Why Use Activity Structures?

by Judi Harris

December-January 1997-98 "Mining the Internet" column
Learning and Leading with Technology
copyright 1998, International Society for Technology in Education, Eugene, Oregon
Do not reproduce without prior permission.
Obtain redistribution permission from ISTE's Permissions Editor at:  permissions@iste.org.

What have you already learned to do with the Internet? Please take a moment to remember and make a list. (Go ahead! I'll wait.)

Does your inventory look something like this?

In reviewing the list, do you see any patterns? I see at least one that is important to our thinking as educators, and which points to a primary theme in this column. Most of our Internet-related learning to date has been about tools; specifically, software which can help us to locate and create information, either individually or collaboratively. When weíve been learning about the Internet, for the most part, we've been learning to use Internetworked tools.

Yet, as teachers, we know that tools, no matter how powerful their educational potential, donít directly help our students to learn. What's important is how we use the tools to assist teaching and learning. In other words, there is a big and important difference between:

Operating Internetworked tools is an important, but merely prerequisite step toward creating powerful telecollabortion and teleresearch in our classrooms. How to apply the tools in curriculum-based educational activities, although less frequently the target of careful thought and in-depth investigation, is a much richer, more complex, longer-term, and more critical area for educators to explore at this point in time.

Why haven't more of our workshops, conference sessions, and Internet-related publications addressed how to apply Internet-based tools in elementary through secondary curricula? There's a common, but usually unstated, assumption held that explains the pattern. It presumes that learning to operate hardware and software is most of what is involved in successfully integrating use of computer-mediated tools into our classrooms. How to create and enact successful educational applications which integrate use of software and hardware is assumed to be obvious, once the tools themselves are known. This is part of what Seymour Papert long ago dubbed "technocentric thinking" (1987, p. 22). The tool, in and of itself, no matter how powerful its features, cannot make learning happen. The toolís user/teacher, no matter how technically competent, enters a related, but distinct realm for inquiry when s/he plans for educational application of any new tool. It is into this educentric realm that I invite you.

Lesson Plans? Not!

Did your list of what you have already learned to do with the Internet include any curriculum integration work? By now, I'll bet that some of you have participated in professional development activities that were designed to help you consider how to use Internet tools and resources in your curricula. Since Iím already wagering here, I'll speculate some more. In these curriculum integration sessions, were you told about successful projects that worked well in other classrooms? Shown places to go online that contained large collections of lesson plans and project examples? Encouraged to try these ideas in your own classroom?

"What's wrong with that?" I hear you thinking. "Real-world applications that work in real classrooms with real students are far more helpful than college professors' theories!" (Don't worry; I wonít take that thought personally.) I agree with part of what you may be thinking on this issue. Stories of activities and projects that worked well in other teachers' classrooms are indeed helpful to us, but in a manner perhaps different than the one with which you may be familiar.

Can you remember an instance in which you "borrowed" an idea for an activity or project that had worked well in another classroom? The idea might have been successful with students of similar ages, backgrounds, and interests as your students'. The curricula for both groups of pupils might have been comparable. And yet, think back and remember what happened when you last tried to ìplug and playî an idea from another classroom into your own. How well did it work? How well did it really work? Not so well, eh? If it was successful, think carefully about what you did while you were planning its implementation. You had to change it a bit to get it to work well with your students, didn't you? And, if you didnít think to do this - perhaps when you were much less experienced as a teacher, or when you were particularly pressed for preparation time - the activity fizzled, now didn't it?

Why is this so? Why does the same educational activity triumph in one classroom and falter in another, even when the students, curriculum, and materials are very similar? As teachers, the answer to this question is obvious to us. Conditions among classrooms are quite variable. Students are different; teachers are different; resources available for teaching and learning are different. Prior experiences and content-related comprehension for both teachers and students are different. Group dynamics are different. Differences can even be caused by the time of day, week, month, or year at which a new activity is introduced. Think about what your students are like at the beginning of the day, just before lunch, just after lunch, and at the end of the day. If you didnít know better, on some days, you might suspect that they werenít the same people with whom you had been working since the beginning of the year. Now contrast the students as they behave during the first week of school, the last week before the winter holidays, and a week in late February. Same class? Not really. If we know of these biologically-, psychologically-, socially-, historically-, and temporally-rooted differences among studentsí receptivity to educational activities, then whydo we believe, even for a minute, that we can successfully "plug and play" someone elseís wonderful project into our classroom?

