MOOs and English Composition

I try in my classes to create events similar to what occurs during typical Tuesday Cafes--the active exchange of ideas by involved participants. In many composition classes, however, students aren't frequently so involved or motivated as the colleagues who join the Tuesday Cafe. And even with successful classroom discussions, students are receiving practice in oral conversation, using the idioms of speech. At Susquehanna University (where I teach) and at many colleges across the United States, the students have an audience of very similar peers--fellow students at a similar stage of development, who share similar backgrounds, who have chosen to attend the same university. Because of these similarities, the students share many basic assumptions that remain unstated, and they have little sense of what is necessary to persuade a disparate audience of the validity of their views.

The MOO can provide such a disparate audience. Anyone with telnet access to the Internet can connect to a MOO host, and he/she can participate in the conversation. Remote learners can "meet" on the MOO, conducting synchronous class sessions in a text-based environment. Instructors at institutions with very different profiles can pair their classes, increasing the diversity of their classrooms and giving voice to difference. Students confronting such difference often learn that they need to defend their views--that others might not agree on what they thought was "natural" or "self-evident."

Diversity University MOO provides an environment for such educational exchange. It is organized as a virtual university. Like the Tuesday Cafe, therefore, the environment of DU reinforces the seriousness of the events that take place within the MOO, even as the playfulness enlivens the exchange. Classes can meet in virtual spaces that recall actual classrooms, as in Laragrove Auditorium--one sample room on DU MOO. As an "auditorium" space, Laragrove provides a "logical" grounds for large-group meetings, an environment in which to show virtual slides organizing the day's event. Students can also disperse into "smaller" discussion rooms, the size indicated only by the description of the room (as in Morrison Library, one of my classroom spaces on DU). Within those virtual rooms the students can "read" virtual blackboards, learning the discussion topic for their group. Morrison Chalkboard provides an example of one such blackboard.

Most significantly, the students can engage in the kind of active, involved, written discussions that take place during the typical Tuesday Cafe. For example, in Spring 1995 I paired a first-year composition class at Susquehanna Univeristy (where I teach) with a second-semester composition class taught by Robert Smith at George Washington University. The students derived from very different backgrounds, and the universities are very different in character. Susquehanna is a small, rural university in central Pennsylvania. Many students choose the school because of its isolation--the students view it as a "safe" environment where they can be nurtured and where their needs can be met. George Washington is a larger school located in Washington, D.C. It attracts students who seek the more exciting and more challenging urban environment, and it tends to have a much more diverse student body than Susquehanna.

By bringing together such disparate groups of students, we can enliven the classroom environment and promote an exchange of ideas. As with other environments for computer-mediated communication, MOO spaces allow frequent participation by the students. The students can contribute their thoughts immediately, unlike oral discussion environments in which students must wait for others to finish speaking and also must frequently wait to be acknowledged by their instructor before contributing to the dialogue. Because they are writing to a synchronously present audience, the students can request clarifications from their peers or respond to such requests. (See the Group 4 MOO transcript of 24 April 1995 for an example of such an exchange.) Students can applaud the effective expression of ideas and receive such applause. They can agree or disagree with ideas being expressed, situating themselves within a public discourse. (See the Group 5 MOO transcript of 24 April 1995 for an example of both these phenomena.)

All these examples suggest that MOOs are excellent environments for the teaching of writing. They are text-based worlds, created by language and fostering an articulation of one's ideas in writing--that is, as texts composed at the keyboard, written for others and in front of others. They provide what Seymour Papert would call "microworlds": that is, "incubators for powerful ideas" (Mindstorms 126). In the context of English composition, such "powerful ideas" are not only those expressed by the students during the discussions, but also the understanding of their own roles as writers--people with something important to say, something that can impress and influence other people. Communicating on the MOO becomes (like Papert's mechanical "turtles") a "source of personal power" (Mindstorms 129), counteracting many of the negative stereotypes that composition instructors need to overcome in their students: "I can't write," "I hate writing," and so on. Students learn that they can write--and write effectively so that others agree with their assertions.

Next Section: Literary Microworlds: Using MOOs to Teach Literature