MOOs (Multi-user Object Oriented environments) are learner-rich experiencial environments that can revolutionize the way your and your students approach learning through problem solving and creative writing.
A MOO is essentially a database of objects including players, rooms, possessions and behaviors along with an interface to interact with the database. The past (geek-friendly) command line text interface has been replaced with web-friendly GUI interfaces that help to create the look and feel like a real environment.
A MOO is many things to many people. On entry to a MOO the powerful chat room network structure is evident. Collaborating with other people and talking to them is central to MOO activity. Delving a little deeper, MOO rooms can contain smart objects (programmable characters, recorders, web-projectors, food and others) to use in problem solving.
There is a character class structure in a MOO with builders, programmers and wizards having increasing levels on control over the environment they work in.
Encore-based MOOs (like Keltia, terraMOO and QMOOnity) also contain a powerful Assignment Server Engine allowing teachers the freedom to design and deliver assessment within the MOO and have it managed internally. Students sign into assessment items, complete them and hand them in whilst in the MOO.
A MOO, like all teaching aids is no panacaea for thorough planning (quite the opposite in fact as you will find inititally you need to think of more things when planning a MOO-based activity when compared with it's paper and pen equivalent). It has the power to make a bad teacher spectacularly bad and magnify classroom discipline problems if not mediated.
A MOO is not a self-regulating environment. Ground rules, it appears, are necessary - we cannot assume learners know how to behave in school-related chat environments based on their MSN experience, say - given, seemingly, part of the MSN experience is paying each other out, using offensive language and sharing inappropriate information.
Students are immediately comfortable in a chat-room based environment. They like the immediacy of the communication and the ability to interact with each other and other things. They appreciate being able to customise their own characaters (or avatars) both with appearance, graphic and conversational variables. Builder-students show remarkable imagination in creating their own place in MOOspace.
MOO offers an easy entry to web-publishing and integrates creative writing by requiring students to textually describe objects, places and actions. Programming grammar for bots and behaviours for objects is challenging and feedback is immediate.
Students of all year levels can benefit from using a MOO - I have had students from year 5 building room-bot scenarios as part of in-class writing exercises and they have loved it. Similarly, students in the upper grades can construct elaborate and detailed problem-solving scenarios involving text, audio and graphics/multi media as well.
Initially, teachers are disoriented as many struggle to multi-task in a computer-mediated environment. We would all like our discussions to be well structured, linear, logical and coherent - the truth is most aren't. The ramblings and rants of a group of kids is (at least from the outside) a confusing place at times. Through processes best understood by them they are able to discuss and arive at concensus, collaborate and get complicated tasks done - we as teachers need to know when to intervene and when to lurk.
As adults, we rarely get an opportunity to 'play' with new stuff - we are time-bent on getting straight to the point. MOO is an environment where experiential play is necessary before you can visualise what you want your learners to do, and how you want them to go about it.
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