MOO Potential: Perspectives and Assessment Guiding Design

danika brown
Computers and Writing Online 2000
April 27, 2000

An online discussion of the opinion of the author!

Abstract| Text | Works Cited | Related Pages

In this paper, I argue that as MOOs gain popularity with educators, there are some concerns regarding the effectiveness of the clients we and our students use to connect to MOOs. These concerns include the stability of those connections, the disparity in experience from various types of clients (simple telnet, a desktop client like Pueblo, or a webbed interface such as Xpress), and the very assumptions behind the design and use of MOOs in education. I argue that MOOs are significantly unique in that they can be programmed with specific educational applications in mind, both at the user and designer level. It is my contention that currently, instructors are attempting to fit their pedagogy to the available MOO technology--a technology that was not originally designed for the constraints of institutionalized education (i.e.; sixteen week courses for students who are not familiar with, nor overly interested in computing or MOOs). This fitting of pedagogy to technology limits what can actually happen in a MOO classroom. I argue that it is possible from this critique, to envision the creation of a client specifically designed for educational use. Such a design would take into consideration the specific applications that instructors determine are necessary for their pedagogies by including instructors and specific curriculum in the design process. Such a design would also consider the users' (that is, the students') needs and limitations--limitations we may wish were not there, but are and always will be. Those limitations would include programming and troubleshooting. Finally, the design would consider ways to maintain the low-tech accessibility of MOOing with the possibilities of adding (without significantly changing) "high-tech" capabilities such as web interfaces, digitized sound/video, and VMRL. Finally, an esential aspect of a new client design would include a much overlooked aspect of the use of MOO technology, assessment. If continual assessment mechanisms were incorporated into the creation of a client specifically for educational use, many of the limitations could be immediately addressed, making MOOs more responsive to specific educational application (rather than forcing educational applications to simply adapt to the technology that exists).

MOO Potential: Perspectives and Assessment Guiding Design
A survey of the literature regarding the use of MOOs (or other M* environments) for educational purposes demonstrates several things. Articles about MOOs and education make claims that MOOs provide a qualitatively different learning environment that has the potential to improve or even transform learning. The literature about MOOs argues that they have the potential to positively affect language learning through immersion in text (Turbee, Crump); that they put issues like gender construction and the social construction of knowledge into relief by their very constructedness (Kolko, Anderson); that they create spaces where questions of identity can be explored in ways that are not available through more traditional learning spaces (Bruckman, Joyce, Cherny); that they enhance learning by offering multiple entrances into content material-both textually and "visually" (Oren, Ingvarson); and that they facilitate collaborative learning, especially across distances, creating the potential of ensuring that even distance learning "classrooms" maintain a sense of "presence" not available (because of cost or technology) in other modes of non-traditional coursework (Evard, Ribiero).

While the literature makes expansive claims about the possibilities of utilizing MOOs and similar technologies, I would like to discuss two areas that are not adequately addressed. First, the discussions of utilizing MOOs in the classroom do not directly discuss the limitations of current clients or explore ways that current MOO technology might be improved upon in order to further facilitate the benefits of integrating MOOs into courses. I would like to address this issue by looking specifically at current courses utilizing MOOs and suggest how an improved client would be of benefit, and is, in fact necessary.

Another area that the literature does not adequately address is assessment. There is a significant amount of literature that deals with assessing technology in education, in general, but a general lack of MOO assessment. I would like to address that issue here from two perspectives. I would like to indicate that the incorporation of assessment into current MOO applications in education would reveal the ways an improved client might be of value. Along those lines, I discuss the indications from current assessment findings that support the principles of the client we are proposing. Additionally, I would like to suggest some possible ways to consider incorporating specific assessment strategies into the development of a new client.

Direct Applications of MOO Technology

When we discuss the applications of MOO technologies to specific courses, or in general to educational goals, it is important to reflect on what made the strengths of the MOOing experience strengths and what about the technology proved to be barriers or limitations to those strengths. It seems clear that MOOs facilitate certain types of experiences for students concerning text immersion, identity construction, collaboration, and construction of (thus perhaps investment in) educational spaces. However, if we simply make these claims for MOOs and use MOOs as if they are immutable tools to which we have to adapt our pedagogy, we lose the biggest strength of MOO technology. That is, the reviews of uses of MOO technology seem to suggest that MOO technology is designed by remote programmers and exists in some fashion which have certain implications for educational practice. An alternative approach to evaluating and discussing MOO technology in education might draw directly on the fact that MOO technology is not unalterable, is not entirely remotely designed, but has the possibility for an organic development. We might discuss how utilizing certain MOO technologies reveal both strengths and limitations and suggest ways that our pedagogies might shape and alter the technologies we use.

