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Minecraft wins over Victorians

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If there was a time when the idea of games in education was left field it isn’t any more as Victoria rolls out Minecraft Education Edition to all students in the public system. It’s the second biggest program of its kind in the world.

The kind of engagement that kids show when they’re playing video games has long been coveted by educators, and the idea is that giving teachers Minecraft means they can now access that kind of immersion in their practice.

There is some convincing evidence that Minecraft performs as billed, the students certainly do like to use it and there is something about the freedom within the game, the ability to collaborate or go it alone and the necessity of solving problems that develops the kinds of skills that future employment will require.

Travis Smith, Teacher Engagement Manager from Microsoft says “It’s all about the skills agenda, the Victorian Department of Education who we work with closely has a very strong commitment to making sure students are prepared for jobs of the future. Minecraft Education Edition has been aligned with that vision.”

The software encourages the development of computational thinking skills, which are about problem solving and an approach to problem solving; breaking challenges down into their individual parts, finding patterns, finding small solutions and then building algorithms by putting those smaller solutions together.

Smith says computational thinking skills are often hard for teachers to teach while Minecraft’s format suits the kind of self-directed, inquiry based activity that encourages the development of those abilities. 

He is hesitant to call Minecraft a game, and says that “Minecraft Education Edition is a different version of the software than most people would be familiar with. It’s more akin to the way I used to play with Lego than the way I used to play Donkey Kong.

“It’s an open platform for collaboration, for thinking, for exploring stuff, for building things, like a modern Lego. When teachers wrap good curriculum around it, then you can certainly build not only computational thinking skills but collaborative skills as well.”

And teachers continue to develop their own creative ways of using Minecraft. One wanted students to learn about a democratic versus a dystopian society, so the students were organised into the two camps and each had to build a Minecraft world which reflected the type of society each approach would create.

“The characters had to behave in a democratic or a dystopian manner while they were building the world, so they were experiencing democracy or dystopia while they were building.”

So you can imagine the kind of learning the kids were accessing; fun, unexpected, a bit chaotic and hilarious.

Another teacher in Sydney was interested in developing some lessons around the gold rush, investigating the class system that evolved during the time. Students generated their ideas of what currency was and made characters based on the different classes of miners, some had all of the tools they needed and others didn’t, called a limited inventory in Minecraft.

The students were able to see how the society played out, observe the behaviour of the characters, whether they were able to achieve what they set out to and analyse it from a human perspective; what it would feel like, what effects it had on the class structure.

“The way that great teachers can use Minecraft is very, very powerful, when great teachers get great tools they can do amazing things with them,” Smith says.

New features are being added to the Minecraft world all the time, one of those is a chemistry feature which lets you build chemical compounds like latex to make balloons and the helium to fill them.

The coding element in the education edition allows students to program a character through a block based coding interface or Java and have that character perform tasks for them.

“If they’re learning something in mathematics where they’re learning about geometry or shapes they can have their agent build it for them. If the code isn’t right, they can look at the screen and see that it isn’t what they intended to be built so there is something wrong.”

Pretty much everyone begins to learn coding with a drag and drop interface and Minecraft lets users make a start with drag and drop and then swap to Java.

“It’s nice to have that progression from the basics of block based to the more advanced Java programing,” Smith says.

Minecraft is an evolving, fluid thing, there’s a growing, already huge, library of lesson plans and the aquatic update has been recently added, so students can explore an underwater world which can feed into environmental impact studies or the investigation of aquatic species.

Teachers can have classroom mode turned on where they can access an aerial view so they can see where students are in a Minecraft world, drop in for observation or introduce non-playing characters which can be put in the world to guide the next step in learning.

One of the areas where teachers have struggled in past versions Minecraft is assessment.

“Students can use a camera and take selfies of whatever they have built that exports out as jpegs and create a video to display their understanding, or build a presentation,” Smith says.    

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