1998 Paper Presentations

ReTOOling MOOs

Lawrence B. Davies, Nanzan U, Japan <>
Lesley Shield, Open U, United Kingdom
Markus J.Weininger, Federal U of Santa Catarina, Brazil

Persons, bodies and minds inhabit language
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein (in Heaton & Groves, 118)

In Lateral Thinking, I am interested in the ability to change perception and keep on changing perception

-- Edward de Bono (1982:58)

MOOs break through dichotomies. While not actually spoken - though clearly in the form of discourse - nor written - though keyboarding skills are essential and the medium is text-based - nor listened to - though the mind's ear and imagination are constantly involved in the equation - nor read in the traditional linear sense of the word, they are a multilateral bridge to and through the four skills. MOOs invite complete interaction, in the sense that the actors are both other and self. Users discover self through interaction with other users, and through the design and planning of personal MOOspace. Rather than perpetuating dichotomous relationships, MOOs are circular continua, leading learners to learn and following them in their learning.

In the light of the broad strokes we have just used, it is obvious that new approaches to the work involved in learning is what we, as educators, have as our new task.

What puzzles us is this: given that MOO is only limited by human imagination, many MOO 'builders', that is people (or teachers) who can program changes in the MOO, are seeking to replicate the (language) classroom. In this paper then, our purpose is to ask, rather bluntly: Why bother? Especially when, with a little lateral thinking (de Bono, 1982), there are many more interesting things to do... After all, Berge & Collins (1995:4) assure us that "(t)he paradigm shift is from a teaching environment to a learning environment."

We approach MOOing elsewhere (Davies, Shield, Weininger, 1998) with the view that learning is an autonomous act, which does require outside interlocutors, but in which the interlocutors cannot learn for the learners. Gattegno (1976:vii.) specifically reminds us:

Teachers must be concerned with what the students are doing with themselves rather than with the language, which is the students' concern. Teachers and students work on different subjects.

Yet, in visiting several "educational" MOOs, there is evidence that this is just what many "communicative approach" instructors are attempting to do - learn the language for the learners.

Another important, and still often overlooked, area concerns the sociocultural skills that MOOs can foster. To date, there is little in the literature about this subject. MOOtiquette, MOO's version of netiquette, varies from MOO to MOO, but, just as from culture to culture, the skills if improperly followed, lead to marginality for the inexperienced. This marginality and failure to observe situations properly is also often neglected in the literature, and in instructor use of MOOspace, and can result in unsatisfactory learning experiences.

With sociocultural skills, comes the idea of the on-line learning community, as described for IRC chat and discussion lists by - among others - Bernhart (1997), Davis (1997), Fernback & Thompson (1995) and Rheingold (1993). Again, this is an aspect of MOOing which is often neglected. Yes, MOOing involves individuals logging into a database from terminals located all over the world - usually on a whim - during time out of classes, or sometimes within a language teachers' class... but, with more thought, focus and construction on the instructors' part, and the chance of integrating project work into language curricula becoming an even more acceptable part of curriculum development, there exists a real life [RL] chance of bringing geographically, socially, psychologically, intellectually and politically disparate learners together to form a cohesive community. Indeed, as Davis (1997:14) concludes from his experience, there is a danger that:

...we can become mesmerised by the technology and we can become encouraged to assume that its magical qualities will overcome the behaviours that often make communication and collaboration in (face to face encounters) so troublesome.

This paper will show how MOOs can be ReTOOled to meet the needs of learning communities as described above, both in the text-based form under which most MOOs currently operate, and in anticipation of the more graphically- and televideo-based MOOs of the very near future. It will also illustrate the added value of internet-based material of this type to the learning experience as a whole.

MOOs - a brief overvOO
MOOs [Multi-user domain Object Oriented] are rhizomes (much like a tulip bulb), which owe their fealty and fertility mainly to two master rhizomes: the 1970s' affinity for Dungeons and Dragons role playing games in which the hero (user/player) moves around a board fighting mythical beasts and gaining experience points toward the ultimate goal - whatever that might be - and the 1980s' applications of interactive, role-playing fiction (of which Zork and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are among the best known) and role-playing adventure games such as Colossal Caves. In all of these, "you", the hero/ine take the role of the main character and must try to solve the many text-based puzzles "you" run up against as "you" move through a maze of descriptive rooms; "your" ultimate goal being to reach the end of the story. Backer (unpublished) details the many flavors of MOOs, MUDs, MUSHs and MAGEs that have sprung up in this decade, though all are essentially based on the same idea of rhizomic interactivity and world creation.

More recently, around the middle of the 90's, MOOs in educational settings have become popular. Virtual universities (Diversity University), virtual conferences (TCC) and virtual workshops (Neteach-L MOO discussions) are among the several applications that have integrated a MOO element.

Language learning MOOs such as SchMOOze (English), Mundo Hispano (Spanish) and MOO Francais (French) have also emerged. In addition to basic chat facilities, these MOOs contain tools such as on-line dictionaries, thesauri, and other reference materials programmed into their databases, as well as offering the user specific language games, language-based treasure and scavenger hunts, and regular meeting times for various interest groups.

