A MOO or MUD is a text-based virtual environment accessed via the internet by multiple users from remote locations. Each user enters and explores the MUD by taking on a persona or character. The computer generated personalities have the ability to walk around, interact with others, move into various rooms, solve puzzles, and even create their own rules and structures. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the MUD is that all objects, actions, and people in the virtual world are created through words. The MUD landscape and the items within it - trees, buildings, monsters, rooms, animals - are all "perceived" by the users because they are described in written terms. Skilled language expression in this word-based environment, therefore, is an important requirement for participants.
The first Multiple User Dimensions originated from internet-based games developed by programmers and other computer enthusiasts in the mid-1980s. Players in these early multi-user games collaborated with one another to create whole on-line communities - cultures, dramas, relationships, and protocols. (Many of these early MUDs still exist today, or have spawned new varieties such as: TinyMUDs, MUSHEs, MUs, and MUSEs.)
More recently, however, educational institutions have discovered the significant learning potential offered by the verbally-based computer environment; and numerous universities have implemented MUDs designed with a specific discipline and pedagogy in mind. PSU MOO is an example of how students are using the Multiple User Dimension to supplement traditional student/teacher interaction in Penn State English classes. Keenan's English 04 students meet twice a week in PSU MOO, where they break into on-line groups to critique each other's writing and share ideas. Keenan circulates from group to group on screen, offering input and guiding the on-line discussions. The students participate in the MUD both during traditional classroom time and remotely during supplementary "lab" sessions.
Recently, Keenan answered the following questions about her use of
MUDs and MOOs as a teaching tool in higher education.
Q. We hear a lot about technology in education today, but the concept of a MUD as a teaching tool is still relatively new. What are MUDs and MOOs, and how are they being used in education today?
A. MUDs and MOOs, despite the connotations of their unusual acronyms, are actually very powerful, text-based, collaborative learning spaces. Technically, MUD stands for Multi-User Domain, an internet space that allows multiple users to communicate synchronously, a bit like a chat room. But the OO stands for Object Oriented, which adds dimensions to a MUD or MOO that extend simple chat into a richly textured, active learning environment. While chat rooms simply facilitate conversation, simple Object Oriented programming within a MUD or MOO allows instructors and students to co-create a world of their own, constructed entirely of words. Daniel Anderson describes MUDs as a place where "the word is the world: any person, object and action is created and accessed through descriptions and speech acts -it is the triumph of creative language, of text becoming things" (http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/moo/index.html). In MUDs and MOOs we can build anything with words: from a world that (somewhat) resembles real physical space with buildings, rooms, and corridors, to an entirely imaginative space filled with themed planets and shooting stars, to an historical recreation, surrounded by scenes and characters from ancient civilizations.
Q. Why should an instructor want to use this technology in the classroom? What do MUDs and MOOs provide in learning settings that traditional teaching methods do not?
A. In the traditional classroom, we use every learning tool we have available: textbooks, workbooks, pens, paper, chalk, markers, overhead projectors, audio, video, discussions, lecture notes, question and answer formats . . . and every one of these tools is important and useful in various contexts. But online, in a MUD or MOO, not only can we recreate these tools for "anytime, anywhere" internet access and availability, we can also extend the walls of our classrooms into the virtual community as far as our imaginations can take us. We can extend the learning environment in two key ways: 1) extend the "characters" or players to include learners who are not physically located in the classroom, and 2) extend the physical boundaries of the classroom itself.
In the past, freshmen composition students at the Penn State Lehigh Valley campus have extended their conversations in MOOs to include their Japanese counterparts who were studying English in Hawaii. The Penn State freshmen were able to log on to the MOO during their 1:00 p.m. class just in time to greet their overseas writing partners who were logging on at 8:00 a.m. The experience broadened their perspectives not only about the common texts they were discussing, but also about themselves and about each other. Similar exchanges take place on-line in educational MUDs and MOOs every day.
Q. What is the teacher's role with a MUD/MOO? How do you use the MOO to organize the activities students are involved in?
A. As with any instructional situation, the teacher's role in a MOO varies depending on her goals and personal style. For a brainstorming session between students at two campuses, for instance, the teacher's role is basically to design and post an effectively crafted prompt, stand back, and facilitate the rich discussion that students will produce all on their own. Students should be aware that the instructor will often prefer to "log" or record the session so that we can all review the transcripts later and reflect upon the effectiveness of that session. Brainstorming sessions often yield the most productive ideas, rough-cut gemstones on the pixellated page, waiting to be mined, refined, by student writers.
