A Virtual Learning Community

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Building intentional networked learning communities

A presentation to the American Anthropological Association, November, 1995, Washington, D.C.
Daniel Bobrow, Vicki O'Day, Vijay Saraswat (Xerox PARC)

Billie Hughes, James Walters (Phoenix College)

We are a group of educational researchers, computer scientists, and practicing teachers who are growing a networked learning community around students at Longview, an inner-city elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. Our community --- with members scattered across the United States --- is organized around a text-based virtual world (a MUD) called Pueblo. The focus of our community is to provide a safe, powerful and rich virtual environment for learners of all ages (focused around the 900 school-children at Longview) --- an environment in which they can interact, design, build, play, study, work on class projects, take tests and just simply have fun.

In the community we are simultaneously designers, builders, participants, observers and evaluators. Though not anthropologists by training, we are convinced that there are important and interesting phenomena in the design and evolution of such intentional virtual communities to be studied using anthropological frameworks and techniques. This paper is an account of what we are doing --- the kind of community we want to foster, the intentional technical and socio-cultural design decisions we have made, and the processes we have put in place --- and some preliminary observations of ongoing activity.

More importantly, the paper is an invitation and request for help in understanding the questions that should be posed, and the frameworks in which answers can be stated. We hope to stimulate conversations that can enrich our understanding of the conceptual, theoretical, socio-cultural, educational and ethical aspects of intentional network learning communities.

What is a MUD?

A MUD is a world to visit on-line. People can connect, travel from ``place'' to ``place'' on the MUD, manipulate objects found in these places, create new artifacts to be left behind, and hold conversations with other people. The descriptive power of the text and the continuously-unfolding narrative give participants a strong impression of actual presence.

Here is a constructed example to show what a brief interaction in the MUD might look like.


Calvin enters a light and airy forest.

A squirrel scampers on the ground nearby. An owl hoots from somewhere high overhead. There is a mushroom patch with a particularly large mushroom in the middle. Hobbes is perched on top of the mushroom.

Hobbes says, "Sit down by me! I haven't seen you in awhile."

Calvin types: sit on mushroom.

Calvin and Hobbes are sitting on the mushroom.

Hobbes smiles.

Hobbes says, "Look at that squirrel!"

Calvin types: look at squirrel.

The squirrel comes over and lays a nut in your lap.

Calvin types: take nut.

Calvin now is holding a nut.


This scenario illustrates a number of things about this world. First, there are other (real) people about, and you can converse. You can express gestures or emotions (such as, "Hobbes smiles").

You can interact with objects, like the mushroom, or the nut, and autonomous agents, such as the squirrel. If you leave the world and come back another day, the people you encounter might be different, but the space and objects will be pretty much the same.

But this is not a world just to visit --- it is a world you can change. You build and describe places of your own and populate them with objects you create. You can give the objects behavior, so they will react to input from people and other objects. You own these objects --- you can keep them in your private domain, bring them to public areas, or give them to friends. Being an owner gives you certain rights --- for instance, others may not modify your objects without your permission.


We turn now to a discussion of the Pueblo community.

The people.

We currently have about 500 community members, a third of whom are children. (The others are researchers, college students, teachers, family members, colleagues.) This school-year we hope to bring into Pueblo seventeen Longview classes.

Stewardship of the project primarily rests with a core group of about 20 people from PARC, Longview, Phoenix College and the local community. We expect a critical factor in the sustained success of Pueblo to be involvement of the local community as participants and adult mentors.

We have started developing partnerships with MECHA, the Hispanic student organization, and senior citizen groups.

The values.

From the beginning we have explicitly articulated cultural goals and values. The community is based on respect for individuals and their work and the importance of learning as an activity. We have sought to promote the valuing of inquiry, cooperation and pride in learning, and pride in the quality of what individuals produce. Cross-age, cross-grade, cross-institutional collaboration is encouraged. Learning from and with kids is emphasized. In many respects, kids are considered full-fledged members of the community. In particular, kids are expected to build for themselves --- adults do not build for them. Kids have the same programming privileges as adults. We expect community members to help each other when they can. Collaboration is the norm.

Expectations of members of the Pueblo community are set up through informal discussion, and through the Welcome letter. The letter reads in part:

Welcome to Pueblo! Pueblo is a learning community. Everyone here learns and helps others learn.

We have fun while learning.

We record observations and lessons learned.

We share and discuss what we have learned about learning.

We are learning how to learn in this virtual space.

