Jessica Chalmers

Kids may be restless and bored in classrooms across America, but at a small, underfunded computer camp in Phoenix, Arizona, I saw something else. Call it a small miracle, brought about by the secular magic of new technology. Or see it as the product of research done by creative educators dedicated to harnessing the energy of the new in the service of traditional educational goals. Both of these factors contributed to an unusual sight: on a hot summer day, in a windowless basement room, about twenty elementary school kids were happily sitting still, reading and writing. Selected from nearby Longview Elementary to participate in PuebloMOO, an interactive learning environment opened recently by Billie Hughes and Jim Walters of Phoenix College's Department of Virtual Education, the kids were a mix of races and ages -- some so small that, seated behind their terminals, I could barely see the tops of their heads. All eyes were fixed on the screen ahead, all small faces wore looks of deep concentration. I watched as they typed away persistently with one finger or more, maneuvering cautiously around their new written world.

As much as I enjoyed witnessing this harmonious pedagogical scene unfolding before me, it also seemed like it was going to be difficult to actually interview anybody. Some of the students seemed very shy and all were much more interested in taking advantage of precious on-line time to learn to make things like a chocolate river town (Matt Pool). Others wanted to fool with their character names and descriptions. Parnell Maxwell, who had ambitions to become a "scientist that creates things that are evil," put that he was "a crazy person who gambles." Kyla Harvey first called herself "purple," but later when I tried to find her on-line from New York, it seemed she had renamed herself after her dog, "Yo-Baby." The teachers, no less engrossed in the work of the day, seemed also reluctant to take time out to speak to a reporter from a magazine whose commitment to education reform they clearly mistrusted.

Noting all this, I abandoned the idea of talking to anyone in RL, deftly slid into the nearest empty seat, and, with some much-needed help from visiting Xerox PARC consultant Kim Bobrow, logged on to PuebloMOO as Ecco, my favorite persona, a silver-gray dolphin inspired by the eponymous SegaGenesis game. No sooner had I rematerialized in the virtual world than kids began to contact me.

    Little*Gee pages, "can you interview me"
    Little*Gee pages, "I am in the room"
    Elena pages, "Hi"

I page both back.

    Elena pages, "I like your tyle"

I page her back with a question mark and out of the corner of my eye I see the RL Elena, a sandy-haired 7-year-old sitting only a few feet behind me, ask a teacher for help.

    Little*Gee pages, "what can you teach me?

Elena pages, "I like your style"

I page both back.

Some kids, I was told, had never been on what is generically called a MUD (Multi-User Dimension) before. For these kids, who had maybe never had the feeling of being transported by a good book either, just taking a look around the interlinked descriptions of PuebloMOO was enough. Other kids were more accustomed to existing in the wierd reality of MUDs and so were more assertive about making contact with others on line and figuring out how to create objects. These were kids who had spent time on MariMUSE, the MUD where Hughes and Walters had conducted their research before teaming up with Xerox PARC in San Francisco and shifting over to the object-oriented MOO programming environment there. The experienced kids had an air of self-possession and seriousness about them compared to the others. It was understandable. They had special knowledge. They could make a thing work. The fact that the thing they could work was a program that will most likely emerge as the most commonly-used World Wide Web interface would only make their advantage feel that much sweeter. Some had even become expert coders on MariMUSE, a skill that could, at least in the long run, potentially support them. MUD kids also have something else. From knowing and seeing some of their friends and the environment only through writing, they get a conceptual sophistication about language, something that most English teachers have to struggle to cultivate through less intriguing means. MUD kids do not need to be taught how deeply writing can plunge a reader into the fantasy of actually being in a place. They are aware of the conjuring power of words -- and ready to use them.

