Help! I’m Lost in Cyberspace!

Antoinette Kranning and Lee Ehman

On a September morning, a roomful of fifth graders checking their teacher’s e-mail discovered a strange message: “Help! I’m lost in cyberspace...” it began. This event launched an exciting collaborative project involving an elementary classroom in rural Indiana and a college classroom in computer education. We call the project “Mystery from History.”

Mystery from History involves an e-mail exchange between students in Antoinette Kranning’s classroom at Perry Central Elementary School and pre-service teachers at Indiana University (IU) enrolled in an Instructional Computing Endorsement class taught by Lee Ehman. Using e-mail, the university students devise clues that pose a historical puzzle for the fifth graders to solve using reference materials from the library, texts, periodical literature, the Internet, and sometimes even their parents.

During the semester described here (the project is now in its fourth year), forty-eight fifth graders worked cooperatively in sixteen groups of three, while twenty-four university students worked in pairs. The pre-service teachers identified themselves by letters of the Greek alphabet—alpha, beta, gamma, and so forth—to conceal their identities and add to the mystery.

Antoinette began by introducing her class to the Internet and explaining e-mail. Each day thereafter began with students at Perry Elementary and the university checking their e-mail. Here is the initial exchange of messages between the Lambda groups:


[Sept 7] Hello! Hello! Is anybody getting this message?? I’m lost in Cyberspace and I don’t know if I am getting through to anyone! Please write back if you have received this message!!


[Sept 8] We got your message. Who are you? Where are you? We are fifth graders at Perry Central School. We live in Perry County, Indiana. Where are you from? Can we help? Signed, Darrin, Jenna, Becky


Because Antoinette’s computer was the only one connected to the Internet, her fifth graders composed messages on ten mobile computers available two days each week, and transferred them via disks to the teacher’s computer for sending. Antoinette herself kept a journal and shared it via e-mail to allow the university students to glimpse events in the classroom. An early entry describes the classroom after exchange of the messages above:


[Sept 13] A small group of students checked their e-mail and found a message for Lambda. It was wonderful! We printed it out and I asked Jenna to read it out loud to the whole class.

“Hello, Darrin, Jenna and Becky! I am so glad you were able to reply!” (Jenna looks up from her page and smiles.) “I am in Virginia, although I am originally from England. I thought that my years as a soldier and experiences in battle would help me to find my way through Cyberspace. Unfortunately, I am still having some trouble with this incredible new form of communication. Usually I have a good sense of direction. Once, I was captured and sent to Turkey as a slave. Luckily, I was able to escape and find my way back to England. I must go now because I have a lot of work to do today. Signed, J.S.”

Everyone sits quietly. “What shall we do about this message?” I ask.

“Answer it back!” is the reply.

“Yes, but how? What are you going to say?”

Everyone starts speaking at once. Mostly it’s telling sentences. I’ve got to get someone to start questioning the information.

Someone says, “Who is this person?”

“Oh!” I yell. “A good question! Maybe we need to ask ques....”

“It’s got to be a boy, it’s a soldier,” a boy responds.

“No, girls can be soldiers. If they want to fight for a cause they can pretend to be men so they can fight. I read a story like that once,” responds Lacy.

“How old is this person? I mean, are there slaves in Turkey now?” a student asks.

They look at me.

“I don’t think so....” I start to say.

Shon interrupts, “He was in battle ... (someone corrects this—‘he or she’) ... what battle?”

They all start naming all the wars they can think of. They don’t need the teacher any longer.

Aha! They’ve got it! They know now they have to ask questions to get information and I didn’t have to tell them. I let them brainstorm for awhile, and then I ask the Lambda group what questions they will ask. They have written down what they felt were the important ones.

They will now compose their letter. This was great! Everyone’s excited— including me. The Lambda dialogue continued for another week, ending with the mystery person’s identity, plus more information about him and a flurry of additional questions from the fifth graders:

[Sept 14] Dear J.S., Are you an American citizen? How old are you? What part of Virginia are you from? Are you male or female? Are you playing a game? What battle were you in? [We] want to know what your full name is. Signed, Jenna, Becky, Darrin

[Sept17] Dear Darrin, Jenna, and Becky, I will try to answer some of your questions, but I will not reveal my identity. You must figure that out for yourselves! I am in Jamestown, Virginia. I was born in Willoughby, England. I have fought in many battles. One battle I fought in the Netherlands [was] against the Spaniards. I sailed to Virginia with a group of people years ago. The Virginia Company of London paid for the trip. I am excited we are getting to know each other! I must be going now. I am a very busy man these days! Signed, J.S.

