Metacognitive Advantages of the MOO
It is the writing instructor's job, then, to continually seek new exercises and assignments that lead students in metacognitive analysis of their writing, both concurrently with writing and discussion and subsequent to revision processes. One common metacognitive project in the composition classroom is the "reflective essay." This is an exposition that focuses on the student's writing process in general or the process during a particular written assignment. Another related type of assignment that fosters continual, consistent metacognitive writing is the "writer's journal." Journals are extended, self-reflective logs of thought and meta-thought that students write during a term, rather than formal essays that will be reviewed and graded. Reflective essays and journals can be powerful metacognitive exercises for freshman writers as they develop their writing and learn why their writing is developing.
But I want to argue that these activities don't provide sufficient metacognitive reflection because students aren't situated within a prime learning environment when they engage them. Consider Avon Crismore and Lih (Lie)-Shing Wang's explanation that a program for beginning writers needs to possess the following four essential components:
Very often, reflective essays and journals lack all four of these characteristics, as do our classrooms (there is no immediate individualized instruction or feedback, nor is there a multisensory or controllable environment to speak of in the traditional forums). The attention freshman writers find in normal tutorials, student-teacher conferences, and peer conferences, often does fill each of Crismore and Wang's components, yet it lacks the metacognitive writing that we know is critical for students' learning processes (the format in the traditional writing conference is speech, not writing). Though the journal and the writing conference work together well in providing all of these aspects of the freshman writing pedagogy, we have the need for a single activity that can combine them all.
I believe we have found such single, inclusive activities in computer-assisted writing instruction. The format of computer-mediated communication--an individualized, multisensory, communicative environment which exists in and only in writing--is an environment that requires metacognitive writing when used to discuss the writing process and other issues in composition. Moving a writing conference to the MOO turns the experience into a metacognitively-written one. Crismore and Wang conclude that "CAI (computer assisted instruction) fills the need for the above missing components in a composition program, providing a promising alternative to all students underprepared in reading reflectively and rhetorically" (8).
Oren's assumptions argue first that the MOO is a viable environment for students to acquire, share, and discuss informational content, second that the conversational nature of the MOO insists upon a socially-constructed form of knowledge building and sharing, and third that the text-based (and log-creating) nature of the MOO allows for ordinary conversation to become a mapping, archiving activity which creates the texts that will be used for subsequent reflection.
In the InterMOO discussion in Kairos 1.2, Amy Bruckman agrees that the MOO facilitates students' active acquisition and construction of knowledge and that, while allowing students the responsibility and control of communal knowledge, MOO-based activities encourage students to think about the processes in which the knowledge is being made. Leslie Harris further explains that MOOs 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)." Indeed, the synchronous discussion, because it occurs in writing, allows students to read back through their words as they write them, read through their tutors', teachers', and peers' dialogue, and reflect on the spot, thereby further understanding the concepts being discussed or finding different ways to think about them. Thus, MOO conversation provides a forum for reflection-in-action, allowing students to "learn to think articulately about thinking" (Papert 27) concurrently with conversing online.
Sharon Codgill contends that the "threaded" nature of MOO conversation also allows for online reflection. She explains that discussions on MOOs, especially when many participants are present, often allows several discussions to happen at once (unlike face-to-face discussions, where multiple topics become distracting). "Because many people can all talk at once, and everybody can listen as well--or really many people can write all at once and everybody can read--several conversations . . . will take place at once, with everybody being able to read and contribute to any or all of them." The result, she argues, is reflection (Schon's reflection-in-action): "People who are reflective can come to appreciate this feature of MOO discourse, because they can take their time to write what they want to say, and if they contextualize it well enough, then it won't matter to the other MOOers if some minutes and screens have passed since the comment that stimulated their response." Codgill is describing somewhat new conventions for real-time dialogue--it isn't usually characteristic of, say, face-to-face dialogue to discuss several issues at once, returning to different "threads" of discussion variably; instead, talkers usually discuss one issue at a time, and when conversation switches to another subject, that subject is followed more or less linearly. However, since the text of each topic of discussion is a mouse-scroll away for all participants, MOO conversation allows multi-threaded discussion to take place logically and without much confusion. Students engage in several discussions at once, continually practicing reflection on not only the subjects they are discussing, but reflection on their own reading, writing, and responding processes online.
Still further, the MOO provides a forum for reflection-on-action that has never been available before for our students. Janet Cross and Kristian Fuglevik report that the logs of MOO sessions "allows us to reflect back, recursively, seeing new angles, allows us to focus our thoughts, playfully and constructively. In this way we hope to show that MOO is valuable for revision of previous text and ideas, not just locally, but globally." By saving and printing the logs of online discussions after every meeting on the MOO, we provide our students with texts that focus directly on their learning and writing processes, and we equip them with tools that will allow them to further reflect on their growth as writers.
One of the most important parts of the online conference, then, is what
happens after the conference: students save, print, re-read, and
"mark up" the transcripts of the real-time conversations, carefully
considering and writing about what they, their tutors, their teachers,
and their peers said online and why, discussing what they learned throughout
the conference, recalling issues raised in discussion, and applying what
they learned to their writing. Jennifer Jordan-Henley
and Barry Maid, directors of one of the first MOO-based writing centers,
explain that "all communication, including 'speaking' during the online
discussion, gives both students and tutors more experience putting words
together . . . . Students may carry around cybertutors' comments for days
and read them over and over" (212). This consistent reflection on
the online action allows students to continually redefine the terms discussed
while online; indeed, the process of this dialogue
continues as long as the student returns to the text of the discussion
and as often as the instructor includes the MOO logs into the curriculum
of the classroom.
MOO-based Metacognition: Incorporating Online and Offline
Reflection into the Writing Process