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Should We MOO What We Can?

Kairos  Talks to the Proprietors of the Netoric Cafe

InterMOO conducted by Corey Wick

Following the 1995 NCTE Conference in San Diego, Kairos  News Editor Corey Wick sat down in MOOspace with Tari Fanderclai and Greg Siering, winners of the first "Contributions to the Community" award, to discuss the vagaries of realtime online interaction in MOOspace.

December 5, 1995.

The setting: Tari's Very Fashionable Hovel, MediaMOO
The decorators here are way behind schedule. Watch out for stray nails! Feel free to use the litterbox.
Tari Fanderclai, Greg Siering, and Corey Wick are standing here.

Kairos:  Just a few tips for both of you before we start. Feel free to both answer questions, or to pass on questions, or even to create a dialogue between the two of you if you wish.

Tari: Oh, we both talk at once all the time . . . it's part of our charm. Tari eyes herself warily.

Kairos:  Let's begin with Netoric, but first talk about your award. What was it? What was it for?

Greg: We won the 'Contributions to the Community Award' in the Teachers and Technology Awards Program, co-sponsored by 6th Floor Media, McDougall-Littel, and the Alliance for Computers and Writing.

Tari nods.

Kairos:  Is this a first for MUD-weavers/makers, whatever you're called?

Greg notes the awards are brand new this year and nods to Tari to explain why we got it.

Tari: Okay ... the award was specifically for the Netoric Project; the Netoric Project lives here at MediaMOO, but it's not a MediaMOO project, nor do we have any administrative positions at MediaMOO. They're simply kind enough to host our project, along with other media researchers' projects. It's also not a project about MUDs. Greg and I wanted to give people in the computers and writing community a way to get together in real time more frequently than we can at conferences. This seemed a good forum for that.

Kairos:  What were your objectives for the Netoric Project?

Tari: Conferences are infrequent; lots of people can't get there at all; but the exchange they foster is valuable, and we can get something a lot like that here.

Kairos:  Has it proven to be successful?

Tari: I think of that as one of our primary goals; bringing together colleagues that really can't meet any other way.

Tari lets Greg talk a bit.

Greg [to Tari]: Right, and while people were starting to come to the MOO, we only ran into each other by chance, so we also wanted to give people at least a time and MOO-location where they knew they could talk with their colleagues. After our first session (oof!), some folks suggested we sponsor a weekly, less formal meeting, and that became the Tuesday Cafe, Netoric's biggest project.

Kairos:  Where and when did you first become acquainted with MOO/MUD and what was your initial reaction?

Tari: MediaMOO was the first MUD I logged into.

Greg thinks back.... maybe early spring of '93?

Tari: Yeah, somewhere around then. I suppose my initial reaction was "cool, this works just like an all-text adventure game."

Greg was tickled pink because it seemed far more civilized than Internet Relay Chat, the tool I was using to for real-time communication.

Greg [to Tari]: I think one thing I really like about Netoric events is that we often have other MediaMOOers who have nothing to do with writing instruction stop by to chat. We rarely get that at our insular conferences.

Kairos:  Greg, what does Tari bring to the project?

Greg hmmmssss Tari.

Kairos:  Tari, while Greg hmmms, could you expand on the all-text adventure game idea?

Tari: Oh, you know, like "Adventure" - those games where you walk around rooms and you can "look" at things and "pick things up." The point there is to solve a puzzle or somesuch, of course, and you're alone, but MUDs have preserved some of that. I mean, now people are pointed to MUDs by colleagues, but back then you didn't log in and go "cool, we could have a meeting here" - it was perhaps a little more magical to come in that way.

Greg: [Answering the earlier question.] Well, besides her sharp wit and all-around intelligence, I think Tari brings a sense of self-aware criticism to Netoric, especially when we talk pedagogy. By that I mean that she is always questioning the teaching and theory behind what we are talking about, always cautious about the "gee whiz" aspect of technology ... And on a far more practical side, she's picked up a good deal of MOO coding and building that has really come in handy over the past few years, building us MOO-tools that have made our Netoric sessions run smoothly.

Kairos:  So, Tari, what does Greg bring to the project, besides virtual food?

