MariMuse: Online Fantasy Worlds Benefit Inner City School

By Howard Rheingold

If you believe MUDs are nothing more than fantasy worlds...

where college students waste their time on the Internet, chatting with each other in verbally medieval disguise, consider the text-based virtual world known as Pueblo that seems to be having a real impact on at-risk children at an elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona.

MUDs are a software technology for creating group narratives on the Internet by writing textual descriptions of settings and characters. Social interaction takes place within the context of these textual narratives: you stop to talk with another character, who might be represented as a knight on horseback, as you, a powerful wizard, pursue your quest of some grail. Many people, mostly college students, have found these fantasy worlds to be avenues of do-it-yourself entertainment, written creative expression, and social interaction, all at the same time. Some students have been known to spend their time obsessively MUDding, sometimes to the detriment of their real-world activities.

Any activity that requires hours of reading and writing and creative composition, and that entails social interaction as well, might be valuable to someone who could harness the addictive quality of MUDding for the purposes of an educational curriculum. Since 1993, two visionary educators, Phoenix College faculty members Billie Hughes and Jim Walters, together with faculty and students of Phoenix Longview elementary school, have been using MUDs to teach reading, writing, and mathematics. Students are lining up to learn. And preliminary tests show significant improvements in standardized test-scores. Equally important is the way the experiment that started as MariMUSE and is now called Pueblo has been integrated into the community, and designed according to the community's needs from the beginning of the project.

Hughes and Walters describe their initial experiment: "Life in MariMUSE feels like participating in a story as it unfolds, where people who are on-line together create narratives on the fly. The text-based virtual world consists of characters and settings. Participants use words to describe themselves and to create and describe places and things of their own invention. One sixth grade class chose to recreate ancient Egypt. Students researched different aspects of Egypt and constructed it. Now students can take their online friends for a tour up the Nile and can explore a pyramid together. A third grade class created different Native American villages, while another class created a human skeleton. The students own these creations and take pride in the accuracy and details of their textual construction."

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."

Project participants have written a number of articles and reports on the project.. Pueblo is one good place to look if you are searching for the right way to use the Internet educationally: turn the right students and teachers loose with the right kind of tools and let them build something of their own. Provide ways for students to use computer networks to learn something they take pride in knowing. That's one of the better ways to use the Net educationally, as an adjunct and amplifier to creative teachers and motivated students, not as a substitute.