[Sept 21] Dear John Smith, Ha! Ha! We found out your name. We heard you were 415 years old. Did you really fight three Turks in duels? What year were you born? Pocahontas must have been very kind hearted. What year was it that you saved a colony from starvation? What did the Indians give the colonists? P.S. PLEASE ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS!! Signed, Jenna, Rebecca, & Darrin


The university students also kept journals. It is clear that over time these pre-service teachers gained a picture of real life problems using technology in an elementary classroom. Things did not always run smoothly. There were a lot of breakdowns with old equipment. The teacher needed to be very flexible with her plans in order to make them fit in with other curriculum demands.

Lee’s students gained experience in judging the knowledge level and thinking abilities of their fifth grade counterparts as they figured out the appropriateness of historical clues. They also learned that good teachers don’t always give answers, but insist on questioning and thinking from their students. One university student offered this reflection on challenging elementary students to use a range of evidence rather than jumping to the first possible conclusion:


I did observe that in their exuberance to solve a mystery, the students can get thrown off the track by not paying attention to all of the details in an e-mail message. When we said that our second mystery person [Louisa May Alcott] worked in a hospital as a nurse during the Civil War, the students immediately guessed that she was Clara Barton. They overlooked the fact that the message also stated that the mystery person later became a famous writer. I think that the Mystery from History project gives students a chance to practice finding the important details in a passage, and it also helps remind students to look for all [of them] before drawing conclusions about its contents.


Another theme in the college student journals was how much they were learning from Antoinette as their model teacher:


We also discovered important characteristics a teacher should have when allowing his or her class to use Mystery/History. [From] communicating with Matt, Lacy and LeAnna we can tell that Mrs. Kranning gives them a lot of freedom when they are working on Mystery/History problems. We receive “their” version of the questions asked and solutions. It is necessary for teachers to step back a little and allow students freedom when using technology.


An unanticipated outcome of the project was the learning college students experienced as they did research on their historical mysteries. Some complained that they had to do more work than the fifth graders, our obvious comeback being that this is an important responsibility and reality of teaching.

Situating the learning of history within the problem-solving framework provided by Mysteries from History was yet another important benefit. Excitement and challenge were key ingredients. One of Antoinette’s early journal entries gives the flavor:


Today was amazing. We went to e-mail at 8:15 this morning. They worked throughout social studies class. I could not believe that the students analyzed and researched so well. They are truly “learning by doing.” My room and the library were simply a factory of discussion, of problem solving, and of creativity! This is so exciting for a teacher! The students are using me as their guide and to tell me (as they are jumping up and down with their eyes shining) what information they have found. The astonishing thing for me was to see how well they put their facts together. One bit of information led to another fact and before long they are all huddled exchanging different things they have discovered. Even my difficult readers were gleaning info from others and making deductions and inferences.

The fifth graders worked hard to solve their mysteries, using sources ranging from library materials to the Internet to their own parents. They researched before school and during recesses and lunch periods. As their use of telecommunications became part of the everyday curriculum, their skills of posing questions, research, logical thinking and analysis, and collaborative problem solving improved dramatically. Some comments from the fifth graders’ journals reflect their learning:


I felt very excited and didn’t know what to think when I got my first message. The encyclopedia and my social studies book helped. I looked in my social studies book, Ashley looked in the encyclopedia, and Luke wrote down the information we found.

We all had an encyclopedia and every time one of us found something that was about him we would discuss it with each other. I did not expect to learn all about Thomas Jefferson.

I learned how to look things up better. I never knew what an almanac was until I started looking things up about our mystery person in it.


Antoinette’s “factory of discussion” image involves another key factor—the group process. Much was gained by basing mysteries from history on student groups rather than individuals. Individual creativity was magnified by group sharing, and cooperative skills were strengthened. Markie, a fifth grader, wrote in his journal:


We worked as a team to find the information we needed. One used the atlas and the other two used encyclopedias. We found that he [Mark Twain] lived by the Mississippi River. It was a little difficult because Samual [Samuel Clemens] was not very explanitory [sic].