No one is claiming that MUDs are, by themselves, going to cure student or teacher apathy, make up for insufficient government funding, or right the intellect-crippling abuse and deprivation that some kids face at home. But as a tool in the fight for literacy, there are strong indications of the pedagogical value of a medium in which everything -- who you are, where you live, what you own, and how you talk -- exists (as the linguistic philosophers say) "in language." "The truth is they're reading and writing for three hours a's got to affect their scores," says Hughes, a woman of great warmth and focused intelligence. In spite of her obvious enthusiasm, however, Hughes, who has a master's degree in library science and a doctorate in educational technology, is reluctant to speculate too broadly about the future of MUDs in education or even about the future of her own project. Her difficulty is also practical. Although she and Walters have enjoyed Phoenix College's blessing and financial support since the initiation of the project in Spring, 1993, the money falls short of their need. They need to have the staff to collect consistent, detailed information about each student. In order to make a solid argument for the benefits of virtual education, they would have to track each student's progress both in camp and during the school year. This costs money. On line, they want to calculate how often and with what purpose each student uses commands such as +mail, page, @create, look, and whisper. They need more terminals for the kids at Longview. They need, they need. In short, they are in the situation of so many educators.

Initial studies and abundant, eagerly-offered, anecdotal data do suggest that MUD kids learn by leaps and bounds compared to their VR-deprived classmates at Longview -- an inner-city school whose 50% Hispanic, 27% Anglo, and 17% Native American student body generally scores well below average on criterion tests such as the Arizona Student Assessment Plan (ASAP). No wonder the teachers seemed such a glowing presence as they unintrusively went (virtually and physically) from one small learner's side to another. So many teachers have been embittered by repeated failed or half-failed attempts at motivating students -- through empathy, through discipline, through piling on work to emphasize its seriousness, even through reducing the workload so as to respect students' difficulties. The MOO gets kids interested in such a way that none of this seems called for. This is not only due to on-line help menus that encourage self-directed learning. Its also about a change in the balance of power between student and teacher.

This change results from the relative newness of the multi-user software as an educational medium and the fact that teachers are not necessarily going to have it all down. Grown-ups of the pre-electronic generation are more likely to get scared off by new technology than kids who never knew life before it was wired. But in general, Hughes remarked, most grown-ups have to have control. They get nervous if they can't see the whole picture -- something that becomes increasingly more difficult as technology advances. Kids, on the other hand, take pleasure in the challenge of immersing themselves in the unknown. That, coupled with their uncanny aptitude for picking up languages, including artificial ones, kids may well become better programmers than their teachers. They end up teaching their teachers, teaching other kids, and gathering enough momentum and self confidence to be able to tackle other kinds of code such as good old-fashioned English spelling and grammar. So it makes sense that teachers, or at least those who are able to relinquish the idea of their own greater knowledge, would glow. What is it you want to accomplish most? I asked. Empower the kids, they said. I heard it over and over.

After snack time, a few students allowed me to pry them with questions in another room while everyone else got to try out the new scavenger hunt game devised by teacher-programmer Cynde Cochrane. So while all the other kids were busy learning the commands necessary to be able to race around Pueblo's Southwestern-style rooms searching for coveted ASCII animal pix, best friends Kyla Harvey and Monica O'Neil were kind enough to spend some time telling me about their experiences on Pueblo and MariMUSE before it.

Kyla, an upbeat girl who has specific ideas about what she would accomplish if elected President, told me enthusiastically that "the coolest thing about the MOO is you can meet people, you could create anything you want -- and you can keep people out of your house!" Kyla, who at 13 is perhaps the oldest student in the program, had built a palatial residence on the MUSE before it was shut down in order to make the shift over to Pueblo. It was a house whose luxury was at least equal to the houses her father cleans for a living, the ones she told me she has always admired: "When you walked in my house, the dog would bark or bite you and I had a french maid....It was just like having your own personalized home!" she said, smiling broadly.

Both girls have flirted with the undeniably exciting possibility of wearing a new mask. Monica, an attractive girl of 12, once briefly described herself as older in a way that could be -- and in fact was by one hopeful boy logging in from afar -- interpreted as inviting: "I said I was a North High student, African-American, with long brown hair, five foot six, high cheekbones, and full lips." Discouraged by the Pueblo teachers, both girls eventually came to prefer a character description more in keeping with their true age. Every virtual educator I spoke to was concerned to keep the environment as PG-rated as possible. Some, like those in Phoenix, prefer to sit kids down and discuss the appropriateness of sexual and also harassing behavior. Others, like those on the various MUSEs of the venerated educational coalition called MUSEnet, require that every user agree to a list of rules, including rules restricting any kind of provocative talk or exhibition in public areas. But could anyone really fault a girl who, at the brink of all the good and bad of adulthood, tries to take advantage of the protean aspect of Net identity to peek at what lies ahead? Any young girl might be tempted to try on an adult female body with all the strange pleasures and dangers of its attractiveness. Kyla claimed that one teacher had told her it was safer to use her real name and as accurate a description of herself as possible on line, a measure that seems to me ineffective. No one who is interested in staying safe would choose walk around in a public place, be it real or virtual, as a 13-year-old girl. Young girls (and the pedophiles and policemen who impersonate them, one supposes), are a focus of attention everywhere. However, it is interesting that, when it comes to the question of race, the deceptive potential of on-line identity seems no longer problematic. Monica voiced the rather American enthusiasm that students, teachers, and directors seem to share about the MUD as a land of equal opportunity, where "you can choose who you want to be." "When you are on PuebloMOO," she said, "everybody is one race, everybody is the same.

