The more I learn about Minecraft, the more impressed I become with its versatility as a learning tool. This morning, for example, I ran across a piece from Southern California Public Radio headlined “Minecraft blowing up the classroom; educators say the game can teach everything from math to genetics” (Anthony Perez, 8/14/13). In it Professor Linda Polin is quoted as saying, “Part of what it creates is habits of mind, kind of a sense of how to be a learner, how to be someone who’s successful at learning.” That’s powerful stuff and quite the claim to make about a seemingly simple video game. Kids learning to be successful learners was a recurring theme of educators who presented during the Minecraft and More Unsymposium. Following-up on my previous post, here I share some of the educational benefits that presenters noted. The heading of each section links to the videotaped session named.
1. Minecraft and Science Possibilities. During this session, Farah Bennani, Lucas Gillispie, and Chris Lucas discussed the uses and benefits of Minecraft in the science curriculum. For example, students can learn about cell structure by building cells out of virtual blocks and comparing their creations to actual cells. Constructing virtual 3-D models is engaged, active learning and is mastery learning in that students persist despite repeated failures. As one presenter said, Minecraft “gives students more opportunities to try things out and fail” – to troubleshoot and try again. They can explore possibilities, experiment, and collaborate with each other in playful ways, all the while improving their computer skills and using critical thinking. Moreover, Minecraft is inexpensive and relatively easy to learn.
A question arose on whether or not to make a class’s Minecraft server available to children 24/7 to work on projects and play at their home. Lucas Gillispie noted that the limited time available in the school setting is a “killer,” so he’s leaning more toward “free-range education” with 24/7 access to educational tools. His approach for engaging students in Minecraft projects is to give them loosely defined problems with minimal criteria. He says to students, “I’m not telling you anything else. You go to it.” With the freedom that 24/7 access and minimal direction bring, he’s “seeing amazing things happening.”
2. Minecraft and Machinima. In this session, Tanya Martin, Vasili Giannoutsos, Kae Novak, and Chareen Snelson discussed educational uses of machinima. Early on Tanya told us that although teachers can create machinimas as instructional tools, student creation is more powerful, especially in “project-based learning where students are using it as a way to document something they have learned or are learning.” By-products of such creations include gaining collaborative and communication skills; plus students are “learning to use various tools like editing, they’re performing, they’re adding music, they’re learning about intellectual property. So there’s a whole lot they’re learning by creating something…. The process is as important if not more important than the product.” Vasili mentioned that creating machinimas is becoming a 21st century skill that teachers and students alike would do well to learn. Chareen noted the wealth of useful tutorials that many young people voluntarily create and post on YouTube to help others learn aspects of games like Minecraft and World of Warcraft. And Kae added that showing machinimas in professional development settings is a way to interest and involve teachers in game-based learning.
Perhaps my all-time favorite machinima is “Crumple’s Pet Skunk Tutorial” (2 minutes) in which a young child explains how to make a pet skunk in Minecraft. When his first attempt fails, he immediately offers this advice: “Don’t sit down and cry if you fail one time. Just do it again.” After successfully constructing the skunk, he woots, “Yahoo! I got my new skunk pet!” and makes up a little song of celebration. It’s so cute! You must see it. Learning not to let failure stand in the way of success is important for kids and adults alike. It’s definitely an attitude Minecraft fosters.
3. How to Start a Minecraft Club. After-school clubs can serve as the “back door” to game-based learning, says Trish Cloud, especially in districts that don’t support classroom use of video games. In this session, Trish offers suggestions on setting up and maintaining a Minecraft club. So why Minecraft and not some other game? For one thing, it appeals to all age groups; for another, it doesn’t carry the negative connotations that games like World of Warcraft do. More importantly, it empowers kids: “One of the greatest things I’ve seen come out of the Minecraft Club,” Trish says, “is that it can make a rock star out of a kid who is generally not considered one of the popular kids…. It can give them an avenue to shine…. Minecraft is the great equalizer socially.”
Trish adds that a student’s engagement in Minecraft can lead to engaged writing, particularly for boys who are often reluctant writers: they can “make up a story about Minecraft, tell you how to survive your first night, or give you a step-by-step guide on how to build something.” Other skills that the game furthers include computer literacy and digital citizenship. If you are thinking of starting a Minecraft after-school club, this session is a video to watch. It includes slides, comments and questions from several guest speakers, and streamed scenes from the Massively@Jokadia server.
4. Massively@Jokaydia Server Tour. In the session above, Trish recommended the Massively server to parents as a safe game space for their children. Parents are welcomed too. Its website site tells us that Massively “is a Guild based learning community for kids aged 4-16 who are interested in developing digital media skills, exploring their creativity and developing online social skills by playing games!” It has “over 700 registered players from around the world.”
During this session, Jokay and some of the miners (as Minecraft players are called) gave us a tour of Massively. Right off we learned that respect, cooperation, and kindness are primary values in the miners’ charter. We learned that kids develop leadership skills by participating in quests and missions and earning awards for doing such activities as building a robot, demonstrating a scientific concept, posting in the forum, writing stories, researching and constructing a historical build. Kids learn from each other through projects, guild chat, and the guild forum; and some extend their skills to include blogging, modding, programming, tweeting, creating machinima, role-playing (as in the student-built, researched-based Medieval City), and much more. Plus, because players come from many countries, cultural learning takes place. Playful learning in a safe digital environment! Woot!