Another positive outcome involved the elementary students’ metacognitive ability. The fifth grade students demonstrated a growing awareness of how they learned, and increasing ability to evaluate their own thinking and accomplishments. We emphasized this by asking the college students to prompt the elementary students to explain how they found information and how they put the parts together to solve the problem. Over time, the fifth graders began to explain these things in their messages without being prompted by their college partners. After correctly identifying George Rogers Clark, one group explained:


We looked it up in the encyclopedia to find out who you were. Kelly asked her brother and mom if they had any idea who it was. We didn’t look at any maps, but we used the clue about the fort [Ft. Vincennes, in Indiana].


Sarah, one of Antoinette’s students, wrote in her journal:


I’m really enjoying e-mail. I felt very excited when I got my first message. I felt great. I felt like I was a detective searching for clues to a mystery. Some of the clues that I was looking for were right in front of my face! The clues were just right. They were good enough to get with your group, decide the wrong answer, get more clues, then get the right one. Some advice I would give to a person who is just starting [to solve mysteries] is look EVERYWHERE for information. Especially your relatives.


In addition to showing that Sarah is reflecting on her own problem-solving processes, this excerpt also reveals another indirect benefit we experienced, that of parent involvement. Parents had no choice but to get involved when their child came home with questions about Woodstock, FDR, or the Vietnam War. Many were enthusiastic about getting involved in this project. Said one parent: “We had so much fun looking up the answers to the History Mysteries at home. I hope Kelly will share them with us again.”


Growing self-confidence was a key outcome for some of the young students. Antoinette’s journal tells Lisa’s story:


Lisa is identified as LD. Teachers tell me she has a very low self image, has a tough time working in a group, and is kind of nasty to other people. My Lisa is fascinated by the computers. Today she stayed in for recess and asked if she could watch me send e-mail for there were a few kids who didn’t get to send before our time was up. I told her, “Lisa, you can send the e-mail.” Lisa said, “I don’t know if I can do that.” Lisa worked with me for 15 minutes and she knew what she was doing. At the next class, Lisa stood over the shoulders of the groups and told them exactly what to do. The kids are listening to her and praising her for her help. She wants to know when she can train her next group.

Antoinette’s postscript: By the end of the year, Lisa really had a different attitude and she knew it. She was convinced that we (teachers and classmates) really liked her and that she had made contributions to the groups she worked with.


Overall, Antoinette observed that many students gained self-esteem during this project. One student would not give up on his mystery. He visited the library countless times, and only emerged with more questions. When he finally deduced the answer and Antoinette bragged about him to another teacher, his comment was, “I did all this great work and I’m not even smart!”

Of course, there were problems to be solved. Gaps in time between messages irritated students at both sites. We spent extra time tracking messages, prompting groups who worked more slowly, and trouble-shooting the process. The paramount problem, though, was how easy or difficult the mysteries should be. There were instances of rather obscure puzzles, ones for which the clues were too few or too difficult; we prompted Lee’s students to add hints and to be more direct. However, we found that the opposite problem was more frequent: the mysteries were often too easily solved. One of Lee’s students bemoaned this difficulty:


...we confidently sent a new mystery to our students about Susan B. Anthony. Expecting to receive a reply full of questions, we were shocked to receive instead a message guessing her correct identity, and posing a mystery to us that seemed totally baffling!

The fifth graders definitely favored more difficult mysteries, as reflected in their journal entries and in responses to questions from Antoinette and Lee during class discussions. Typical of this is Adriane’s end-of- semester thank you message to her college counterparts:


I really liked the HARD mysteries. I think they’re more fun to solve because I like looking things up. When they’re too easy, they aren’t as fun because you know the answer right off the bat....


Students were unaware of who was sending the mystery messages. At first they suspected their teacher, then another teacher in the building. Some started to suspect Lee after he made several visits to the classroom and they learned he was a teacher, too. Students were delighted to tell him all about the Mystery from History Project and their opinions on how to improve it. Lee’s second semester students sent a video they had created to reveal their identities. The fifth graders were thrilled to learn who their mystery partners were. Many were very surprised that they had been corresponding with Indiana University students—“I mean, I knew that most of our mystery people were dead, but I didn’t know who was sending the messages.” Students unanimously decided that next year’s students shouldn’t be told either. “It’s just part of the fun of the mysteries!”