PuebloMOO's use in a realworld classroom is one possible way of virtually educating. There, the MOO and the real are juxtaposed, multiplying the levels of communication possible in the ordinary classroom. You have kids looking up from their screens and seeing most of their on-line friends there in the flesh. And think of all the unecessary humiliations of childhood. With a MOO, a teacher can discreetly "whisper" help from afar even while a lesson is proceeding. In an argument, intervention can be secret. The list goes on. Public announcements can be broadcast insistently out loud, or on-line in preservable form, or both. Think of a classroom interwoven with an array of private and public channels to choose from. This busy scenario, with its dizzying mix of oral and written communication, will probably only scare off the teacher we never wanted anyway: the controlling one who is overly fearful about losing respect, who is already disturbed before he gets to the MUD by the complex, ambiguous, and shifting degrees of intimacy and distance that exist between teacher and student.

There is a place in the scope of things as well for virtual education with no face-to-face contact, where students and educators may be geographically dispersed. Aside for the novelty of bringing together non-local student populations into one virtual place, such a MUD also has a practical advantage for groups forced apart by special circumstances. David Albert, a computer scientist who works on both Pueblo and MicroMUSE, pointed out that children who would otherwise be isolated because of a contagious disease or other disability could be brought back into sociality on a MUD. Several other people mentioned a rumor that ARPA, which will be funding the PARC-Phoenix collaboration for a two-year project, was interested for the sake of Defense Department kids. These kids have families that tend to move from place to place and whose schooling and confidence may suffer as a result. A MUD would keep such kids in contact with friends and teachers, providing continuity and stability. Of course, it isn't just DOD kids that need stability. A MUD would be a good thing for any kid who feels uprooted and needs a place to go think.

MicroMUSE is the foundational MUSE of what is now a cluster of associated text-based virtual worlds called the Multi-User Science Education Network or MUSEnet. Nowadays, when you log on to the MUSEnet, you can choose to enter MicroMUSE itself, or you can explore an array of other linked themeworlds: the island world of Oceana, the green world of EcoMUSE, VirtualChicago, BridgeMUSE, MariMUSE, Eon, and more. In the beginning, however, there was only Micro, a labyrinthine place that has been evolving since 1991. It is the product of a special kind of care, worked on with the same kind of love that grown men and children sometimes devote to setting up a model train set. When you log on, the first screens invite you deeper into an elaborately-detailed model of a science fiction world:


MicroMUSE is an optimistic vision of the 24th century. The setting is Cyberion City II, a gigantic, cylindrical city in orbit around Earth. Its residents are scholars, who live in a unique community dedicated to teaching, learning, the preservation of knowledge, and fun!

The bright outlines of the Cyberion City Transporter Station slowly come into focus. You have been beamed up here (at considerable expense) from one of the Earth Transporter Stations. You are among the adventurous few who have decided to visit (and perhaps dwell in) Cyberion City, the largest space city in the solar system.

