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:
- Make goals clear
- Make progress transparent
- 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.
- MinecraftEdu Wiki
- Google Group for Minecraft Teachers
- MinecraftEdu Support Chat
- MinecraftEdu Tutorial Videos
- Real world implementations of MinecraftEdu
- eLearning Best Practices
Overview of MinecraftEdu
- A MinecraftEdu lesson on solids, liquids and gases
- A MinecraftEdu lesson about maps
- A MinecraftEdu lesson about the 13 Colonies
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)
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 https://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=1661378
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 : http://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/mollymckinney/2014/02/15/battle-of-the-books/
NewMediaConsortium. (2014, January 31). The NMC Horizon report :: 2014 higher education edition [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmSvQqAvEUM&feature=share
PBS Idea Channel. (2013, March 6). Is Minecraft the ultimate educational tool? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI0BN5AWOe8
Smith-Robbins, S. (2011). “This Game Sucks”: How to Improve the Gamification of Education. Educause Review, January/February 2011, 58-59. Retrieved from: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/game-sucks-how-improve-gamification-education
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 http://tametheweb.com/2012/05/30/taming-technolust-ten-steps-for-planning-in-a-2-0-world-full-text/
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 http://techland.time.com/2012/09/21/minecraftedu-teaches-students-through-virtual-world-building/