Fear and Loathing in Paradise:

Making use of Dissensus, Disorientation, and Discouragement on the MOO

Michael J. Day, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Excerpted from a talk presented at "The Virtual Classroom: Writing Across the Internet" in Berkeley, California., March 16, 1996.



Let me assure you that just because I start out with all the DIS words, such as DIS-orientation, DIS-couragement, DIS-sensus, and DIS ease, it does not mean that I am overly critical of using the MOO for educational purposes.

To the contrary, I enjoy using the MOO for myself and my classes. But I want to show how creative and constructive use of our students' negative reactions can lead to teachable moments in the writing class. That is, we can learn much about strategies of rhetoric and communication by looking carefully and critically at what went wrong when students got upset in and with the MOO.

Return to the Top

Examining technological assumptions

First, we have to carefully examine the pedagogical tools we use and the assumptions we make about them. Cindy Selfe, Nancy Kaplan, and others have reminded us to look critically at any technology we use, to see who it helps, and who it might exclude. We have to be critical users of such technologies as MOOs, to look for the fissures and cracks which lie beneath the surface of our assumptions.

Thus, if we use these synchronous environments, we should not assume that all of our students can or should like them or use them the way we do. Writing teachers who use e-mail and synchronous writing environments on computer networks are a rather special breed; because we are avid readers and writers, most of us catch on rather quickly to these text-based worlds.

Indeed, our students may not be able to use the technology the way we do, at least not right away. The responsible approach is to foreground the problems our students have, and use the problematic situations to teach communications strategies.

And so, for the moment, let us meet on the Dark Side of the MOO.

Return to the Top

The writing teacher and the MOO

By way of a bit of background, I have been using MOO for years in my own collaboration and research for books, articles, and conference presentations. With my colleagues, I use e-mail for asynchronous exchanges, and MOO for synchronous sessions in which we need to get much work done.

I've gotten very accustomed to using MOO, and I find it wonderful for brainstorming ideas and getting feedback. Of course I thought my students could make as much use of the environment as I had. Further, I even thought that they could collaborate with students at other schools on the MOO.

But in these beginning stages, I did not think very hard about the learning curve my students would face, or why someone like me could use MOO so well. Let's face it, like many of you, I am a text person; I'm a reader. I got hooked on books and writing when I was young, and reading is quick and effortless for me. But are our students the same kind of readers we are? Is it as easy for them to process text as it is for us? Perhaps not for all of them, or even for many of them.

Return to the Top

Collaborative teams on the MOO

Despite the challenges we faced, I had my students team up with David Tillyer's students at the City University of New York and Jack Ferstel's students at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Two students from each school joined together in groups of six. They began collaborating on e-mail, but of course, after hearing about MOO, some of them really wanted to try it. After all, it would be faster than e-mail, which was frustrating to them because of its slowness.

To meet this need for faster interaction, I created rooms for each group on Daedalus MOO, with the help of Traci Gardner, and helped the groups get to work. I gave them detailed instructions to try to help them with the learning curve, including many tips on netiquette, and Traci's MOOtips handout. But there were problems, some of which I will discuss here. Those of you who have used MOO or MUD will perhaps remember very well what can be most disorienting about trying to discuss and collaborate in a MOO.

Return to the Top

Some problems with MOOing

1. If you have many people logged in, the screen scrolls quickly and you cannot read fast enough. My students complained of frustration and a feeling of being left out. Most of us teachers don't have a big problem with this, but then we've been practicing; and since we're language teachers, we're probably good at reading quickly. But our students sometimes find the speed of the interaction daunting.

2. Some people can't type well or fast enough; they also feel left out because they cannot keep up with the conversation. What expectations can we make about our students' typing abilities, and how can we better include those who do not type well?

3. Often, disagreements and fights occur, simply because a student on the MOO was trying to be witty. But as we all know, pure text cannot carry all the irony or sarcasm intended, and a comment can look downright rude or affrontive. Students can get angry, and because of this, feel demoralized. I joined a student group one day and found the students insulting each other. I intervened, but felt that perhaps it would have been better to talk to the students about it afterward, if I mentioned it at all.