MicroMUSE became the first educational MUD for kids K through 12 through the pioneering efforts of Barry Kort, a consulting scientist at BBN whose background in systems analysis and network planning did not predict his present role as an inspirer of young minds. When he reached what he felt to be the half-way point of his career, he decided that it was time to do something that was truly meaningful, something that would "get him out of bed in the morning." Since neither Bell Labs nor the defense contractor MITRE (where he fled to in the messy wake of the Bell breakup) particularly shared Kort's enthusiasm for kids and didn't consider the development of network-mediated education a lucrative tack, Kort resigned, taking his enthusiasm and multiple talents to BBN, the low-profile research and development group whose ground-breaking innovations have included designing the first modem and laying the foundation for the Internet. His initial short-term appointment in BBN's Educational Technologies Division has now stretched to six years, during which time he conceived the idea (along with a man referred to only as Jin in the annals of Micro) of putting the software developed for adventuring games of the Dungeons and Dragons sort to educational use. And, although Kort is only paid a small stipend for his BBN consulting work, he remains -- sustained by the interest of the BBN staff, the UNIX wizardry of (among others) teenagers "Frnkzk" and "Zephyr," and the pedagogical and even nurturing presence of several adults. These are, most importantly, David Albert and Anna DuVal Smith, a labor mediator and arbitrator who takes time from her private practice in Cleveland to help out in MUSE disputes.

Kort is something like Moulton, his on-line "shmeggegy scientist" avatar, but there is a quality missing from this description: an intensity. This is a visionary guy who prides himself on running Micro nearly without funding, who salvages computers and puts them to use in Boston-area classrooms. "We run on surplus, salvaged and rebuilt computers, with volunteer unpaid staff. We charge no fees, buy no gear, pay no salaries," says Kort. An unassuming-looking redhead, Kort was nevertheless referred to by senior BBN scientist Wally Feurzeig half-jokingly as a "cult figure," presumably because of Kort's reportedly ubiquitous on-line presence, but also because of his fringe status at BBN and his total commitment to the Micro project of informal education. Like Smith and Albert, Kort keeps his terminal logged on throughout the day, scrolling back to check if he has missed anything, orienting newbies (or orienting the student-mentors who orient the newbies), giving or getting programming advice, and using intense conversation as a pedagogical tool. There are the spontaneous question-and-answer sessions Kort calls "Rabbinic Talmudic Philosophy 101." Teleporting the interested into his virtual office, he invites kids to hang out among a clutter of teaching puzzles, signs, and puppets to chat about all things: "Collective Decision Making, Voting Paradoxes, Civil Rights, Methods of Reasoning, Argumentation, and Persuasion" was how one transcripted talk was titled. Kort lets nobody rest. A modern-day Socrates in a changed public sphere, he challenges everyone he meets to reconsider what they think they already know. At home at the crossroads of science and fiction, he challenges even reporters with questions and gentle, disturbing probes.

    Mymosh the Self-Begotten is an Artifical Sentient Being with an Intel
    80686 Cognitron, running MicroSoft Mind 3.0. He is beta-testing his new
    Value System.  Please be kind and gentle, as he is not yet finished
    creating himself.

In the transcript I was shown, a couple of guests ("Stinger" and "Schroeder") were enough convinced by Mymosh's long, gentlemanly, robotic sentences to feel disturbed. Kort makes an excellent artificial life form. The guests, clearly adults who were getting more and more fired up by the situation, began to question Mymosh in the hope that he really was a machine. The beauty of Kort's performance was that he sustained a conversation without letting go of the ambiguity about who he was. The guests were mystified, had to find out, and in the process such things were brought out as ambiguities in the distinction between man and machine, which in its turn brought out questions about AI consciousness, which in its turn brought out further questions. We should all be so lucky: every lesson should have this kind of flowering effect.

   Stinger says "Mymosh, do you have the ability to lie?"
   Stinger says "Do you have feelings?
   Schroeder says "Are there AIs like you available somewhere (FTP)?

Mymosh says, "I can form inaccurate assertions, but I prefer not to mislead people.

Stinger says "Schroeder, he seems TOO real..." Schroeder says "Stinger, AI has come a long way.:

On Pueblo, teachers try to help students direct and organize their learning. They give them specific tasks, hand out special binder notebooks. There is a different vibe on Micro, an anti-curriculum sentiment that considers too much teacher direction a direct blow to student creativity. The kids on Micro only log on when they care to. There are rooms with automated tutorials on how to do projects, but mostly what they have to do is figure out themselves what it is they want to know and what they want to make. Kort claims a debt for such ideas to "constructionist education," a term invented by Seymour Papert, director of the Epistemology and Learning Group at MIT's Media Lab. Amy Bruckman, a Media Lab graduate student who is developing a child-friendly programming language called MOOSE, defines the constructionist approach to education as "learning by working on personally meaningful projects" within a community of people of varying ages who are mutually encouraging. Bruckman, who is opening her own educational research environment called MOOSE CROSSING, also emphasizes the educational potential of teaching kids to design and program objects. "Making things is a particularly powerful way of learning," she says.