By tweaking our critical lens on the use of MOOs, we have the potential to talk about this technology in a considerably more productive fashion. For example, when Avigail Oren makes the claim that "MOOing is more than writing," she discusses the goals she had for her class, and suggests how her pedagogy was applied in the MOOing experience. After describing the activities of the class, she says,

As an academic course in a school of education the pedagogical concepts are very important. The students who participated in my course got various courses dealing with cognitive theories and educational ones. I had in mind an idea to present these concepts in the context of computers network based learning. Moreover, the plan was to enable the students to witness by themselves the prons [sic] and cons of the technology for education. (
Rather than taking the rather common descriptive approach of identifying goals and expectations and discussing the results of the application of the technology, an alternative approach might indicate the applications, the successes, as well as provide a critical examination of ways that the technology itself might be altered in order to further facilitate those goals or achieve additional goals. The implications of descriptions such as Oren's are that one starts with certain pedagogical aims, applies the technological tool in order to facilitate them, is successful or not successful, and then examines the pedagogical assumptions in order to accommodate what is possible with the technology. While examining and adjusting pedagogical assumptions is absolutely necessary, I would like to suggest that with MOO technology, it is possible to also examine the technology itself and alter it rather than merely accommodating it.

As an example of such an approach, I would offer an analysis of a class I taught utilizing the MOO the Fall of 1999 semester. The course was "Business Writing," an upper division writing course for non-business majors intended to give students basic business writing skills. A possible approach to such a course is to simply teach students how to model existing professional communication strategies (that is, teach them the form and content of various professional communication genres-the memo, the business letter, resumes, proposals). An alternative approach, one which I employ, is to focus on the implications of professional communication in general, looking at the "rhetoric" of professional communication in all forms of communications, from email to the actual visual workspace or working organizational structure of any given setting. In my business writing courses, I am far less concerned that students memorize formats for communication than that they are able to analyze the rhetorical implications of those forms and all their communication strategies.

I chose to incorporate a MOO for this course for several reasons directly related to the course goals. First, I believe that because the MOO is primarily text-based, it forces us to focus on the implications of written communication. The MOO is driven entirely by the texts we create, both in terms of descriptions, notes, and other things that remain on the MOO, and by the actual textual exchanges in real-time discussions. My concern in this class was to demonstrate to students that the texts they write in any setting construct relationships and perform actions. I wanted them to utilize that awareness in order to more actively determine what they want to accomplish with words, and for them to take responsibility for the ways that they might be perceived or the things they might make happen with those words. Second, the MOO offered this class the chance to actually create an organization, not just in terms of a group proposal on paper, but to actually think about issues of space and virtual work environments. Third, the MOO offered me the opportunity to demonstrate to the students that in professional situations, they may be asked to learn operating procedures and technology that they are not necessarily familiar with. Finally, the MOO itself demonstrated the fact that the medium of communication is as essential to communicating as the content.

In general, the goals I had for the course were fulfilled by the use of the MOO. Students engaged with texts, collaborated on the MOO to write a proposal for an organizational structure as well as to actually create a virtual model of a workspace they envisioned for the organization. Students became at least proficient in the technology and were able to talk about the differences between MOO and "real life" interactions. Nonetheless, this class was not without challenges, and many of the challenges we faced indicated ways the client for accessing the MOO might have been altered for a more effective class.

The MOO we used (the University of Arizona's OldPuebloMOO) had recently added Haynes and Holmevik's new Encore Xpress client. The Xpress client is a server-side client that integrates a web interface. Users have the choice to log into the MOO through their own desktop client (such as Pueblo or standard telnet), through a server side javascript text-based client, or through the Xpress web interface which generates javascripts for nearly every user initiated activity on the MOO. Therefore, my students had a number of connection options and if they desired could incorporate web materials (such as graphics and sounds) into their group projects. However, the multiple connection options presented some difficulties, and the web interface client itself had many limitations and "bugs" that made the anticipated benefits of a new client actual drawbacks.