As other MOO-using teachers, including Leslie Harris, have noticed, discussing cross-cultural issues on the MOO can sometimes put students into a tolerant, learning mode, but some experiences can just as easily result in conflicts which polarize them, resulting in an "us" versus "them" standoff between groups of students. Not only do we need to alert students to the possibility of these problems; we also need to encourage them to analyze and discuss these interactions (perhaps by using transcripts of the conversations) with the class to shed light on the effective and ineffective use of rhetorical strategies in computer mediated communication.

4. Students often feel as if pure text is just too difficult for communicating, especially when they cannot see the others in the group. They long for facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, anything that would help them communicate better and establish rapport with their partners. On-line community does not come naturally for some groups, particularly when those groups have not formed naturally through time and interaction. Teachers often have to create groups because the semester or quarter is simply not long enough to let groups form naturally. But there is no guarantee that relationships of trust and cooperation will be built, particularly when participants can neither see nor hear each other.

As we have seen, working with long distance partners on a MOO can be disorienting, and disagreements sometimes lead to frustration that threatens to break apart on-line groups.

But I would like to discuss several ways in which teachers can use these moments of disorientation and disenchantment to lead students to a better understanding of some basic principles of gathering information, and of the strategies of rhetoric.

Return to the Top

Lost in the flow of text: skimming not surfing

Let's start with the problem of students becoming frustrated and disoriented with the quick flow and fast- scrolling screen of the MOO. Sometimes it's like trying to paddle upriver, but being swept downstream in the flow of text, as we all know. We get lost and upset, and the more we try to catch up, the more mistakes we make and the more frustated we become. Many people I know have just given up after trying to participate in such a conversation.

Of course we all know that the easiest way to slow it down and let students get used to it is to put students in small groups, say of about four each, and let them talk to each other at a natural speed.

And yet, by exposing them to faster speed discussions with lots of participants, could we not prepare them for experiences many of them are likely to have as workplaces and communication environments go electronic? Yes, of course we need to prepare them for such experiences beforehand.

I might further claim that by asking them to glean information from MOO sessions, we are also helping students to better navigate the "firehose of information" being aimed at them now through the Internet. Few schools that I know of have classes in which students can learn about information gathering and techniques of computer mediated communication; so as writing teachers with students who increasingly use the network, it is perhaps up to us to address these issues.

From my discussions with teachers all over the country, I get the feeling that we're being caught unaware by a tidal wave of information. It is clear to me that educators had better do something quickly before our students are left behind. We need to help them swim, not sink.

One of the most common metaphors these days for browsing the net is not swimming but SURFING, that is catching the wave of information and riding it by following connections rather than getting caught in the depths of just one source and wasting valuable time there.

Yet, I think that SURFING isn't quite the right analogy for the behavior we need to encourage in students. It reeks too much of the outcast and maverick, or of someone who might just ride right over a lot of good information without seeing it. For purposes of illustration, I would like to suggest that we use the word SKIMMING in order to help conceptualize one of the skills I think students can learn from having to deal with fast pace MOO discourse. In another context, Eric Crump has called this process "skimming and diving."

Think of all the ways students have to skim on the Internet-- just consider Web pages, and e-mail lists, and gopher sites -- in order to find information of value to them. Learning to skim through MOO conversations could be good practice. We could create practice exercises for students by having them monitor one of the fast paced discussions on the MOO and isolate at least a few cogent insights. Or we could ask them to try to follow just one thread of conversation, ignoring the others for survival's sake, and to summarize that thread.

Or, if students complain of difficulties following the fast paced, multi-threaded conversation on the MOO, the class can review transcripts of conversations to discuss strategies for quick scanning and response in the flurry of the on-line conversation. Further, they might practice creating clear comments and responses which would help others keep up with multi-threaded conversations without confusion about who is responding to whom. As we have seen, following just one strand of a complex conversation can be difficult, akin to listening to several conversations at a cocktail party at once.

I hope you understand that these skimming skills are applicable to other contexts besides the Internet. Indeed, how often do we have to skim sources, bibliographies, indexes, tables of contents, papers, and abstracts, in order to find useful information? Do we have time to read every single word?

Absolutely not. We would never get any research done. Therefore I am suggesting that when we teach research skills, we try to teach skimming as a strategy and that we sometimes use MOO sessions in this process. The challenge of following a MOO conversation might just be a good practice exercise; where students perceive their frustrations as failures, we could work into a practical exercise from that sense of failure. Further, such MOO exercises could lead into productive discussion of skimming as a survival research skill.

