The MUSE as an Educational Medium

By Barry Kort

MUSEs are multi-user text-based virtual realities accessible via the Internet. They derive from popular text-based adventure games such as Adventure and Zork. But MUSEs support real-time interaction among many participants who collaborate to build their own world. Thus they support the constructivist model of learning, in the spirit of Dewey and Montessori. More than just multi-user programming environments, MUSEs foster a strong sense of community among participants.

MicroMuse is a multi-user simulation environment based at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. The system features explorations, adventures, and puzzles with an engaging mix of social, cultural, recreational, and educational content. For example, the MicroMuse Science Center offers an Exploratorium and Mathematica Exhibit complete with interactive exhibits drawn from experience with Science Museums around the country. A highlight of the Mathematica Exhibit is 'Professor Griffin's Logic Quest', based on Raymond Smullyan's classical puzzles about knights and knaves. The Narnia Adventure embeds challenging puzzles within a familiar children's classic. Keeping with the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, it takes a party of four to solve the initial puzzle in Narnia. The Mission to Mars includes an elaborate tour of the red planet with accurate descriptions rivaling those found in National Geographic. The planets are reached by piloting sophisticated spacecraft which operate according to Newtonian mechanics. Astro-navigation turns out to be a challenging team exercise, lest the crew find themselves lost in deep space enroute to Andromeda. Even very young participants can contribute interesting and sophisticated microworlds. An 8-year old student designed and built an Oz adventure based on movie version of that classic children's story, while a 9-year old contributor returned from his family's summer vacation and created a working model of Yellowstone National Park, complete with erupting geysers and a wandering moose.

The first student to earn a grade for a Muse project was Erica Cleary, a graduate student in Environmental Studies at Boston University, who built the Amazon Rain Forest on MicroMuse as her term project. Since then she has expanded her work to include a Mayan Temple, complete with working astronomical calendar. Elsewhere, one can find a sailing cruise to the Virgin Islands which recreates the real-life adventure of the player who created it. Inspired by the success of MicroMuse, several other schools have begun to experiment with Muses in the classroom. Notable among these is MariMuse at Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix, where 4th and 5th grade students from the Longview Elementary School attended a highly successful Summer Muse Camp.

For younger participants, text-based virtual realities foster literacy skills: reading, writing, and composition, and technical skills such as keyboarding and spelling. For adolescent students, social interaction skills, interpersonal skills, and personality development emerge as primary activities. College students who are not computer science majors enjoy the opportunity to gain some computer literacy and try their hand at creating their own contributions to the cyberspace worlds, usually with the helpful guidance of friendly users with more experience.

The MicroMuse project seeks to expand its membership and thereby further explore the educational potential of network-based virtual realities, especially with respect to building computer literacy, cognitive skills and scientific awareness through consciously crafted content geared toward informal science education, creative writing, and multicultural activities.

Barry Kort
Consulting Scientist
Educational Technology Research
BBN Systems and Technologies
Cambridge, MA