MOOville: The Writing Project's Own "Private Idaho"

Dr. Michael Conlon, Director of Information Resources University of Florida Gainesville, Fla.
When people say that computer technology has become an essential tool for teaching college-level writing, theyíre right -- but often for the wrong reasons. Cheerleaders for high technology are quick to cite the word processing programs that make revising and rewriting so easy, and the features for correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling that students can use when theyíre online.

What people who praise computers often forget is that thereís a lot more to writing than revisions, periods and commas, or subject-verb agreement. For students to learn to write, they must also understand the high-level thinking, as well as the mechanics, that college-level writing requires.

For students to appreciate the need for thinking as they write, computers must be more than the high-powered tools envisioned by technophiles. Computers must enable teachers to create an environment that introduces students to the need for organizing, clarifying and expanding their thoughts before narrowing their focus to the mechanics of writing.

In theory, this is how computer technology can realize its full potential as an aide and stimulant to the writing process. But can a major university realistically expect a computerized environment -- no matter how sophisticated and inviting -- to provide students with the understanding and the enthusiasm they need to work at all levels of the writing process and substantially improve their writing?

Grant Offer Starts It All

What triggered these thoughts and questions at the University of Florida was an offer made in late 1993 by IBM Corp. to apply for a Shared University Research (SUR) grant. If our request was approved, IBM would donate sophisticated computer hardware and software for the university to use with students, for whatever subject the equipment was needed most.

When we applied, we specified that the grant would be used to teach undergraduate courses in English literature and composition. Apparently, our request was unusual; most universities use their SUR grants to teach science and engineering courses. IBM approved the grant and in so doing, set in motion a complex and fascinating project.

IBM donated 186 workstations for students and instructors, along with 12 servers. The servers would hold studentsí writing files, manage applications such as word processing, and provide access for students to Floridaís state-wide library system and the Internet. In early 1994, the University of Floridaís College of Liberal Arts and Sciences began to prepare five computer-based classrooms for teaching freshmen and sophomore students in the fall semester, less than six months away.

The logistics of this effort, called The Writing Project, gave us pause: Each semester 2,500 freshmen and sophomores would take introductory composition and literature courses from more than 100 instructors. Could we use high technology with so many students and still maintain the small class sizes and personal interaction with instructors that we believe are vital for high-quality instruction?

More important, could technology help us make English literature and composition come alive for students in ways that traditional lecture-and-discussion methods of teaching could not?

'Techno-Phobes' Are Welcome

From the start, The Writing Project was designed to supplement, not to replace, more traditional approaches to teaching English literature and composition. Still, we needed to compare, as objectively as possible, the two approaches.

To do this, first we decided that students who loved technology could not be allowed to select the computer-based sections, while students who feared technology could not avoid it by selecting the traditional sections. Freshmen and sophomores were placed randomly in classes with one approach or the other.

Next, when the college asked the English department to select instructors for The Writing Project, we specifically asked for teachers who were comfortable working with computers. ìNo techno-phobes, please,î we said, ìor this project will have no chance of succeeding.î

The English department ignored our request and did something much smarter. For the Writing Project, the department selected 18 graduate assistants who had scored the highest on student and faculty-mentor evaluations, on the theory that enthusiasm and dedication to teaching meant more to the projectís success than technology expertise.

These teachers dutifully spent several weeks learning the new technology and preparing assignments for their classes in the fall. Again, for comparison purposes, all 18 instructors taught traditional as well as computer-based classes. Each class had no more than 30 students. 

MOOville Becomes Real

Two classrooms were ready for The Writing Project in fall 1994, and another three for the following spring. Classrooms were designed so that students could not ignore or avoid the computers, even if that was their initial instinct.

Every desk had a computer workstation, and all coursework revolved around it. The aim of the project was to create an environment that would encourage students to do their classwork, alone or in groups, largely through writing rather than traditional classroom discussion.

As we had hoped, the graduate assistants chosen to teach in The Writing Project devised many clever ways to engage students in expressing their thoughts about literature -- and about themselves -- through writing.

Through their workstations, for example, students had access to an online, virtual ìspaceî in which they could carve out their own private areas for online discussions in small groups. This MOO (multi-user, object-oriented) space quickly became known as MOOville. Before classwork for the semester began, groups of five or six students would describe and then build their workspaces in MOOville.

When an instructor assigned a short play for students to read, instead of discussing it by talking face to face with each other, each group of students would go to its workspace in MOOville and conduct their discussions online. Students were not allowed to address each other verbally. At their workstations, students had to type in their ideas for other group members to read and respond to; they also had to respond in return.

At first it seemed eerie to enter a classroom and see 30 heads bent over their screens, silently typing away. But instructors soon discovered that these online discussions had several advantages over the traditional, lecture-and-discussion approach to teaching English literature and composition.

