Learner to Learner: A Forum for Learners of Japanese and Other Languages, Volume 3, Number 3, July-September 1995 (Japan)

Interview With a Cat: The computer MOO and ESL

by Michael Guest

A computer called Arthur sits in some anonymous lab in New Jersey, ticking silently away in the dark. Periodically, an ESL student or teacher from . . . somewhere on the globe - Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Australia, Singapore, France, England, wherever - keys an address into her own computer , and "logs in" to Arthur. Her message goes streaking off through telephone lines at the speed of light, half-way around the world to Arthur, who ticks imperceptibly once more and allows her to teleport in.

Arthur is the host computer for schMOOze University, an institution that exists in a "virtual reality" that is made from textual messages such as these, communicated via computers from all around the world. When say, Annie, "a cute girl" from Malaysia, logs into schMOOze, she assumes a virtual identity (takes control of a textual "character" or "avatar") inside a computer program (called a MOO) inside Arthur. Using her character - her virtual self - she can move about from place to place, from room to room inside the MOO, communicating with anyone else who has logged in, as though they are "real" characters existing in the same place and time; in a sense, they are.

To explain the acronym: MOO stands for "MUD Object Oriented." MUD, in turn, means "Multi-User Domain." Any number of different users are able to log into the communications program from remote sites. The "object orientation" of a MOO emphasizes the construction of the virtual world itself - a cyber-place with buildings, rooms, objects and inhabitants of various fascinating kinds - as a stimulating place for far-flung social intercourse.

Pozzo is my schMOOze avatar. He's an escapee from modernist theatre, upon whom I'd based hopes for a rather more inspiring new cyber-identity than he turned out to be, this "portly fellow with a prepossessing air, sporting a pink bowler." Of course, MOO characters don't need to be so boringly humanoid. The two founding "wizards" of schMOOze are Julie Falsetti, author of Getting Together: An ESL Conversation Book (Harcourt-Brace) and an instructor at the International English Language Institute of Hunter College, City University of New York, and Eric Schweitzer, a computer science instructor at Hunter. They manifest themselves in the MOO as, respectively, a "cool cat" named Mehitabel, and a roach named Archy, who counts himself amongst the MOO's wildlife.

Pozzo thought that conducting an interview might convey a little of the feel of schMOOze, as well as provide some edifying info. He donned a gonzo-style floral shirt purchased especially for the occasion and, heart in his mouth, electronically paged Mehitabel . . .

A message from Mehitabel in the Inner Office is incoming. She pages, "I am ready," at 2:11 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Page Mehitabel "May I come now?" Your message has been transmitted across the matrix and is now in the paws of the cat.

INNER OFFICE. A twin bed, small table and four chairs make up the furnishings of this 12' x 12' room. A sink and compact gas stove allow Mehitabel to cook some light meals while working late. Of course, what really sets this place as home is the espresso maker resting at the end of the counter by the sink. Mehitabel is here. Obvious exits: out and closet.

You have been moved by Mehitabel. Pozzo materializes out of thin air. Mehitabel says, "Hi."

The characters, rooms, objects, and messages that describe characters' entrances and exits, what they say and how they behave, are all composed by the individual "players": once thus defined, objective features become automated. MOOs have various applications in education, research and entertainment; but schMOOze is the first MOO devoted to English learning and cross-cultural interests.

Mehitabel says, "I became involved with MUDS about 5 years ago. At that time, they were very much underground and there was nothing 'educational' about them. However, from day one, I realized that they would be the perfect medium for students learning English, since all interaction is text based.
"One day I was browsing through USENET, a global computer bulletin-board system, and I came upon a message that read: Wanted established MOO run by experienced wizards. Our company will provide a home for your MOO. Even though schMOOze was just a dream, I wrote the man a letter. He liked my idea and gave us a machine."

So was schMOOze born: a high-tech but accessible learning facility, nurtured freely and generously by a community of user-learners with one interest or another in ESL. "This is the true communication gap activity," says Mehitabel, "except that the goal is devised by the learners themselves." In the spirit of the internet, all are equal and self-determining: from Tommy, an intermediate student from Hong Kong, who likes tennis, to Conan the Grammarian, who may at any time descend unannounced, gently but firmly to rectify your split infinitives.

If they wish, users may add to schMOOze's repertoire of computerized English learning features, which is continually being upgraded. Present facilities include a games room with language games like Scrabble, Hangman and Concentration, a library with electronic books and MOO television to tutor users in the skills of MOO programming, a grammar maze, and a virtual cafeteria run by a gruff robot by the name of Ed. Occasionally an ESL teacher will bring in a group of students, and set them such tasks as interviewing the characters they come across, or exploring schMOOze in search of project information. Members have organised role playing exercises and a virtual treasure hunt. "Anything you can imagine can be programmed here," Mehitabel says.

SchMOOze's foundation in high-tech, computer mediated communications may in itself be motivating; but the new possibilities it offers for humancommunication are the real key to the MOO's success as a facility for English learning. Indeed, a few people who met at first inside schMOOze have gone on to meet and develop their friendships in "real life," when travelling abroad.

Mehitabel says, "Archy and I have both met a number of NET (Internet) people IRL (in real life). All of them have been extremely outgoing, vivacious types. AND big talkers - just the opposite of the withdrawn, computer-nerd stereotype.

"Most players here have gotten to know each other. SchMOOze is not such a huge place. Off the top of my head, I think we have 300 players. Most of the learning is done by players helping each other.

"I have definitely seen people's English improve since they first came here. I am proud of the fact that I have taught half of Asia to 'sigh.' Plus, I feel I am making a great contribution to world peace by showing people how to 'hug.'"

Pozzo laughs. Pozzo hugs Mehitabel then coughs and blushes.

Mehitabel says, "Seriously, I think a lot of communication takes place here because of the anonymity. One cannot 'lose face.' There was one teacher, a Brit in Japan, who had a student speak to him here who had never spoken to him in RL."

Pozzo says, "Good point. It's kind of conversational, but really halfway between conversation and text - you're a bit protected and have more time to prepare what you want to say conversationally. It's good practice."

Mehitabel says, "Yes, someone once told me here that I am very patient. It is hard to type fast enough to be impatient."

Arthur "lagged" as he occasionally does, for one technological reason or another, taking a little extra time to get the messages through. Pozzo took pity on Julie Falsetti at 3.00 a.m or so in New York City, and the cat and the little fat guy made their farewells.

Mehitabel goes out.

You head home
An elegant but casual abode, with Persian rugs flung haphazardly about the floor.
Obvious exits: out.