Backer details some of MOO's advantages over IRC Chat, including citations from Bruckman (1997), Fanderclai (1995) and Bollier (1995) all of whom note MOO's distinct community building advantages as respositories of things to do versus the simple activity of 'chatting' which is typical of IRC Chat. MOOspace points to a place where users share a sense of belonging, something which does not appear to be the case in IRC chat. Yet, the transcience that is a fact of life for those who use IRC chat regularly is not apparent in MOOs, as MOOs are text-based entities. They are not simply "channels", as found in IRC, but "worlds" complete with objects to interact with, in addition to the human element that is common is both. Steen, Roddy, Sheffield and Stout (1995:184) even go as far as to label IRC ...something like a science fiction convention crossed with a singles' bar...

The authors of this paper have used MOOspace as a collaborative workspace to plan and create a multi-function website that has been used in various workshops and presentations over the course of the past year. A new branch of the current site attempts more specifically to create a project-based supplemental website for language learners brought together from four different continents (Shield and Weininger, 1998). Here, learners will be able to experience life on the Northeast Coast of England through a hot-linked, text-based area of SchMOOze, and to view and interact with web-based images, sounds, texts and tools. Finally, students will create their own versions of the space, either building on the current database, or creating a new, collaboratively-described area including hyperlinks to the Web.

DOOing it
So, once more, we bring our main questions into focus:

* What are the tools and how can they be used?
* What value do they add to the experience of on-line language learning?

The TOOls
The MOO itself contains several tools for fostering creation, interpersonal exploration and learner development and autonomy. To provide a sample of the potential of MOO, four very brief examples follow (although there are many more).

1. The virtual Whiteboard serves a similar function to a real whiteboard, but with some improvements. Students can read, write or erase items on the board through the use of simple keyboard command, much as they do in RL. The board, like a real whiteboard, is fixed in a certain space (in the MOO) and so is accessible by any player - although its use can be restricted to specific users if so required. Although many MOO-objects are for the sole use of their programmers, anyone in the virtual room has the power to use this resource This tool, then, would work well in a brainstorming session, for listing ideas, problems, considerations and other caveats of a project. Users can either read the whiteboard to themselves, or to the group, depending on the command employed. Individual items can be erased leaving other items intact. Unlike a RL whiteboard, however, the virtual MOO whiteboard can be programmed with the ability to send its contents as an email message, either to an individual, or a group of individuals - in fact, to any email configuration (Davies, 1997) that is now currently possible. This provides thorough archiving of data, and ensures that all participants are kept informed of new developments.

2. Bots (short for robots) are preprogrammed for a variety of tasks, and, like their RL counterparts, are usually described as having humanly physical attributes, even to having names. Two bots used in our collaborations have been Jo, and Mrs. Macintosh, both of whom could record and log our interactions, and both of whom were able to prepare virtual drinks, especially coffee and tea. Jo can also tell the time and answer simple questions - even if the answer is singularly unhelpful! The logging functions performed by these bots have enabled us to record dozens of our online collaborative discussions (continuing to record even when their owners have been offline as a result of technical difficulties), recording valuable empirical data for posterity and now accessible via password-protected websites for our future research. Bots, like the whiteboard above, can also email the entire discussion session in an instant, again, providing valuable archiving features. The bot is also movable, and can be summoned to any part of the MOO to record discussions.

3. A complete virtual classroom does also exist, though it, too, has unique features, setting it apart from the traditional classroom. Students can share a virtual space either as a total group, or more conveniently, seated virtually around worktables, where their chat is confined to the members of their table. The facilitator, meanwhile, can stand and give classwide directions that all class members will receive. This gives students privacy within their groups on-line, and offers the facilitator a means of bringing the class together at certain points for whatever may arise or be on the agenda. The classroom usually has a virtual OHP, where pre-programmed slides can be shown, a virtual TV, where students can create tutorials either for other groups or for self-access learners, and again, like one version of the bot, a virtual tape recorder to note and archive complete exchanges.

4. Finally, there is a web-based site creation tool that has been developed by one of us (Weininger 1997/98) which is linked to the MOO-based project referred to above. This enables users to collaborate in developing the content and organization of a website, using the tool 'as is'.. The tool can be used by the least computerate tutor or learner to produce standardized web pages,but is flexible enough to allow the more computerate to employ their own knowledge of HTML to incorporate formatting, graphics and soundfiles into their web pages.

These are just four of many more examples of how we have retooled schMOOze. A more in-depth view of all these, and other, tools may be found at:

A new language is a new mind; a new mind, a new environment; a new environment means new levels of unpredictibility. The biologist Dawkins (1976:57) pointed out that genes solve the problem of making these predictions in rather unpredictable environments (by building in a) capacity for learning. MOO tools allow learners to create language that they own, much in the tradition of Gattegno (1975), and within the social and cultural framework necessary (Vygotsky, 1978) for further development of both linguistic competence and intercultural communicative competence as described by Fantini et. al (1997). Yet, net-based language teachers often appear not to be building in the capacities for learners to acquire these competencies. Rather, educational movements still address instructional issues in the more traditional setting of encouraging simple email exchanges, unguided chats, purposeless gaming, rote memorization of vocabulary and continued test taking.

If we are to meet the new challenges of persona, body and mind in new language, we must use our knowledge of pedagogy to push the limits of the technology to fit the lateral thought processes that drive our curricular decision-making. We see how MOOs have the rhizomic richness and flexibility to do so, and we encourage future explorations into their use.


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TCC Online Conferences
Kapi`olani Community College
University of Hawai`i
Honolulu, HI