Monthly Archives: March 2014

Emerging Technology Plan: Let the Games Begin

After blogging about The Battle of the Books and reading class materials about gamification, and reading Wendy Derman’s review of Reality Is Broken, I became interested in the possibilities of technology for engaging elementary school children deeply in their learning.

Although I was entranced by the immersive games The 39 Clues  and Spirit Animals, it seemed unlikely that a school library would have the resources to implement anything that impressive. Still, I started researching how games are being used in primary school settings, and discovered MinecraftEdu. Minecraft is a massively popular open world/building game and MinecraftEdu is a mod developed by a schoolteacher to make it easy for teachers to use Minecraft as an immersive learning experience. With a broad fan base and a moderate barrier to entry it looks like it has great potential for gamifying the elementary school library and classroom learning.

This plan is based on the elementary school library where I volunteer and would be a joint school/library project. Since this is a hypothetical project I do not link to the actual school or state its name.


Is Minecraft the Ultimate Educational Tool?

Minecraft is an extremely popular open world  or “sandbox” game in which players have tremendous freedom to explore, create, and select their own objectives (if you have school age kids you probably already knew that!). It is what Jane McGonigal refers to as an “infinite game” (McGonigal, 2011, Loc 439), in which the goal of the game is usually to keep playing—which sounds like learning, when it is at its best and becomes a joyous and lifelong project.

MinecraftEdu is a special mod of Minecraft that was designed by an elementary school teacher, Joel Levin. Teachers can use MinecraftEdu to “drop students into a world of ancient cultures, Chemistry, English, and more” (Waxman, 2012). Minecraft removes certain aspects of the game that may be distracting (monsters and attacking other players can be disabled, for example), gives teachers more efficient building modes so they can set up their own virtual worlds quickly, and gives teachers more oversight to control the virtual learning environment.

Goals for the Technology

“I foresee games that fix our educational systems.” (McGonigal, 2011, Loc 304)

In my previous blog posting I examined the problem of Battle of the Books at the elementary school. While technically a game, it was compelling for some children, but not for others. Smith-Robbins (2011) refers to the problem of “pointsification”—basically, just because we add points or other game-like features to a game, it doesn’t necessarily make it fun. She states that in order to make gamification compelling, we need to do the following:

  1. Make goals clear
  2. Make progress transparent
  3. Think about your own game play (or in this case, the game play of your audience)

Make Goals Clear

The goal of this project is to implement MinecraftEdu in the library computer lab and encourage staff to engage students in immersive learning.

Make Progress Transparent

According to Stephens, “techno-planning is best done in open, collaborative space where everyone has a voice and can share their expertise” (Stephens, 2008). Transparency can be achieved by involving all stakeholders in the implementation: staff, parents and students should all have voices represented in the development of the project. Representatives from all audiences should participate in the project committee and updates should be provided regularly to the community as a whole.

Think About the Gameplay of your Audience

Minecraft is already a very popular game for the elementary school demographic. This project does not require creating a new game environment, but rather uses one that is already familiar to most potential participants. For those that aren’t familiar with the game, introduction to the game could provide a cultural touchstone for them.

MinecraftEdu taps into an existing fan base and can bring a new level of excitement and engagement because of the immersive learning it makes possible. MinecraftEdu is a modestly priced alternative that taps into a vibrant existing community, so that we don’t need to “overthink and die” (Stephens 2008)—we can bring a modest pilot project to our school and test the feasibility of gamifying student education with a robust platform.

Action Brief Statement

Convince library and school staff, parents, and administration that by participating in MinecraftEdu with students, they will engage and motivate them through an activity that will deepen and solidify curriculum content and connect students and teachers in a collaborative learning project, because educational play builds joyous and lifelong learners.

