The MOO Made Us Do It: Utilizing a Critical Theory of Technology to Enact Critical Pedagogy
A Collaborative Analysis of MOO Technology in A Composition Classroom
by Danika Brown and Anne Bartlett
Abstract: As developers, administrators, students, and instructors on OldPuebloMOO, the University of Arizona's first educational MOO, we investigated the implications of MOO technology for composition pedagogy, specifically in terms of critical pedagogy. We discuss the integration of pedagogy and technology use in order to achieve a theoretical perspective on the applications of this technology in education. We review existing claims about MOO's as educational technology, and explicate a theoretical perspective and pedagogy that informs our own use of the MOO. Drawing on a collaborative analysis of a course in which one author was the instructor and the other a student, we examine some specific ways MOO technology in conjunction with curriculum design facilitated and shaped those pedagogical goals.
You enter a classroom. There are walls constructed of languages-momentarily visible, recognizable language you read as well as a hidden code under the surface. Languages identify familiar objects in this classroom for you: a table, a blackboard, a clock, a noteboard, doors to group workrooms. Standing about you see people whom you are able to identify by names, and if you make a conscious effort to look at them, you'll see what they want you to see of them, an incomplete picture of identities constructed of images and signs. In this classroom there is conversation punctuated by smiles, nods, grins, and the occasional unrelated question. Someone might stand from the table and post a response on a note board. You notice a red light in the room come on indicating that the activity here will be recorded. There is a flurry of activity: people move into other rooms in small groups and begin lively discussions. People are quiet for awhile, announce they'll be right back, venture to find research or materials to contribute to conversations, and return with those materials. "How is that? Does that help?", they say to their colleagues. You exit to the instructor's office to have a private chat.
Had you actually visited this classroom, this MOO classroom, your experience of the space would have been just as textual as what you read above. This classroom is a textual space; it exists, certainly, in a real way, but not in a necessarily physical way. And, while this particular classroom appears identifiable in some traditional ways (the table and blackboard, for example), there is no reason why it needs to look that way, nor any guarantee that it won't change, even while you are in it. The people in it are real, but you would not see their physical bodies, nor they yours. You interact in and with this classroom through a computer screen. This is a MOO classroom-an online space constructed by computer language, defined by bytes of digital data, residing on a server, connected by nodes, and reached by electronic data lines. This classroom, by virtue of its being virtual, and by virtue of it representing what we would argue is a substantially new environment for learning, forces us to ask some significant questions of it.
In the summer of 1998, the University of Arizona funded Dr. Roxanne Mountford, a professor in the Department of English, to build the university's first educational MOO. Based on Jan Rune Holmevik and Cynthia Hayne's University of Texas based educational MOO, LinguaMOO's success, Mountford envisioned the potential of an online environment different from email, web pages, or even chat rooms, as a site for innovative educational possibilities for the whole university. Mountford hired Brown to assist in the design, construction, and administration of the project, named OldPuebloMOO after the community on which it is modeled, Tucson, Arizona (known as the "Old Pueblo"). The following semester, Bartlett (the second author of this piece), was hired as an assistant for the expansion of the project. At the same time that Brown was developing and administering the MOO, she taught first year composition courses utilizing OldPuebloMOO. In the spring semester, when Bartlett was hired to work on the MOO, she also was a student in Brown's composition course.
Thus, we have a somewhat unique relationship to this particular educational MOO-Brown is one of the creator/designers; both of us work in administrative capacities on the MOO; both work on promoting and designing projects to bring the MOO to the attention of a wider university community; Brown is a MOO instructor, and Bartlett was a MOO student. As colleagues and partners in the activity of inquiry into discourse, we have explored the implications of the MOO environment in terms of our individual and jointly constructed visions of pedagogy. Together, we turned our attention to those significant questions that the MOO classroom raises, and the answers we begin to formulate here inform and are informed by our pedagogies.