The answer, of course, is that most teachers don't really believe that learning to apply a new tool educationally is just a matter of "plug and play." Most of us know to ìtweakî an idea to fit the unique nature of the context (learning styles and preferences, teaching styles and preferences, past experience, resource availability, etc.) in which they work. We expect to learn from mistakes and unexpected reactions when an idea is first implemented. Yet we know from both experience and research (e.g., Rogers, 1995) that tweaking someone elseís idea isn't nearly as satisfying, or as effective, as designing an activity that fits the unique combination of factors that present themselves in any particular classroom at any particular point in time. Reinvention; the process of taking something like a new tool or idea and making it our own in its application, is very important to both teachers and students. Feelings of ownership are crucial if new tools are to continue to be employed in ways that will benefit users. This is what is known as true adoption of the innovation (Rogers, 1995). Think about it: which is more satisfying - watching an original idea that you created succeed, or observing someone elseís idea that you borrowed and tweaked get a good reception?

When we are asked to wade through large collections of lesson plans, replicate projects from other classrooms, or follow overly-prescriptive directions for educational activities written by folks who canít possibly know our students as we do, we are asked to ignore much of what experience and reflection have taught us. Using Internet tools and resources in our classrooms in ways that will benefit students and teachers - in ways that are truly worth the time, effort, energy, and expense - call upon us to function more as instructional designers than direction-followers. Creating and implementing learning activities as a designer is an artisanís endeavor. I speak to you as that artisan; analogously, as chef rather than cook; conductor rather than metronome; educator rather than automatron.

I can hear what some of you are thinking now: "I donít have time or space in my curriculum to be an artisan!" It's true that as the years pass and our schools and communities change, preparation time for teachers dwindles, while demands for additions to our curricula increase in number and complexity. So, I won't be suggesting that you "reinvent the wheel" or add anything more to your already-crowded program. Instead, I will propose the use of some "wetware tools," or thinking apparatus, that will help you to engage in the important design processes that we know are essential to powerful, regular use of new tools in our classrooms. These thinking tools are created in such a way that they can assist your design work in a time-efficient, energy-conserving manner.

Is it "worth it?"

What's one way to save time and energy in our classrooms? Choose educational activities that give students maximal return for the amount of time and effort that all of us must expend to ensure success. There is a point of diminishing returns, the ìlocationî for which each of us estimates when we consider the implementation of a new technique. In a phrase, we decide whether the new application is worth it. In terms specific to educational telecomputing, is a particular use of an Internet-based tool or resource in a particular situation for a particular group of students and teachers worth the time, effort, expense that it will take to use the tool or resource in this particular way? Note that this is not a unilateral decision about all Internetworked information and implements for all time. Instead, the "Is it worth it?" test is applied each time the use of the Internet is considered in an educational situation. That implies that answers to the "Is it worth it?" question will change as people and resources change. The ease and speed of Internet access in your school and classroom will continue to change. What is possible and available on the Internet will continue to change. As you and your students learn more about and do more with Internetworked tools and resources, you will continue to change, too.

How can we best make this decision each of the many times that we will be called upon to do so, to help others in doing so? I suggest that, keeping in mind a specific, feasible educational use of the Internet, and in terms of both content and processes that students need/want to learn, we consider the honest answers to two questions:

If the honest answer to both of these questions is "no," there is no reason to use Internet tools or resources in the way that we are considering. Our time, effort, and resources would be better used in another way. In any particular instance, if using traditional tools and approaches can allow students to learn just as well or better than using new tools and approaches, it doesnít make sense to use new tools in traditional ways. It isn't "worth it" to do so, for students or for teachers.