Return to the Top

Typing as communication in context

Of course we can give students who cannot type well typing tutorial practice, but, as many educational technology specialists have noted, nothing helps students learn faster than practicing a skill in context.

Yes, students may feel daunted at not being able to type enough or fast enough, but what about asking them to practice under some pressure by placing them in a situation in which typing is the only way of communicating? We could require a minumum number of words (not too many), and we should reward their accomplishments at every stage in order to keep up their morale. Such practice could be a good exercise, especially just after or along with an intensive typing tutorial course.

Return to the Top

Investigating misunderstandings rhetorically

For students who have problems communicating ideas clearly without face-to-face cues, or who get into frequent misunderstandings, or who become upset about rude interjections, instead of blaming and abandoning synchronous CMC on the MOO, we could bring the issue to the class for discussion.

As many teachers have done with Daedalus Interchange sessions, we could review transcripts of the sessions in question with the class, with the goal of identifying which utterances were misunderstood and why. Or why some participants chose to be rude, and how that choice affected their ethos, their credibility in the discussion.

From this analysis, students could brainstorm strategies for more effective written communication. In this way, instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to disorientation, and disillusionment, we could use it as a springboard for discussion of strategies for writing more clearly for on-line audiences, through use of context, orienting textual expressions of emotion, emoticons, and other explanatory devices.

One good excercise might be to load a transcript of a MOO session with several misunderstandings into a word processing file, and, either on the overhead or on individual computers, have students revise the problematic utterances based upon what they have discussed in class. Students might also do freewriting exercises analyzing who said what and why, and who misunderstood what and why.

With permission of those involved, I took the transcript of a problematic MOO session to my class for comment and analysis. They were perceptive about several aspects, including the identification of language that could be offensive to some, and which could seem rude or pushy to others.

We came to the realization, as a class, that although we might have thought that MOOing is just like talking in a group face-to-face, so much of the trust and bonding of a face-to-face group is missing that you can't use the same informal wording, or assume that the way you talk to your friends face-to-face is going to be okay with someone you know and work with on the MOO. We also brainstormed some other rhetorical strategies for dealing with the misunderstanding.

Many such discussions and exercises could translate into discussion and work on more traditional writing tasks. Just as some of us use real time conversations on the computer in the class to come up with language and approaches that could be used in formal writing for wider audiences, so can we use MOO problems and areas of discomfort to begin to talk about more general problems of communicating to readers.

Return to the Top

MOOing is practicing written communication

Many detractors still claim that using MOO in classes is a waste of time, and point to the problems I have identified, and more. Yet there is one saving grace. . . .

Written language currently is THE most common medium of MOO communication. As we know, except for some of the new graphical MOOs still not widely in use, those who use MUDs and MOOs must use written language. Thus any use of these media will constitute practice of written communication. Whether MOO communication is appropriate for writing classes is currently in dispute, but at the very least it can be used to foreground attention to textual communication as a rhetorical act.

Further, on most MOOs and MUDS, any attempt at getting emotion and gesture and tone of voice across is purely textual, and without the props of face-to-face communication, students MUST work on writing clearly and unambiguously, and being explicit.

In their wide-area class collaborative groups, our three classes found that they needed these strategies so that they could get work done without insulting others.

Along with e-mail, MOO communication gives students intensive focus on achieving the maximum effect through writing alone. This one fact can be very important for writers from high school on to college, and especially to those who do technical and professional writing, for they cannot achieve their goals and affect others without being able to use written communication clearly. MOO work can help us to focus students upon that need for explicitness and clarity.

Return to the Top

Some final comments

I know that this overview has been rather short and informal, but I hope that I have identified a few teachable moments in MOO conversation, where we can move students from disorientation and frustration to productive discussion of written communicative strategies.

I hope that making use of these teachable moments will help students to transfer strategies used in the specialized realm of MUD and MOO to the more general task of writing effectively and clearly for a variety of audiences.

Finally, I want to emphasize that if we move from thinking about information gathering on the Internet as SURFING to thinking about it as SKIMMING , and transfer some of those skimming skills to the general project of developing research skills we often find in writing classes, we might just manage to create a richer environment in our classes because of the wealth of media from which we draw our examples.

Return to the Top