We think this project had very positive affects on all concerned. Students’ interest and confidence in learning history grew, and their metacognitive awareness was heightened. The college teachers in training experienced direct contact with elementary school students using computers in a subject matter context that was realistic—they became “extension history teachers” for Antoinette.

Mystery from History makes for an excellent collaboration between pre-service teachers and elementary students doing social studies. It can also be adapted for other subject areas and different cross-age collaborations. Antoinette’s fifth grade students posed science queries to experts via a website called The Mad
Scientist Network. They asked the Mad Scientist: If you fell through a hole that ran straight through the Earth, would you get stuck in the middle because of gravity? The Mad Scientist’s answer was clear and fascinating! A website also exists to foster keypal connections in mathematics. (For these and other Internet programs, see the box of websites.)

Dyrli offers several good examples of using e-mail as a collaborative tool.1 Curtiss and Curtiss have described a language arts exchange very similar to Mystery from History; it connects second graders with pre-service teachers to create an audience for the younger students’ writing.2 Orwig suggests a number of cross-age Internet projects that link older and younger school students.3 These projects can also operate on a cross-cultural basis through websites such as Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections.

Harris has developed a scheme of 18 “activity structures” within four broad categories—interpersonal exchange, information collection, analysis, and problem solving—that teachers can use to integrate the Internet into their curriculum. Our project fits neatly into her “impersonations” activity structure within the interpersonal exchange category. Harris’s practical framework of suggestions goes well beyond the simpler concept of “keypals,” and is an excellent source of ideas for a range of Internet classroom activities for social studies teachers.

In summing up what they gained from their experiences as mystery teachers, one pair of Lee’s students wrote the following:


This exercise has provided an opportunity for us to interact with real live students and develop an informal, yet purposeful relationship.... It allowed us to make connections with students in a school outside of the University. It brought us into contact with an enthusiastic teacher who serves as an excellent model for future teachers.... We never imagined that we would be working with fifth grade students in Leopold, Indiana, exchanging mind-probing questions about famous explorers.... It is one thing to sit in class and discuss possible suggestions for [using] technology, but it is awesome to have the opportunity to try it. G



1. Odvard E. Dyrli, “E-Mail Bridges to School Collaboration,” Technology & Learning 16 (October 1995): 26.

2. Pamela M. Curtiss and Kerry E. Curtiss, “What 2nd Graders Taught College Students and Vice Versa,” Educational Leadership 53 (October 1995): 60-63.

3. Ann H. Orwig, “Bridging the Ages with Help from Technology,” Technology & Learning 16 (September 1995): 26-33.

4. Judi Harris, “Curriculum-Based Telecollaboration: Using Activity Structures to Design Student Projects,” Learning & Leading With Technology 26 (September 1998): 6-15.


Antoinette Kranning teaches fifth grade at Perry Central Elementary School in Leopold, Indiana.
Lee Ehman is a professor of education at Indiana University, Bloomington.




The Electronic Emissary

A project to bring together students, teachers, and subject matter experts via e-mail.


E-Mail Math

A detailed description of a grade four project involving cross-cultural mathematics collaboration. The site has a link to details for setting up similar activities.


Heinemann Keypal Lists

This site permits teachers and students to post information and requests for keypal projects worldwide.


Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections

The IECC (Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections) mailing lists are provided by St. Olaf College as a free service to help teachers and classes link with partners in other countries and cultures for e-mail classroom pen-pal and project exchanges.


KeyPals Service of the Educational Technology Support Center, Yakima, WA

This site permits teachers in different grade ranges to send information about their classroom and type of project interested in. They then receive corresponding information posted by others so they can establish connections.


Antoinette Kranning’s Class Website

Contains a link to more information about the Mystery From History activity.


Mystery from History

A description of the activity upon which this article is based.


The Mad Scientist Network

Supported by the Young Scientist Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Over 75 scientists participate in generating accurate and grade appropriate responses that include web links.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.