Our second MinecraftEdu trial was held across two classrooms, each participating in Minecraft educational play and related activities. We used two adjacent classrooms, setting one up with all of the school’s laptops as a temporary computer classroom and the other as a iPad HUB. Both classrooms were connected to the school network via wifi. In the computer lab classroom students played Minecraft focusing on completing educational missions. In the other classroom, students used iPads to blog about their experiences on KidBlog. (Student are blogs not presently available to the public, but I will include some excerpts below.)
The two classes took deliberately different approaches to their Minecraft gameplay. 43F played in a controlled environment using creative mode to complete mathematics based missions. 43R played in a highly (although not completely) unstructured environment where the focus was on developing digital citizenship, team skills and immersing the students in a rich experience based environment which they would translate into works of fiction. Both approaches were highly successful but faced their own unique set of challenges.
Students played in creative mode, creating structures based on a set list of mathematical missions involving perimeter, area, dimensions etc.
43F began the day entering a slightly modified ‘MathCraft world’. (Essentially the MinecraftEdu ‘group building areas‘ map with larger, clearer numbers at each dividing pathway.) They had a set list of missions, this time divided into ‘level 1’, ‘level 2’ and ‘level 3’ missions. The idea was that they would complete the level 1 missions and then 43R would expand on those missions with the level 2 missions later in the day. 43F would then return to the world to finish the job in the afternoon.
Whilst time and a few technical errors concerning image uploads in the Kidblog beta created problems for 43F’s blogging, the overall results were wonderful. All students were actively engaged and spent most of their time on task. This is extremely encouraging as it must remembered that whenever any new tool is introduced to the classroom children will want to play and explore with it freeform before applying it to learning experiences. That students were able to work effectively almost immediately is extremely encouraging.
- All students, including known ‘off-taskers’ , were engaged and on-task.
- Many students completed structures that did not correctly match their mathematical specifications. The reason for this is unknown but I suspect it was at least in part due to the length of the missions list and that their progress wasn’t being periodically checked, holding them accountable and reminding them of the task requirements. Student excitement and the novel factor of Minecraft being played in class likely contributed to this too. I expect this would wear off quickly if off-task behaviour resulted in suspension from the activity.
- The amount of items presented to students in creative mode may hinder task completion as students become too interested in creating aesthetically pleasing structures rather than mathematically accurate ones. Could be changed by limiting their supplies and/or by presenting them with design challenges with limited resources.
Students played MinecraftEdu in survival mode. They are separated into tribes and are role-playing being survivors of a plane crash. They work together to survive and rebuild society, tracking their progress in first person diary entries recorded on KidBlog.
The 43R Tribes lesson was arguably less successful than both its original implementation and Mathcraft. I believe this is because the task was too open ended and students were unable to focus on working together to achieve goals as there were simply too many possible goals to achieve. Even when given specific goals students seemed to struggle as the Minecraft world was simply too enticing. They couldn’t help but explore it.
However, even though their gameplay was chaotic and it would be easy to write it off, its important to remember the academic objectives of the exercise.
Through Tribes I hoped to generate enough meaningful stimulus for students to easily create imaginative pieces of writing and it appears that this been achieved. Whilst high achievers wrote rich imaginative works, support students wrote more than usual and were able to better articulate their thoughts. One ESL student wrote “I built a house.” I asked him ‘What did it look like?’ and he immediately described it as a ‘Brown house made of wood’. He was then able to expand his original sentence to include the additional description. Other support students were able to easily expand on their typically basic sentences in equally interesting ways. This certainly wouldn’t have happened as easily without the immersive influence of the Minecraft World.
Student: “It was raining.”
Me: “How did you feel?”
Student: “Soggy. Gross.”
Me: “Okay, let’s add that into your sentence.”
Students, particularly low level students, often struggle with coming up with what to write. By using Minecraft gameplay as stimulus this problem was removed and students were able to focus on describing their world through sight, sound and emotion.
