One of the major developments in the field of computer assisted language learning (CALL) in recent years has been the emergence of MOOs -- virtual learning environments (VLES) that bring together groups of learners for real-time text-based communication. This review will focus on a description of SchMOOze University, a World Wide Web-based ESL MOO.
SchMOOze University web site was created in 1995 and is maintained at City University New York. The purpose of this MOO is to enable language learners to participate in authentic real-time communication over the internet. A screen capture of the SchMOOze University gateway page is reproduced below:
Click on the illustration for a larger view.
The SchMOOze University web site provides both teachers and learners with access to information regarding MOO-based learning. The web site contains links to Help pages that provide information to learners on the use of commands required to communicate and move within the SchMOOze University environment. At the present time support is available for learners in English and Japanese; however, assistance in various other languages is now being created. The web site also provides a link to MOO-based student assignments and other web sites related to VLE-based learning.
The web site provides two points of access for entry to the SchMOOze environment. Both require Java-enabled web browsers such as the later versions of Netscape's Communicator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The link "Visit SchMOOze" provides learners with a Java-based web interface that provides a telnet connection to the SchMOOze MOO. A screen capture of this interface is reproduced below:
Learners may communicate and input commands by entering text in the text box provided at the bottom of the screen.
An alternative interface is provided by the link "see SchMOOze with Encore" which provides learners with access to an multimedia version of the MOO:
The EnCore multimedia interface enables learners to both input text and use hypertext links for navigation. Both points of entry require learners to complete a log-in protocol, where users are requested to provide a name and brief self-description. Learners are also offered the option of logging on anonymously as a guest.
The designers of the schMOOze MOO have adopted the learning metaphor of a virtual university. An online virtual campus has been created, which consists of a number of virtual buildings and rooms where learners may gather to conduct online discourse or collaborative-learning projects. A screen capture of the SchMOOze University campus is reproduced below:
The use of MOO-based virtual learning environments raises a number of technical and pedagogical issues.
The Schmooze MOO environment provides learners with a reasonably robust system; however, on occasion, technical problems may arise. In the author's experience, bugs in the Java-based version of schMOOze do appear from time to time. In addition, access to the SchMOOze environment may be terminated if large numbers of users are logged on to the system at the same time. However the reliability of the schMOOze environment has been improving steadily over the past few years. From a pedagogical perspective, educators considering using SchMOOze in their classes are advised to conduct extensive orientation activities to familiarize learners with the MOO concept. Orientation should focus on introducing students to the conventions of network discourse and the use of MOO commands. Such preparation will lower levels of "technostress" among learners unfamiliar with virtual-learning environments.
SchMOOze University provides learners with many of the positive features of MOO-based learning. These include the opportunity to participate in real-time, meaning-focused TL discourse (Shield et al. 1999). Contemporary SLA research (Pica 1994) indicates that this kind of interaction is one of the primary prerequisites for acquisition. Participation in real-time discourse may push learners to produce the kinds of interactional modifications that are held to promote L2 acquisition (Long 1996). The literature also highlights the motivation effects of network-based learning (Schwienhorst 1997, Shield et al, 1999, and Warschauer1998). Moreover, by providing learners with the opportunity to examine their linguistic output on-screen as it is produced, virtual environments such as SchMOOze University may facilitate the development of metacognitive skills such as noticing, and a focus on form (Lamy & Goodfellow 1999, Warschauer 1998). From a constructivist perspective, a further positive feature of this MOO is the ability of VLES to provide learners with a forum for collaborative task-based learning projects (Schwienhorst 1997, 1998). In addition, the international nature of MOO-based learning may foster the development of learners' cross-cultural knowledge and understanding (Peterson in press). MOO-based learning also overcomes many of the traditional constraints of time and distance that are a limiting feature of traditional learning environments.
In conclusion, SchMOOze University offers users a stimulating learning environment that offers new opportunities for language learning.
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