However, if the instructor's goal is to ask students to provide focused feedback to one another, say, in the form of peer response to each others' first drafts of a writing assignment, then the instructor's role will necessarily change to reflect that goal. Because the instructional goals are so different, focused feedback cannot thrive in the same creative, often chaotic, environment that surrounds a brainstorming session. The instructor's role in facilitating these focused activities may include assigning small groups of students to individual work rooms, posting prompts and guidelines for student response, and moving from group to group online, answering questions or quietly observing the group at work.
Q. Can you describe one of your typical English classes (using a MUD/MOO): what are the students doing and how does the MUD support what they're learning?
A. During a typical MOO day, we may either meet for a brainstorming/discussion session or for a peer response/revision session. Both types of meetings provide unique opportunities for participation and reflection that increase the quality of students' learning experience.
In the brainstorming/discussion class, the class logs into a "large" group room that automatically records our words into a transcript that we can review later. During these meetings, students arrive having read texts and perhaps having discussed those texts face-to-face.
Online, they usually begin by greeting each other informally "Hey, what's up?" or "Hi, I'm here." As the instructor, I generally begin the discussion by posting a "big sign."
Then the students begin to type in their responses, simultaneously. The result on the screen is similar to "everyone talking at once" but after the initial responses, students will "skim" the scrolling lines and "dive" into the conversation at a point that appeals to them. This allows everyone a unique opportunity to participate, regardless of their gender, appearance, vocal accents, or any other factor that might otherwise impede their willingness to discuss. Since the text is scrolling so quickly, many students have a difficult time keeping up with more than one or two "threads" while the discussion happens. But we are able to e-mail the transcripts to every student (and post them on the webif the students grant permission). So, all class members are able to arrive at our next class meeting prepared to analyze the MUD discourseand are also able to review the transcripts at home as we prepare to write papers.
Similarly, the students are able to review the transcripts of smaller group activities that we hold on-line. When we meet in small groups of 3-4 to respond to each others' writing, we can post our comments to each other in text, rather than in oral conversation. The advantages to using this method include not only having the transcript available for later, but also an increased tendency for student responses to be more focused and more clearly expressed. Since students cannot usually see each others' faces or "read" their body language in the MOO, response to papers must necessarily be more specific, more carefully phrased, and more thoughtfully composed. The advantages therefore, apply to both the student writer (whose paper is being reviewed), and to the student reviewer.
Q. When did you first get involved in using technology in the classroom to teach English? And did you immediately begin to see positive results in your students at that time?
A. For me it all started almost ten years ago in a damp, dusty
DOS-based word processing lab in Southern California, where I asked my
first group of composition students to fire up WordPerfect 4.2 and write for
ten minutes with their monitors turned offfreewriting. They did, and
we were all surprised to find that we could compose without distraction, let
words flow, and enjoy the process. From there, (before writing labs were networked, mind you) we moved from our own screens to each other's, reading and responding, right there on the monitors. At the end of these writing workshops, we all left the room with ribbons of printouts spilling over our arms, eager to get home and pour over the ideas, review the responses, and revise our writing in a meaningful way. I suppose even then I was a future "Internetizen"waiting for the network of networks to connect my students electronically to each other, to me, and most importantly, to the world.
Q. Are you finding teaching with MUDs and MOOs effective across the board, or are there some students who respond better than others? Which ones and why?
A. I guess I'd be terrified if I had actually discovered a unilaterally successful teaching techniquejust think of the impact! Of course, like any pedagogical approach, MUDs and MOOs appeal to a particular intelligence in students, the intelligence Howard Gardner refers to as "linguistic." And many students, particularly those in my Basic Writing classes, do not identify themselves as strong linguistic learners. But what I'm finding is exciting: students view the cross between the spoken word and the written text as challenging, yet not intimidating. They begin by participating in free exchanges on-line, find a "voice" of their own, receive immediate, live audience response to their ideas, their words, their sentences, and review the transcripts of these on-line discussions over and over again to improve their own skills later on in the process. Sure, some students prefer to "lurk" in the background, busily reading the lines of text as they scroll by on the screen, but even these students are participating actively, reading and recording in their minds the richly-textured exchanges of their peers.
The most obvious implication of this may be that these students are shy, but that is not always the case. In fact, many of the shy students in traditional class discussions come alive on-line because many of the difficulties of face-to-face conversation are removed!
Heather Herzog, Center for Academic Computing