she leads into battle? Of course, there is always the issue of
medieval religion, Joan's voices, and how religion influenced
people's actions. These are just some possibilities.
You may have an entirely different idea." It turned out
that their project was to be a puppet show on Joan's death.
I suggested that they look at Shaw's "St. Joan"
for ideas on how it could be presented dramatically and I also
suggested a book of documents on Joan that contained the transcript
of her trial.
Refining their questioning seemed to be a useful tool for getting
them to think more clearly about the subject they were pursuing.
On the other hand, I was a bit concerned that the students might
find my answers off-putting since I was not actually answering
any questions, and in many cases I was actually asking questions.
The facilitator wrote me, "had you been my class'
SME I'd probably have thought, ëgolly, she tells me
to read stuff and gives me no straight answers!' As the
facilitator here, I say ëYES, Sharon, way to go!'"
Well, I didn't expect this to be my way to popularity,
fame, and fortune-but I felt that whatever the students'
thought, I was on the right track.
Near the end of the project, the teacher e-mailed me with some
of the results to date. She told me,
At present, I'm in the midst of individual conferences
with the honors students. It's encouraging to talk with
them and see a spark of interest and initiative in several of
them about their independent studies. ... My principal and I did
two hours of brain-storming last week on the over-all plan for
this Internet/independent study effort, and I am hopeful that
our students will gain knowledge and skills to help them in college
and beyond through what they are doing.
Unfortunately holidays, other work, and so on got in the way
of the collaboration-although the students did complete
their projects and present them, it was without further assistance
from me. In the end, the biggest problem for me was that I never
really got to see how the projects turned out and I didn't
feel that I had enough communication with each student. The teacher
was interested in involving me more with the class than in my
first experience but the lack of time, the fact that the projects
were not integrated into regular classwork, and the serious computer
problems kept this from being a totally successful project.
The Electronic Emissary project is definitely worthwhile, although
some fine-tuning is still needed. I would suggest a longer collaborative
period between the teacher and the SME is desirable. In fact,
planning in the first semester for a project to be carried out
by the students, as part of their regular classwork, would seem
to me to be the best way of having a successful result. The
closer collaboration between the SME and the teacher, defining
the role of the SME and the nature of the project would definitely
be helpful. Of course, reliable computer facilities, which are
not always available in the public schools is essential to the
success of the project. I felt that the computer difficulties
made the second collaboration much more difficult as well as time-consuming
for the teacher and students. Still, I did feel as if I learned
a great deal from both of these not-so-close-encounters of the
computer kind. I just hope the other participants did as well.