Evidence and Resources to Support Technology

“We’re fast on our way to becoming a society in which a substantial portion of our population devotes its greatest efforts to playing games, creates its best memories in game environments, and experiences its biggest successes in game worlds.” (McGonigal, 2011, Loc 140)

According to the New Media Consortium’s 2014 Horizon Report, education is shifting “from students as consumers to students as creators” (NewMediaConsortium, 2014). Digital natives crave participation rather than passive absorption of information, and they are “suffering more in traditional classrooms than any previous generation” (McGonigal, 2011, Loc 2102). Meanwhile, games and gamification are a growing trend for the midterm future, and “educational game play has proven to foster engagement and critical thinking, creative problem solving, and teamwork” (NewMediaConsortium, 2014). Although parents and school staff have a tendency to think of games as a waste of time, Swanson argues that “learning requires the exact kind of “doing” that games provide” (Swanson, 2014, p. 22). We accept, for example, that science learning requires both lecture and lab in order to cement learning; the virtual world of MinecraftEdu can provide a “lab” environment for a wide variety of lessons.

MinecraftEdu is an excellent choice for an educational gameplay project because it is popular and familiar to a large segment of the elementary population, and there is a large online community with extensive information and resources available. Teachers will be free to create their own virtual worlds for lesson of their choice, but they will not be required to do so. MinecraftEdu comes with access to a free library of virtual environments to explore (for example, the Roman Coliseum and the Globe Theatre), and the MinecraftEdu community provides extensive information, support, and access to mods created by other teachers around the world.


Overview of MinecraftEdu

Lesson Examples

  • A MinecraftEdu lesson about maps

Mission, Guidelines and Policy

Our school mission states:

Our mission at our school is to encourage children to learn and grow in a safe, nurturing environment that promotes literacy, fosters self-esteem, and challenges students to succeed. Each child is an individual of great worth and is entitled to develop his/her potential. With parents and teachers working together as a team towards the same goal, every child will succeed. In order to give each child the best opportunity for success, we ask that we keep children first in all we do. If we accept and make real the pledge to keep children first, then it follows that education is our #1 priority. These two concepts, a core values and a common cause, unite a school community and empower it to do what is needed for educating the children. We know our community is such a place.

The mission of the MinecraftEdu project is in line with this mission and we hope it will result in the following benefits:

  • Increased student engagement in learning
  • Increased trust between teachers and students
  • Increased social connections and collaborative ability from  students working together in the virtual learning environment
  • Increased student grasp of abstract concepts
  • Increased computer skills
  • Increased digital parity (lessening the digital divide)

Policy Considerations:

  • The students already use the computer lab and are expected to read and sign a student code of conduct. This code of conduct should be updated to include standards for behavior in the virtual learning environment.
  • For the initial implementation, MinecraftEdu should be accessible only from the computer lab. This is for both student security reasons and technical reasons (since an externally accessible server is a more expensive and technically complex implementation; a broader implementation should be considered after the project demonstrates its value).
  • In order to allow for unstructured play as well as lessons implemented by the teacher, we should investigate the potential for a staff sponsor for a student club, allowing after school play, or play during student free choice times.

Funding Considerations

MinecraftEdu offers heavily discounted Minecraft licenses to schools. The school library already has a computer lab with 32 computers (sufficient for the use of one full class at a time), so no new equipment will be required for a localized computer lab installation, to be used by one class at a time. Minecraft licenses can be installed on lab computers for an estimated $13 per license plus a server tool fee of $41. This cost is moderate but is unlikely to be covered by district funding.

Possible sources for funding include:

A sample grant proposal from a successful school installation of MinecraftEdu  (Although this grant proposal is for a more ambitious project involving schoolwide licenses and hosting their own dedicated server)

Action Steps and Timeline

  • Approach administration for permission to explore project feasibility
  • Survey teachers/library staff: A preliminary survey should determine if there is sufficient teacher/librarian buy-in for the project to be worthwhile
  • Survey parent association for interest levels and potential volunteer support of project
  • Survey students for interest levels and qualitative input about project
  • Present support for project and project plan to administration
  • Select a project committee consisting of all stakeholders (staff, parents, students)
  • Develop code of conduct/user agreement with stakeholders (staff, parents, students)
  • Acquire and install server/site licenses
  • Host training for staff and parents
  • Train student guides to support other students’ activities
  • Introduce MinecraftEdu activities at school
  • Evaluate project (ongoing)

Project needs to be approved by the principal and district superintendent. Levels of staff, parent and student support can be used to demonstrate the value of the project to administration.

