MOO and chat: 
what's the big difference to the language learner?

NOTE: This is an amended version of an article entitled MOO and IRC: what's the big difference to the language learner?, written in 1996 when I was still Lonnie Turbee.

Please reference:
Chu, Lonnie. (2000). MOO and chat: what's the big difference to the language learner? Unpublished paper. [Online] Available: http://lonniechu.com/mooandchat.html
 

MOO and other forms of computer-mediated communication

The most outstanding attribute of MOO (Multiple User Domain, Object-Oriented) is its ability to allow two or more people to communicate with each other in real time in a virtual "location" that adds context to the communication taking place. This is synchronous communication, as opposed to the asynchronous communication of email, news groups, bulletin boards, and the like. Like many other Internet applications, MOOs are generally open to anyone in the world who has Internet access. MOO users type lines of text which, if high traffic on the Internet is not slowing things down, is displayed instantly on the screens of those with whom the writer wants to communicate.

This instantaneous communication has the advantage of being extremely engaging while encouraging the formation of rapid and informal speech-like discourse, in spite of the fact that it is in a written form. In the same sense that email is more informal and more quickly composed than, say, a regular letter or essay, MOO communication is that much more spontaneous than email. Each utterance is generally much shorter than a typical email message, yet because of the live interplay with other users, MOO sessions can run into hours of fascinating language use.

MOO and chat

Many language educators have used web-based chat rooms, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and instant messaging programs such as ICQ, with varying degrees of success. Those who have heard of MOO often ask why they should bother with it when these other environments are available. All of these programs do have some attributes in common. With chat, someone opens a channel (IRC), becomes available online (ICQ) or enters or creates a chat room, others connect to the environment, everyone enters lines of text in order to communicate, and the channel or chat room is closed when the last person leaves. With MOO, the user connects via telnet to a program that is running on one computer, enters lines of text to communicate, and disconnects when done. In all these applications users can chat in real time, talk to many people at once or send private messages, and show actions and emotions.

Richness and permanence of experience

The differences between MOO and the others, however, all stem from the fact that a MOO can have complex programs added to it, and then be compiled and saved while its still running. This means that the MOO doesn't have to be shut down for work to be done on it. In order for programming to be done in chat rooms, however, the channel or room must be shut down, hacked, recompiled, and started up again. This is the virtual equivalent of having to evacuate a town in order to install street lights, and the effect on the users' sense of community permanence is the same.

Because MOO communities create in the minds of the users the illusion of a real space in which they can meet each other, one that doesn't disappear or change drastically, users have a much richer experience in MOO than they do in chat. In his unpublished article "Communication in the Virtual Classroom," Colin Moock describes how this works:
 

The communication in a MOO is fused inextricably with the environment within which it takes place. As a communication tool, a MOO's functioning bears some resemblance to a UNIX "talk" session, or an Internet multi-user IRC (chat session). But to compare the entirety of a MOO solely to either one of these communication systems would miss as much of the essence of MOOs as would a comparison of a neighbourhood full of people interacting to a two-way telephone conversation. Both comparisons overlook environment, from physical setting itself to the interaction of individuals within that setting. 

Because the landscape of a MOO comprises a geographical area such as a university, communication always takes place "somewhere" (a dorm room, a meeting hall, a restaurant, in the middle of the street) and often involves the manipulation of "something" (a note pad, a bulletin board, a newspaper, an essay, a street sign). User-environment interaction occurs through metaphor: text descriptions stand in for real situations. While in the real world, "setting" exists as a three dimensional space through which a person can move, and on which a person can have an effect, in the virtual world of a MOO, setting exists as an elaborate series of textual indices to the real world. (Moock, 1996)

MOO, chat, and the foreign language learning environment

As noted earlier, MOO users can add and build and create interesting, permanent objects with almost infinite possibilities. Robots like schMOOze University's monkey, documents like MundoHispano's chapters from Don Quixote, and programs like the dictionaries and word games found on both MOOs can be made available for others to use whether their creator is online at the time or not. In contrast, when nobody is using an IRC channel, it closes. When nobody is in a chat room, there is nothing else to do there - it is a desolate and boring empty screen. But if users find a MOO with nobody connected, there is still plenty to do. They can wander from room to room (MOOs may have hundreds or even thousands of these rooms) reading descriptions, playing language learning games, discovering how objects created by others work, trying their hand at creating their own toys. At the very least they can read and respond to their MOOmail in the internal mail system that is a part of every MOO - all of this in the target language.

Contexts for communication

Rooms and objects in MOO provide contexts for communication, the number of which is limited only by the imaginations of the users. Because of the limitless creative possibilities in MOO, users may choose to chat about real events, describe fanciful places, or act in ways they might not be capable of IRL (in real life), such as doing cartwheels along the edge of a balcony high above a Parisian street in MOOfrancais. MOOs are ideal for those with various disabilities - the hearing impaired can see and create speech discourse, and the visually impaired using text-to-speech software find the text environment to be very useful (see GrassRoots MOO).