Improving Citizenship through Tribes
The next day students gathered together in their tribes and attempted to brainstorm a collective plan for their improving their game and team play in Minecraft. We stressed the limited nature of their in-game playtime and the importance of working together effectively as a team to maximise what they could achieve. Whilst this particular experiment was limited in duration, if I ran this project over the course of a term I would expect students to develop and redevelop their game play and sets of community rules/laws over the term. I am expecting on-game conflict and I am counting on it occurring in order to craft rich learning experiences from it.
Prior to beginning our gameplay students were instructed that in-game actions would have in-game consequences. If someone destroyed someone’s creation or stole their belongings, they might be made to rebuilt it or complete some other task as punishment. The important thing here is that as conflicts occurred we would discuss it in class and reach a collective understanding as to the consequences. Through this, students would learn to take ownership of not only their virtual world and virtual actions, but their real world and real actions.
Is it possible for students to self govern and self direct their learning in creating a community without having a teacher impose strict and overbearing rules? Will it end up like Lord of the Flies and what learning will occur now that we have such a rich amount of experienced disorder to discuss and improve on? These questions remain unanswered but I believe with time, we would answer them with stories of overwhelmingly positive learning experiences.
- All students, including known ‘off-taskers’, were engaged and mostly on-task.
- Not all students were correctly equipped to function effectively as a team.
- Freeform approach made it difficult for students to work as a team as their individual goals differed.
- Many students were unfamiliar with keyboard-mouse interface and required time to learn how to use it.
- Gameplay needed to be periodically frozen in order to ensure all students were actively keeping their journals.
- Even with a compass mod, students got lost from one another. This became a good problem solving exercise for these students.
- Some students were not interested in playing with their group and were unable to agree on a task to complete once in game. Students might need planning time away from Minecraft to create their objectives.
- Saving and retrieving screenshots required teaching students how to navigate Windows file system to locate their files.
After finishing their game play sessions both 43R and 43F were respectively tasked with writing journals and reflections on KidBlog. Students were highly engaged by the knowledge that their work was going onto the class blog and would be viewable by their peers in their class and by our connections (at this stage just the other class but in the future, parents and the rest of the stage, and depending on the post and parental permissions, hopefully publicly.)
- Spell check removed a lot of stress from support students who struggle with spelling and allowed them to have more confidence in their writing.
- Students were more motivated to write knowing that their work would be viewable by their peers.
- Students are reading each other’s work from home and writing positive comments.
- Many students chose to complete optional homework and finish their work at home.
- Students lack typing skills and many wrote less than what they would ordinarily write on paper.
- Typing on iPads is not ideal, especially as the virtual keyboard takes up half the screen, and formatting posts is fiddly.
- Kidblog beta had technical problems uploading photos.
- Getting saved screenshots from the school networked computers to the iPads for upload was challenging as students universally had little to know knowledge of navigating a computer’s file system to copy and paste files from one place to another. The solution was for students to save their files onto a network location, and then me to upload all files to my google drive account. I then linked them to their files via Edmodo.
The following day a handful of students who were known to be fairly technically saavy were selected to record screencasts of their Minecraft creations. Students quickly overcame their initial shyness and within 15 minutes each had recorded highly capable screencasts explaining their creations. For our screencasts we used ScreenFlow.
I wish we’d had more time and been able to carry out our explorations further as at this point we’re really only scraping the surface of what can be achieved with MinecraftEdu. Several days after our trial concluded my colleague and I presented our findings to the rest of the staff and their reactions were as interesting as they were diverse. Many were enthralled and excited, many were sceptical and were clearly accustomed to the notion that ‘video games are bad’, and quite a few were concerned by the violent aspects of 43R Tribes trial. I personally don’t think the latter is an issue as the violence is minimal, cartoon and non-bloody, and open discussion of conflict is the best way to learn from it and prevent it in the future.
It wasn’t easy getting this trial up and running and I suspect this would be case in many schools. People, even teachers, are often resistant to change, but I believe in the benefits of the effective use of games and creative play in class. If the idea of using Minecraft in school excites you, then find a way and do it. Find somebody to support you and make it happen. The kids, and in time the school community, will thank you.