Information Ecologies

Nardi and O’Day (Information Ecologies) use, as a case study, a MOO-like environment called “Pueblo” used in an elementary school for poor students.

It sounds like the kids are just MOOing, but there is much more at work than that. When the kids use the text-based role-playing, world-building game, they’re really writing, but in a much more rich and meaningful way than the traditional “write a paper, hand it in to the teacher” model:

When participants create descriptions like the one Starlight wrote for her palace, they add to the ambiance of the virtual world. Participants are motivated to write well because of the enjoyment they give to themselves and others – they can create experiences for others who visit their creations.
As Jo Talazus, Longview’s principal, says, “This is a far cry from `put your papers in the basket on the desks.'” It is vastly different from preparing an assignment for a teacher (an audience of one) who is expected to grade the work, rather than enjoy it.

Howard Rheingold also writes about Pueblo. with some statistics to back up the success of the methodology:

Elementary school students find college-level mentors in the virtual world who show them how to build their own worlds, and encourage them to read and write expressively and skillfully. Longview students learned social skills, and they learned that college is a possible future for them. Then some of the students, most of whom are from low-income families, can help their parents learn to read and write, using the same technology. The response was so overwhelming that the project had to add higher-speed access lines and more access points.

As for practical educational impact, according to the first study, Hughes and Walters report: “Students participating in the summer program made 1.06 years gain on a standardized reading test as compared to 0.58 for those not in the program. Students who were able to access the system for 360 minutes during the fall of 1994 averaged 2.4 years of gain from 1993 to 1994 on standardized reading tests.”

This supports the value of the sort of open-ended, text-based role playing games that Nora and her friends play. And it’s a fabulous demonstration of the sort of evolution that software and computational systems are capable of if you recognize that the groups of humans using the system, rather than just the computer itself or the computer and a single user.