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Computer Networks and Informal Science Education
Computer networks have created new possibilities for information interchange, peer dialogues, and instruction. This paper briefly lists the well-established systems for network-mediated learning, and describes some of the newer and more innovative developments.
Electronic mail dramatically enhances the ability of people to communicate quickly and efficiently without the delay and overhead of surface mall. Modern E-Mail systems support the inclusion of non-text computer documents such as binary data files along with the regular text message. The ability to quote portions of an incoming message in a reply makes multiple parallel ongoing dialogues practical, since the discussants need not memorize the current context of each dialogue in progress. Electronic mailing lists and newsletters allow a coordinator to keep all subscribers abreast of transactions on a project or discussion topic of mutual interest. To some extent, such electronic communication has lessened the need for printed newsletters and professional society transactions while opening the channel to wider numbers of contributors and a more informal style of interchange.
While one might expect electronic mail to be used primarily by academics and professionals, this author has, for over a year, exchanged E- Mail with a 7-year old boy in Atlanta. With an average of 2 letters per week, the transcripts of my correspondence with Abram now fill a 1-inch binder. The format of the exchange is a Socratic Dialogue, with the intent of engaging Abram in exploration of scientific material. Abram’s literacy and communication skills have improved dramatically while his scholarship, attitude toward school, and self- confidence have progressed from problematic to exemplary. That computer networks can enable a professional scientist to reach into the home and life of an American child is a testament to the largely untapped potential of network technology.
Electronic Bulletin Boards
Bulletin boards, such as the Netnews system on Internet, enable individuals who do not already know each other to enter into ongoing discussions on any of several hundred technical, political, social, or recreational topics. The global electronic village emerges from this technology, and bridges gaps of time, distance, and subject-matter expertise. It is a folk theorem that one can find an overnight answer to almost any technical question by posting to an appropriate Netnews newsgroup. To some extent, electronic bulletin boards have lessened the need to attend professional society meetings and conferences to keep abreast of the latest thinking within a technical discipline.
Network File Servers
Many universities and institutions maintain publicly accessible file servers on the Internet. Using widely available protocols such as FTP (File Transfer Protocol), users can locate and retrieve archived documents and computer software from the many electronic libraries on the network Materials with educational and research value are routinely archived and disseminated through the computer networks. Productivity and entertainment software of limited commercial value may also be obtained through public computer networks.
Virtual Realities, Virtual Communities, and CyberNets
Through computer modeling it becomes possible to build virtual worlds in which the user interacts with and experiences a synthetic environment. On the high-tech end of the spectrum are virtual realities which embed a single user in a realistic 3-D visual scene in which one can move about and manipulate objects. On the low end are the interactive text adventures in which a single user explores a make- believe world and puzzles through various obstacles and challenges to reach a goal. Network technology has begun to transform such single player worlds into multi-player virtual realities in which the user encounters and interacts with the other players as well as with the animate and inanimate contents of the cybernetic world. At present, the network versions of these synthetic worlds is limited to text-based interactions only. Graphics and sound are perhaps a few years away, awaiting the development and deployment of high-speed network window systems known as MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions) or MUSEs (Multi-User Science Environments).
These virtual realities offer a rich environment for synergy, community, collaboration, and exploratory discovery. At present there are several dozen publicly accessible multi-user text-based virtual realities running on Internet hosts around the country and in Europe. Players connect to the host computer using conventional Internet protocols and versatile client programs. Players adopt a character and personality of their choosing, and enter into the synthetic world, consisting of a web of connected rooms and movable props. Everything (rooms, movable objects, connecting passageways, and players) has a description (typically a few lines of text) which are displayed when a player looks at it. Actions such as picking up or dropping an object, and exiting to an adjacent room also generate a short message appropriate to the action. Everything in the system is owned by a player (typically the player who created it), and the owner of a room, object, or exit has the privilege of specifying its name and the associated messages when a player encounters or interacts with it.