Increasingly, educational MOOs are becoming the subject of inquiry and publication. Educators such as Amy Bruckman, Sherry Turkle, Diane Davis, Michael Joyce, Lynn Cherney have written about MUDs and MOOs in education. Holmevik and Haynes recently published the collection High Wired:On the Design, Use and Theory of Educational MOOs in which contributors explore the educational applications of MOOs. This literature makes several large claims about the benefits of MOO's for education. The literature suggests that MOO's provide heuristic creativity and play to intellectual activity (Burk, Davis, Joyce) A good deal written examines how online interaction, engaging others through a "virtual self", challenges our understanding of identity, or suggests ways that identity play has the potential to provide students a voice that they might not have in "real life" classrooms (Bruckman, Turkle); and some authors argue that the MOO provides a realm where political questions tied to identity might more safely/playfully be explored (Kolko). Most of this analysis treats online interaction as different and separate from, but nonetheless as valid as "real life" material interaction; much of it focuses on the power of language to construct our relationships to each other. The literature suggests that MOOs might be appreciated as "object[s] to think with" (Turkle Life 47) and is concerned with practical applications as well as anecdotal accounts of educational MOO use.
What we feel is missing in this literature is an examination of educational MOOs from critical theory, holding MOO applications accountable to an articulated pedagogical framework. That is to say, that while the criticism about MOOs is often informed by theory (postmodernism and feminism are two of the more common backdrops), little has been written about how we might understand MOOs as facilitating and constructing specific pedagogies, and even less has been written about how MOOs might be used as tools for critique. Our goal here, then, is to make a contribution along those lines. We would like to consider the MOO from a framework of critical pedagogy and discuss how MOO technology might be used to enable that framework.
Over the past year, both of us have approached the MOO with certain implicit expectations and assumptions about what the function of education is or can be. These assumptions informed the approach to the design of both OldPuebloMOO itself and the curriculum of the course we will briefly discuss. That pedagogical framework might best be understood as "critical pedagogy"- a theory of learning that is based on the notion of "critique" as a methodology for engaging in a dialectical understanding of social systems. The principle of critique is that an artifact (i.e., a text, an institution, social relations) is first examined and interpreted within its own context and probable meanings. Then the artifact is analyzed for the ideological assumptions that constructed the artifact and that it constructs or perpetuates (that is, for the implications of the artifact as it interacts with the world). Finally, critique makes evaluative judgments on that artifact and its implications according to an announced and examined framework.
Dialectic, an essential part of critique, is the constant adjusting of ideological assumptions, the challenging of both theoretical and practical orientations based on the material and historical realities of humans impacted by the social systems they live in. Dialectic demands that all perspectives be responsive to change. Dialectic suggests that all apparent constants are illusory constructs, and what is most valuable is the flux and moments of change inherent in social systems. According to this theory, critique is never complete-that is, we critique current historical material conditions and the discourses that construct and reproduce them with the goal of transforming those conditions; once we impact those discourses or cause change, we have a whole new set of conditions that requires critique yet again. The goal is not some static moment or dogmatic conclusion to a "problem," but a constant, reflective engagement with our material world in social relations.
What does that mean for classroom practice? First of all, from this perspective, education becomes a process of learning to critique ideologies of a subject along with the "content" of any given subject, actively acknowledging that ideologies and content are never separable. Therefore, education is not viewed as the transmission of skills, but rather the analysis of skills and their implications. Education becomes the object of analysis in terms of interests served and implications. In a composition course, for example, discourse and knowledge is analyzed in relation to the social systems that knowledge works within, and students are encouraged to explore the ideological assumptions of all texts. As they analyze, they themselves employ writing, and critique that writing according to the same frameworks. The purpose of this pedagogy is to allow students to not only learn the skills that society has identified as necessary, but to be able to understand those skills as having ideological significance and real implications for other human beings. Ideally, this approach gives students the opportunity to have more choice and awareness about their actions and participation in this system, based on the assumption that people who are able to critique their own education and larger social structures are far more likely to take responsibility for and possibly act in/on those structures. There is no predetermined agenda for what type of change these informed and critical people might enact, but there is the hope that everything will become questioned, weighed against an ethical framework, and shaped accordingly.