The 4223 "rooms" of Micro's densely-built Cyberion City, the Cyburbs outside it, as well as its realm of deep space, are filled with projects in all stages of construction. David Albert, who met Kort while both were volunteers at the Science Museum in Boston, built Narnia (named after C.S. Lewis's prescient chronicle about children making their way in an alternate world), an ultra-interactive terrain famous on the MUSE for its challenging network of logical puzzles. Another good project is Tommy Torso, a relatively simple model of the human digestive system constructed as a connected series of written descriptions. Arriving at the entrance, you walk through what is described as a holographic screen to find yourself precariously balancing on the tongue in Tommy's mouth:

    You are standing in a dark chamber. Beneath you, the floor seems soft,
    wet, and very unstable. A sickly sweet aroma is overpowering....ahead
    lies darkness...the floor are pushed forward!


First you might want to call up the definitions tagged on Saliva, Teeth, and Tongue. Then, following instructions, you type the word "pharynx" in order to enter said tube -- and immediately you are off, sliding down through close wet walls, into the stomach's sloshing pool of acidic chyme, and, squeezed by a peristaltic wave of continuous muscular contraction, you are shot through the intestines, until, inevitably:

    You are pushed forward into a holding area. Completely surrounded in
    feces, you cannot see the walls.  Yet you can feel the walls of the
    chamber stretching and the pressure building.

Obvious exits: Anus...<AN> Large intestine...<LI>

You type "AN" and eventually you are expelled -- grossed out, maybe, but enlightened.

More embellished teaching devices than Tommy are being conceived for use with interactive virtual environments like the MUSE. One graphical software tool that the BBN education crowd demo-ed over the summer for the National Science Foundation is Genscope, a genetics simulator that would allow users, logging in from different RL sites, to share the same VR lab, collaborating in the blood analysis, for example, of a suspected killer. We are not talking O.J., though: "There has been a murder in Dragonland," Kort proposes, "and there are three suspects -- a gold dragon, a bronze dragon, and a chartreuse dragon. There are blood samples which could identify the killer with DNA analysis. The samples must go to the lab for analysis." One of the strengths of Genscope is that it comprehends the role distance and communications media can play in postmodern scientific praxis, particularly in the realm of medical criminology. David Albert explains that after being handed such a scenario as Kort proposed, each investigator, linked only through the MUSE, would be given a certain, limited amount of information, thereby making mutual communication and cooperation necessary just as it is in RL. Maybe, suggests Albert, "one of them has access to the DNA lab and the other has access to a different part of the program. And so the person with access to the DNA extractor can ship the DNA via the MUSE off to the person with the DNA lab and they can discuss it and come up with a joint hypothesis." Kids will enjoy the aspect of the program that allows them to breed different dragons and see the results come out formatted into a Mendelian pedegree chart, as they will enjoy being able to zoom down on their samples to view individual chromosomes on the DNA spiral.

Probably Micro will eventually be integrated with such tools as Genscope and other, more sophisticated computational programs that include animation and video. For now, however, Micro stands on its own as an example of a particularly successful combination of a committed group of people making the best use of a versatile technology. The words of a 16-year-old who calls himself "Faceless" (because facelessness is a "metaphor of online existence") testify most strongly to the MUSE's effect: "I came here rather disinterested and confused and found most of my interests here, such as AI/robots and space. Also, English, philosphy, psychology...." Attributing the fact of his rapid learning in part to the supportive community that inhabits Micro, Faceless -- actually Nick Boutros logging in from Kansas City -- calls Micro a "Bildungsroman." "MicroMUSE was the playground on which I grew up, really." Faceless has followed up his virtual education with formal classroom work: He first "built 4 MUSE robots...while learning the C [programming language] to do it basically along the way from people on Micro and by simply playing around. That got me pretty interested in programming. I just finished a C++ class at the local community college, in fact, which I'm sure I never would have taken if it weren't for MUSE."

