Sharon D. Michalove
Editor, H-Albion
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 reason?

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 ceremonies?

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 high schools.

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 electronic mail.

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 ( 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 Harris reported:

"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 the owner.

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 learning.

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 with me.

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.