Due to the richness and relative permanence of contextual cues in MOO, users often have the sensation that they are actually meeting in the same (albeit virtual) space. Towell and Towell, in a survey of  "207 people from 6 different groups of users of text-based networked virtual environments," discovered that 69% felt a sense of "presence" or "being there" when using such environments (1997). Many readers of this article will attest to having memories of having first "met" an online colleague in a particular cafe or plaza in another city when in fact their first RL (real life) meeting took place months afterwards at some academic conference.

Culture and immersion

For the language learner using a target language MOO, this becomes the psychological equivalent to having an immersion experience. IRCs, on the other hand, give users the sensation that they are still at a distance, hence the feeling of having left one's own surroundings and entered a foreign environment is not easily attained. Culture is not easily "taught" and so is best absorbed in an immersive situation. The myriad details that convey culture cannot possibly be represented in simple chat rooms, whereas in a MOO they can be created over time by native speakers and left for students, even years later, to learn from.

MOOspace and the durability of its contents contribute to the formation of virtual communities, for MOO users know that they can expect to find essentially the same rooms, programs, and people in the MOO every time they log on. It is this sense of community and the relationships it engenders that inspire language learners to return repeatedly to a linguistic environment that might otherwise be seen as difficult. Although they may be struggling with the language, they can rely on friendships formed in the MOO to make the language learning experience more pleasant. The MOO environment can be enhanced regularly by programmers who create language learning aids, administrators who encourage native speakers to be helpful to language learners, and wizards who use programming to set a theme, watch over public behaviors, and maintain security controls that are sensitive to the needs of learners and native speakers alike.

Interactivity and learner control

The fact that individual users have the power to contribute to the ongoing construction of the MOO environment means users feel a sense of ownership and experience interactivity in a very complete way. "Interactivity includes such things as social presence, or the degree to which the environment contains other people who are reacting to you (Heeter, 1992, in Towell & Towell, 1997)."  In a MOO, they are not only reacting to you, they are reacting to your creations, the objects and programs that you have left for others to use but over which you always have control (if they're "stolen" you can always get them back). This level of interactivity is highly motivating, inspiring students to remain connected and communicating in the target language for hours at a time.

This control over the environment helps learners maintain a balance between anxiety and boredom:
 

(A)n ideal atmosphere in which to learn a language provides an optimal level of stress/anxiety. If the learner is not challenged enough, boredom sets in and the stress level necessary to force attention is not reached. However, anxiety about a number of issues - performance or cultural differences, for example - can raise affective filters so high as to preclude any useful production or even reception of the target language. Giving learners a measure of control means allowing them to participate in the design of an atmosphere in which they are most likely to learn. (Turbee, 1998

Learners have a number of tools at their disposal for controlling the MOO environment. They can create their own rooms which they can lock with keys of their own design, they can prevent the text from certain users from reaching their screens, they can easily move from one room to another. The descriptions they've written of themselves, their rooms and their objects all convey information about them that others can see without having to enter into a conversation. They can even create automated messages that reach other users when certain communication tools are used, such as "Sorry, can't talk to you now. I'm busy building my house!" when the learner is paged with a message. This level of learner control over the learning environment is unheard-of in traditional educational situations, one of the reasons MOO can be frustrating for some and enticing for others.

Conclusion

While chat environments provide learners with connections to peers and native speakers around the world, and while they are simple to use, they do not provide the contexts, the level of learner control, nor the interactivity that MOO provides and that are necessary for the complex business of language learning. Because chat rooms are a relatively sparse environment, using them is somewhat like using the telephone, except that tone of voice can't be detected.  As with telephone use, access and learner contribution to communities, contexts and culture are nearly impossible in chat environments, whereas all three of these are the foundation on which language learning takes place in MOO.



 

References

GrassRoots MOO. Enabling Support Foundation. [Online.] Available: http://www.enabling.org/grassroots/ [11/24/00]

Heeter, C. (1992). Being there: The subjective experience of presence. Presence:  Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(2), 262-271

Moock, C. (1996). Communication in the virtual classroom. Unpublished paper. Email: colin_moock@iceinc.com. [Online] Available: http://colinmoock.iceinc.com/nostalgia/virtual_classroom.html [11/24/00].

Towell, J. and Towell, E. (1997). Presence in Text-Based Networked Virtual Environments or "MUDS". Presence, 6(5) (pp. 590-595). Order online [04/02/02].

Turbee, L. (1997). Educational MOO: Text-based Virtual Reality for Learning in Community. ERIC Digest, ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, Syracuse, NY. [Also online.] http://ericir.syr.edu/ithome/digests/turbee.html [12/1/00].

Turbee, L. (1998). MOO, WOO and more: language learning in virtual environments. In Computer-Enhanced Language Learning: Theory into Practice. Egbert, J. & Hanson-Smith, E., (eds.) TESOL Publications. ch. 22.
 


Lonnie (Turbee) Chu
copyright 1996, 2000