Staffing Considerations

Both teachers and parents who have experience with and interest in technology should be recruited for this project for planning and implementation. Individual teachers and librarians will be responsible for use of MinecraftEdu for their own classes. Parent volunteers may help with in-class assistance, mod development, MinecraftEdu event nights, and supervision of MinecraftEdu use during non-class times (e.g., after school club time, student free time).


Staff/Parent Training

After an initial training led by committee personnel, staff and parent volunteers should be encouraged to explore the many online learning resources that are available (see above under Evidence and Resources). Stephens (2008) advocates inclusive learning as a means to both teach and encourage buy-in from staff. This type of learning “works when staff are encouraged to explore and learn on their own and communicate that learning via blogs” (Stephens, 2008).  A small elementary school and library may not have sufficient participation to keep a blog lively and active, but the community MinecraftEdu blogs and wikis means there is a pre-existing for both staff-users and parent-volunteers that already has robust levels of participation.

Student Training

Teachers will introduce MinecraftEdu to their classes, and can employ the existing Tutorial World in the mod or create their own specialized tutorial. In addition, the project committee should consider the use of student guides. The school already has student volunteer programs for library aides, ball club managers and “Peacemakers” who help with conflict resolution. It may be desirable to capitalize on student volunteerism (and enthusiasm for the game by expert student users) and implement a program of student Minecraft guides, who can help students unfamiliar with the game to learn it. McGonigal cites the concept of “naches,” the pride we feel for the accomplishments of someone we have mentored (McGonigal, 2011, Loc 1469). Both guides and learners would benefit from this collaboration.

Promotion and Marketing

Without sufficient buy-in from staff, the project is unlikely to be successful, therefore before committing to the project, the project should be promoted to staff and parents and interest level evaluated. Proponents of the project should advocate the benefits of the project to staff and key parent community members. The existing popularity of Minecraft makes it likely that the student population is well aware and would require minimal marketing or promotion to be enthusiastic about the project, but making them aware of the potential may lead to their advocating for the project themselves with parents and staff. Project proponents should back this up with the research and evidence demonstrating the true pedagogical value of educational games.

Once the project is underway, two promotion concerns are likely to be paramount: supporting staff, and reaching out across the digital divide.

Staff Support

As mentioned under the Training section above, staff should be encouraged to continually explore the many supporting resources for MinecraftEdu. The committee should stay in continuous contact and be quick to address any staff concerns about the technology.

Digital Divide

Our school is Title I, with a significant percentage of socioeconomically underprivileged community members. Particular care should be taken to reach out to the digital have-nots in the school community. Although many students and parents will be familiar with Minecraft, it will be new to some students and parents. Outreach to this group is critical in order to prevent an increase in the digital divide. When the school district migrated to online registration, schools hosted several open computer lab nights, publicized through parent emails, newsletters and announcements at school assemblies. The open lab nights had volunteers (including translators) to help people learn about unfamiliar technology. A similar approach to encourage engagement in the MinecraftEdu project would increase community buy-in and enthusiasm.


Although studies have demonstrated increased scores from game-based learning (Blunt, 2009), testing as a measure of teacher/student effectiveness is a sensitive subject in today’s educational environment. Furthermore, standardized testing is in flux at the moment as schools transition to the new Common Core curriculum. This will make it difficult to assess student improvement in a quantitative way. However, some attention should be paid to student scores when contrasted to scores from before the implementation.

Stephens writes, “In my mind, the return on investment for many of the emerging technologies will be proven with qualitative data such as positive stories from users and an increased amount of participation via commenting and content creation” (Stephens, 2008). Many of the primary benefits of gamification are difficult to quantify: student engagement, enthusiasm, social skills, establishing cultural common ground. Collecting stories from staff, parents and students to illustrate any of these benefits will be an important aspect of evaluating this program. In addition, a survey of community attitudes would be helpful in demonstrating the value of the program and advocating for continuation or even expansion.

If this initial program is successful, we might investigate expanding at our school by looking into a broader implementation, such as a server installation that allows children to explore the virtual learning worlds from their home computers (this is a significant increase in technical complexity and expense). We may also see the program expanding to other schools or throughout the district.


