Wading Through the MUD:

Who Teaches in the M**?

Not surprisingly, the number of teachers who are working in M** space is increasing, and predominantly, these teachers have reacted positively to the new dimensions that synchronous communication environments have added to their teaching experiences, noting that students participate more actively and more enthusiastically to writing projects in a computer mediated setting than in a traditional classroom, perhaps because of In "MUDs in Education: New Environments, New Pedagogies" Tari Fanderclai reveals these results:
People who hesitate to speak up in class use their MUD characters to talk about their ideas. Students learn to describe strategies that they use to communicate in the MUD and to apply those strategies to other writing. They benefit from the exchange of ideas with experts and students from other locations. They mix work and play effectively, and they respond extremely well to having control over and responsibility for their own work...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.(1995)

The benefits of collaboration rely upon our redefinition of traditional identities and authorities in virtual environments, and we cannot underestimate the impact that M** technology can have upon our collaborative skills as writers/builders in M**. Perhaps there is no environment better suited to Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers than the MOO. Students provide their own audiences online in place of the traditionally artificial construct of teacher as audience. They exchange ideas more freely, more quickly, more playfully in the M**. In "Programming for Fun: Muds as a Context for Collaborative Learning" Amy Bruckman finds that the spirit of collaboration among disparate players inspires them to learn programming, both for fun and for improving their technical skills. According to its abstract, her "paper presents...Salient features of...learning experiences includ[ing] ease of collaboration, availability of technical assistance from peers, playfulness, availability of an audience for completed work, and community spirit..." (1994).

And playfulness is an aspect of composition instruction that has recently begun to garner more attention in its importance to educational goals, and not just in elementary education, where the best teachers have always known that students learn best when they are enjoying the learning process. In "Genderbending on the Mush" John Oughton also celebrates the playful capabilities of M** while exploring new identities through the use of characters.

MUDS et al are basically for fun and games (in fact, you can find out a great deal about them by using the "Fun and Games" option on Gopher), but they are also finding uses for those who want to develop panel discussions and academic papers, explore simulation programming, or even give a writing class an entertaining environment to visit.(1993)

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Entertaining our students is simpler than ever when we are using computers, perhaps because so many students are eager to "play" with them. For today's students, computers are increasingly contributing to their sources for entertainment, but they are also poised to figure prominently in the everyday lives and livelihoods of our students' futures. Recognizing that computers and writing share a unique relationship to one another, students will be better equipped to succeed in the future.

It is the marriage of computer science (programming) and communication (reading and writing) that makes M** collaboration possible, effective, and enjoyable. This combination adds an appealing dimension of constructivism to composition studies that students seem to delight in exploring. Rather than just the traditional essay, students have an opportunity to create objects in M** environments, to interact with those objects, and to continue exploring the importance of excellent writing skills in the MOO. Amy Bruckman also discusses the online collaboration between writers and programmers in the M** in terms of their interdependence on each other:

In text-based virtual worlds (or "MUDs") on the network, reading, writing, and programming are tightly linked. In MUDs, the most eloquent description is inert and lifeless if it is not programmed. The most elegant code fails to communicate if it is not expressively written. The medium encourages people with a strength in one of these areas to develop an interest in the other. It encourages collaboration between people with different skills. (1994)
In these environments, learning to write while writing to learn may well have become the most appropriate application of composition theory to practice that this discipline has yet seen, because M** writing classes have become places where students see themselves as writers who build meanings with their words. In these classes, the teacher truly facilitates the collaborative exchanges, allowing students to explore ideas with each other and with characters who are not enrolled in the course. This decentering of authority creates the desired "network" of writers who can succeed in creating texts independent of the instructor by the end of the course.

Not only do M** environments allow us to transcend barriers of identity, authority, and many other traditional teaching constraints, but their appeal is extending beyond our geographical barriers as well. Avigail Oren's work on her M** in Israel appears in this issue, as well, detailing the exciting pedagogical possibilities that she explored with her students there.

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There are some teachers, however, who have expored M** space in a limited fashion, become excited by the technology, and invited their classes to join them for a virtual representation of the exact traditional model that they had previously been enacting absent the technology. These teachers (and, no doubt, their students) have been resoundingly disappointed by their experiences in the MUD. Tari Fanderclai warns us in the same "MUDs in Education" essay cited above, that our teaching in the MUD should preserve the exploration, the imaginative, constructivist, playful aspect of teaching in a virtual space; that our programming should not emulate traditional materials too closely, rather, that it should seek to expand pedagogical possibilities, not to restrict them.

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, reducing 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...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.

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Last Update: June 8, 1996 by Claudine Keenan Send any comments to cgk4@psu.edu