The 7 C’s of Minecraft: Education Edition

 

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Minecraft in Education is on the cusp a new era.  A new dawn of integration into classrooms and learning environments across the globe and we eagerly await the launch of the full, licensed product that schools will stump up valuable cash for.  The marketing has been done, the conferences have been spoken at and the webinars delivered.  You’ve experienced the “wow”, so what about the “How”?  While for many will mean “How do I get started?” or even “How do I do X?”, for me it has led me to ask…

…”How would I do Minecraft Education Edition?”.  With a blank canvas to work on and a bottomless pit of resources, what would my Minecraft Education Edition look like?  For me there are 7 C’s that are at the very core of my vision of Minecraft in Education.  Read on and let’s reignite this discussion of growth and development starting, as every learning experience should, with the curriculum.

Curriculum

There are some incredible examples out there of learning explored within a Minecraft environment that the community and early innovators have developed and nurtured over the years.  There are new and exciting projects being completed every day.  But are the resources shared?  Not as widely or as completely as you might think.  In the frantic life of a classroom educator, sharing and uploading resources for others to use is pretty far down the list of priorities regardless of the good intentions of the individual.  The priority must always be towards the teachers own students.  My Minecraft Education Edition would ease this burden by providing a starter pack of world resources that an educator could pick up and teach across the curriculum with.  They would be designed by experienced educators and built by experienced builders.  They would form a core of expandable resources from which an educator could anchor and then develop their curriculum.  The resources would be underpinned by solid curriculum outcomes but be open enough to be easily adaptable or expandable by an educator to suit their own intended outcomes.  I would have a team of educators on hand to listen to the requests of the community and either offer advice or develop the resource to be added to the bank for the benefit of all.  Solid, subject specific, curriculum based resources, built and developed by and for educators would be at the absolute cornerstone of my Minecraft Education Edition.  This wouldn’t dictate how an educator used them but would provide a solid foundation on which they could build and develop their own resources.

Creation

Creating in game learning environments takes time.  A lot of time.  The wider Minecraft community have agreed with this for many years and many gifted coders and content creators have developed tools, skills and knowledge that streamline the process.  You want a dome on top of your tower?  There’s a tool for that.  You need an armada of ships approaching your port?  There’s another tool for that.  You’ve spent an hour creating a build area for one learner and now need 29 more exactly the same?  There’s a tool for that!  In my Minecraft classroom I’d be able to draw from these tools freely.  They’d use a common interface that made simple sense because I’d worked with the tool’s creators to develop one.  I’d be able to take a building from one world and drop it into the landscape from another.  My ability to create immersive learning environments wouldn’t be hindered by my ability to create in Minecraft!  The wider Minecraft community struggled with this problem years ago and solved it in many creative ways.  They coded solutions and tools that made their building easier and more efficient (not to mention more impressive).  In my Minecraft Education Edition, I’d have a creation package of tools that drew from the very best that the community had to offer but that operated in a simple and easy to understand way so that even the most novice Minecraft Educators could pick them up and create.

Collaboration

Within Office365 I can share documents and files with whomever I choose.  I can give them a copy of the file or I can give them editing permissions so we can collaborate on the same document in real time.  We can chat at the side of the document or even jump into a Skype call to discuss what the other is doing.  I can set up a class OneNote document with a few clicks of an email list and I then have full access to what my students are doing, how they are progressing and what feedback and guidance they need.  I call this “teaching” for ease of reference and it works pretty well across all sorts of mediums.

Within Minecraft I would have very similar collaboration tools.  I would have a simple collaboration option so I could invite another educator to collaborate on a build with me from wherever they may be and whatever their email domain may end with.  Likewise, I would have a simple user name list of learners I wanted to access a particular world.  I would be able to add any user from across the globe with the simple input of a username, email address or even domain ending (for example: xxx@anyschool.com).  In my Minecraft Education Edition, I would be able to collaborate with hundreds of others at once across any area of the globe and on any platform they happened to be working on and it would all be done with a simple username/email address click.

Community

I have blogged before about community and the power of collective working.  Suffice to say that this is one of the most important and valuable resources available to a Minecraft Educator.  The wider Minecraft community is a vast, vibrant and varied organic being.  It moves, shifts, innovates, shares and collaborates and produces something that is far more than the sum of its parts.  There are many ways that this community interacts, from private teams working on secret projects, to public forums sharing knowledge and support widely.  For a community to be successful however it needs a degree of organisation but it must be self-governing as to what this organisation looks like.  Some prefer to post in open message boards while others prefer to connect with individuals directly on Social Media.  My community would draw from all of these but would be centrally collated for ease of access.  Support is a huge factor and I would have experienced educators on hand to help out, advise and collaborate at short notice.  Nothing new here and the community has been doing this in abundance for years.  I would add in regular events (both physical local geographical and large scale virtual) to connect educators often and encourage the growth and sharing of skills and ideas widely.  There would be a Minecraft space running around the clock where educators could connect and try out new things together, seek advice and support each other.  Above all my community would be freely accessible and open to all.