Because all the students were connecting in different ways, and because whatever client they chose to use had different limitations and caused different things to happen while the student was working, it was hard for me to provide consistently useful help or advice. A copy and paste procedure that I would explain to the class might actually only work for those students logged in through a telnet client. Students using one type of java-client might find that they could not copy the text on their MOO screen; students utilizing the Xpress client would find that they could not paste large amounts of text in their input screens. The instructions I would give students regarding the creation of objects, or setting object properties would be different for those students who later would try to create using the Xpress point and click options. Often, if I were meeting with a student on the MOO and they were having technical difficulties, it would take a good deal of time and effort simply to figure out how they were connected before I could begin to address the problem. And, because the javascript generation of the Xpress client became burdensome for the server, the MOO would become unstable during heavy traffic times, and the administrators of the MOO finally had to switch servers in the middle of the semester to accommodate the new client.

These client related difficulties had real implications for my students' perception of the MOO and their willingness to work with the technology for the class. With every frustrating experience, my students would use the MOO less and they began to suggest that my class was set up for them to fail. Rather than being able to take advantage of the benefit that MOO classes enable of allowing us to meet from different locations, in order to utilize the MOO we had to meet physically together in a computer lab so that I could actually see what was going on with their clients and so I could ensure that they were connecting in some standardized fashion. As much of the literature suggests, MOOs are most effective when they are actually different classroom experiences-that is, when students utilize the MOO from remote spaces rather than simply talking to someone across the room through the computer screen. My ability to utilize the real strength of the MOO was undermined by the problems of connectivity.

Even after we were able to overcome the connection and client issues in a workable fashion, the limitations of the current clients had other implications that undercut the potential strengths of MOOs in the course. One of the identified benefits of MOOs in education is that MOOs enable users to create and expand the virtual environments. That was certainly my major reason for using the MOO in this particular class. The opportunity of having students create virtual workspaces and to consider what types of tools would be useful in a professional workspace enabled me to allow them to consider the values that "space" structures construct. However, creating certain objects and rooms and describing them only enabled the students to, in effect, reproduce conceptually what MOO programmers had already created. This need not be the case in MOOs, because all objects can be programmed and properties can be manipulated in any way a user would like. We would like to think that creation on a MOO is limited only by the imagination of the user. Actually, creation on a MOO is also limited by the programming knowledge of the user. It is up to the user to either play around and experiment enough to achieve their visions, or to learn object oriented programming language-no small task and certainly not something a three credit business writing course can require.

I believe that the limitations in creation and object manipulation are also a limitation of current MOO technology in terms of educational purposes. In this case, for example, had the students been utilizing a client that simplified for them the programming options, their creativity would certainly have been further facilitated. The Xpress client makes certain moves toward simplifying that process through a point and click web menu. But the process is clumsy, unclear to users not familiar with the way verbs and properties work in object oriented languages, and generates numerous new windows and javascript operations (often shutting whole programs down and remaining inaccessible for anyone without the most up to date technology on his/her machine).

Consequently, despite my clear successes with utilizing the MOO in this course, that success was mitigated in great part by the MOO technology itself. What was revealed to me as I analyzed what happened in this class was that a different client would greatly facilitate the pedagogical validity for a MOO. To utilize the technology that currently exists within a class has significant limitations. MOOs were originally designed as social spaces, virtual worlds and communities where people would spend a great deal of time learning how to construct and manipulate that world, investing time and energy in shaping and building that space. Students in courses that last only sixteen weeks are not necessarily inclined to spend that much time learning the technology and investing themselves in the process. Unless the technology is adapted to provide them easier access to what the MOO enables, those benefits are simply lost to those users. How might technology assessment and client development help us to address these issues?

Assessment as Critical Analysis and Guide for Development

Assessment can and should play a significant role in all pedagogical practice. Critical assessment of the use of technology in pedagogy enables instructors to be more fully aware of the implications of their practices, reveals the consequences and locations of limitations in that technology, and enables instructors to participate more fully in the design and development of the technologies they use. According to educational technology assessment scholars such as Robert Kozma, instructional technologies are not simply tools of content delivery but are media that can be intimately interconnected with the content materials of instruction. Kozma argues that it is essential not to separate content and medium when assessing the incorporation of sophisticated new technologies into instruction, especially when the technology is used extensively. Stephen Ehrmann with the Flashlight project agrees with Clark to a certain extent, but points out that it is important not to isolate the technology as having impact without also examining the teaching strategies behind the use of the technology. Ehrmann suggests that too much assessment of learning technologies attempt to focus on the technologies themselves rather than looking at a more complex level of technologies as facilitating teaching strategies: "In other words they were asking whether a technology could teach without specifying anything about the teaching methods involved" ( Ehrmann makes several points about technology and assessment that are relevant to the questions I am raising here.