Players can create new rooms and new objects, and construct imaginative interconnected regions for others to explore. In the more powerful MUSE systems, inanimate objects can be given elaborate behaviors which are triggered upon activation by the actions of other players or objects. Animated objects can become arbitrarily complex automata such as vehicles, dispensing machines, androids, or information appliances. In some systems there are player characters whose moves are controlled by an Al (Artificial Intelligence) program running on a remote computer. Such robot players have already become sufficiently lifelike in their behavior that it is at times difficult to tell the human players from the robot players. The most advanced robot player is Julia, created by Dr. Fuzzy (Dr. Michael Mauldin of Carnegie Mellon). Julia’s conversational ability surpasses that of many human players and her personality is not without charm.
The educational potential of multi-player programmable virtual realities has been explored by some of the more serious-minded professionals who have investigated the gene. Like other technological innovations of the information age, virtual realities appeal to many human needs: social communication, entertainment, information, and education. At California State University at Fresno, a system called MicroMuse chartered itself in November, 1990, as the PBS of CyberNet, featuring explorations, adventures, and puzzles with redeeming social, cultural, and educational content. (In May, 1991, MicroMuse moved from CSU-Fresno to MIT.) The MicroMuse Science Center offers an Exploratorium and Mathematica Exhibit complete with interactive exhibits drawn from experience with Science Museums around the country. The Opera House presents a literary puzzle based on The Phantom of the Opera. The Mission to Mars includes an elaborate tour of the red planet with accurate descriptions rivaling those found in National Geographic. Elsewhere, one can find a sailing cruise to the Virgin Islands which recreates the real-life adventure of the player who created it.
For younger players, text-based virtual realities foster literacy skills: reading, writing, and composition, and technical skills such as keyboarding and spelling. For adolescent players, social interaction skills, interpersonal skills, and personality development emerge as primary activities. College students who are not computer science majors enjoy the opportunity to gain some computer literacy and try their hand at creating their own contributions to the cyberspace worlds, usually with the helpful guidance of friendly players with more experience. The more ingenious and inventive players design and build elaborate and powerful artifacts such as electronic newspapers, voice- mail recorders, and self-activated transit systems.
The educational potential of network-based virtual realities is largely unexplored, unappreciated and undeveloped. The nature of the medium favors informal science education, since students voluntarily connect to these systems between classes and during their leisure time. Text-based virtual realities foster obvious skill-building in keyboarding, composition, and social interaction skills. But there is far greater potential for improving computer literacy, cognitive skills and scientific awareness through conscientiously crafted content geared toward informal science education.
Borrowing on techniques used in the design of interactive science museum exhibits, educational television, and interactive computer games, one can envision a virtual Science Expedition with highly imaginative and interactive adventures not constrained by space, time, or materials. The possibilities of modeling such diverse adventures as interplanetary travel, volcano exploration, or fantastic voyages through the bloodstream are suggestive of projects worth considering. Students, too, enjoy the opportunity to build microworlds of their own, typically copying real-world cityscapes and science-fiction themes. With a little guidance from a faculty advisor, a student group can be organized to build a microworld model from physics, chemistry, geology, biology, or mathematics. While many students already have discovered MUDs and MUSEs on their own, schools could foster educationally beneficial access through extra- curricular activity groups such as computer clubs and science clubs. The enriched atmosphere of network-based microworlds generates a national (and even international) virtual community that broadens the horizons of students who may never have travelled beyond the borders of their home state. Deaf and handicapped students find opportunities for unimpaired interactions within the computer- mediated virtual worlds. The interaction across age groups also stimulates the informal learning process as social communication blends into technical discussion and teaching.
Network-based virtual realities are now coming of age, largely populated by students seeking an enriched environment for explorational discovery, and creative expression. Virtual communities emerge with imaginative interactive adventures and puzzles. The science content of such worlds can profitably be enriched by the active participation of the education community.
For adult educators and researchers, text-based virtual realities offer an opportunity to enter a synthetic society either as observers of the sociology (and sociopathy) of a predominantly adolescent culture, or as mission-oriented contributors to the informal education and enrichment of the young people populating the ethereal world of Cyberion City.