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The MOOs & Avatars Page


Hey, did somebody mention a moose?

Not quite! This page contains information about MOOs, including the newer "avatar virtual worlds." Our focus is on current and potential educational uses of MOOs. These suggestions are intended for classroom teachers and distance educators who teach courses at the secondary or postsecondary level.

"The screen was a triumph of electronic engineering.... It was the minds of the audience that did the work, supplying the raw material for the Play upon the screen. It was the audience that conceived the characters, that led them through their actions, that supplied the lines they spoke. It was the combined will of the audience that supplied the backdrops and dreamed up the properties....  But in time the Play developed.... It became in a sense a contest of wills, with each participant seeking advantages for his character, or, on the other hand, forced to backtrack to escape disaster. It became, after a time, a never-ending chess game, in which each player pitted himself or herself against the other eight.  And no one knew, of course, to whom any of the players belonged." - Clifford D. Simak, "Shadow Show" (from Strangers in the Universe, New York: Berkley Books, 1957)

So just what is a MOO?

A MOO is a type of text-based virtual reality that exists on the Internet. MOO stands for Multi-user Object Oriented, which refers to the object-oriented programming language in which MOOs are created. The first MOO was LambdaMOO, created by Xerox PARC. 

MOOs originated from MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons or Dimensions), which were based on a role-playing adventure game called "Dungeons and Dragons." Not every MUD contains the element of gaming; some exist for purely social reasons. MOOs, on the other hand, are more likely to have an educational or academic purpose. (To add to the confusion, you may also hear the terms MUSE, which stands for Multi-User Science Education Network, or MUVE, which stands for Multi-User Virtual Environment.)

MOOs rely on the power of imagination to create a virtual world through either text description (as in traditional text-based MOOs) or three-dimensional graphics (as in the avatar worlds).

A text-based MOO contains a narrative description of all the places, buildings, rooms, furniture, and other objects within the rooms. In fact, everything in a MOO is an object with a name and an object number. You can explore and "look at" everything there by reading about it. But perhaps the most important aspect of a MOO is its real-time communication potential. You take on the role of a character and use special commands to interact in synchronous chat with other characters. You use special commands to communicate and create or interact with text-based objects.

Some MOOs have functions that are well integrated with the World Wide Web. This type of virtual environment is sometimes referred to as a WOO (Web-based MOO). WOOs have certain advantages over plain text-based MOOs: they can incorporate multimedia. This may include a whiteboard or a Web projector on which slides can be displayed, audio (sound effects or music), and even video. For more information about WOOs, see "WOOs: Multimedia Collaborative Learning Environments That Support Different Learning Models" in the International Journal of Educational Telecommunications (Vol. 5, No. 1, 1999).

What is an avatar virtual world?

zebras"The nursery was silent. It was empty as a jungle glade at hot high noon. The walls were blank and two dimensional. Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently an African veldt appeared in three dimensions; on all sides, in colors reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw. The ceiling above them became a deep sky with a hot yellow sun.... And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass...." - Ray Bradbury, "The Veldt" (from The Illustrated Man, New York: Bantam Books, 1951)

Some of the newer MOOs have more than just text. In these visual MOOs, called avatar virtual worlds, you choose a visual representation of your character called an avatar. The word avatar comes from a Hindu word for a god taking mortal form on Earth.

You can actually see what the different rooms and places look like in either two or three dimensions. There may be sound effects and music as well. You must have Real Audio to experience the music. When you type what you want to say, the dialogue appears above your character's head. You will probably need to download special software to enter the virtual world. The avatar worlds typically require having a PC with Windows and will not run on MAC computers.  

Virtual worlds have primarily a social or commercial function, but some have an educational function. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is their potential to develop a virtual community. For example, AlphaWorld, a three-dimensional virtual world available from Worlds Inc., currently has more than 100,000 virtual citizens.

An excellent description of avatar virtual worlds appears in the January-March 1999 issue of WebNet Journal (Vol. 1, No. 1), published by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. The article is titled "From Flatland to Spaceland: Spatial Representation, Enunciation, and Interaction in 3D-Virtual Worlds." Flatland was an 1884 book by E.A. Abbott about a world that exists only in two dimensions and the adventures of the hero who finds himself in the bewildering, incomprehensible third dimension!

balloonEducational Uses 

Like chat rooms, MOOs or avatar worlds allow real-time interaction among teacher and students who are at distant locations. They provide a means for students and teachers living anywhere in the world to "sit" down together for a lecture or discussion. Classrooms can be provided with "tables" where conversations are "heard" only by those at the same table so that before or after a lecture the class can be divided into groups for discussion of the topic at hand. It is also possible for the teacher or any student to move to another table to join a discussion there, or to "speak" to the entire class.

Students can also meet in virtual groups to plan and discuss group projects. It is easier for virtual groups to make decisions in real-time interaction than in asynchronous (not real time) newsgroups or listservs as students don't have to wait to get other's responses. Teachers or students can keep a record of the entire class discussion by copying and pasting it into a word processor.

Any type of environment can be created by the teacher or students. In creating or exploring such environments, students could experience them in a way that might reinforce what they were learning in the classroom. The ability to create an environment reflecting any historical period, provided with appropriately furnished rooms and objects, would be an interesting way for a drama class to act out roles together. 

Throwing students into a virtual environment might bring out skills and abilities that had not found expression in the ordinary classroom. Certainly some students would find this more interesting than the classroom, and this could perhaps give them an incentive and an advantage that they would not ordinarily have. Students could be given building privileges and participate in projects in which they work together to create their own environment, based on their research on the assigned topic. For any educator with a constructionist orientation (i.e., students create and negotiate reality rather than just memorizing content), MOOs and virtual worlds offer a huge potential for learning. 

There are drawbacks, however. Students who have more experience with television than reading might find virtual environments cumbersome and slow. A slow modem connection can create considerable lag time while waiting for someone's response to appear on the screen. As with any real-time chat situation, the chat may get chaotic unless the teacher sets up some ground rules initially with a specific topic for discussion and a purpose to be accomplished during the interaction. Learners may initially find commands to be confusing, although these commands are not difficult. As with any new skill, becoming comfortable in navigating your way takes some practice. While some younger learners may find that they prefer the avatar worlds to the verbal ones, older adult learners may find these visual representations of reality to be somewhat disorienting at first. The shifting of perspective as you move your avatar character takes some getting used to, as does flying and moving through walls. There is also a potential problem of Internet addiction. 

bridgeMOO Applications

Text-Based MOOs

Diversity University contains the first MOO ever built for classroom use. Developed by the non-profit educational organization DU Educational Technology Services, the DU MOO is available to teachers and students worldwide. Anyone may visit without charge. Classes can be brought online for virtual tours of the MOO (ask for permission first). The DU MOO contains educational projects created by the community (such as simulations of a rainforest, biology labs, history simulations, and enactments of plays). There are dedicated virtual buildings for most major academic subjects.

To receive a permanent MOO character, you must submit a request and explain the reason for your interest. You are also strongly encouraged to use your real name for your character.  If you are interested in doing research at DU MOO, your project must be approved by Diversity University's Institutional Review Board.

Common educational uses of MOOs have included writing composition, foreign languages, and literature. MOOs are also used for groups of researchers or professionals around the world to meet for online discussions or conferences.

Avatar Virtual Worlds

TheU is an ongoing project to design a virtual university in three dimensions using virtual worlds technology. This project was begun by the Contact Consortium, a not-for-profit organization in California. Recently, a global architecture competition took place to design the virtual university. Eventually, students and teachers will be able to navigate the virtual campus and use avatars to communicate in classes.

Virtual University of California at Santa Cruz (V-UCSC) is an experimental virtual campus. Students have been working in partnership with designers around the world to build this campus through storyboarding and online communication. Prospective students (and other curious visitors) can stroll through the virtual campus and talk to students and staff in real time. To quote Bonnie DeVarco, director of the V-UCSC project, "When you don't know the limits of a medium you aren't constrained by them. Each member of the V-UCSC team pushed the limits of what was possible as we tried to understand what this immersive medium would allow" (from a press release).

touristsMOOtiquette (suggestions for visitors)

  • Review some simple MOO commands before you go into the MOO. (The Diversity University site provides information about commands.)
  • It's okay to say to someone, "I'm new here. Could you help me?"
  • In some MOOs, people use their real names. In many others, they don't.
  • Commands in different MOOs may differ.

        If you're in an avatar virtual world:

  • DO have your avatar turn to face the avatar with whom you are talking (if you are in the same location).
  • Do NOT let your avatar physically walk through someone else's avatar! If you do this by accident, be sure to apologize.
  • Do NOT land your avatar on top of someone else's when traveling.

Some Thoughts on the Future rocketship

"And now he knew what was wrong. At last, he knew the strangeness of the characters this night. They weren't on the screen at all! They were on the stage, the little width of stage which ran before the screen! They were no longer projected imaginations; they were flesh and blood. They were mental puppets come to sudden life... In just a little while the characters would step down off the stage and would mingle with them. And their creators? What would their creators do? Go screaming, raving mad?" - Clifford D. Simak, "Shadow Show" (from Strangers in the Universe, New York: Berkley Books, 1957)

Will MOOs or avatar worlds do away with the physical classroom? Probably not. But their use will become more common, especially in distance education. We think that avatar worlds are just in their beginning stages. The graphic environment, however, holds the most promise for educational uses, and it will be very interesting to see how  their descendants develop.  Once the technology advances, the experience may be very different than it is now.

Staff Comments


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