Building Fun Online Learning Communities

By Howard Rheingold

Unless citizens, parents, and educators figure out what to do after we wire all the schools to the Internet, we shouldn't waste our time and money installing all that expensive technology in the first place.

If we have learned one lesson from previous "computer revolutions in education," it is that education is not automatically improved by simply adding technology. In fact, whenever computers and networks are used only as conduits for information and substitutes for old-fashioned human teachers, they do more damage than good. But when people like Amy Bruckman, creator of MOOSE Crossing, use computers and networks to create fun environments for community learning, amazing things can happen.

MOOSE Crossing is a text-based virtual world (or "MUD") where kids, in Bruckman's words, "are imagining new places and objects, and creating them with words and programs. In their spare time for fun they are reading, doing creative writing, and writing computer programs. Through these activities, they are learning in a self-motivated, self-directed, peer-supported fashion." Imagine combining the educational value of a well-designed curriculum in writing, history, programming, mathematics or other subject areas with the innate fascination that kids exhibit when they play with video games or college students exhibit when they stay online for hours on end, engaged in the role-playing games known as MUDs.

MUD stands for "Multi-User Dungeon" because the first MUDs in the late 1970s were multi-player dungeons and dragons games that were played over the Internet. In 1989, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University created a MUD that enabled people to create text-based worlds and communicate with each other without the dungeons, dragons, monsters, and swords. Thousands of enthusiasts took to these worlds of imagination where you can assume any identity and build any world you can describe verbally.

The ability to use words to create identities and environments is one of the bases for the educational potential in MUDs. Besides descriptions of characters and environments, MUDding involves social encounters: people who are connected to the same MUD at the same time can chat with each other (in character), so MUDs are a kind of virtual community where people collaborate to create their own entertainment. Add the ability to use computer programming to create imaginary objects that exhibit behaviors, and you have the foundation for a new kind of learning environment. Amy Bruckman, when she first started MUDding, created a "plate of spaghetti" that was part of the furnishings in her "room." If anyone in a social conversation used the word "eat," then her plate of spaghetti would emit the words "the plate of spaghetti squirms nervously." The kind of programming that MUDders can do with objects spawned many specialized MUD programming languages. Eventually, the programming philosophy known as "object-oriented programming" began to influence these languages, and some MUDs became MOOs -- "MUD, Object-Oriented."

Researchers began to use MOOs for serious purposes, as well as social entertainment. In the early 1990s, as a graduate student at MIT's Media Lab, Amy Bruckman created "MediaMOO," a virtual community for students of media and online culture. At the same time, she began to combine her interests in MUDding and education by designing a MOO where children could teach each other. It has takes several years to design the educational environment, create a MOO language specifically for kids, and start working with children in creative educational play.

Last week, Mamie, my twelve year old daughter, who is not terribly interested in the Internet, logged into MOOSE crossing. There she encountered Bruckman, who pointed out how to create a character, a home, and pets. So I left Mamie alone with the computer for an hour. When I came back, she had not abandoned it for the television -- a sure sign that something extraordinary was happening. She excitedly showed me how she had created a character named YooHoo, how she had written a description of that character (neither male nor female, but a chocolate drink), written a whimsical description of that character's "home," a land of chocolate lakes and candy furniture, and had even created a pet, "fluffy," who would growl if you kicked it, lick your hand if you petted it, and who followed YooHoo wherever she went. There were other characters, other homes, other pets, hundreds of them, in this computer-based environment that was specifically designed to make learning fun, and to empower children to teach each other.

MOOSE Crossing is Bruckman's Ph.D. research at M.I.T., which "examines how the Internet can be used not just as a conduit for information, but as a context for learning through community-supported collaborative construction." Bruckman was inspired by M.I.T. researcher Seymour Papert, who thought educational technologies should be more like Brazilian samba schools than traditional teaching machines. He had noted that in samba schools, a community of participants gathered daily to have fun and teach each other steps and costume-making skills in preparation for Carnival. The samba schools are social centers, where people go to socialize, and they are environments in which novices and professionals mingle. Bruckman notes that in these schools, "Learning is spontaneous, self-motivated, and richly connected to popular culture."

Papert called his theory of learning "constructionism," because he felt that people learned best when constructing something meaningful to them. Bruckman cited fellow M.I.T. researcher Mitchel Resnick, who added: "They might be constructing sand castles, LEGO machines, or computer programs. What's important is that they are actively engaged in creating something that is meaningful to themselves or to others around them."

Bruckman recognized MUDs as constructionist environments: Unlike classrooms, nobody ever forced anyone to spend their time in a MUD; these environments were attractive, even addictive, because they were contexts for communities who built things together and got to know one another in the process. Bruckman set out to build a kind of MUD where children and teachers could mingle, have fun, and learn.

The environment itself, a text-based "world" accessible through the Internet, and which can be modified by the participants through the use of a specially designed computer language, is the context for learning. But the context is only brought alive by a community: just as thousands of college students and adults spend their time in MUDs having fantasy adventures and social interactions, Bruckman designed a MUD where 9-12 year olds could spend their time reading, writing, learning and teaching programming and other curricular subjects that fit into their main objective of building a fun fantasy world. More than 150 children have participated in the experiment, which is carefully monitored and observed as part of Bruckman's research. On a small scale, at least, MOOSE Crossing has demonstrated that MUDs can be used for learning, and that kids take to it enthusiastically.

Bruckman pleads with educators to take an unprejudiced look at the learning potential of environments like MOOSE Crossing, but she cautions that old educational models won't work: "Please don't have virtual classes where students sit behind virtual desks and teachers write on virtual blackboards. To do so combines some of the worst aspects of both traditional pedagogy and virtual worlds. Children learn better by working on personally meaningful prjects than by being lectured to....They should not be used for every application. They are superb places for constructionist learning."

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