Ehrmann indicates that one of the problems with technology assessment is that the changes in technology and the uses of technology created for instructional purposes is a time consuming and expensive process. He points out that, "Perhaps our most important finding was that it usually takes years for curricular software to be developed and then to become widely accepted. . .. The more revolutionary the software, the longer and more arduous was the task of getting a critical mass of users. For large pieces of curricular software, the journey from conception to wide use might take ten years or more." Again, Ehrmann points out that most instructional technology is created remotely and is immutable for those immediately using the applications. He goes on to suggest that the highest success with technologies have come from the use of applications not designed specifically for education, what he calls "Worldware"-word processors, internet and email applications. Based on the results of various assessment strategies on instructional technologies and on the use of technologies not necessarily designed for instructional use, Ehrmann comes to the following conclusion:

Education can affect the lives of its graduates when they have mastered large, coherent bodies of knowledge, skill and wisdom. Such coherent patterns of learning usually must accumulate over a series of courses and extracurricular experience. Thus, to make visible improvements in learning outcomes using technology, use that technology to enable large scale changes in the methods and resources of learning. That usually requires hardware and software that faculty and students use repeatedly, with increasing sophistication and power. Single pieces of software, used for only a few hours, are unlikely to have much affect on graduates' lives or the cost-effectiveness of education (unless that single piece of software is somehow used to foster a much larger pattern of improved teaching).
Is it possible to come to a slightly different conclusion if we look at MOO technologies as instructional software, something Ehrmann does not do in this work?

If we heed Kozma and Ehrmann's advice regarding assessment, and if we take into account other research which has demonstrated that instructional technologies are most likely to achieve pedagogical goals when the instructor and the designer work together on creating and altering the technology (see Bingham), I think we can understand MOO technologies as being potentially very effective instructional technologies. First, MOOs as created "worlds" allow instructors to understand the ways in which content and medium can be effectively connected. In the business writing course discussed here, I believe that complex relationship was revealed. In countless other examples, the MOO functions to enable students to construct or to engage with the content of the courses they are taking. Kali Tal's several courses on the MOO demonstrate the ways that a MOO can facilitate an understanding of content. The MOO enabled Tal to develop a MOOseum with various types of exhibits related to the content of the courses. The value of being able to provide multiple entry points into content material, maintaining a text-rich approach to humanities subjects while allowing students to virtually interact with those objects is significant. Even more significant is the opportunity that the MOO enables of allowing students to participate in constructing the learning environments, although that potential is currently somewhat limited by the factors I discussed earlier.

Second, the ability of MOOs to be changed, by both designers and users is far more feasible and flexible than with other technologies (educational or otherwise). MOOs are dynamic environments and it is quite possible to make various changes to elements of the MOO as an experienced user. Instructors and students can alter the technology depending on their level of comfort or their access to someone with programming skills. This facet of MOO technology perhaps most differentiates it from the other technologies that Ehrmann refers to. However, despite the possibilities for responsiveness and flexibility in current MOO technology, that area as a benefit, is an area that could be improved. As the critical analysis of the application of MOOs in the business writing course revealed, some alterations to current MOO technology would provide an effective way to capitalize on MOOs as potentially useful instructional technologies.

Responding to the Potential of MOO Technologies

What is illustrated in this type of examination of a particular application of MOO technology along with issues of assessment of instructional technologies, is the need for developing MOO technologies in relation to instructional needs. Such a project would revisit the design of MOO clients in order to address the need for a reliable, standard connection that enables users a simplified way to fully engage with the strengths of the MOO. Rather than working from the assumption, as MOOs traditionally have, that users of a MOO will immerse and invest themselves in a virtual world for the purposes of learning and doing programming, we might work from the assumption that there is a significant number of users that might benefit from a simplified version of MOO interaction.