Blunt, R. (2009). Do serious games work? Results from three studies. eLearn Magazine, December 2009. Retrieved from

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. [Kindle edition]. New York: Penguin Press.

McKinney, M. (2014, February 15). Battle of the books [Web log post]. Retrieved from :

NewMediaConsortium. (2014, January 31). The NMC Horizon report :: 2014 higher education edition [Video file]. Retrieved from

PBS Idea Channel. (2013, March 6). Is Minecraft the ultimate educational tool? [Video file]. Retrieved from

Smith-Robbins, S. (2011). “This Game Sucks”: How to Improve the Gamification of Education. Educause Review, January/February 2011, 58-59. Retrieved from:

Stephens, M. (2008). Taming technolust: Ten steps for planning in a 2.0 world. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 47(4), 314-317. In Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

Swanson, K. (2014). Digital games and learning: A world of opportunities. Technology & Learning, 34(6), 22-22.

Waxman, O.B. (2012, September 21). MinecraftEdu teaches students through virtual world-building [Web log post]. Time. Retrieved from




Transparency when it’s really, really hard

So, this week I had several different ideas, starting points for a reflection on the transparent library. That changed on Friday:

A murder happened Friday across the street from my children’s school, with a husband killing his wife, and the younger daughter of the family is a classmate of my son’s. So, because I knew they would hear about it once they went to school tomorrow, today I had to explain to my children that a little girl they knew just lost her mother and it was because her father shot her and killed her.

Having people get upset about your non-transparent approach to weeding books seemed like an inconsequential problem all of a sudden.

You’re “out there” whether you want to be or not.
(Casey and Stephens, June 2007)

I really did not want to be “out there” on this. I did not want to have to be transparent that a classmate’s mother was dead, allegedly killed by her father. I couldn’t think Friday and Saturday about much else except what I would say to them. But it was out there whether I wanted it to be or not. I knew it would be talked about at school on Monday, possibly quite a lot, and they might hear even wilder stories than what actually did happen (which of course is bad enough). I knew I could not let them walk into that unprepared. But the task of being transparent seemed dreadful and impossible.

The culture of perfect
(Casey and Stephens, April 2007)

For parents, it is not so much the culture of perfect, as the temptation of it, the siren song of perfect, luring you to the rocks with false beauty. We may accept a lack of perfection in any other aspect of our lives, but the idea that we can’t fix everything, can’t make it all right, can’t make it perfect, seems unbearable when it comes to our children. How could I allow them to see that something cruel and unfair like this could happen? And how could I not have the perfect thing to say about it when it did?

I love Agatha Christie books. I have a favorite passage in the mystery The Hollow. A character asks Hercule Poirot if he will someday tell the child of a murder victim the truth about what happened to his father. She is horrified when he answers that he will tell the truth. She thinks the son should be protected from the truth. Poirot’s response struck a deep chord with me:

You do not understand. To you it is unbearable that anyone should be hurt. But to some minds there is something more unbearable still—not to know. You heard the poor woman just a little while ago say: “Terry always has to know.” To the scientific mind, truth comes first. Truth, however bitter, can be accepted, and woven into a design for living. (Christie, 1946, p.257)

I wanted to become a librarian because I always have to know. Because I like to help others to know. I love my children, and I want to protect them. But even more than wanting to protect them, and not wanting to have to tell them, in the end I find the idea of lying to them unbearable. I want them to be able to trust me, to know that if something scares them, I will not lie to them, I am strong enough to tell them the worst truth and to hear whatever truth they have to tell me. Transparency is an act of love—when it matters most I will not lie to you. Opaqueness is an act of distance, and even of disrespect. In his post “Earning Trust|The User Experience” Schmidt (2013) writes, “On a broader level, libraries need to back up the big claims often found in mission statements.” If I tell my children to trust me, I need to be trustworthy, even when it is really hard.

Especially when it is really hard.

They cried when I told them. They asked what would happen to their schoolmate. I said I didn’t know but that people were taking care of both girls (the girls are in protective custody and the police are keeping their whereabouts confidential for now).