This implies that when we do use these new tools, usually it will only be "worth it" for us to do so if they can be applied in new ways to help new and worthwhile things to happen in our classrooms. "Well, that's obvious," you might be thinking. Perhaps. Yet, whenever we are offered new tools, something interesting happens. Most of what we initially do with the new tools looks very similar to what we did with older tools that were functionally similar to the innovations. When teachers first began to use electronic mail and electronic bulletin boards in elementary, middle-level, and secondary classrooms in the early 1980's, for example, what kinds of projects were most prevalent? Keypal projects! This pattern makes sense if we realize that electronic mail was first seen with reference to its similar predecessor, surface mail. Penpal projects, using paper, envelopes, and stamps, were successful educational activities in classrooms long before networked computers were in the world. At first, electronic mail was seen as faster surface mail. Later, as users continued to experiment with and exploit this global communications tool, our visions of how e-mail can be used for educational purposes expanded. Now there are at least seven different ways (of which keypals is only one) that interpersonal exchanges can help students to learn.

How can we, as teachers, use telecomputing tools and resources in powerful, curriculum-based ways that are "worth it," making sure that we function as instructional designers without overburdening an already-challenging workload and schedule? We can consciously utilize a set of design tools, along with a wealth of corresponding real-world, classroom-tested project examples, to efficiently and effectively create curriculum-based activities for our unique classrooms. These design tools are not prescriptions, or step-by-step directions, or blackline masters. They are a special type of thinking tool that I call an activity structure.

Wetware Tools: Activity Structures

What's an activity structure? Let me begin by telling you what it's not. It's not a model, template, plan, mold, or example. It's a flexible framework, much like the wooden frame of a house or the skeletons in our bodies. Its basic shape is clear, strong, and simple, but, as with houses and humans, the same frame can support a myriad of different architectural or bodily expressions. The structure literally holds up the house, creating spaces for living. In a similar way, activity structures can support the generation of powerful educational environments, or spaces for learning and teaching, which are constructed, decorated, and used in customized and ever-changing ways, according to the needs and preferences of their inhabitants.

Want an example? OK. Please think of one of your very favorite educational activities to do with students; one in which the students are actively involved with their learning. (Now, really think of one, OK? I'll wait.)

In a moment, I will ask you to work with that sample activity in a particular way. To show you how I would ask that you examine it, I will give you an example from my own middle-level teaching experience. I taught sixth grade, all academic subjects, in a school just outside of Philadelphia, PA. In Language Arts class, instead of asking my students to memorize and use predetermined lists of vocabulary words, I helped them to form personalized vocabulary lists each week that were drawn from both their individualized and common reading in all subjects. In addition, to help them to develop their skills in recognizing and deriving meanings of words unfamiliar to them, we did "vocabulary sniglets." You remember sniglets, don't you? Rich Hall, their creator, says that a sniglet is "any word that doesnít appear in the dictionary, but should." (Hall, 1984, cover) Here are a few examples, excerpted and shared on the Web:

ACCORDIONATED (ah kor' de on ay tid) adj.

Being able to drive and refold a road map at the same time.

CARPERPETUATION (kar' pur pet u a shun) n.

The act, when vacuuming, of running over a string or a piece of lint at least a dozen times, reaching over and picking it up, examining it, then putting it back down to give the vacuum one more chance.

ELECELLERATION (el a cel er ay' shun) n.

The mistaken notion that the more you press an elevator button the faster it will arrive.

PHONESIA (fo nee' zhuh) n.

The affliction of dialing a phone number and forgetting whom you were calling just as they answer.

Enjoy more sniglets collections at these Web sites:

Anyone remember sniglets?

Do you see how examining the different parts of a word, and also their linkages, give us an understanding of the meaning of the whole word? I invited my students to construct sniglets out of phonemes in the same way, sharing them with each other and with me, emphasizing the resulting meanings that were created when different word parts were concatenated. We even wrote programs in Logo so that sniglets would be randomly generated by the computer. Our challenge was to deduce the meaning of the new "words," and find good uses for them in sentences and stories.

Now...how might educators typically classify that activity? As a Language Arts activity? A vocabulary activity? A middle-level activity? Letís study this example quite differently, so that you can understand what an activity's structure is. Let's "extract" both the content and the grade level from our description of the activity, and see whatís left. In this "vocabulary sniglets" example, students individually used units of meaning as building blocks in combinatorial action, then deduced definitions from the playfully-formed concatenations according to what they knew about the meanings of the individual units, and their placements with reference to each other. (Can you see how this description of the activity depicts only what what the students do, without reference to the content area or level of learning occurring?)