Therefore, a MOO client might be designed that expands MOO possibilities in several ways. First, the client would be designed in a fashion that did not create more obstacles for connecting. Current client innovations, such as Xpress, attempt to increase MOO capabilities for incorporating various multimedia and to provide simplified ways to create and program. However, in doing so, the client creates serious obstacles in connectivity and access by relying too heavily on web technologies that are unstable and available only to "high tech" machines. A more useful client would maintain the accessibility of telnet and incorporate options for expanded capabilities. The alternative client would remain flexible for users, providing a standard way to connect while allowing users to control options for incorporating other multimedia and web interfacing.

Additionally, a new client would address ways to simplify the programming and creation options available to users. While not reducing the programming capabilities available to users, the new client would make the process of creation and changing properties of objects clearer for those users with little or no programming experience. The programming language and code would be readily available for users, but not necessary for the user to engage with. That is, any user would be able to perform the creation and programming options on the MOO, enabling them to be active participants without necessarily knowing the complexities of the programming they are working with. Such a change would allow educators to utilize more fully the benefits of MOOs for content purposes rather than the current situation that results in students often just toying with the possibilities and never really having the opportunity to take advantage of what the technology enables them to do.

Finally, a new client would be developed according to educational principles, specifically for instructional use. While currently, instructors attempt to adapt their pedagogies and goals to what the technology has to offer, a new client could be shaped around pedagogical needs. Therefore, as Bingham suggests, designers would work closely with instructors in developing the client and the design process would be recursive, responsive to needed alteration according to ongoing critical assessment of instructional applications. The client itself would be designed in such a fashion that instructors themselves would have a great deal of flexibility and capability to make changes in the technology, hence avoiding the kind of lags in demand and change Ehrmann identifies as problematic in instructional technologies.

As instructors recognize the exciting potential of various technologies, they must also recognize the impact those technologies have on their pedagogies. All too often, we embrace the possibilities of technologies and construct a pedagogy around the technology. Unless we make critical assessments of that inter-relationship, we risk missing the ways in which the technologies may be limiting our pedagogical goals and impacting student experiences. If we approach instructional technology from the perspective that we can actually alter the technology to meet our needs, it is possible to alter our own relationships and agencies with technology. MOOs do have significant potential, but it is important to understand that potential a bit differently than we commonly have and to engage in shaping that technology for our very specific purposes.

Works Cited

Anderson, Daniel. "The Bus Stops Beyond Language."

Bingham, M. H. "Results of Two Studies on the Benefits and Pitfalls of Technology-Based Information Accessing." T.H.E. Journal 20, 4 (1992): 88-92.

Cherny, Lynn. "'Objectifying' the Body in the Discourse of an Object-Oriented MUD ." Works and Days 25/26 13, 1 (1995): 151-172.

Crump, Eric. "At Home in the MUD: Writing Centers Learn to Wallow." In Haynes, Cynthia and Jan Rune Holmevik. Highwired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Ehrmann, Stephen C. "Asking the Right Question: What Does Research Tell Us About Technology and Higher Learning?" Change 27, no. 2 (March/April 1995): 20-27. Available online at

Evard, Rémy. "Collaborative Networked Communication: MUDs as Systems Tools". Proceedings of the Seventh Systems Administration Conference (LISA VII), pages 1-8, November 1993, Monterey, CA.

Haynes, Cynthia and Jan Rune Holmevik. Highwired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Ingvarson, Daniel. "MOOving around the Net: The Educational Potential of MOOs: A Point of View" ERIC. Syracuse: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology, 1997.

Joyce, Michael. "Songs of Thy Selves: Persistence, Momentariness, Recurrence and the MOO." In Haynes, Cynthia and Jan Rune Holmevik. Highwired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Kolko, Beth. "Bodies in Place: Real Politics, Real Pedagogy, and Virtual Space." In Haynes, Cynthia and Jan Rune Holmevik. Highwired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.

Kozma, Robert B. "Will Media Influence Learning? Reframing the Debate." Educational Technology Research and Development 42, no. 2 (1994): 7-19.

Oren, Avigail. "MOOing is more than writing."

Ribeiro, Marcelo Blois; Noya, Ricardo Choren; Fuks, Hugo. "CLEW: A Cooperative Learning Environment for the Web." In: ED-MEDIA/ED-TELECOM 98 World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia & World Conference on Educational Telecommunications. Proceedings (10th, Freiburg, Germany, June 20-25, 1998)

Turbee, Lonnie. "MOOing in a Foreign Language: How, Why and Who?" ERIC. Syracuse: ERIC Clearing House on Information and Technology, 1997. ED404987

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