You have arrived at the Virtual Campus at the University of Waterloo (VUW). VUW runs in conjunction with English 210e, Technical Writing. User creation is currently disabled. Please login as guest (type 'connect guest') and send mail to Colin if you would like admission to VUW.

VUW MOO has a full WWW support page at `http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca:80/~camoock /moo1.html'. Please refer to it for information about the VUW project, and for tutorials on using VUW.


Students of English 210e will find their accounts ready for them. They should type `connect <last name> <student ID #>' to connect. A student with the name Colin Moock and the student ID # 94325642 would, hence, type connect Moock 94325642

For a list of login commands type '?'


connect Moock 94325642



<*> The University Of Waterloo - Virtual Campus Information Kiosk <*>


You are standing on the outskirts of campus. A welcoming white booth rests on a low grass hill. Below it, there's a comfortable red plank bench. You can find out lots of things about the Virtual Campus here. Just type `enter' to go into the Information Kiosk. North leads you onto campus, south leads to Off-Campus and student housing.

It's quite chilly. The setting sun is obscured by low-hanging clouds. There is a light breeze wafting in.

---Contents: Objects and People---

---Available Exits---
<north> to Ring Road -- Southern Intersection
<south> to University Ave -- South of Kiosk
<west> to A grassy hill
<enter> to Inside VUW Information Kiosk

Communication in the Virtual Classroom

© Unpublished manuscript copyright 1996 by Colin Moock. Please email colin_moock@iceinc.com if you would like to contact the author.

Part I
Part II
Part III
APPENDIX C: Online Help

MOO/MUD Resources

PART I: MOOs and the Classroom - An Introduction

With the introduction of the Internet into the classroom—both as a subject in itself and as a research tool—has come a new form of student interaction, and a new definition of the very notion of the classroom. Tools such as email, Gopher, USENET, and the World Wide Web, have turned computer-mediated communication among students into a growing academic standard. However, while email, Gopher, and the World Wide Web allow only for static computer-mediated communication, a type of interactive tool known as a MOO (Multiple-user-dimension, Object Oriented) has now brought dynamic computer-mediated human interaction into the classroom. And it's brought the classroom into it.

MOOs are text-based electronic communication environments; MOO users are situated within a dynamic text setting in which they interact both with their environment and with other users at near real time speeds. Designed to work efficiently under strict low bandwidth requirements and minimal end-user system requirements, MOOs run in any ascii text terminal emulation: users communicate, move, and interact with their environment by typing short phrases of everyday language, and their communication, movements, and environment appear on their screen as simple text descriptions. For instance, the first thing a user might see on connecting to a MOO could be a description of his or her room and the objects in it:

______< P. Smith's Room >_______________
The walls in this room are bare except for empty picture hooks and some tape which must have held up posters or pictures. A little white window shows a view to the east. A thin single bed rests against the east wall. No one is on it. North leads through a door into the common room. A streetlight and the risen moon shine through the window, casting a low light over the room.

---Contents: Objects and People---
You see a Virtual University of Waterloo Student Bulletin Board [3 notes] here.
John and Susan are here.

---Available Exits---
<north> to Common Room

MOO environments are typically divided into geographical areas. In the example above, the specific area shown is a user's (P. Smith's) room. Areas, in turn, are divided into specific components. The first line of output (______< P. Smith's Room >_______________) in each MOO area comprises the title bar of the area, showing the user's current location. Under the title bar comes the area description, in this case, the student's room. Three types of environmental components make up the area description: 1) Static Setting, the unchanging portrait of the area (The walls in this room are bare); 2) Tangible Setting, the manipulatable, interactive portions of the area (a thin single bed rests against the east wall); and 3) Dynamic Setting, the changing elements of the area (A streetlight and the risen moon shine through the window, casting a low light over the room). Following the area description comes a list of the contents of the area (---Contents: Objects and People---). The list of contents is automatically generated by the MOO according to what is currently defined as "being in the area." In P. Smith's room, for instance, there is a bulletin board, and there are two users: John and Susan. The final section of each area (---Available Exits---) provides, for quick reference, the methods by which the user may leave that area.

Much of a user's experience in a MOO entails movement in and manipulation of an imaginary environment (such as the room above) described in text. Having read the description of the room above, for example, a user may choose to go out of the room, and look at the common room. To move into the common room, the user would type the direction which is listed as leading to there—north. A description of the common room would be returned:

______< Common Room >_______________
This is a comfortable room for house-mates to get together and chat, lounge about, and discuss their courses. A large bay window faces east.

A very large green couch rests against the south wall. On a coffee table rests a small pamphlet.

---Contents: Objects and People---
You see the Common Room Bulletin Board [2 notes] and a pamphlet here.

---Available Exits---
<west> to Entrance Hallway
<south> to P. Smith's Room

The user is now in a different area, with a different title bar and area description, and different contents and exits. Once in the new area, the user might want to manipulate some of the objects there. To manipulate objects, users type the action they would like to perform followed by the name of the object on which they would like that action performed. In the common room, a user could type get pamphlet to pick up the pamphlet, and would be informed of the results of the action by the MOO: You pick up the Information Guide. Once retrieved, the pamphlet could be read by a user through issuing the command, read pamphlet. Again, the MOO would respond by listing the contents of the pamphlet:

You open the pamphlet and read...

Welcome to VUW! VUW is an interactive forum for students of English 210e. Students of the English 210e use VUW to discuss assignments, to meet with instructors, to engage in tutorials, and to spend leisure time together. Each student has a room in the student housing area, which is east of the campus and the University plaza. To find out who's currently logged on to VUW, type: "@who".

You finish reading the pamphlet.

By reading descriptions such as the setting of the room above, and by writing actions such as get pamphlet and go north, the user interacts with his or her environment. Environment, however, comprises only part of the MOO world. In addition to moving about in and manipulating their environment, MOO users can communicate with each other. To talk to a user named John, a user named Susan would type, say hi there, how are you?; John would see: Susan says, "hi there, how are you?" on his terminal. John could then answer by typing, say fine, thanks and Susan would see, John says, "fine, thanks". Communication is based on location. If Susan and John are in the same area, they may send messages to each other by using the say command (as above). They can similarily address anyone in the area by using the say command. If they are in different areas, however, they will not be able to communicate using the say command. They must communicate by paging each other individually; Only the two of them see the individual pages. Many users, hence, may be connected to the same MOO, but all can carry on separate conversations by gathering in different areas. In addition to the basic commands, say, and page, users may choose to explore many of the more subtle forms of communication available on the MOO. They may whisper to each other, direct their speech to a specific individual in a group, exclaim an idea, ask a question, or use actions to express a feeling or a thought. Action commands such as smile, nod, and wave, serve as very powerful communication tools.

These, then, are the MOO basics—movement in and manipulation of the environment, and communication between users. These MOO basics, in turn, become the basics of the virtual classroom. The question that follows from these basics is fundamental to virtual classrooms: how do we apply this new type of environment and interactivity to academics? At the University of Waterloo, a MOO known as VUW (the Virtual campus at the University of Waterloo) was developed for use with English 210e, an entirely online Technical Writing undergraduate course taught in the fall term of 1995. VUW was used as a learning aid, as a virtual meeting place, and as an experiment, the goal of which was to attempt to answer at least part of that fundamental question.

Putting the MOO in the Classroom and the Classroom in the MOO

Even having recruited volunteer help and having acquired many of the skills I needed to get started building VUW, I faced the non-trivial question of how to design a university environment, albeit virtual. Much of the question depended on the role VUW was to play as a computer-mediated communications tool for English 210e. In essence, the question became, how does English 210e (or any academic application) fit into the MOO environment, and how does the MOO fit into the course structure of English 210e? The MOO would, of course, provide students of 210e with a communication tool, but it had the potential to also provide them with a richness that included a student community, tools for assignment submission, boards for course updates, meeting-places for online lectures, and personal space. In short, as a full blown computer-mediated communication environment, a MOO could house an entire course, and potentially an entire university. At least two MOOs have taken that approach—Diversity University (TELNET moo.du.org 8888), and Virtual Online University (TELNET brazos.iac.net 8888) the second of which has submitted a formal application for accreditation. As a pioneer project, though, VUW became related to English 210e as an entirely extra-curricular part of the course. Students were encouraged to attend student/instructor meetings, and to explore the virtual world, but participation was not mandatory.

Though VUW was conceived of primarily in response to a need for a communication tool within English 210e, part of the VUW project entailed pursuing the possibilities presented by MOOs as full virtual classrooms, the first step of which was to embark on constructing a virtual campus. As I built the landscape of VUW, I found that the structure of the environment centred nearly entirely on the needs of the online students, which very closely matched the needs of real students on a real campus. The student needs, as I defined them, were 1) academic space, 2) personal space, and 3) recreational space. The geography, accordingly, became 1) Campus, 2) Student-Housing, and 3) University Plaza.

The campus area included a building called Hagey Hall with space for tutorials, conferences, and topical bulletin boards. In the MOO session listed in Appendix A, the conference room in Hagey Hall is shown in use during a class meeting. The entrance to the conference building reads:

______< English 210e Receiving Hall >_______________
A heavy woven banner here reads ***ENGLISH 210E***. The place looks clean and brand new. Some writing underneath the banner reads, `Please be advised that you are now in a formal academic setting. While using the facilities of Hagey Hall, show the respect and seriousness you would in any classroom setting. Discussions, activity, and behaviour not specifically relevant to English 210e are restricted to off-campus. Hagey Hall is reserved explicitly as an area for learning, academic pursuits, and academic discussions'. A welcoming long hallway leads north. A strange portal leads back out to the south.

Through this and other tone-setting descriptions, an academic scene is set in the campus area. Hagey Hall is made up of a series of rooms, each of which addresses a different tutorial or module in the course. Each student has online notepads for recording ideas or for composing questions ahead of scheduled meetings which can be posted on boards in each room. Instructors can visit the rooms and read the boards outside of meeting times, and can respond with their own notes, or use existing notes as points of departure during scheduled discussions. Having students' questions and instructors' answers as its main component, the campus area is used primarily as a communication area in which students come together with instructors and discuss course issues.

Student housing consists of a small village modeled on the real University of Waterloo off-campus housing area. Each house comprises from four to twelve individual rooms (similar to P. Smith's Room, above), plus a meeting room. Back yards of some houses connect with other houses, and windows in rooms allow users to view happenings on the exterior of the house without leaving their rooms. Each student has one room granted as personal space. These rooms may be fully customized by the students, and have lockable doors for privacy. Students may also create entirely new areas and link them to their rooms. Customized user areas may be extensive: MOOs are designed to be built and expanded from within by users. Each student could, for instance, create a MOO area based on his or her home town. Other users could then explore those areas in order to get a sense of the students' locations in the real world. The MOO Student Housing area gave students a place online to call home, a customized virtual environment which became for some students much more personal and comfortable than a course email account and a UNIX shell.

In the University Plaza, students could sit in a cafe for casual conversation, walk around a garden, go to a penny arcade, or play a variety of online pub games such as Clue, Poker, Blackjack, and Scrabble. The Scrabble Room appeared as an actual ascii-text representation of a real Scrabble board:

______< Scrabble Arena >_______________
Sunken a few meters beneath a Plexiglas-enclosed peanut gallery, players engage in a serious game of Scrabble, oblivious to the cheers and jeers of the crowd above. Type `instructions' to learn how to play.

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o 
1|= ' = ' =|
2| - " " - |
3| - ' ' - |
4|' - ' - '| Your tiles: OOARIRU
5| - - | Tiles Left In Bag: 93%
6| " " " " |
7| ' ' a ' |
8|= ' catch ' =|
9| ' ' i ' |
10| " " r " " | Scores:
11| - e - | Andy: 24
12|' - ' - '| &Colin: 31
13| - ' ' - |
14| - " " - |
15|= ' = ' =|
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o

The MOO environment need not be tied to spatial representations such as buildings and landscapes. Areas can take many forms allowing for a variety of online interaction. The scrabble game above shows the actual contents of a "room" which are updated simply by typing "look". In the plaza, this versatility allows for the playing of games and student recreation, but a room also has the ability to become a file transfer station, a text editor, a USENET reader, or a Gopher library. The Plaza provided a place for students to get to know each other, and interact on a recreational level.

Through these three areas--Campus, Student Housing, and University Plaza--students of English 210e were able to engage in academic, personal, and recreational activities in ways that they could not outside of VUW due to their real geographical separation. English 210e, in accordance with many trends in the technical writing industry, was taught entirely online through the World Wide Web, email, and USENET. Students enrolled in the course received all assignments and readings at the English 210e WWW site and submitted assignments through email and FTP. In certain cases the communicative devices of email and newsgroups proved both too slow and too static to suit the needs of students, and while on-campus students enjoyed the possibility of arranging face to face meetings amongst themselves, distance education students typically were prevented from holding such meetings due to geographical restrictions. VUW solved these problems by providing communication enhancements not otherwise available to students in the course: response times of seconds rather than hours or days, multiple-user group-oriented interaction, and a situated communication environment.

PART II: The Virtual World and Education, in Theory and Practise

As tools, MOOs provide online students with a means of communication and a means of recreation. As virtual worlds, however, MOOs provide something much less tangible, though perhaps much more substantial: a community.

Becoming Involved In a MOO Community

Currently, starting a MOO implies an involvement in the MOO community. Anyone who attempts to develop a MOO system will quickly find it necessary to first develop a social system through which information, advice, and camaraderie can flow. From system implementation to end-user use, both the existence and the basis of MOOs in their state at the end of 1995 relied nearly entirely on community. Since MOOs often exist primarily for the sake of communication, their integration with communities seems to naturally follow; however, it is not only the group of users communicating within a MOO that forms a community, but also, and in all cases, the group of developers working outside the MOO that likewise exists as a community. In fact, because the external environment of MOOs is designed to be developed from within, the community of developers and the community of users is rarely distinguishable: the two groups would be better viewed as both belonging to one large community in the way that a town's council and a town's citizens are both a part of the town's community.

Appropriately, my first step in the VUW project was (though I did not perceive it as such at the time) to enter the MOO community. My journal for May 5th, 1995 records: "I emailed Brad Mehlenbacher [a former student of Professor Beam's, now a Professor of Technical Communication at North Carolina State University]. Described the current project. Asked him to consider letting me practise some building on his MOO.... Emailed sfwhite@calum [Steven White, a student at University of Waterloo and the developer of the original MOO code]. Asked for advice and a meeting." When I began the process of "emailing around," looking for information and contacts, I expected (and even requested) documentation and information. I intended to read the appropriate texts, and construct a MOO based on them. In response, I received a short list of FTP and WWW sites and the advice that I should get documentation from those sources. Which I did. One source--"A Novice's Guide to MOO Programming, Part I," by Loyd Blakenship--opened with two distinct statements: 1) "When I first logged onto a MOO...[I was] appalled because of the scarcity of documentation and help for new users," and 2) "I shudder at the thought of encountering a MOO and not knowing anything about programming." At nearly the same time, I logged onto a MOO myself. My journal records: "I logged onto LambdaMOO [the largest MOO--serves as a template for other MOOs] to look for a manual on setting up LambdaMOO on my own machine. After contacting a series of people on the MOO, I finally ended up talking to 'Snoopy,' one of the mid-level administrators. Snoopy told us to download the program, run it, and 'Go at it!' I said, fine, but I would really like 'a step-by-step guide to setting up your own MOO.' Snoopy said, 'there ain't no such thang.'" These initial experiences, rather than having appalled me, intrigued me. I knew that despite the lack of documentation, dozens of MOOs and thousands of MUDs (Multiple-User Dimension, the generic category of multi-user text-based communications systems) were running all over the world. I began to understand that a great deal of information about MOOs is not archived in hard copy but rather stored as the unwritten and constantly revised discourse of a community. My desire for definitive documentation seemed to many people as strange as asking for documentation on building a city from scratch. My idea to build a MOO was not itself considered strange, only that I intended to do it alone. Like cities, MOOs are the ongoing manifestation of the community which comprises them. Each member, in different degrees, contributes to and changes the definition of the MOO by the simple fact of "being there." In short, the MOO fully accounted for is the community. As such, the first step of developing a MOO is becoming involved in the MOO community. And I did: I became a user on several MOOs, established email contact with a group of experienced MOO users, and joined an email discussion list, moo-cows@xerox.com. Quickly I found myself surrounded by volunteer help for the project. Three experienced programmers began working with me on a regular basis, one of whom became a full partner in the project, and dozens of visitors unrelated to the project (or to academics) dropped by on a regular basis to chat, help, and import things from other MOOs. I owe a great deal of the depth of VUW to these volunteers, not the least part of which is their contribution to the community which it plays host to.

Virtually Speaking: MOO Communication

Community, by definition, relies in large part on communication. Much of what makes community a reality on MOOs is MOO communication. To transfer a string of text data from one terminal to another through a MOO, a user most commonly issues the say command in the form, say <message> where <message> represents the text to be transmitted. Say, then, is a communication command, but it is also a communication metaphor. In the example:

Clem says, "How about this, all students who need a group type @go plaza, discuss it there and then come back?"

Clem teleports out.

John says, "That's a good idea...I'll tell everyone."

the use of say as a command blends with the use of say as a metaphor. While Clem issues the command say to communicate his suggestion about groups John, John issues the metaphor, "I'll tell everyone," referring to the act of typing and transmitting a text message as speech. Though John knows that his typing is not literally speaking, he treats it as though it were to the point that he actually refers to it as such, and expects others to interpret it as such. As long as users agree to that interpretation (perceiving typing as speaking), they experience an illusion of "really" speaking; they experience virtual speaking.

The suspension of disbelief in the virtual reality of MOO speaking leads users to engage in real conversational etiquette with each other. Users in a conversation may apologize for interrupting each other; may be perceived as being rude for ending a conversation abruptly, without appropriate valedictions (for instance by suddenly turning off their computer); and often check with other users engaged in conversation before joining in (for example, as Cori does, Cori knocks politely to see if she may enter, Appendix A). To encourage this kind of suspension of disbelief, MOOs allow users to communicate non-verbally. A user wishing to communicate doubt may choose to express the feeling by describing it rather than stating it, as in, John raises an eyebrow. Frustration may be communicated simply as, John sighs loudly. Ending a conversation can include speaking and waving; engaging in verbal conversations typically involves a range of physical conversational cues such as nodding, smiling, frowning, smirking, and gasping. In short, if an action can be described, it can be performed by a user. Known as emoting (from emotion), these communicative actions serve to deepen the narrative acted out by MOO users, increasing the credibility of the virtual reality.

The virtual world which MOO users thus create and participate in has very real ramifications for the academic world. Through communication within a text-based virtual reality, students separated by geography can experience much of the intimacy and dynamics they would in a real classroom: a group can listen to a speaker and still communicate privately amongst its individuals, group members can ask questions, listen to responses, and exchange conversational nuances or use classroom protocol such as "raising a hand." Most importantly, students online can feel that they have physically come together and interacted in a setting as formal as a lecture hall, or as informal as a cafe, and they can form their own community—something that academics could not survive without.

Building Real Illusions with Textual Metaphors: MOO Environment

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. If a user sees the phrase "A ball bounces into the room" suddenly appear on his or her terminal, that user then imagines a hypothetical real situation to which the textual index, "A ball bounces into the room," could refer. Having imagined a plausible equivalent to the textual index (visualizing a ball entering a room), MOO users imagine reacting to the hypothetical situation. Their imagined mental responses can then be returned to the MOO in the form of further indices which the MOO interprets, or other users interpret. The user faced by the ball, for instance, might imagine responding to the situation of a ball bouncing into the room by picking up the ball. In order to indicate back to the MOO that this imagined action should take place, the user describes his or her action in text, get ball, and presses the [ENTER] or [RETURN] key to issue the response to the MOO. The MOO then checks whether or not the user's response is interpretable as a valid response to the situation at hand, and if it is, the MOO produces the results of the user's action by printing it to the screen: "You pick up the ball." The MOO also accounts for the effect of the user's action on the virtual world: the ball is set as being held by the user, the user is set as holding the ball, and the room has the ball removed from it. By changing variables such as "location of the ball" and "contents of the room", the MOO updates the change in the environment, and that change, in turn, can be represented to users who either request or are automatically alerted of information on the state of that environment. Prior to picking up the ball, for instance, the user in the ball scenario could have typed look to view the room, and would have been returned the description "There is a ball here." After picking up the ball, if the user typed look, the description "There is nothing here." would be returned.

In addition to changing the environment, the user's actions can cause changes to himself or herself. The user who picked up the ball is granted new abilities associated with carrying the ball: he or she can drop the ball, give it to another user, or use the ball (bounce it, throw it, twirl it) according to the actions that have been defined on it. Further, the user, where applicable, would be able to affect the ball itself, perhaps by deflating it or wearing it out. Finally, these changes are all relayed to the appropriate group of other MOO users: anyone in the same room as the user who picked up the ball would see: "John picks up the ball." if the user were named John. In this way, MOO users are actually able to interact with and affect the virtual environment of a MOO.

Through maintaining a changeable list of objects with properties and actions defined and definable on them, a MOO can keep track of and represent a virtual world. Users immersed in that world perceive it using many of the skills associated with reading: imagination, suspension of disbelief, and interpretation of text as a metaphor for the real world. Once they have learned to interpret themselves as textual metaphors, and once they have become comfortable with moving that textual self through the MOO environment (which includes communicating with others), MOO users can experience the virtual world in very real ways, feeling a full range of emotions, engaging in group work and recreation, and forming legitimate human relationships. For distance education students in particular, some of these "virtual" experiences will bring the reality of being a student in a "real" student community closer than may be otherwise possible.

PART III: The Future

Though MUDs date back into computer ancient history (MUD1 was created in 1979), their implementation as academic tools is only a few years old. There is certainly room to grow. Academic tools for students in VUW, for instance, were limited to note pads and bulletin boards, but these tools could be greatly expanded to allow for full online courses. MOO campuses could potentially include international online lectures; exchange of, and work on, collaborative research; manipulation of student assignments (from writing and editing to submission and marking); and World Wide Web or gopher libraries of research material. Some MOOs are already even employing WWW interfaces which display graphical representations of the virtual world, once again broadening the possibilities of the electronic classroom. As computer technology continues its rapid development, both text and graphic virtual environments will soon become robust enough to answer the question "How can academia fit into virtual reality?" The answer will be: fully. And yet, the issue of possibility remains distinct from the issue of desirability. Currently, so few virtual reality systems have been used in academia that the real effect of such systems on education remains difficult to appraise. So while the future may bring technological answers, it also brings a philosophical question--"How, if it should at all, can virtual reality fit into academia?"--a question which academics will soon be forced to answer.

[APPENDIX B: The VUW Campus]
[APPENDIX C: Online Help]