New Cyber Worlds Provide Possible Learning Landscapes

By Andrew Trotter — April 10, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: Mr. Ruess’ first name was incorrect. His correct name is Kevin Ruess.

Technology Page

They might not show up in the school construction budget, but some pretty odd structures are being built to house students these days. Among them: tomato greenhouses floating in the sky, a 19th-century river town grappling with a mysterious epidemic, and odd meeting places that look like set diagrams from “Star Trek.”

These are educational spaces of a special sort: multiple-user dimensions, or MUDs—worlds that exist only in cyberspace. And a handful of pioneering educators are using them to tickle the imaginations of teens who have grown up on video games.

Other MUDs are devised mainly for socializing and playing games. Now, partnerships of researchers and educators—with support in some cases from Internet entrepreneurs—have begun to erect them for an educational purpose.

The use of MUDs in the classroom is only in the nascent stage, with no conclusive research yet on the tool’s effectiveness. And the technique, in the end, may prove either too expensive or too technically challenging to come into wide usage.

MUDs are digital creations that reside, literally, on the computer servers that host them. Users visit these worlds over the Internet. A central characteristic of MUDs is that they allow many users, hundreds of them, to log on and participate simultaneously.

Since the 1980s, hobbyists and Internet companies have designed MUDs as venues for uninhibited chatting and game-playing, in settings that can be prosaic or draped in elaborate trappings— from medieval and magical to science fiction. Originally, these online worlds were created only out of text that described their rooms and realms as visitors traveled through them.

But MUDs have become increasingly visual and interactive experiences. Commercial multiplayer games have developed three- dimensional landscapes and buildings that mimic the latest computer and video games. Unlike such games, the MUDs allow hosts of users to take part as “avatars,” digital personages that represent people in the game world.

Players control their avatars and communicate through them with other avatars they meet, as they wander the vast online realms. Avatars can also chat with computer-controlled “nonplayer characters.” Avatars and characters can often affect one another and manipulate objects in the world—say, to engage in combat or collect magical items.

Some educators have long thought that avatars could be a tool for education, too. If game worlds can entice participants to pay subscription fees and become “inhabitants” for months or even years, the thinking goes, perhaps educational worlds can keep teenagers’ attention through 50 minutes of social studies class.

But acceptance of MUDs in the classroom has been slow, in part because it has seemed like risky terrain for schools to traverse.

“It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. People associate it with Dungeons and Dragons,” the controversial role-playing game that has inspired many of the MUD games, said David Reuss, a researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. And some MUD games and chat-oriented worlds are laced with violence and sexual talk, not to mention contact with adults.

Moreover, the movement toward raising academic standards has focused educators’ attention away from unfamiliar pedagogical approaches.

A growing number of educators and education researchers, including Mr. Reuss, have found ways to craft tamer and safer MUDs for use in middle schools and high schools.

It remains unclear, though, whether the constricted and visually limited MUDs that educators can afford to develop will appeal to video-game-fed youngsters, whether teachers and schools will accept them widely, and whether they can achieve educators’ pedagogical goals.

Trouble in River City

In Gunston Middle School here in Arlington, Va., a 7th grade class of 17 students recently used a prototype MUD to learn about the scientific method.

In a computer lab at the 677-student school, the students logged on and, as avatars, entered River City, a fictitious prairie town set in the 1890s. From walking around and chatting with a few inhabitants, they heard about a mysterious sickness afflicting the city.

The students, working in pairs for two weeks, wrestled with the epidemiological mystery by collecting data—visiting the River City hospital, conversing with other characters, and “collecting” water samples from 11 River City locations, examining the samples for cholera and coliform bacteria.

On a run-through of the game last week, avatars “Patty” and “Hippolyta” met each other in town and shared information.

“I like mystery. I liked solving the problem,” Yiseul Jeon, one of two 13-year-old girls controlling the cyber characters, said as she played the game as Hippolyta. Dahia Molina, who was in charge of Patty, said “I like everything” about the project, including choosing Patty’s color, chatting on- screen with her collaborator, and climbing stairs to the town spa, which commands a view of the make-believe landscape.

The system, called MUVEES, for Multi-User Virtual Environment Experiential Simulator, was devised by a team at nearby George Mason University with two years of funding from the National Science Foundation.

The screen layout of the system consists principally of a “navigation space,” which shows the 3-D environment the avatar is facing and a text area that is used for typing in and reading dialogue with other avatars and characters in the MUD. Other buttons on screen allow users to quickly express happiness, sadness, and greetings—generating appropriate text and body movements by the avatar.

When avatars approach, the nonplayer characters talk to them. Along with useful information, these other characters throw out a few red herrings, something a scientist must learn to recognize and contend with, said Jennifer Powell, the 7th graders’ science teacher. Her students took notes in real-world notebooks.

“It really captured their attention,” Ms. Powell said. “The majority of the kids grasped it pretty quickly.”

She had teams of two working on the six computers during the project, which took eight days.

To Ms. Powell, who helped devise the project, the real lesson was “experimental design, really the scientific method,” which includes making hypotheses and collecting data.

“The best way to get things across to kids is to put it in a story,” Ms. Powell said. For example, some relatively dense scientific information was presented as the lost research notes of two previous researchers in the town. When students stumbled across the notes, they pored over them.

Benefits and Challenges

Other MUD designs have employed commercial systems normally used for games, corporate training, and marketing. For example, 80 educational institutions, including some secondary schools, have built MUDs in the Active Worlds Educational Universe, using software and server space donated by Activeworlds Corp., based in Newburyport, Mass.

In one related project, some New York high school students are learning to make 3- D worlds, including one with virtual 3-D “greenhouses” that display information about tomatoes.

While encouraged by such stirrings of activity, developers and educators who are working with MUDs acknowledge that they face a tough challenge in attracting entrepreneurs and foundations to invest the large sums needed to make high-quality educational tools.

Tailoring MUDs precisely to strengthen a specific area of the curriculum—and for a particular state— inevitably shrinks the size of the market for that tool. That market is further diminished by many educators’ aversion to unfamiliar technologies, said Sasha Barab, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington who develops educational MUDs for high school students.

Games, by contrast, are written to tweak the fancy of general audiences, without having to meet academic standards—which means investments in graphics can be recouped by sales to sizable audiences.

Yet developers that don’t focus on school academic standards won’t even get a hearing from educators. “If were going to have any impact, we’ve got to connect what we’re doing to local academic standards,” Mr. Barab said. “Otherwise, we don’t have really a foot in the door.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Cyber Worlds Provide Possible Learning Landscapes


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