Is it live or is it… a toy?

Today, snowdeal.org has a fascinating series of articles (of which I have barely scratched the surface) in which various researchers look at how people interact with fake pets like the AIBO dog or the recent FurReal cat and the like. Sherry Turkle is quoted. Turkle is of special interest to me going back to my grad school days. My degree was a masters in education in the Technology in Education program but what I was really doing was a multi-pronged look at how people form relationships on the Internet, how communities form or disintegrate and how teaching and learning can leverage the power of the net. Turkle, at that time (and maybe still today for all I know) was looking at the formation of identity online. The way in which people could have multiple different personalities in the various MOOs or IRC channels or chat rooms they inhabited. It was a fascinating portrait of how people interact and what it means to say “this is who I am… at the moment.”

Back then I focused much of my research on MOOs. I find them much more compelling a research topic than, say, chat rooms or irc channels because in the latter you just talk and emote while in the former, you can also construct the very environment in which you are operating. I can create not only an identity and a behavior pattern, but I can also build a castle, a laboratory, a dance club, a piano bar, a boat, anything that allows people to interact with parts of me that are separate from me.

Amy Bruckman, then at the MIT Media Lab, did what was, at that time (and, again may still be) the seminal research into the use of MOOs in education with MOOse Crossing, an interactive environment for children. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from her doctoral thesis (mammoth but damn good reading) in which she describes a conversation in which a professor bragged to her about how his teaching assistants were building a complete replica of the boat from Moby Dick for the students to interact with and wasn’t that just wonderfully educational? She replied that it sure was, for the TAs. It is the very act of creation — and not just of creation, but of creation for the other, for the audience viewing it — which is where the learning happens.

And now we have Schoolblogs, a site I really should read more often than I do, which is looking at weblogs themselves as educational tools. Without having done much reading (and here my former life as an academic is screaming at me to not make any assumptions without doing the research first) I highly suspect that the very same issues of identity and creation of something for an audience are just as critical in the use of blogs for learning and teaching as they are in MOOs and other places.

I should dig out some of my old papers and start quoting liberally from them. I’d forgotten until today how fascinating this research is and how few people are actually looking into it. Thanks to snowdeal for today’s links to reawaken this in me.

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