When instructors introduce technology within a critical pedagogy, additional constraints and implications necessarily arise and call for critical attention. This particular perspective assumes an already critical view of technology, working from an acknowledgment that uses of technology have the potential to create problematic social situations. A critical framework, when applied to technology, rejects an instrumentalist view of technology-that technology is socially neutral-and rejects an unproblematized embrace of technology. Andrew Feenberg articulates this perspective in Critical Theory of Technology. Feenberg says that, "Critical theory argues that technology is not a thing in the ordinary sense of the term, but an 'ambivalent' process of development suspended between different possibilities. This 'ambivalence' of technology is distinguished from neutrality by the role it attributes to social values in the design, and not merely the use, of technical systems" (14). Thus, introducing technology, or rather, dramatically increasing and changing the nature of the technology utilized in a classroom is never a neutral act; technologizing a classroom is fraught with ideological assumptions and alters the very nature of the way education is experienced. According to a critical perspective, those assumptions and implications, if left unexamined become naturalized, and an opportunity for the "different possibilities" the process offers are missed.
The introduction of MOO technology, specifically, creates its own unique moment of examination because of the level of "virtuality" that such technology enables, encourages, and perhaps valorizes. MOO technology in many way facilitates the concept of a virtual self, and contributes to what Turkle describes as an emerging reconception of identity through technology, especially Internet technology: "The Internet is another element of the computer culture that has contributed to thinking about identity as multiplicity. On it, people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves. . . . The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimentation with the construction and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life" (178, 180). These possibilities of play and experimentation with identities, with "virtual identities" available through MOO technology are, according to Turkle and many others, seductive. We are interested in how the critique of technology enables us to begin to articulate a critical pedagogical approach to utilizing MOO technology in the classroom that accounts for these issues.
Feenberg repeatedly asserts that any type of ideological intervention with technology should take place at the level of design as well as in the use of the technological application. In many ways, the project of OldPuebloMOO and our involvement in it has been our attempt at a critical relationship with technology and pedagogy from the level of design-the continued design of the infrastructure of the MOO, as well as design of the curricular goals for our specific course. Looking specifically at the design of OldPuebloMOO, the curriculum for the course we created, the activities on and uses of the MOO within that course context, and our reflection on the outcomes of those features, demonstrates-we believe-the ways in which a critical pedagogy might incorporate virtuality to achieve alternative possibilities with computing technology.
We approached the design of OldPuebloMOO from a critical perspective. The opportunity to develop an educational environment from the ground up was exciting and full of potential. From Brown's perspective, the designing of this environment provided a possible site to disrupt or, at least call into question some assumptions about the nature of educational spaces. The decision was made to design the MOO neither as an exact virtual reproduction of the university, nor as a complete departure from it. What we did do was construct OldPuebloMOO with familiar university buildings, landmarks from the university, and local community sites. We placed classrooms throughout the community, incorporated community and university history throughout the MOO, and altered the function of spaces of familiar places. Our stated goal in doing this-a goal announced in the mission plaque that sits at the virtual fountain, the centerpiece of OldPuebloMOO-was to call the notion of education in this space into question. The plaque reads, in part: "OldPueblo contains many of the rich cultural resources of the real Tucson, but the boundaries have changed. Sit at the fountain, have a conversation with others here or think about the implications of these different spaces. Or choose a building you would like to visit, and as you wander through OldPueblo, think about what this compossible space means" (OldPuebloMOO). In addition, because we were aware that collapsing those boundaries is in itself a problematic endeavor, that is placing a classroom within a community theater might in fact be interpreted as a sort of appropriation of the community for university purposes, we also incorporated questions which might bring those implications to the fore. In one classroom on OldPuebloMOO, the description reads:
You have entered Fitch Classroom, named for Thomas Fitch, who built the first opera house in Tucson in 1882. Type 'look blackboard' to see if there are instructions for your class. As you use this classroom space, consider the fact that in the *real* Rialto Theater, there is no such classroom. Does the virtual space here allow us to understand spaces for education, boundaries for learning any differently? (OldPuebloMOO)
Built within the design of OldPuebloMOO itself are questions that directly reveal ideological assumptions
Similarly, the design of the first year composition course taught on the MOO deals with these ideological questions in general, but questions of technology and the MOO specifically. Starting with the premise that technology should not necessarily be introduced into a classroom without a clear reason for doing so, the course design was based on an analysis of what the MOO facilitated, what the implications of class on the MOO might be, and how the MOO fit with the course goals and content. An analysis of the MOO in terms of the types of interactions it facilitates and some of the implications of those interactions reveals that some of the characteristics of MOO interaction include a displacement of identity through a virtual, textual persona, and the collapse or alteration of space/time boundaries and awareness of physical geography. The MOO is always growing and although there is an "infrastructure," characters on the MOO can build and contribute objects, texts, rooms, and even programming code, thus allowing people to construct and participate in educational space in a different way than a traditional classroom. Additionally, the MOO provides tools and access that encourages collaboration. MOO classes have the potential of removing the instructor and students from certain positions while reinserting them in different ways. And the MOO provides the means to redefine what a classroom is, who can be included, and when learning can take place.
Using this type of analysis in relationship to the goals of a critical pedagogy driven curriculum can allow an instructor to design a course that will enable the instructor and students to actively engage these characteristics of the MOO to make the MOO an "object to think with," rather than simply working on or, worse, being worked by the MOO. For example, a critical pedagogy seeks to call attention to and call into question dominant ideological assumptions. To that end, the types of interaction that takes place in MOOs suggest that MOO technology may provide the opportunity to call into question common assumptions about individual identity, authority, individual achievement, and the individual nature of education. At the same time, the use of the MOO itself has implications. That is, it does not unproblematically call those assumptions into question; in fact, without analysis, it does not necessarily call anything into question. Further, because of the displacement of identity MOO interaction itself creates a new set of ideological assumptions that need to be examined.
Given these possibilities with the MOO as well as the particular design of OldPuebloMOO around the metaphor of local community, the curriculum designed for this particular course focused on local community issues. The course was structured around three units. The first unit focused on ideological analyses of texts; the second unit asked students to create a collaborative text based on community research for a specific community, using some form of technology; and the third unit was an individual ideological analysis of their own projects and activities in the class. The course design required students to work and research in the real community as well as on the MOO, and to do so in groups that they were placed in groups at the beginning of the semester. The class met one day a week in person, one day a week on the MOO. The "texts" for the course were primarily online, allowing the students to access the texts through the MOO to have available while working with each other online. The MOO itself was considered a "text," a point emphasized by journal assignments that asked students to analyze the MOO as an artifact. Further, students were asked to contribute to the "text" by creating objects and descriptions to place on or link to the MOO based on the theme of the MOO and the course. This activity required students to analyze the MOO environment as well as the class in order to contribute meaningfully to class discussions and to understand texts as artifacts to be engaged.