Things are, however, changing fast for MUDs both educational and not. For one thing, there is a desire for simplied programming that is being answered in a couple of ways. For the Phoenix group, the answer has been to turn away from MUSE software. Many Longview children had succeeded in building themselves elaborate homes on MariMUSE despite the fact that MUSE is notoriously abstruse. The move to the object-oriented MOO environment housed at PARC's labs means, however, that there will be more time for other kinds of learning. Hughes told me that they are also watching the development of Amy Bruckman's MOOSE code very closely. Everyone hopes for the success of MOOSE, in which the command-line language and programming language will be one and the same. Bruckman, who does not necessarily look like someone who would program "a huge, chubby, cuddly, fuzzy bear" named Boo Boo, calls MUSE programming language "God-awful." Boo Boo, one of the first objects Bruckman has created in MOOSE, is a showpiece bear who blushes scarlet and rolls on the ground when you tickle him.

"We cannot hope to achieve...very high standards if our children keep using a Number 2 pencil and our teachers keep using the blackboard and a ditto sheet. It will be absolutely impossible to give a world-class education to every American child without ...these new information tools." These words, spoken last year by education secretary Richard Riley, creates a new pressure. After all, teachers and parents face certain risks as well as advantages in giving kids access to internet resources. Hughes sees the educational MUDs of the future as a solution. Acting as "virtual anchors" from which kids would be able get the information they need without leaving, the home MUD would give kids access and, at the same time, selectively filter information. "We could block out Web sites we don't want them to access" she explained. "We've got to protect them and at the same time give them the skills so they can access."

Other changes in VR, however, will mostly likely lift us, for better or worse, out of a described the old-fashioned way, in words. Steven Spielberg, in conjunction with a small Knowledge Adventure spin-off company called KA Worlds, for example, is now putting the finishing touches on Starbright World, a 3-D visual environment for kids in hospitals. Spielberg, who waddled around as ET in the demo, has funded this interactive cartoon space entirely as a charitable enterprise. Rob Schmults of KA World, who claims to have learned more on the playground himself than in the classroom, said that, choosing or even drawing their own avatars, kids will learn through primarily by playing: "The main goal is to give the children a sense of being with other kids -- of playing, communicating, and socializing with real people... exactly what their illnesses are robbing them of." It remains to be seen, however, what kinds of educational applications, commercial or not, such visual environments will have for kids whose primary need is not contact with other children -- since, in a non-text-based environment, no longer will kids be compelled to be careful spellers, for example, lest the machine refuse their commands.

There is also the question of money. If it is really true (and this is not established) that the American Child would not be capable of prospering and competing with only a number 2 pencil in hand, the elaboration of current technologies does not bode well for the future of this democracy unless a lot more money gets funneled into education. A few schools have the money to get their kids up-to-the-minute tech. Others have enough trouble getting their hands on the basics even without having to think about locating machines powerful enough to handle 3-D. Barry Kort has to salvage the computers he distributes to classrooms around the Boston area. Everyone on MicroMUSE works for free. Aside from a very limited Phoenix College budget, the Pueblo folks have to rely on a few grants like the ARPA one, and donations of equipment from local businesses.

Secretary Riley's vision of every school kid supplied with free equipment and Internet access should also include funding for pedagogical research. Creating well-informed, technologically-sophisticated citizens is not only a question of putting a terminal on every desk. We should take advantage of the breathing-room new media opens up in traditional education to rethink the goals and assumptions of contemporary pedagogical methodologies. Trials need to be run and questions asked, such as: should some programming skills, as Amy Bruckman claimed, be considered part of basic literacy? What about a 24-hour classroom?

For now, we have to content ourselves with the idea that the hard-working educators of Micro and Pueblo have had very positive, if not yet totally documented, results. This success became poignantly clear to me when, in Phoenix, one boy started sobbing in the middle of class, demanding to get back on MariMUSE. He was frustrated with a PuebloMOO command language that did not respond in the way he was used to, and was probably also experiencing trauma at being cut off from his former virtual home. Only when Jim Walters came over and showed him patiently how, on the MOO, it was now possible to create cool objects like a car that moves from place to place did the kid perk up finally and stop crying.

Jessica Chalmers is a freelance writer affiliated with New York University.

See also "Bring a Candle, Not a Sparkler" by Barry Kort.