Good Learning Is Always Messy – Minecraft Project – Day One Reflections

pickaxeSo, just a quick post reflecting on Day One of our Minecraft project.

First off, from a technical standpoint, the program and the server worked perfectly.  We didn’t have any issues and the server practically yawned with boredom as we connected our 20 elementary and three teacher accounts.

Initially, I prepped the students with a brief introduction telling them they were literally pioneers and some of the first students in the world to ever do what we were doing.  It’s awesome to observe their facial expressions as they consider that.  Our students’ first experiences with Minecraft consisted of them logging into the world and learning the fundamental mechanics of the game (movement, breaking and placing blocks).  They were also introduced the chat system and we quickly discussed some basic limits on how much information we should share about ourselves.

A few more observations:

  • The students were abuzz with excitement when they came into the lab.  One particularly inquisitive student had spent quite a bit of time researching Minecraft on Youtube prior to Friday (See where they go to learn?).
  • Our 45 minutes flew by entirely too quickly and the kids realized it, too.
  • I think our administrators, who were there to observe, would agree that the speed at which the kids adapted to the controls was amazing.
  • Engagement was through the roof.
  • Students were very willing and eager to share what they were learning with their classmates.
  • In most cases, I refused to give them direct instruction about how to deal with the first problems they encountered, the most common of which was, “I’ve dug myself into a hole… How do I get out?”
  • I only used admin commands once to get a student who’d fallen into a deep and lightless cavern out because the glare of florescent lights on the screen made it nearly impossible to orient himself.
  • Adding the “shipwrecked explorers” element to the story helped provide a context for their overall challenge of cooperatively building a town.
  • One of the first thing that many of the students did was try to hit other players in the game.  My advice to them was “Go ahead and get it out of your system and see that it’s a waste of time so we can get on with our real challenge.”  This is normal gaming behavior.  You test the boundaries, limits, and rules of the game world.  That’s probably really important in sandbox games, where those limits are not well-defined.  I did, however, inform them that we won’t be harassing or destroying another student’s work and if they insisted on engaging in behavior like that, we could easily find a replacement.  …I don’t anticipate any issues there. :)
  • Especially due to our short time frame, a little more up-front guidance is going to be required if we are to achieve our end goals.  This has caused my anticipated direction for the second class to shift slightly, so, I’ll be headed to the store this weekend to pick up some graph paper and small composition notebooks.
  • Communication between schools will be a  challenge if we limit it to in-world chat.  We may integrate Skype in the coming weeks.
  • Feedback at the close from students was positive all around the room and they were reluctant to leave.

I felt really good about our initial outcomes.  When you try something new like this, it’s difficult to guess what it will look like.  You have to be flexible.  Having other educators on board can help you capture some of the “amazing” that’s going on around you that you might overlook.  My best advice, assume it will be messy.  Good learning always is.

-Lucas

Minecraft in School? Yes!

Characters in MinecraftYes, I know I’m late to this game.  How did I miss it?  About a month ago, I started noticing Minecraft popping up in education technology discussions.  I’d heard of the game before and after a very cursory glance dismissed it.  This growing buzz I began to hear, though, got me asking around.  Of course, who had answers to my questions?  Students!  One even said, “Here’s my account info, try it out.”  So I did.

Within 20 minutes of game play, I’d shelled out the $20 to buy my own account.  There is something incredibly compelling about this game.  Don’t let the funny 8-bit-looking graphics fool you.  There’s more here than meets the eye. …much more.  Why?  Because this is a true sandbox game.  A sandbox game is a virtual world that allows free-roaming with almost no artificial barriers.  On top of this, this is a building/creating game.  Yes, punching trees for wood may seem silly at first, but then you find that you can construct things with the materials you’re collecting.  A few pieces of wood yield planks, four of these planks yield a crafting  table. And from there, a world of building potential is opened up. Within an hour or so of play, I’d constructed a makeshift castle and had begun to dig deep underground to find iron, coal, and other resources to build a variety of tools.

So, what do I, the educator-gamer do next?  Of course I put on my teacher glasses and begin to ask, “How could I use this with students?”  Immediately the ideas begin to come to mind.  Here are a few of my early brainstorms:

  • Give students login information and have them all log into a school-hosted multiplayer server (Yes, you can host your own private server).  Tell them they have arrived on a deserted(?) island (think Lost, maybe?).  They need to work together to build a society.  Who will gather resources?  Who will build?  Who will plan?  How will they feed themselves?  How will they defend themselves from the skeletons/creepers at night (though these villains could be turned off as a feature).  The key here is to have them plan and write all of this based on their in-world experiences.
  • Have students journal daily life on their island as though they were a real person in a real place.  Imagine… “Day 1 – Not sure how I got here.  Haven’t seen another person.  All was fine until nightfall.  I began to hear a groaning sound in the forest and that’s when I saw the zombies.  Now I’m holed up in a cave hoping they go away.”
  • Have students think of a real-world machine and attempt to recreate it in their Minecraft world.  People have even made basic computers out of Minecraft materials.  Yes, it can be that complex.  You can craft circuits with basic logic functions out a material called redstone.  Players have built working rail stations, musical instruments, and more.

Of course the multiplayer potential for the game opens up lots of collaborative opportunity.  Imagine different classes working together to build something, different grade levels, or even students from schools in two different parts of the world!

Other folks are talking about this game’s potential as well.  Check out Bryan Alexander‘s posts on the topic.  John McLear has a nice post on the topic as well.  Also, check out this interesting discussion on the same topic at Minecraft Forums.

Some of the principals in my district have asked me for ideas for a project similar to the WoWinSchool Project for earlier grades, either as an elective or a club.  I think Minecraft would be suitable for 4th through 8th graders (many high schoolers would certainly enjoy it too, though).  What are you thoughts?  Let’s here them!

-Lucas

Leveraging the Power of Gamers to Shape the Future

Brandon Sheffield, writer for Gamasutra, covered Jane McGonigal’s talk at the Game Developer’s Conference, which is going on this week.  In her talk, Ms. McGonigal made some very poignant remarks about the nature of massively multiplayer online games (MMO’s), why they’re so successful, and how there’s true potential in the medium.  Of course, her remarks have some powerful implications for educational gaming:

Positive psychology is coming to the conclusion that multiplayer games are the ultimate sustainer of happiness.

This observation is based on her research that MMO’s replicate what she feels humans crave:  satisfying work, the experience of being good at something, spending time with people we like, and being part of something bigger than ourselves.

She goes on to suggest that virtual game worlds provide a space that fosters collaboration.  Based on the estimated time it took to create Wikipedia (~100 million mental hours), she says that the collective time and efforts of World of Warcraft players could create it in five days.  She then goes on to make a statement that, could easily be applied to education in these sorts of environments:

There’s no reason why we can’t take real world work and real world problems and seductively conceal it in a game world. Gamers have no problem doing work and doing collaborative things, you just have to figure out how to make them care about it.

In my view, that’s one of the key potentials of serious games, especially virtual worlds.  They provide a context and environment in which students work together toward a shared goal.  The challenge of what she mentions will be providing quality instruction and learning goals that are meaningful to the learners while not being particularly overt about it.

-Lucas