The class provides concrete examples of how critical pedagogy was enabled and shaped by the MOO. One concern of the class was the notion of "virtualizing" one's own identity. As much of the literature about MOOs tends to suggest that play with identity allows for a breaking down of socially constructed roles, on the one hand, and the critique of the implications of that detachment of material identity, on the other, several elements of the course placed that question as a point of analysis. Early in the semester students reflected on how their virtual representations were different from their "real" selves. Students wrote critical analyses of the descriptions they gave their MOO characters. Additionally, the fact that the class always met at least one day a week in person and that the groups were required to work together at some points extensively in person allowed the students to reflect on their online interactions while still being responsible for their interactions face to face. A further opportunity for this type of reflection came through the experiences of two individuals in the class who were disabled. Most notably, one of the students was blind and had taken the course specifically because the MOO (with appropriate additional software that translated her computer screen text to voice or braille) gave her different opportunities to participate in the class. In virtual reality, she could see what people were doing, an opportunity for her that meant a great deal, and something that many students in the class were thrilled to be able to share with her. The opportunity for analysis that this situation presented (facilitated by the stated assumptions of the course) was that while everyone could appreciate the fact that this student was in many ways enabled by her virtual identity, her physical presence in class and her continuous reflection on what she misses in the physical world because of her blindness never allowed students to ignore the material implications of her real identity.
This particular student and Bartlett (the co-author) were in the same group with three other students. The group project that they undertook, and the group interactions, are illustrative of the critical nature of the course integrated with an exceptionally aware use of MOO technology. The assignment for the semester-long group project asked students to identify a local issue, work with a local organization on that issue, and create a technology project that either represented that issue or otherwise served the organization's purposes. The project required analytical research of print materials as well as primary and alternative sources (such as interviews), and an analysis of how the technology constrained/enabled/impacted the project's goals. This group decided to work with a local school for the deaf and blind to get an instructor and her classes on the MOO. Their analysis of what the MOO offered to this community worked from the fact that deaf and blind students are often educated separately and do not often have the opportunity to interact with each other. The group also believed that bringing a community from outside of campus onto OldPuebloMOO would offer the chance for outreach and cross-institutional collaboration. To that end, the group successfully built an environment on the MOO for the school, worked with the instructor and students there to familiarize them with the technology and set up the technology at the school, and drafted a proposal for the project to become a formal part of OldPuebloMOO's mission.
The project was a critical endeavor in many ways. The students made a critical decision about the MOO's potential, demonstrating an awareness of what MOO technology enables. The students, by inviting a community from outside of the university on to the MOO, not simply as visitors but as integrated members of the MOO community, disrupted traditional university/community boundaries. The students approached the community as partners. They did not do research on this community, but rather worked with the community and continue to work with them through and with technology. They worked with the community to design classroom features and space that would meet the community's needs, rather than simply creating a classroom based on their own assumptions about those needs.
This group-like all the groups-used the MOO to meet, discuss their research, and develop their MOO environment. If the instructor was online, they would often consult with her, providing informal "progress reports" because of their enthusiasm for the project. We might attribute what this group demonstrated in terms of relation to the instructor and the project here to the role the MOO played in establishing class interactions. First of all, the course assignments on the MOO were designed to remove the instructor's direct presence as much as possible. Questions for discussion and instructions for the class activity were posted in the online workrooms prior to class. Typically, a MOO class session would involve all the students logging in, moving their characters into the MOO classroom, waving hello to the instructor and each other, moving into their workrooms and actively discussing the questions, pulling outside research in from the web, collaboratively constructing responses, arranging group meeting times, and verifying that certain things got done. Once in awhile a student would send a page to the instructor to ask for clarification or for an opinion, or to just check in. The instructor did not participate in the group conversations, but was able to watch ("listen") to all the groups simultaneously, entering the workrooms and offering information-often not necessarily related to the discussion-now and then. The students were self-directed, on-task, and collaborative. A typical exchange during these discussions looked like this (taken directly from a transcript of the recorded discussion session):
A____ says, "I can't think of a lot of readings that deal with this, unless you want to look at the Ideological criticism readings."
K____ says, "niether can i"
A____ says, "Those sort of tell you how to criticize something."
B____ [to A____ ]: Can you think of any examples from the IC reading?
B____ says, "sorry. not keeping up."
A____ says, "No prob."
B____ says, "ok, what about from what you've read in Holding the Line?"
A____ says, "My mind's blank, what do you think we should do?"
A____ says, "I haven't read much, and it's been a while."