My younger son asked me “Why would he do that?” I said that was a really, really good question, and I wished I had a good answer. I said that some people are very troubled and lash out in very bad ways. That they have not learned to argue the way grownups should argue, with their words, and not with hurting. That sexism means there are some men who feel like their wives or girlfriends aren’t really “people,” but are possessions that they can hurt or destroy if they want to. And that if you have a gun, it is very, very easy to hurt someone in a way that can’t be fixed.

I felt very helpless. Then I remembered this quote from Mister Rogers.

So then I told them that although this was a very terrible thing, they should know that there were a lot of people helping. That policemen, social workers, teachers, and extended family were all going to help those girls who have lost both parents. That maybe in a few days, we would learn more and find out a way we could help them too.

I said that terrible things sometimes happen, but there are always the people who run to help. And you can be a helper, too. If a friend at school is scared or upset, you can be a friend. You can encourage them to ask their mom or dad or teacher or principal about what is upsetting them. Look for the helpers. And be a helper.

“In the kingdom of glass everything is transparent, and there is no place to hide a dark heart.”
Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.”
Joseph Pulitzer

When we are opaque, and not transparent, the problems are invisible. Domestic violence is a crime of opaqueness. We don’t see the victims, until it all bursts forth, terribly.

If you are not transparent, you damage trust. And whether it’s about weeding books or something worse, damaging trust breaks connections between people. At their best, librarians can be among the helpers too, because libraries and information are about truth. With truth, and not lies, we can help.


Casey, M., &  Stephens, M. (2007, April 1). The transparent library: Introducing the Michaels. Library Journal. Retrieved from

Casey, M., &  Stephens, M. (2007, June 1). The transparent library: Living out loud. Library Journal. Retrieved from

Christie, A. (1946). The Hollow. New York: Harper Collins.

Schmidt, A. (2013, November 5). Earning trust [Web log post]. The User Experience. Library Journal. Retrieved from



DAISY, DAISY Give me your answer do

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet
Upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

“Daisy Bell”, by Harry Dacre, 1892
First computer to sing: IBM 7094, 1961

(Computer “voice” begins at 1:05)


As I was reading about planning, I was struck by one small detail in the #uklibchat article, about the Library Live and on Tour (Green, 2012). The library bookmobile carried not just books, but included many other products and services that the library provides. What a great way to update the image of the library to people who don’t know what it does! Some of the items included in this updated bookmobile were DAISY readers. (I wrote my LIBR 200 term paper about library services to patrons with print disabilities. The presentation about the paper is here, although some of the information is now dated, particularly the copyright information, following the Marrakesh Treaty of 2013.)

DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System, and is an open standard for digital audio books for people with print disabilities. It is based on MP3 and XML (the XML tags promote accessible navigation of the audio file). The DAISY reader allows people with no vision or low vision to navigate and listen to the DAISY book. Many libraries and other services for the blind loan free DAISY readers to their patrons.

DAISY reader


DAISY readers are not “stylish”–they look positively clunky by our current standards of streamlined, sleek devices. But the clunkiness is by design. The buttons are large and easy to see for those with low vision, easy to distinguish by touch for those with no vision. The buttons are identified with Braille but also have distinctive shapes, so that people who lose vision late in life (and are unlikely to learn Braille) can navigate the buttons by shape. The bright colors also help those with low vision.

Here is a demonstration of the DAISY reader at the San Francisco Public Library, Library for the Blind and Print Disabled. Notice the audio feedback  letting the user know that he or she has performed the intended action (“volume up”, “forward 20 seconds” and so on).

Technology is a double-edged sword

According to the Network World article we read, “By Cisco’s count, 91% of Internet data in 2015 will be video” (Bort, 2011). What does that mean for people with visual impairments? That’s a staggering amount of inaccessible information. It’s uncomfortably close to an old statistic, the “95 Percent Gap“–the estimate among researchers that blind people have only had access to about 5 percent of the world’s conventionally published material (Epp, 2006).

The potential of tablet and mobile phone use and game-based learning seems cool, but how do you make those things accessible to people with visual impairments? The ability of tablets to zoom text and images can help people with low vision, but they are useless to those with none. Many mobile phones have very poor accessibility, and the modifications that make them accessible (or ‘accessible-ish’) can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of the devices.

Games and gamification? Are the games accessible to people with visual impairments?

