Currently there exist three well-established MOOs which were created with the language learner in mind:
- schMOOze University, for learners of English as a second or
- MundoHispano, for learners of Spanish
- MOOfrançais, for learners of French
MOOs and MUDs (the latter more likely to be game-playing or role-playing environments) exist in numerous other languages, but they do not cater specifically to the language learner.
Visiting a foreign language MOO is like a virtual immersion experience.
Learners find that the native speakers may or may not be helpful, just
as in real life, and that the latter expect the former to communicate in
the target language. Learners report that on a MOO there is just a bit
more time to compose thoughts than there is when speaking, but not much
more, leaving them no time to do any mental translating. Even novice level
users report coming away from a MOO experience thinking in the target language.
Much traditional pedagogy does not work well in MOO. Teachers cannot be everywhere in the MOO and so cannot control what happens there. Teachers are not even needed in the MOO, except to gain the same kind of experience the learners have in order to best respond to their needs. MOO is best seen as a tool for making static information become alive and personalized for the learner.
If students have been studying the culture of a certain country, they can go to the MOO and seek out native speakers from that country and ask them any number of questions. If they have been reading some literary work, they can create spaces that reflect their understanding of the reading they've done. As an example, one class that had read Dante's Inferno built level after level of hell at Diversity University (moo.du.org 8888). To get from one level to another, one would keep typing the word "down." Although their descriptions were in English, this could have been done in Italian as well.
Students can create objects that allow them to practice command forms and prepositions. Students shy about talking can simply "lurk" in ongoing conversations (the speakers know they're there), or can wander all over the MOO reading room descriptions and handling objects they find in those rooms. They can run programs that were designed with the learner in mind, and they can leave MOOmail (like email) for their MOO friends - and all of this in the target language.
The types of activities that can be created for a MOO are limited only by the imaginations of the teachers and learners. One can hardly imagine a classroom or homework activity that cannot have a parallel MOO activity designed around it. This writer's experience with using MOO in foreign language classes has demonstrated that it is the ability to connect with native speakers and other language learners that is the most appealing aspect of MOO, so teachers would be wise to include interaction with other users in their plans as often as possible.
Teachers need to consider how motivating it is that nobody can tell the language learner what to think about while in a MOO. Conversation is free-flowing and authentic. The writing in MOO is about as close as you can come to what Ann Berthoff described as "continuous and active composing" (in The Making of Meaning, 1981), but in a social context. It is thinking, in writing and in the target language, but in response to another human being. The greatest appeal of MOO is the endless variety of human response and the social nature of the learning experiences.
In no other way can teachers provide learners with language more
authentic without sending them to the countries of the target language.
At relatively little expense, and 24 hours a day, learners can be in contact
with native speakers from a tremendous variety of cultural and linguistic
backgrounds. They speak less in a stilted "Spanish 101" variety and begin
using high level authentic phrases, even if embedded in lower level language.
As Steven Krashen pointed out at a recent presentation (Syracuse, 1996),
native speech is "perfect." It's better than that found in any textbook.
While textbooks do the important job of providing lists of vocabulary and
outlines of grammar, MOO sessions help learners to internalize language
structure within the broader contexts of dialogue and culture.
MOO is, obviously, technology-based. Those who have trouble with
using computers need good training and plenty of "hand-holding" until they
feel comfortable with the technology, the new power dynamics, the foreign
language, and the foreign culture. They cannot be expected to navigate
all these troublesome waters unaccompanied. Teachers need to provide plenty
of in-class "debriefing" time during which complaints and problems can
be aired - in the target language, if possible. Co-learners are often the
best resource for solutions to problems encountered in MOO experiences,
but it is a good teacher who must have the insight to set up these sessions
and facilitate peer support.
Humanists will likely be comfortable with MOO, behaviorists will probably not. Teachers who enjoy empowering others will enjoy using MOO in their teaching. They will take delight in hearing a room full of clacking keyboards erupt into laughter, even if they missed the joke. They will be content to creatively utilize any materials students bring to class from their MOO conversations, even if at first it feels uncomfortable, because they know that real language is the raw material of real language learning and that students invariably appreciate authenticity.
People who can learn the basics of computer/internet technology will find MOO to be no more complex than learning how to manage a few irregular verbs. MOO is decidedly not for every teacher, but every teacher must consider that there is quite a variety of applications for use on the internet that also avail students of access to authentic language. Teachers who still feel afraid of technology should either take a number of basic classes, or resign themselves to using increasingly outdated methods. Technology will never replace good, creative, open-minded teachers, but it will make the technophobic obsolete.
Some students and teachers have learning or teaching styles that rely heavily on audio or graphical input. A text-based MOO may be problematic for such people. But there are MOO-like environments being built which address these different styles. Soon they will become as commonplace as email is now.
One such application is Time Warner's two-dimensional interactive environment, "The Palace." Users can create room after room, chat with others logged on, and even include a photograph of themselves for others to see. Conversation appears in balloons near the speaker's "avatar," a little icon that represents the user. Because of its relative simplicity, there is no waiting for files to download when moving from one room to another.
Another such environment is Intel's "Moondo." This provides users with a three-dimensional environment that can be navigated using a personal "avatar" which is moved around by mouse action. One can virtually walk all around a Moondo room, seeing all sides of the room and its contents, including others' avatars. There is a small window for communication via text and another that allows for audio communication. This is a compelling environment, with its disadvantages being the sophistication of the hardware required and the time needed to move from room to room.
These are but two of the many internet applications that address the language learner's need to hear and pronounce the oral language, and to see faces, shapes, colors, and so on. In spite of this, however, it is this writer's opinion that text-based MOO will be around for quite some time. It provides users with nearly complete anonymity (only the MOO owners - wizards - can see where they're connected from in most MOOs), which makes it easier for shy users to try unfamiliar linguistic forms. Also, anybody who can use a modem can connect to a MOO, even those with extremely unsophisticated computers. This is an advantage in MOOs where a majority of users are connecting from developing countries. Finally, text allows users full use of their imaginations while focusing them on a written language form that gives them the sensation that they have "heard" speech.
It is this writer's hope that teachers will be inspired to use
MOO not only in the foreign language classroom, but in any class that has
access to the internet. Much research remains to be done on the efficacy
of MOO in various classes, but the reports coming in to date give us ample
reason to believe that this is one teaching tool worth investigating.
"Education Wars" by James H. Snider, The Futurist, May-June, 1996
Virtual Connections edited by Mark Warschauer, National
Foreign Language Resource Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Warschauer, M., Turbee, L., & Roberts, B. (1996). Computer learning networks and student empowerment. SYSTEM, 24(1), 1-14. (EJ 527 752)
"From Behaviorism to Humanism: Incorporating Self-direction in
Learning Concepts into the Instructional Design Process" by Roger Hiemstra.
(a chapter in H. B. Long & Associates. (1994). New ideas about self-
directed learning. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Research
Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.
"MOO Teacher's Tip Sheet": http://www.daedalus.com/net/MOOTIPS.html
MundoHispano http://www.umsl.edu/~moosproj/mundo.html - a well-populated, virtual representation of dozens of cities in the Spanish-speaking world, written entirely in Spanish, for learners, teachers, and native speakers.
MOOfrancais http://www.umsl.edu/~moosproj/moofrancais.html - modeled after Paris, a well-organized MOO for learners, teachers, and native speakers of French, entirely in French.
schMOOze University http://schmooze.hunter.cuny.edu:8888 - built to resemble a small college, learners can practice English and socialize with other learners as well as native speakers of English.
The Palace: http://www.thepalace.com/