CSCI E-10: Course Information

Virtual Communities on the Internet

Spring Semester 2002

Instructor: David Albert (

The Internet is host to millions of human beings who exchange e-mail, post articles to Usenet Newsgroups, and work and play together in on-line Virtual Communities without ever meeting face to face. Such virtual communities have existed for over a decade, but with the recent dramatic surge in Internet accessibility, these communities are expanding and diversifying as never before.

This hands-on course offers an in-depth tour of selected virtual communities from the vast range of those available over the Internet, a historical overview of the virtual community, and a chance to get involved personally with both text-based Multi-User Simulation Environments (MUSEs) and graphics-based virtual worlds. Lecture topics will include educational uses of virtual communities by children and adults; issues of virtual self-government; Artificial Intelligent Agents that simulate human behavior or contribute specialized services to online communities; issues of security, privacy, and anonymity; and guest lectures by founders and chroniclers of on-line communities.

Final papers or projects will be accepted on any topic related to virtual communities; towards the middle of the semester we will discuss possible project topics. It will be assumed that students are comfortable using computers and have Internet access at home.

Class assignments will require a substantial amount of on-line time connected to the Internet. Students who do not already have Internet access should be prepared to sign up with an Internet Service Provider for the duration of the course, and will need an Internet-capable computer with a 56K-modem or high-speed Internte connection. As an alternative, students may choose to do all their work at Harvard University in the Science Center computer labs, but should be aware that this option requires regular visits to the lab several times per week.

Virtual communities have become more accepted and understood in the last three to four years, but the concept is still reasonably new, and the possibilities for the future still so rich that everyone working in this field (the instructor and all the guest lecturers included) is taking part in an experiment. Students should be interested in the field and be willing to bring their own ideas and ways of thinking into the discussions. There are very few right or wrong answers. There is much potential for in-depth study, however, and I hope students will use my suggestions for readings, activities, and projects as springboards for their own interests and imaginations.


The number and diversity of potential readings in this field staggers the imagination. Three books will be considered principal background sources for the course: Virtual Community by Howard Rheingold, Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle, and Communities in Cyberspace, edited by Mark A. Smith and Peter Kollock. Specific chapters in the required texts will be assigned as partial preparation for each week's discussion. The books are available in the Harvard Coop textbook department. Virtual Community is back in print as a 2nd edition, but first editions are widely available in used bookstores; the complete text is also available online.

A supplementary reading list on each lecture topic will be provided to students on-line, through the course web page. It is expected that every student will read some of the supplementary materials each week. One purpose of the discussion period will be to share the material discovered in these readings, since no student (nor even the instructor) will have time to read them all. Most of these texts are available directly from the Web pages of the original authors. They can be read on-line or printed from your Web browser for easier reading.

For those totally new to the Internet, I strongly recommend purchasing any of the dozens of introductory books available at any large bookstore. I do not recommend any particular book; almost any one you find will do a decent job but there isn't any one I am totally satisfied with.

Format of the Course

Our time will be divided between the classroom (two hours) and the computer room (one hour) most weeks. Lecture and discussion periods will include presentations by the instructor or by guest lecturers. They will also include small-group discussions, during which students and the instructor will share their own perspectives on the issues raised, and present viewpoints from the supplementary reading materials which other class members may not have read. Hands-on sessions in the lab will provide shared group experience with the communities we're studying.

Course Requirements and Expectations


Weekly assignments will be graded "Complete/Incomplete" and collectively will count for 30% of the final grade. Students who submit an assignment in a timely fashion that I consider substantially incomplete will be given a chance to complete the work for full credit; no credit will be given for incomplete assignments that are not completed.

Class participation, in both group discussion and lab sessions, will count for 10% of the grade.

The final paper or project will count for 60% of the grade, and will be graded on both the written report and an oral presentation to the class.

Students who meet the minimum requirements for the course will receive at least a B. Higher grades will be based on creativity and completeness of the final paper or project, on work beyond the minimum in the weekly activities, and on participation in class discussions. The final paper or project must be completed to receive credit for the course.

Return to Course Home Page or read the Course Syllabus.

David Albert - - Last updated December, 2001.