Pueblo embraces a set of values that promote a learning environment suitable for learners of all ages. The values and concomitant rights and responsibilities are listed below.


Learner responsibilities

Learner rights:

Hand-in-hand with rights and responsibilities are consequences. The values in the community are enforced by the core community members.

Technical foundations.

Pueblo is based on a standard MUD server (LambdaMOO). As with other MUDs, Pueblo thus supports certain basic technical affordances. People are represented explicitly in the space. People can create objects which are permanent. People can own these objects. People can communicate with each other and describe objects using text. People can program behaviors for objects. Different MUDs tailor the ``blank slate'' of these generic technical affordances --- reification of people, permanence of objects, ownership, text-based communication, malleability --- in different ways to support their own metaphor-level creation of persona, places, property and power and social interactions. Indeed, current MUD server technology already supports a very wide diversity of ``communities'' (loosely speaking) --- from the tribal role-playing games of places such as MystHaven, to the sophisticated (if unruly) post-modern world of LambdaMOO, to the professional spaces of BioMOO and MediaMOO, to the adult-oriented night-life spaces of Nails and AfterFive.

Community Llife in Pueblo.

Persona is perhaps the primary affordance of MUD-based systems: a sense of self-constructed identity for participants. A player is represented in the virtual world by a player object, various attributes of which can be customized. Because other people know you through the descriptions you present in the virtual world, you have strong influence on how others perceive you ... what you want to project is not diluted by your gender, how you look, the color of your skin, your age, your handicaps etc. Separate mechanisms are provided to allow players to describe themselves as they are in the real world.

The notion of place is strongly supported in Pueblo, as in other MUDs. Pueblo is thought of as a small town (with its own main street, theater etc.), nestled between the Pueblan mountains and a lagoon. Structurally, students are linked to their classroom, and classrooms to their teacher. A virtual Longview linking together the classrooms is under construction. Places can be used to organize activities. The ambiance and tools in each place encourage different kinds of activities. For example, brainstorming is especially easy in a brainstorming room because these rooms have tools to record and organize ideas.

The notion of property is enabled by objects are permanent, potentially sharable, and belong to participants. Others in the community cannot change or remove the places you've added or the things you've made. This provides local control and a source of public recognition for your creations. Crucially no distinction is made between adults and children on this dimension --- children can program objects, and own them in exactly the same ways as adults do. Teachers own their classrooms and have the ability to change ownership of objects owned by their students to support collaborative projects.

Power, in most MUDs, rests in the hands of ``wizards'' who have access to special computational capabilities (e.g., to expel participants from the space, or change their passwords). Traditionally wizards are hackers. In Pueblo, power rests in the hands of the teachers and the core group, rather than in the hands of hackers who hold the technical expertise.

Places support the perception of co-presence and social interaction. If you're in the same place with other people, you are presented with their description, you can hear what they say, see their gestures, and watch them interact with each other and the objects in that place. Communication with people who are not in the same location is also supported with mechanisms parallel to telephones and CB radios. Groups of people sometimes create private communication channels to converse with each other. Teachers and the students in a classroom are on their own channel.


We turn next to make observations of actual life in Pueblo. These observations are from participants in the community who have vested interests in the success of the project. They are not grounded in ethnographic processes and not intended to be objective, analytical accounts of the project. Instead, this are descriptions of what we have experienced within this community organized around dimensions that we feel are important.

These stories emerge as legends in the community --- legends used by the community that build support for the continuation of the project and stories that raise awareness of areas for research. Often these stories are about projects students have developed that have stretched their thinking, students whose behavior has changed in profound ways, or faraway mentors who devote extraordinary resources to their on-line student friends. To the extent possible, we have organized these stories around themes of persona, place, property, and social interactions enabled by participation in a inter-generational community.


Although in Pueblo participants are aware of each other's real-life identity, students as well as adults may assume alternate personae that allow them to take on new identities and assume new social roles. These personae appear to affect both students perceptions of themselves and social interactions.

For example, a young, shy Native American girl was extremely reserved and non-communicative in class. She rarely played with other children at recess and would not talk with her teachers. She refused to answer questions in class, even when called on. After a few week in MUSE, she assumed the persona of a Jaguar. Immediately upon selecting her identity she paged others with, "Jaguar roars" a communication that surprised adults with who she interacted. After a few months in MUSE, she started to initiate conversations in MUSE. Teachers report her persona appeared to transfer to her life in the classroom. She played at recess with newly made friends and she talked with teachers and others both in the classroom and in the hallways. This remarkable case has been reported by teachers in more detail in studies accessible from http://pc2.pc.maricopa.edu.