B____ says, "here's something else....in Salt of the Earth (which is a lot like Holding the Line) the company does not count on the women participating. they figure they can win if they ban the men from striking. but the women, like you said were persistent and presented another side to the argument. Even some of the men thought they would lose. It's all a matter of how you look at it"
B____ says, "sorry that was so long"
A____ says, "Don't worry about it."
K____ says, "im going to write up my ideas...minus the stuff on salt of the earth since i dont really know it"
A____ says, "sounds good.."
B____ says, "how 'bout we all do that and we'll put 'em together"
B____ says, "or we could paste what we have already said"
This exchange was followed by several chunks of texts that each of the group members pasted, and combined into a larger response for the rest of the class. Each member attempted to compensate for what the others did not know. The final response reflected a comprehensive and collective understanding of the discussion question.
By the end of the semester, most of the students were inclined to collaborate with each other even on assignments that are institutionally structured to measure individual achievement. Students in composition at the University of Arizona are required to take a common, timed writing as the final exam. All students in the program are given an essay selected by a program committee, along with study questions. The students prepare for their final exam in individual classes, and often the program attempts to get the author of the essay to come speak to the students. This year, the author was unable to attend, so the students were on their own for getting through the essay. We organized an online study session on the MOO, open to all students in the program (a challenge for many of the students from other classes that had not been using the MOO). The student-led study session was attended by over thirty students and led to productive, directed conversations about the essay and the study guide questions.
On the morning of the final exam, this class appealed to the instructor to consider allowing them to write the exam collaboratively. The instructor, aware that a final exam is often viewed by students as a tedious and artificial task, suspected the students were simply playing on what they knew to be the instructor's own values regarding collaboration to make the exam more interesting. However, the students persisted by explaining that they felt that a collaborative final would best represent the work they did in this course because they "collaborated on everything," as one student put it. Additionally, they argued, the "discursive practice of a final exam" that forces a student to write an essay in isolation for her/his own individual achievement "was part of dominant ideology." Writing a collaborative exam, they suggested, would challenge that dominant ideology. When asked how they would go about writing such an exam, the students responded, "like collective action." When it was pointed out that two of the students from the class, the two disabled students, were not present because they had to take the exam elsewhere with special arrangements, the rest of the class decided that it would not be appropriate to take a collective exam without the other two students' input. They ended up taking the traditional individually written exam, regretting not having proposed this idea earlier so it might actually have been arranged. Bartlett pointed out that if we had arranged to take the exam on the MOO, the whole collaborative activity could have been recorded, and individual's participation could even have been measured.
Ultimately, the goal of this course was to have students actively analyze and critique texts and ideologies, and to make the MOO an integral part of that interrogation, a tool to think with rather than just an imposed instrument on the class. What happened in the course, we believe is that the MOO, in conjunction with this course design, facilitated a critique of the ideology of individualism, leading to an approach to education that was not simply collaborative but collective; it also facilitated a means to understanding the possibilities of "virtual" interaction as enhancing, perhaps enabling different "real" human interaction; and it allowed students a different relationship with the instructor, thus calling into question some traditional assumptions about the transmission of education as well as authority in the classroom. Ultimately, the students engaged with the technology, and utilized that technology to achieve possibly alternative relationships to their education, their communities, and each other.
This class never approached the MOO as a "neutral" tool. The structure and curriculum of the course was based on a critical theory of technology as well as a critical pedagogy. That combination facilitated a critical relationship to knowledge and writing for the students, and the MOO became a significant factor in establishing that critical relationship. This use of technology in composition, we would argue, is a responsible and productive approach. And, as technology is recognized as a pervasive shaping force, constructing much of our understanding of and relationship to society, this approach to technology in the classroom suggests some possible direction for further work on exploring the potential for critical pedagogy to intervene in that relationship, perhaps, as Feenberg suggests, helps us to "invent a politics of technological transformation" (13).
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