Teaching in the 21st Century

Traci GardnerTraci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.

MOOs: Online Social Networking Before Social Networks

posted: 5.31.11 by Traci Gardner

This week I happened to read Dennis Jerz’s “Is Blogging Dead? Backchannel at Computers and Writing 2011” since it connected to the post I wrote last week. In this post I planned to continue the conversation about genre and blogging, but I became sidetracked by the Twitter updates that Dennis had collected. People who attended the “Is Blogging Dead?” session (and even some who could not attend) commented on the backchannel and how it related to the topic of the session and affected the conversations that were taking place during the presentation.

As I read the comments, I was surprised that no one commented on the fact that these backchannel conversations were nothing new. I participated in backchannel conversations many years earlier, at Tuesday Cafes and preconference sessions for the Computers and Writing Conference in 1994, using MOOs to connect with colleagues. Sharon Cogdill, Tari Lin Fanderclai, Judith Kilborn, and Marian G. Williams even wrote about the virtual backchannel on MOOs in Backchannel: Whispering in Digital Conversation ten years ago.

First, let me explain what a MOO is: an Internet-based virtual reality program that can be used in education for hypertextual writing and electronic collaboration as well as other writing, critical thinking, and student interaction activities. You may have heard Susan Antlitz discussing MOOs in Ann Arbor.

Back in the 1990s, a good number of computers and writing teachers gathered regularly on MOOs to discuss teaching and professional issues, as well as to unwind and connect with others. During conferences, if we were in a computer classroom, many of us would log onto a MOO, find our colleagues, and commence a backchannel conversation of the session we were attending. Even during online sessions, we would whisper back and forth about the person presenting or leading the discussion in the MOO space.

We were doing online social networking before the phrase social networks had been coined. We called it things like computer-mediated communication and synchronous conversations. Most people who used MOOs have moved on to other technologies. In most cases, MOOs were text environments. Everything you saw and did was created with words, which was the reason the environment was so popular in writing classrooms. As Doug Eyman commented recently, “One of the lures of the MOO (for many technorhetoricians) was not just that you could interact with other users and the environment, but that you could *write* the environment itself.” Students created a world with their writing on MOOs.

These online worlds were not so user-friendly however. You had to learn the way to program and describe your objects, and you had to develop ways to read the conversations, which often moved impossibly fast for people new to the technology. Further, MOOs are essentially gated communities. Anyone can read what you post in a Twitter backchannel, but everyone has to log onto the same MOO to connect on a MOO. Further, unless someone creates and posts a transcript of your MOO backchannel, no one else will be able to read and reflect on what you said later, as I have on the discussion of session #e13.

Shortcomings aside, the discussion of backchannels sent me on a nostalgic search for resources about teaching and using MOOs. Most of the links I found are quite dated, as one would expect. There isn’t much research or publication about MOOs today. What I found interesting, though, was how many of the articles on MOOs echoed situations we discuss about present-day social networking. You’ll find articles that discuss sexual harassment, gender and identity, intellectual property rights, and online dating. I even found a surviving article on MOO Terrorism.

That’s just the beginning of what you’ll find if you read through the dozens of articles I uncovered. There are wonderful projects where students create or explore virtual realities that focus on literature, a discussion of empowering students through online discussion, and the exploration of using the online space for various writing activities, from prewriting to peer review. There was a time when Writing Centers even had a MOO space for discussing writing with students. There are so many pieces that I decided to just point you to the entire list rather than trying to choose.

There are still some teachers who use MOOs to teach, and a small number of us who meet on MOOs periodically to connect and collaborate. As I was brainstorming for this post, in fact, I was discussing the piece with Michael Day and Susan Antlitz on MediaMOO. When I updated my list of articles, however, what struck me was how I wasn’t simply taking a nostalgic stroll through the past but also touring the structures on which many of today’s practices for teaching with social networking were built.

Let me end with an invitation. On May 31, as part of the C&W Online Collaboration Unconference, join us on MediaMOO for “Through the Looking Glass and Back: A MOO Rhetrospective.” The event is scheduled for 8:00 PM EST (7 PM Central, 6 PM Mountain, and 5 PM Pacific). Connection information and other details are included on the Rhetrospective site. I hope to see you there!

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3 Responses to “MOOs: Online Social Networking Before Social Networks”

  1. Susan Antlitz, South University Online Says:

    Yes in many ways social networking is not new, but has just become popular with the masses. I wonder about what new ways there might be to bring back some of the place and object metaphors that the MOOs used– graphic spaces like Second Life can be difficult to build in, both in terms of aligning many tiny object parts, and in terms of $$$ for having an island or other land that is required for substantial building.

  2. Michael Day Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Traci! After nearly 20 years of writing classes in the MOO, and even longer ago with ENFI (starting with Trent Batson, who discovered by texting with hearing impaired classes that brainstorming in text worked well for other kinds of students in writing classes), we are still discovering new ways to use text-based brainstorming and creativity (as in building, describing, and experiencing environments in, through, and with text. It’s writing, after all! But we can’t expect everyone, teachers and students, to find it easy or intuitive, or that it will work for all students… But as another tool in the writer’s toolkit, sure! Thanks again for giving us such a good summary of where we’ve been and where we are, Traci!

  3. theteach Says:

    Once again we are indebted to Traci for her careful and thoughtful summary of a period of our digital, online heritage. The MOO provided a foundation for the numerous social networking platforms used in classrooms today.

    Its greatest value to me was the opportunity it provided students to learn to develop and use vocabulary in ways they had not thought about. Since there were no graphics, save an ascii image created now and again, students and teachers had to think about language as they created characters and identified their living space. We were challenged to analyze and evaluate as we created. We learned the economy and benefits of precise language. We discovered that people perceive objects, realms, and conditions differently–thus we gained an appreciation of the literal and connotative meaning of a word or phrase. We recognized we had to discern, anticipate the potential variations of definition and interpretation.

    The MOO was not for everyone. There were problems with access. I found these problems the most frustrating. The web version of the MOO helped students gain access, but there still is something magical about the early MOO and the challenge to learn the commands and to create with words alone.

    When I learn that there will be MOO session scheduled, I always try to attend, even in retirement.

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