What follows is what is most powerful about an activity structure. How might the structure described above be used in a different content area, and at a different instructional level? (Yes, I'd really like you to pause and brainstorm answers to this question.) One way might be in secondary-level chemistry classes, when students are introduced to the periodic table and how elements combine to form compounds. What if these students could creatively form compounds, then research their stability (or lack thereof) according to the patterns of protons, neutrons, and electrons in each element being combined? Do you think that they might enjoy deducing what kinds of compounds (and chemical reactions) are formed (or not formed) when they combine elements of different types in differing amounts?

The same activity structure could be used at an early elementary level in an art activity, in which students combine paint in different primary colors to see what secondary colors are formed, and discover if they can predict before mixing the colors what hue will result. In a middle-level music composition class, students could similarly experiment with note combinations to form resonant or dissonant chords. In a high school geography class, students studying the development of different civilizations could use a simulation program to help them to create differing patterns of historical development which have their roots in geographic region, weather patterns, natural resources, population density, etc. Do you see how the same activity structure can be used for creating powerful, similarly-structured learning in many different content areas and at many different levels? How might the structure of the activity that you remembered be used successfully in different curriculum areas and at different grade levels?

The activity structure, then, is a teacher's instructional design tool; a piece of "wetware." It is a way for us, in our conversations with ourselves and others, to capture what is most powerful in a particular type of learning activity, and communicate that in such a way as to encourage the creation (not replication) of individualized, context-appropriate environments for learning. It's as if the activity structure is the frame of the house, resting firmly upon the conceptual foundation of this architectural approach to building potentially powerful learning spaces. The frame gives shape and strength to the actual learning activity, but it is completely flexible, so that the walls, roof, doors, windows, and decor are content-specific, student-centered, individualized according to preference and past experience, and reflective of locally available resources. The same frame can support many houses whose external appearances and intended functions are actually quite different. Which do you think would result in houses that are maximally serviceable and aesthetically appealing: limiting architects to a standard procedure for design with little room for variation, or inviting the exercise of their expertise and creativity? Would you rather live in one of many "little boxes," as Malvina Reynolds sang about in the 1960's, or in a more expressive creation? I suspect that our students would rather learn in spaces that are as unlike "little boxes" as possible. It is essential, therefore, to all of the inhabitants of the space, for us to practice instructional design in the traditions of architecture and crafting, rather than replication and assembly.

Telecomputing Activity Structures

Some of you may be wondering why I am emphasizing this notion of flexible frameworks for instructional design so forcefully. When you thought about the sniglets example above, did you figuratively shrug your shoulders and fail to be impressed with the notion? Did you think that activity structures need not be consciously processed, because we use them quite effectively without realizing that we do so? This may be so, with one important proviso. Specific activity structures are often limited in scope and application according to the tools and resources that are available for their implementation. In other words, existing activity structures are often best applied using existing instructional tools. Remember the "worth it?" test? If a particular educational use of Internet tools and resources is going to be "worth it," according to the definition that I suggested above, it must enable students to do something that they need or want to do, either that they havenít been able to do before, or they haven't been able to do as well. Using new structures to design curriculum-based educational telecomputing activities can help us to increase the chances that these applications will be both "worth it" and custom-tailored to the unique combination of characteristics that describe a particular group of students, working with a particular teacher, in a particular classroom, school, and community context.

There are 18 telecollaborative activity structures that I've identified to date. They group themselves into three genres of educational online activity.

Interpersonal Exchange

Information Collection and Analysis

Problem Solving

Want to learn more about activity structures for curriculum-based telecomputing projects? A more in-depth exploration of designing and directing K-12 telecollaboration and teleresearch was released as a book by ISTE in 1998, the second edition of which is due out in 2006.  It is called: Virtual Architecture: Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing, and was written by your humble columnist. As a matter of fact, you have just read most of the first chapter. <grin> I hope that you now want to read more.


Hall, R. (1984). Sniglets. New York: Collier Books.

Papert, S. (1987). Computer criticism vs. technocentric thinking. Educational Researcher, 17 (1), 22-30.

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: The Free Press.