I walk into a room full of computers. Is this a classroom or a computer lab? Maybe I have the wrong room number. I'm looking for my Composition class. Wait. There's a teacher here and other students who seem equally confused. How am I going to learn how to write with a computer? As these thoughts entered my head, Karlyn Crowley introduced herself and welcomed us to ENWR 101 (Composition) and the Electronic Classroom. She continued to tell us how this was a pilot program and that we were making history. I have no problems with computers, but I was thinking, "Is she kidding me? This is going to be a long semester." The "long semester" turned into a semester where I accepted the combination of technology and writing. I believe my positive experience resulted from the use of computers and technology such as the MOO, a Multi-User Domain, Object Oriented. Rather than eliminate teachers or real-time classrooms, MOOs enhance learning by increasing student interaction, challenging student-teacher relationships, and exposing students to environments that they would most likely never experience otherwise.
MOOs function as connected chat rooms where users meet and communicate in real time about different topics. Users participate through a computer in the nearest lab or from the comfort of their own homes. Unlike Internet relay chat, a MOO consists of "rooms and furniture" created by the wizard of the MOO (the administrator). Each user must choose which room to enter and whether to sit on a couch or to read a newspaper. Introductory English classes such as ENWR 101 and 201 (Introductory and Intermediate Composition), as well as honors classes such as Theory and Practice of Hypertext, use the MOO as an additional classroom tool. So far, educators have incorporated technology into traditional teaching pedagogies rather slowly, for various reasons, but in part because of the unknown effect that technology has on education. John Unsworth, associate professor and director of the Institute for Advanced Technology, points out that teachers "fear that technology will deprive our students of the inestimable value of our presence in the classroom".
Rather than feeling deprived, I believe that my three MOO experiences helped me become more assertive in class. During my first MOO experience, I felt my mind open up, ready to explore new ideas and beliefs. I realized how much my peers and I can learn from a different environment with various outcomes and possibilities. Mr. Unsworth mentioned that the absence of "the 'gaze' (nobody is looking at you, even though everyone can hear you and 'see' you)" helped each class member express his or her opinion without risking a visual rejection. The lack of personal contact eliminated some awkwardness or discomfort and let us learn from each other. I think the degree of learning in a MOO results from the students' ability to carry on a real conversation via computer. Participants act more freely because attributes such as race, gender, and age do not transfer as readily into the virtual classroom. Teachers, therefore, can experiment with role playing and changing identities by assigning different characters to each student.
The teacher's role as authority figure wavers in a MOO "by the fact that everyone can talk at once, and does" says John Unsworth. Users can distinguish themselves only through dialogue, a situation that disrupts the order and structure of the student-teacher hierarchy. The dissipation of the hierarchy allows both parties to become more independent of each other. Traditional classes are largely based on a relationship where the teacher gives and the students take. In a MOO just the opposite happens, creating a more successful, interactive classroom that helps teachers observe more about how their students think and why. Margaret Croskery, English graduate student and ENWR teacher, said that during her class' first MOO, she felt "off-kilter a bit," but gained insight about herself as a teacher. Some teachers may feel threatened by the loss of control and enforce a specific set of guidelines, but the teacher needs to be careful: too many rules and guidelines inhibit the success and spontaneity of the session. Instead, students must be given a specific topic, focus, or goal that guides the MOO, but does not direct it. Authority remains an issue in every MOO where the teacher participates. If the teacher takes on the role of a friend or a classmate, the sessions will result in more provocative and truthful discussions. Nonetheless, the teacher always maintains "a certain amount of pedagogical authority" since the teacher usually best understands the MOO environment, said Matt Kirschenbaum, English graduate student and ENWR 101 teacher.
Teachers can maximize the MOO's capabilities by having guests participate in a class MOO session. Students can talk to a prominent scholar or activist without being intimidated. A teacher in Argentina or a Japanese businessman often cannot visit UVA because of cost or scheduling conflicts, but might participate through a MOO. Moreover, in the MOO students can ask questions and express opinions that they would not if the person were physically present. In a MOO that I participated in, I approached Professor Unsworth and discussed issues such as false identities, technology in the classroom, and the definition of hypertext. This sort of interaction may not occur in person because some students treat professors with a certain degree of decorum, respect, and fear. I know that I would not approach Mr. Unsworth in the same manner in person as I did in the MOO. As some teachers have found, class interaction over the Internet creates a good working environment where students enjoy the learning process. The possibilities and the outcomes of a MOO, Mr. Unsworth says "reflect the richness or the poverty of our imagination."
The MOO helped me get over the fear of college and immersed me in discussions about technology with experts. My new knowledge now helps me succeed in my classes. As a student, I have participated in activities that most people may not have the opportunity to experience. I MOOed three times, created a home page, and discovered some secrets to a successful college career. MOOs cannot and should not replace the teacher or the real classroom. Teachers, however, need to be aware of the different classroom tools available to them. Students with faltering interest may become motivated and inspired if teachers can find their most effective teaching styles, which may or may not include technology.
Here are some interesting URLs that give more information about MOOs: Selected Readings: http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/readings/vr.html