Social Interaction

Personae also seem to affect social communications. As teachers and student assume personae, they develop different ways of communicating with each other. Students in a 6th grade classroom call their teacher by her formal name, Ms. Olson. One of her students upon determining her persona paged her on Pueblo with "Hello Ms. Olson errr Bat-Girl ... he he he!" This reflects the nature of the changes in relationships and a flattening of hierarchical real-life relationships.

While groups of students were working together in a computer lab over the summer, we saw that the questions they posed to one another through on-line queries were often answered in face-to-face interactions. We have also seen evidence of the reverse - interactions which seem to begin mid-stream in the MUD, carried over from a real-life conversation or observation. One alert teacher sometimes sensed frustration or lack of direction as she watched her students' real-life facial expressions and approached them casually inside the virtual world, with a low-risk offer of assistance. Our perceptions are that the communications of virtual space can augment and enhance communications between teachers and children.

Children engage in multiple channels of communication, providing them access to different perspectives and different ways to obtain information. One can always choose to ask a question of someone who is known to be particularly knowledgeable, or one can advertise the question on one of the more public chat channels. When questions and answers are handled publicly, it is possible for observers to pick up useful information through peripheral attention to the exchanges. Also, less expert people can test their own tentative helping skills when they see a question they know something about, and their answers can be augmented by those of more expert listeners if they turn out to be incomplete or wrong.

We have seen that people do sometimes develop sustained partnerships, sometimes between two peers (usually adults) and sometimes between adults and children. Ladybug, a teacher of the gifted in New York, regularly mentors children in Phoenix.

Such availability of geographically remote community members with different interests, background and experiences, seems to have a profound affect on students. Running-star, a Native American boy, first used a MUD the summer before his 6th grade year. Prior to his MUD experience, his teachers characterized him as unmotivated and very quiet. He rarely did his homework and showed little interest in school. Running-star was typical of Native American boys in the school who are at high risk of dropping out of school.

However, the summer experience in a MUD seemed to have changed Running-star. In the MUD, he communicated with people from all over the world and learned that he had potential to do what he wanted. He made several friends, including a veterinarian and an aerospace engineer. These adults took an interest in Running-star and his work and began communicating with him. He came to 6th grade ready to learn. Teachers sensed he had a greater sense of power and achievement and was not afraid to try. In past years Running-star never spoke up in class, now he was participating, speaking out, questioning. He completed assignments and his grades improved.


Through building, participants create their persistent spaces that serve as their homes. These homes and spaces give way to interesting interactions between participant and space. For some participants, it seems that a house is an expression of personal style and ambition. Students' homes have names accompanied by textual descriptions that suggest what it feels like to be in these places.

One young user who had in previous years lived in a homeless shelter, created a vast mansion in MariMUSE. She wrote elaborate descriptions of rooms that included swimming pools and butlers. She created rooms for each of her siblings as well as a playroom which she filled with toys. Many of the other children from homes of limited financial means appear to construct things that they value in real life. Their homes include swimming pools, and some even have basketball courts where they can imitate their favorite Phoenix Suns player. The persistence and public nature of the MUD enable them to be someone and own property they could not dream of in real life.

A home in the MUD also seems to become a real home base, a place to retreat. Students this summer worked on their group projects, we noticed that when they hit a stumbling block and became frustrated, they often went to their on-line homes and tinkered for awhile, perhaps creating a new toaster for the kitchen or a sofa for the living room, or just moving through the rooms to experience and revise the descriptions they had written earlier. Having a home appeared to provide a "place" students could retreat, a place to center themselves.


This is a world rich in data in need of understanding, interpretation and analysis. We currently log students' on-line interactions enabling us to see everything from each students' point of view. We can review the complete narrative text of each student's experiences, including conversations, movement from one place to another, and so on, to see a session unfold through each student's eyes. We are video-taping in the classroom to correlate real-life interactions with logs. We are developing mechanisms to record the history of changes to MUD objects so that past state can be reconstructed. Teachers are encouraged to document cases of students now we are encouraging the systematic reporting of such studies.

The affordances of this virtual world support exploration of new worlds of experience, and a practice arena for new behaviors and skills in a safe environment. Right now we are developing this space using our experience in computational and educational environments. We encourage the anthropological community to help us find frameworks for understanding the social phenomena we are seeing and experiencing. We want to become aware of models of how such reflection can be used to continue the development of successful learning communities.