Tari: Greg is probably the calmer of the two of us. He brings a kind of thoughtfulness and balance. He's good at moving discussions along toward the intended topic; I'm always ready to join the class clowns or go off in a million directions. Greg generally reins us in with a well-placed question or two. So our discussions always go better when he's around. Plus he has a lot of patience with detail work, which I don't have. He's got our archives and web site all under control; I'd have a three-weeks-behind mess all the time if it were left to me.

Greg ahems and supposes he better update the log catalog tonight. ;-) Tari laughs

Kairos:  Speaking of the classroom, what does MOO offer to educators that traditional methods do not? What are its pedagogical strengths?

Greg defers to Tari on the MOO pedagogy issue; she has far more experience there.

Tari: I think what MUDs offer for classes is a lot like what they offer all of us. Contact with people from other communities is one example. I think that's the area I've put most of my effort into: having my students collaborate with students in classes at other schools.

Kairos:  So they meet synchronously in the MOO?

Tari: They get other perspectives, they learn a lot by having to work out problems and schedules and so forth, they play off each others' skills. We get out of that rut that a class can too easily fall into of agreeing too quickly and completely on everything ...

Greg nods to Tari, thinking that many teachers who come to a MOO for their own uses (like Netoric) value the means of communication so much they see it as a potentially valuable learning medium for their classes. And I like to see teachers get such value out of the same practices they offer their students.

Tari: Well, I've never been much on putting a whole class on a MUD at once. It's chaotic as hell, for one thing, and for another thing, I don't really see the point of gather people in the same physical space at the same time and then logging into a MUD. Well, most of the time I don't! Plus it's very limiting to go looking for another class that meets when yours does.

Kairos:  I meant students from different geographical locations, to get different perspectives on issues.

Tari: Right, and that's what I mean by chaos. Put two classes together all at once on a MUD and you'll see what I mean. You almost have to split them into groups. So, if you're all going your separate ways, why not just form the groups and let the groups set up their own meetings?

Kairos:  What are some activities you have them do when they're in the MUD?

Tari: A typical example: we read the same story or watch the same film as the class(es) we're working with. Then small groups made up of a couple people from each class meet and do some work on questions they think are important, and group members report in some way to their RL classes - posting to a bulletin board or giving oral reports or something.
Then we figure out writing topics and we use e-mail to pass drafts back and forth and MUDs to meet to talk about them. It's especially cool if the classes' contents vary some; e.g., putting a writing class together with a film class worked great because we learned about film from the film class and then we helped them with their writing ... er, by 'learned about film' i mean they helped us with ways of interpreting and talking about a film. Of course that's only one kind of assignment and one purpose that we used the MUD for, but i thought of that one because it's much like what we do with the Netoric Project.

Kairos:  That's fascinating, interdisciplinary. But if we could, I'd like to move into some administrative issues. So I'm an administrator. What in the hell is MOO?

Tari: Greg, you want to jump back in here? Greg errrs and points around.

Tari laughs. Let's both try this

Tari: MOO stands for MUD, Object Oriented; MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon or Domain, depending on who you ask. The first MUDs were used to let people play dungeon-adventure games together across a network.

Kairos:  I'm still the administrator. Thanks. I feel much more informed now. :-\

Tari: like all administrators, you need to wait for a full answer :<) Then people started to modify MUD servers to suit other purposes; socialization at first, and more recently, various educational andprofessional purposes. MOO is one kind of MUD server, originally developed by Steven White.

Greg: Lemme see, where to start? MOOs are often described as being text-based virtual realities. By logging in across the Net to a central computer, we can have real-time conversations like this. But beyond the chat function, MOOs allow users to create textually described worlds, building "rooms" in which we can talk and "objects" that we can interact with.

Tari: and Greg just said about what I would have said next.

Greg ooohs Tari.

Tari: I'm not really sure what you say to administrators about MUDs.

Greg [to Tari]: Um, that the software won't cost them?

Tari laughs, nods.

Greg: [MOOs] give us an interactive context in which to talk... and that really helps people become more comfortable having conversations online. For example, Tari built the Tuesday Cafe and decorated it very purposefully, to set a particular tone for the conversations we hoped to have there.

Tari: I think that what to say to them is becoming easier since there are now lots of researchers, professionals, and classes doing work online and they're starting to get time to write about their projects.

Kairos:  But doesn't this creative nature of MOO's cause people to consider it an entertainment activity, inappropriate for scholarly pursuits?

Tari: Well, sure; that's always been a problem.

Greg: Yes, and if you look back at the logs we keep of our meetings, you'd see a good deal of play intertwined with the conversations.

Kairos:  How do you combat such arguments?

Tari: I suppose getting people to look at the products is the important thing ... yes, I said PRODUCT! ... er ... in other words: What are students learning in MUDs? Are they learning effectively? Are they learning some things they might not learn some other way?

Greg points to how conferences are often mixtures of work and play. Corey, you remember what a blast we had at the last Computers and Writing Conference, but you also emember how much we all learned from talking about teaching and writing and computers. And we made lots of professional contacts while having fun, too. So the fun we have on a MOO is not that different from our other professional work after all.

Tari nods to Greg.

Kairos:  I'm convinced!

Greg notes the snacks are cheaper when you're at home, too.

Tari: We're still trying to convince administrators. though I've never actually tried to go at it from that end. I figured out my plan and said to our composition director "here's what I want to try and here's how i'll meet the prescribed course goals" and he looked at me like I had about three heads and then said "well, okay, try it and report back."

Greg: While nobody at my school really knows too much about this project (just that I cannot go to Tuesday night meetings because I am online), I think this award really validated my online work... at least in their eyes. [to Tari]: So now you are my colleague to them, not just one of my weird computer friends. ;-)

Tari: And I think that's maybe the key: have a plan, show how you can do what you're supposed to do and what you want to do, and ask one person who can say "okay, you can try this." I think a lot of what I see is teachers getting a group and asking the top administrator "can we have our own MUD?" or something instead of taking a small, apparently sane approach that administrators are more ready to deal with.

Greg nods to Tari about laying out the plan. Joel English, a new PhD student here, was able to have his MA thesis defense online. I think efforts like that are what need to happen to keep driving us toward a greater acceptance of online discourse as a possible scholarly tool (and pedagogoical one).

Tari nods. Plus, you know, it's so much more sensible to test the water a bit first. In other words, Joel doesn't go to the Grad committee and say "hey we should all get to have online defenses." He works out his case carefully and then they get to see, okay, that works; we can think about this again. I mean, geez, people are writing me and going "I saw a MOO - how do I get one?" and they have no idea how to use one. They'd do better to get familiar with one and then take a class or two to one that someone else has the headache of operating and then when they really know what they're getting into and have reason to want their own and the means to maintain it, then they could use the work they've already done to support their request. Hi, I'm ranting and I can't shut up.

Kairos:  So what's your plan for the Netoric Project now?

Greg looks at Tari and blinks. Our plans? Hmmm. From what we've frequently talked about, we want to keep getting more people involved in planning and hosting Netoric events. We want people to not only show up to chat, but become involved in identifying and preparing topics of conversation, planning larger Netoric events with us, and the like. I think Tari'd agree with me that Netoric is at its best when we have a group of people involved in bringing us together online... the "Administrators' Nights" [where each participant brings an administrator from his/her campus to the MOO] are good examples of that group work.

Tari: I don't know that we have specific plans; I think we just sort of go along and modify as needed to suit the needs of those who participate ... and what Greg said.

Greg chuckles.

Tari: I think that eventually the computers and writing community will outgrow the Netoric project

Greg agrees

Tari: but I think for quite awhile yet we'll be able to serve as kind of a first step, as well as a sort of anchor - you move on, but you come back on Tuesday night or whenever you can to meet the new folks and talk about computers and writing issues and so on.

Kairos:  Speaking of Netoric, we should probably wrap this up so you can attend to tonight's Tuesday Cafe session.

Tari grins.

Greg thinks those are good words to end on. :-) [to Tari]: Well said.

Tari: Thanks.

Greg throws out a plug for the Netoric project: Come visit! :-)

Corey: That's a wrap. Cut. Print it!


*** Disconnected ***

Kairos 7.3
vol. 1 Iss. 1 Spring 1996