Traditional discussions tend to be dominated by a few students, whom instructors understandably favor and call on. Also, students who want to respond to a speakerís comments are affected (as we all are) by what they see and hear from that speaker. As a result, other, shyer students with opposing but equally worthwhile ideas may not challenge someone who speaks forcefully and with conviction. And all too often in traditional classroom discussions, a speakerís gender may encourage put-downs such as ìLeave it to a guy to come up with a dumb idea like that.î

In MOOville, the quality of an idea mattered most. Appearance and forcefulness were no longer barriers to participating in discussions. Instructors found that more students got actively involved in these online discussions.

As they typed their responses during online discussions, students saw their writing being ìpublishedî right in front of their eyes. Students could then see their writing put to good and immediate use. As students refined their ideas and opinions, the plays and novels they were discussing became real to many students for perhaps the first time in a classroom.

'Performing' in Virtual Space

Another exercise in literature classes required that students form into small groups to write a short, three-act play, based on a situation provided by the instructor. It could be a stormy night on an English moor or a smoke-filled bar in modern America.

Again, the groups entered MOOville to discuss the themes their plays should convey. Each student then adopted a character whose background, motives and dialogue could be developed, alone and with other group members, in MOOville.

Students were given three weeks to prepare their stories and characters. Once students were in character, they wrote a complete, three-act script, writing, refining and ad-libbing the action and the dialogue while online in MOOville. Each play was presented to other students, first as an online ìdress rehearsalî and then live in front of the class with costumes and props.

Before any play was performed live, each group had to submit a final, polished script that was properly punctuated and grammatically correct.

Susan-Marie Birkenstock, the instructor who developed both of these exercises, says that she has encountered many students who can write a grammatically correct paper but cannot express or organize their thoughts. She believes that in MOOville, students are learning that although mastering the mechanics is important, writing well also requires a great deal of creative thinking.

Through The Writing Project, students can also enter the mushrooming network of electronic discourse on the World Wide Web. Theyíve discovered how to contribute to large and cooperatively written electronic documents generically called hypertext. Through hypertext, writers often use electronic footnotes and pointers that refer readers to related information.

As students learn to navigate the Web, theyíre putting valuable research skills to work. Also, students learn how knowledge can be organized in fields such as law, business, engineering and the sciences. We at the university believe that mastering hypertext is vital for students because it will soon be a major pathway of communication among professionals in many fields.

Ease of Management Cuts Costs

The equipment donated to The Writing Project was designed to be used in a ìclient-serverî setting. All software for managing the system and serving the students is stored on IBM RS/6000 servers, along with studentsí individual writing files and online discussions in MOOville. The ìclientsî are the 150 workstations used by the students who must work through the server to use the systemís many features. Unlike personal computers, these workstations have no hard drives or floppy disk drives.

This client-server arrangement has made the computer system much easier to manage than a PC-based system with similar capabilities. PCs are designed to be customized by individual users, which is fine for the business world but all wrong for classrooms where the same workstation will be used by many different students every day. Because students must work through the server, they can call up all the system capabilities they need from any workstation in any classroom.

This client-server arrangement is also more cost effective than equipping classrooms with PCs. To make fair comparisons, we used the retail cost for acquiring and maintaining the IBM hardware donated to The Writing Project, along with the costs of software acquisition and maintenance, room preparation, audiovisual equipment, creating the computer network, and employing two, full-time system administrators. Calculated over five years, the costs of our client-server model were 22% less than costs for a PC-based system with the same or similar features.

Better Attendance, More Enthusiasm

The Writing Project is now entering its third year. Itís too soon to quantify with accuracy how the computer-based approach is helping students become better writers.

However, we can say that compared to students taught in the universityís traditional English literature and composition classes, students in The Writing Project show more excitement and engagement in their work. In their levels of attentiveness and attendance, students in 80% of the computer-based sections have outscored students in traditional sections taught by the same instructors.

Instructors are just as enthused as students by The Writing Project. When the instructors were first chosen, only one third of them openly embraced the use of high technology in literature and composition classes. Another third were interested but had little experience with computers; the final third thought the whole project was unnecessary. But by the end of the second semester, 95% of all instructors asked to be placed in computer-equipped classrooms in the future.

To those who say that a subject as complicated as writing cannot be taught with computers, we say that it definitely can, especially when the computer becomes the gateway to an environment that draws students in and excites them about expressing themselves through writing.

Within such an environment, creative and enthusiastic teachers can bring to life the plays and novels that students might otherwise dismiss as old and dry and dead. And by directing students to express themselves through writing, teachers with high-tech support can guide students to experience firsthand the impact on others -- and the personal satisfaction -- that come from learning to write clearly and well.

Michael Conlon is Director of Information Resources for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville. E-mail: [email protected]

For more information on MOOville, see: 

Users with a telenet client can access MOOville as a guest at: 7777
where 7777 is the telenet port number.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.