Early in the spring of 1993, a small community of writing teachers who use computers in their classrooms discovered MediaMOO, a MUD operated at MIT and used by media researchers for real-time discussion and collaboration. The synchronous communication possible in a MUD, the immediacy of the exchange, the constant access to geographically distant colleagues, and the blending of work with play made MediaMOO uniquely appealing as a place for members of a professional community to come together. New collaborations arose; new projects were born; boundaries between established authorities and newcomers to the field seemed to blur; previously disenfranchised members of the academic community found audiences.
As we saw how the MUD benefited us, we began to ask how MUDs might be useful in our writing classes. The possibilities seemed endless. Students could have contact with people from cultures and subcultures outside their own. They could construct their own spaces and try on new personae, new ways of thinking, new ways of interacting. They would get immediate responses to their ideas and to the text objects they created, experiencing dynamically the effects their words have on others.
Perhaps most intriguing, MUDs could disrupt the hierarchy of the traditional classroom, giving students more power and responsibility and a chance to learn to use them wisely in order to accomplish their goals. Because students would be unseen and relatively anonymous, we hoped that they would feel more comfortable expressing themselves. Because everyone could talk at once and everyone would be heard, no one could dominate discussions. The teacher could not stand in front of the room and lecture and direct; students would have to be responsible for their own actions and develop their own methods for accomplishing their goals.
In addition, there is a great deal of incidental learning, for many students log into the MUD on their own time, building spaces for their groups to work in, learning to program objects, discussing topics from our class and other courses they're taking--and, of course, generally playing around. Quite possibly they learn more from projects and activities they invent for themselves than from any I assign; certainly they learn things I could not teach them in our four-walled classroom.
And so I am surprised and disappointed, as I continue to use and explore MUDs that describe themselves as educational, to see many educators and MUD administrators working hard to bring elements of the traditional educational environment into these virtual spaces. This reduces the uses of MUDs for education to an attempt to inject simple novelty into old pedagogical techniques rather than to exploit the potential of MUDs to provide new learning experiences for students.
All too frequently I log onto an educational MUD to find myself in a virtual representation of a university campus. Separate buildings highlight the traditional divisions among disciplines, and within these buildings are elaborately programmed classrooms. Teachers can lock students in and others out; they have tools for delivering lectures, for silencing one or all members of a class, and controlling who speaks when. Some MUDs have separate character classes for teachers and students, allowing the teachers to control whether or not the students can build rooms or create objects, where they can go in the MUD, when they can leave the virtual classroom, and so on.
For instance, the novelty of being in a virtual classroom will not last through an on-line lecture; MUDs are designed for interaction, and students will soon want to DO something. Yet the presence of programs designed to make lecturing on-line possible makes the practice seem appropriate. Programs for queuing speakers suggest that controlling the flow of a MUD conversation is desirable, and students are often forced to learn confusing commands for raising hands and receiving permission to speak. The teacher has an even more complicated task in queuing requests and directing who speaks when. Everyone is preoccupied by their frustration with the queuing program, and the group misses out on the rewards of a freely-flowing MUD conversation.
And, while commands for controlling students' behavior may seem efficient, they are also dehumanizing, robbing students of choices and suggesting to them that they cannot be trusted to behave appropriately on their own. The potential for empowering students is lost. Naturally, rightly, some students rebel against these controls. They may find more and more inventive ways to disrupt classes or disturb other users, and MUD administrators can find themselves programming in more and more controls to deal with problems that should never have come about. Even incidental learning is squelched under such conditions; even if the students are allowed to connect and socialize and create things on their own time, they've been given little reason to want to do so.
Campus computing departments, some of whom already have problems with users of gaming MUDs taking up resources that others need for work, cannot understand why a teacher would want to encourage MUDding. Teachers are used to having control in their classrooms, and the chaotic and playful nature of MUD interaction can make them worry that no one is getting anything done. They may gratefully latch onto tools that allow them to make the environment imitate their real life classroom practices. MUD administrators, faced with large groups of newcomers with varying degrees of preparation descending on a MUD all at once, may feel forced to institute programming that they hope will provide a measure of social control. And such practices are self-perpetuating; change is difficult and innovation becomes more and more unlikely as the routines are passed along to each new teacher who brings in a new class.
But changes seem to be on the way. Recently, I have been pleased to read in various on-line forums debates in which those who use educational MUDs question the usefulness of practices that imitate elements of the traditional classroom. I have seen class groups in MUDs working under teachers who have explored the possibilities of the MUDs and used them to empower their students and give them learning experiences not available in the traditional classrooms. I have read of teachers able to negotiate with the most skeptical of campus computer departments to allow their students access to MUDs. I have even seen a few situations where administrators have granted funding for a MUD, and then stepped out of the way to let the teachers make of it what they will. Administrators of a few educational MUDs have recognized that well-prepared teachers can eliminate the need to control students with programming, and they are developing resources to help teachers learn to exploit the potential of MUDs.
I am hopeful, therefore, that the near future holds more of these changes. MUDs are places for self-directed learning, learning that blends work and play, that often looks chaotic but that is uniquely effective. A MUD is not an environment that can be controlled; to use MUDs effectively, educators must replace control with structure. Students need clear goals, and knowledge of the tools and methods they might use to accomplish those goals. And then they need for us to stand out of the way and let them learn. Perhaps as MUDs become more accepted in education and we make better uses of their potential as learning environments, we'll even take a few of those lessons about empowering students and staying out of the way of their learning back to our real life classrooms. And that, it seems to me, might be the most important thing any of us could learn from educational MUDding. ¤
Tari Lin Fanderclai is a composition instructor and manages the English department computer lab at the University of Louisville. She is co- coordinator (with Greg Siering) of the Netoric Project at MediaMOO, and Director of Experimental Educational Environments, Sense Media Netcasting. Additionally, she is Administrator of ChibaMOO - Connections, SenseMedia's Collaborative Hyperarchical Integrated Media Environment (CHIME) Project.
Copyright © 1995 by Tari Lin Fanderclai. All Rights Reserved.