Technology has the potential to help people with print disabilities so much, but it also has the potential to exclude them even further. I became curious and investigated ways that latest or coming technology might have the potential to help people with vision issues.

3D Printing

3D printers are being used to create learning objects for all types of students, so that they can physically interact with a model of a molecule, or a complex mathematical object (Schaffhauser, 2013). Imagine trying to learn about a molecule or physical structure that you cannot see. Kinesthetic learning is useful to many, but critical to people who have difficulty seeing standard print illustrations.  Scientists have used 3D printing of space objects to let people with visual impairments experience pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope (Fecht, 2014). Icelandic graphic designer and illustrator Halla Sigridur Margretardottir Haugen has developed 3D textbooks to help visually impaired children learn about the human body (Haugen, 2013).

 Wearable Technology

Some very cool wearable technology has the potential to help people with visual impairments enjoy a greater independence and quality of life, as well as access to information. Gerard Medioni, a professor at the University of Southern California, is working to develop a vest and glasses combination that can help users navigate the world (Brigida, 2013). They are even experimenting with the use of computer facial recognition technology to help communicate nonverbal information from others to those who cannot see it.

The OrCam is another wearable device, a set of glasses that can see what the wearer is pointing at and provide audio information to the user (Euronews, 2013). The OrCam can read text–in a book, on a grocery store item, on a menu. The OrCam can also read bus numbers, street signs, and other information needed to navigate the world.

Other Kinds of Scale

The potential positive effect of technology for people with visual impairments falls under Michael Edson’s other kinds of scale (Edson, 2013). The Z-axis scale of great emotional impact applies to the increased independence and access to knowledge. Only a small percentage of the population has visual impairments, but access to information, cultural enrichment and human connection affects them deeply. (Also, as the baby Boomer generation ages, this population will be growing). The zero to one scale applies to this group as well, since new technology can give them something where before they had nothing.  The ability to go where you want within your own town, read what you want, and learn what you want is something that many of us take for granted, but a person with visual impairments cannot. As Edson says, cultural impoverishment exists everywhere. For example, when I visited the San Francisco Library for the Blind and Print Disabled in September 2012, I found that the library had no materials in any language other than English–a lack of international copyright agreements was an insuperable obstacle to obtaining them (hopefully the Marrakesh Treaty will change this situation).

The hyperlinked library has huge potential either to include or to exclude people for whom print and visual media are a challenge. Technology can help increase their cultural enrichment or impoverish it further, depending on how thoughtfully we plan.


In closing, just to give you all a laugh, here is a non-computer, singing the same “Daisy Bell” song. 🙂



Bort, J. (2011, July 15). 10 technologies that will change the world in the next 10 years [Web log post]. Network World. Retrieved from

Brigida, A.K. (2013, October 1). New technology that can help the blind.  [Web log post] USC News. Retrieved from!/article/55803/new-technology-that-can-help-the-blind/

Edson, M.P. [Michael Peter Edson]. (2013, August 28). “The age of scale” for 2013 hyperlinked library MOOC.[Video file]. Retrieved from

Epp, M.A. (2006). Closing the 95 percent gap: library resource sharing for people with print disabilities. Library Trends, 54(3), 411-429, 10.1353/lib.2006.0025 Retrieved from

Euronews (2013, August 26). The device that could change life for the visually impaired. Euronews. Retrieved from

Fecht, S. (2014, January 8). 3D printing a star cluster: how the blind can feel Hubble space pictures. Popular Mechanics. Retrieved from

Green, G. (2012, November 30). The innovative use of technology in libraries [Web log post]. #UKLIBCHAT. Retrieved from

Haugen, H.S.M. (2013). Discover the body: 3D printing and teaching materials for blind and visually impaired children. Future Reflections, 32(1). Retrieved from

Knobloch, C. (2013, January 1). Tech trends for 2013 that will change the way you live [Web log post]. TODAY Tech. Retrieved from

O’Brien, Sharon. (2014). Vision loss rate expected to double as boomers age. Senior Living. Retrieved from

Schaffhauser, D. (2013, December 4). Print your own 3D learning objects. Campus Technology. Retrieved from: