Online Communication

On-Line Activity Structures

Judy Harris Virtual Architectures:

Virtual Architecture Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing

Abstracted by Brian Newberry

Harris, Judi (1998). Virtual Architecture Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing. Eugene, Oregon: International Society for Technology in Education.

Dr. Judi Harris from the University of Texas at Austin is a recognized leader in the area of identifying and developing practical applications of technology integration, especially those that are Internet related. Her experiences as a classroom teacher have focused her writing on strategies and activities that are workable in the real world. Dr. Harris has written a number of books that present and explain her ideas from a number of perspectives. One of these books is Virtual Architecture Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing.

Dr. Harris notes that it is important to make a distinction between the tools that support telecomputing and the activities that put those tools to use. Obviously both are necessary components to successful integration of technology. Tools or technologies without purposes do little more than entertain or waste time. Activities without the supporting tools fail. Harris recommends that educators who have ideas about how tools can be used in their classrooms apply the "is it worth it" test. To be worth using, tools must allow students to do things they could not otherwise do, or the tools must allow students to do a much better job than they could otherwise do.

Accordingly, in this book, Dr. Harris spends little time discussing the tools, and much less time explaining how they work. She assumes that the reader has sufficient knowledge of tools to make use of them. Dr. Harris uses Virtual Architecture Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing as an opportunity to discuss the activity structures that have demonstrated themselves to be "worth it".

In Virtual Architecture Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing, Dr. Harris uses the metaphor of a house to relate and explain her ideas about the role of activity structures in the repertoire of the teacher. Activity structures are flexible and generalizable constructs that a teacher can contextualize and personalize to fit a variety of content areas, subjects or classes. This book presents three sets of telecomputing activity structures, interpersonal exchange, information collection and analysis, and problem solving. Dr. Harris notes that there is a great deal of overlap between the three types of activities and classifying them in this way is just one way of examining them. The interpersonal exchange activity structures are especially interesting and the rest of this abstract serves to point out some of the more useful interpersonal exchange activity structures. It will be noted that there are a number of similarities between several of the activity structures.

Keypals are activities that use electronic tools such as email, bulletin boards, threaded discussions or chat environments to provide opportunities for students to engage in communication with peers in other locations. Some classrooms use richer media such as videoconferencing. These types of activities are frequently viewed as an update of the traditional pen pals activity because they tend to be a form of individual-to-individual communication. Dr. Harris notes that keypal activities can pose a management problem for teachers, as it can be difficult to organize, track and monitor the interactions.

Global Classrooms
Global classrooms are activities where two or more classrooms study the same topic together. Real time chat environments and video conferencing support this type of activity quite well. Global classrooms differ from keypals in that global classroom activities are most often accomplished through group-to-group communication rather than individual-to-individual communication. This makes the management of global classroom activities less taxing for the instructor.

Electronic Appearances
Special guest speakers have long been used in classrooms. Electronic appearance activities extend this practice through the use of communication technologies such as email, chat and video conferencing. There are a number of web sites that help set up and coordinate appearances by high profile speakers. A big advantage of electronic appearances is that the guest speaker does not have to be physically in a particular place. In fact, the same speaker can appear in multiple geographically separated places at the same time. While most electronic appearances are synchronous, some are asynchronous in nature. Electronic appearances are typically one-to-group exchanges.

Telementoring activities bring subject matter experts into communication with a student. This provides an opportunity for the mentor to provide insight into careers, often guiding the student and offering a positive role model and providing subject mater information to the student. Technologies that are used in telementoring activities include email, chat and video conferencing. Telementoring activities are similar to keypal activities in that they tend to be individual-to-individual communications. However telementoring activities are different from keypal activities in that the participants are not peers. As with Electronic appearances there are a number of web sites that help connect appropriate mentors with students. The process of helping students find appropriate mentors can make this activity a management challenge for some instructors.

Question and Answer
Question and answer activities allow experts to serve as information sources to students. Like electronic appearances these types of activities can be one-to-group forms of communication. However in some question and answer activities individual students communicate with a single expert. These types of activities differ from telementoring activities in that there is seldom a personal relationship formed between the student and the expert. Often the questions and answers are archived publicly for others to use. There are a number of web sites that offer expert advice on a number of topics.

Online Role-Play (Impersonations)
Impersonation activities have an individual or small group taking the persona of a famous or notorious person. This role-playing depends upon the person(s) doing the impersonations knowledge of the person being impersonated. Because of this the impersonation tends to be carried out by a knowledgeable adult. These types of activities often use techniques similar to electronic appearances as well as question and answer activities. Students use email, chat, and web sites to hear from the famous person and to pose questions that the impersonator answers.

Peer Feedback
Long a staple of the writing process, peer feedback gives students the chance to share their work with others and to receive comments and suggestion that often results in improvements in the final product being made by the student. Web sites, email, threaded discussion, bulletin boards, and teleconferencing are technologies that support peer feedback activities. While written works are the prototypical things shared, there is no reason that richer media like teleconferencing can't support the sharing of performance works such as poems and recitations.

Simulations allow students to take on a role in a virtual environment. Such roles may be as a scientist, member of a wagon train or inhabitant of a space station. When students engage in these roles in an active and energetic ways they have a lot of incentive to use new ideas and language to communicate with others in the role-playing environment. In addition to web sites, email, chat, and role-playing environments, there are special software packages that facilitate role-playing and simulation, especially in the sciences.

If these activity structures interest you, please locate and read Virtual Architecture Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing. The book includes numerous examples of these activity structures as well as web resources that can be helpful in initiating

  • Interpersonal Exchanges
  • Information Collection Activities:
  • Problem-solving projects: