Currents in Electronic Literacy

Virtual Spaces, Actual Practices: MOO Pedagogy in the CWRL

by Aimee Kendall and Doug Norman


  1. A MOO is an object-oriented multi-user domain that was popularized in the gaming community, especially among Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, and is now being recognized for its pedagogical usefulness in composition courses. A MOO is a text environment which allows a designer to create spaces and objects. Users move through virtual spaces while communicating with other players and manipulating objects. Originally, a MOO interface was text-only; now, an Internet browser (preferably MS Internet Explorer) is used for a MOO's client interface.

  2. The spatial, object-oriented environment of the MOO is a flexible and extremely adaptable tool which can greatly enhance writing course curricula. In this article we will outline several pedagogical strategies for teaching writing and critical thinking with a MOO and discuss how the MOO affords students some very specific advantages: (1) anonymity and critical distance from their own writing; (2) a variety of rhetorical situations for invention and revision; (3) strategies for moving beyond text to represent arguments; and (4) a media-rich environment in which to explore multiple sides of a complex debate.

  3. To illuminate these points, we will explore two projects created by instructors in the Computer Writing and Research Lab in the Division of Rhetoric and Composition at The University of Texas at Austin. You can view these projects online in the CWRL's Silver Sea MOO at (Please note: The links below will allow you to browse the Web interface portion of the Silver Sea MOO. To interact with the objects and other users, you must log in as a guest.)

    Rhetorical Distance

  4. MOOs and other multi-user domains put a productive distance between participants of a conversation and the arguments they make. Students become hyper-aware of their rhetorical situation as they take on roles and interact in the virtual space of the MOO. MOO chats take place in real time, so they bear striking resemblance to face-to-face chats. That is, moments of informality and a high degree of interactivity are commonplace for MOO users. As John Slatin, a professor of CWRL courses at The University of Texas, explained in a class lecture on computers and English Studies, the feedback loop of information--students reading, writing, and thinking about their own and others' contributions to a conversation--facilitates a rhetorical self-awareness that often takes longer to establish in a traditional classroom. Students perform research equivalent to that which they would do for a traditional assignment and then use that information to perform their roles in the MOO. Developing the details of their character-roles and analyzing their choice of details encourage students to reflect on how the personal and professional differences between their roles inform the rhetoric their "characters" use. While inhabiting their characters, students tend to delve more deeply into the issues at hand than they would by simply researching a chosen topic in a more traditional manner.

  5. The MOO format also affords shy students a level of immediacy more comfortable than face-to-face conversation. For instance, participants can opt to assume a pseudonym or "handle," and those reluctant to participate in the brick-and-mortar classroom often more readily voice their opinions in the virtual one. Sherry Turkle observes, "MUDs provide worlds for anonymous social interaction in which you can play a role as close or as far away from your real self as you choose" (183).

    Replicas of Situations

  6. Different occasions warrant different rhetorical techniques. They also generate different kinds of discourse. For instance, one would talk about a body differently at an autopsy in a lab than at a funeral or around a campfire. MOO builders can re-create different occasions to help provoke different discourse modes. They can set room parameters and make objects relevant to the particular settings. Simply visiting a room may not elicit the kind of exchange the room's theme suggests, but at the very least, the juxtaposition of a variety of different rooms might give users pause to consider the logic behind the navigation scheme.

  7. For her undergraduate writing course, "The Rhetoric of Interviews," Aimee Kendall wanted to inspire students to consider their article topics in contexts beyond classroom exchanges, so she designed a class MOO space called Kairos USA to model her experience as an editor and freelance writer in New York City. Kendall chose "Kairos USA" as the name of the space because the Greek term kairos can be used to mean the right time and right place for an utterance (Miller 310-14). Four locations comprise the virtual city: the Main Street, a Chat Bar, an Office, and a Meeting Place. Kendall used MOO features to add texture and realism to the rooms. For example, she added environmental settings, ambient noise, and props to each room, including, for example, a robot bartender in the Chat Bar.

  8. Each room represents a realm of life where reporters cull and cogitate ideas for their interviews and profiles. For example, interest in current events and issues is sparked within informal settings like bars and cafes. Office meetings stimulate brainstorming sessions. Interviewers and interviewees negotiate the terms of stories in meeting places. Reporters talk about the issues from different vantage points, given the constraints of each venue. Each venue in turn informs and adds a new dimension to the stages of the rhetorical writing process (that is, to invention, arrangement, delivery, and choice of style). Students, for instance, work at the invention stage in the informal Chat Bar and then move to the more formal Office and Meeting Place rooms to work on stylistic and organizational elements.

    Embodied Arguments

  9. As part of Doug Norman's undergraduate writing course at The University of Texas at Austin entitled "The Rhetoric of Hip Hop," which utilizes a RAP-MOO, students, working in groups of four, are asked to represent a narrative by building spaces, objects, and characters in the MOO. The assignment aims to teach students how paths of reasoning can be represented with objects, spaces, and characters. Students must choose a controversial hip-hop issue with clearly defined opposing positions. The students then transform blocks of information, evidence for a particular stand, and various opinions on a particular issue into props that communicate an argument more actively than traditional expository writing. The assignment affords students the opportunity to think about the people behind the positions as well as the material circumstances that shape those people and their positions on the issue. This teaches students that any rhetoric is inseparable from its rhetor; or in N. Katherine Hayles' words, "information is never disembodied" (83).

  10. In other words, environments and experiences shape arguments as much as different occasions in time do. This fact undergirds what Hayles calls the post-human condition. Contrary to humanist notions that ideas exist a priori, Hayles stresses that "words never make things happen by themselves. . . . [M]aterial and embodied processes must be used--processes that exist never in isolation but always in contexts . . . [because] information is never disembodied" (83). The MOO affords builders the opportunity to retrace and reconstruct the contexts that inform positions on an issue. Equipped with object-, robot-, and environment-making capabilities, builders must think about how to make their case not only with words but also with props and spaces.

    Simulated Debates

  11. Bereiter and Scardamalia consider simulation one of the highest methods of inquiry. It tests assumptions gathered by less difficult methods and reveals gaps or flaws therein, and it "permits the . . . gradual development from a crude theory that accounts for only limited kinds or properties of behavior to a more elaborate theory that is able to account for more of the variety of the actual human behavior" (47). Students studying controversial issues in class can simulate different perspectives converging on that issue to obtain the rich understanding of the problem at hand. Lynn Troyka, for example, sets up simulation modules about unrest in a state prison and the juggling of the federal budget. The MOO facilitates imagining the complexity of these situations: the character-stakeholders involved, the environments in which they live, and the touch-points where their lives intersect. Such MOO simulations can help students step into the shoes of others and rethink assumptions which shape opinions.


  12. These four aspects of the MOO help students develop more intricate ways of considering their positions on issues. The MOO allows instructors to build many types of space to complement their course content. Students get to experience arguing from perspectives different than their own in addition to reading, thinking, and writing with their peers in a media-rich interactive environment. The spatial metaphors of the MOO, joined with the virtual role-playing that does not put the "actor-student" on display in an embarrassing way in the classroom, help students understand the social-political grounds and repercussions of various rhetorical practices. Because MOOs can simulate spaces and occasions not readily accessible in traditional classroom environments, MOOs can enable students to move with ease from theoretical concepts to "real world" implications of adopting certain viewpoints.

Works Cited

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Spring 2002 (6),