Communication

This falls into several categories within Minecraft: digital, real life, virtual, and information.

The digital, in game chat has a very limited place in my classroom.  It can be used very effectively with students that find social communication difficult but for the vast majority of learners, it is an unnecessary distraction that keeps them from the intended learning.  Very few students in my classroom have ever typed anything into chat that was more constructive than saying the same thing in real life and often typed things that were more destructive.  The real life communications we have face to face in a classroom are far more powerful than any other.  I’d have the ability to turn off chat for all users in my classroom.

The virtual communication offered by mediums such as Skype or Beam are much more powerful in a constructive way.  They break down the barriers of classroom walls or geography and connect us globally in an instant.  In my Minecraft classroom I’d be able to quickly launch a group Skype session or Beam my session to a list of users I had been working with.  I’d also be able to communicate collaboratively via documents using the same user list I had in my Minecraft space.  So in effect my class Outlook group would also be my user group in Minecraft and in OneNote or in any other medium I choose to communicate with them.

The communication of information is an absolute minefield in Minecraft.  Signs are ignored by the vast majority of recreational players consuming adventure maps for fun.  Present a learner with 3 lines of text on a sign and they will ignore it unless I build in a purpose to the reading; add a chalk board with many lines of extended text and it may as well be written in hieroglyphics for many learners.  Deliver the text via a character in the game and it may be clicked on but will it be read and understood?  In my Minecraft classroom I would be able to deliver information in a variety of ways.  I’d have sound files play when a learner enters an area, I’d have on screen text displayed that matched the sound file and I’d have a OneNote (for example) document launch with the relevant text added to it.  I’d have chalkboards displaying a whole PowerPoint slide or YouTube clip.  I’d have NPC’s talking to learners and giving them things they need for the next learning phase.  I’d be able to communicate information using the myriad mediums we use in our non-Minecraft lessons but within the Minecraft environment.

Control

While developing 21st Century Digital Citizenship skills is all well and good it has limited space in my 1 hour session on Shakespeare.  If little Johnny is mining the depths of a chasm in search of diamonds for his sword to enable him to attack Jennifer, I want to be able to stop him in his tracks and bring him back onto the learning track.  Now sure enough, it could prompt a detailed discussion about the rights and wrongs of what makes a contributory, as opposed to a destructive citizen and the group would learn and grow as a result.  But (and it is a big “but”), that is not the intended learning of my session.  I need to deliver a learning outcome within the session time constraints and therefore I need to have control of the environment to ensure these can be delivered.  I’d be able to stop Johnny in his tracks, take his diamonds from him and move him back to the learning area so that he could get on with learning about Shakespeare.  Over time I may use these controls less and less and I may even completely ignore them eventually as my experience and confidence within the Minecraft learning environment grows, but from the outset I want omnipotent control over every aspect of the environment and what happens within it.

Coding

Now this is the one area that I am least experienced to speak about.  I’m an English teacher after all.  I see command block experts make the environment behave in ways I could only imagine.  I see coders create tools that boggle the mind in their creativity.  Even from my limited experience point I see the potential for using Minecraft to teach and develop coding skills.  It is clear however that whatever shape my coding took, the effects of the code must be demonstrated in the Minecraft environment.  I’d draw from the best that the modding, command blocking and Raspberry Pi Minecraft communities have to offer and work with them to create a unique, in game, coding experience.

There you have it.  My 7 C’s of Minecraft and my blue sky thinking on how I’d do it.  I have been deliberately ambiguous and contentious in some places in order to promote discussion and reignite the passion for innovation that so vibrantly lit the community in the early days.  How would you do it?  What have I missed?  What have I got completely wrong?  I’d love to know your thoughts so as always your comments and replies would be gratefully appreciated.  Let’s reignite this discussion of growth and shape the future of Minecraft in Education together from the chalk face!

Minecraft: Education Edition – Don’t Teach Minecraft. Teach!

Minecraft Stories

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Educator:  “What can I teach with Minecraft?”

Me:  “What are you teaching next week?”

The question I am most often asked (aside from the ones that start “How do I…” regarding a particular feature) is “What can I teach with Minecraft?”.  My default answer is always the same: “What are you teaching next week?”.  It may sound like a dismissive, “cover all” answer but it really is essential.  And it doesn’t for one second imply that the educator should be delivering every single learning experience that week using Minecraft.  What it does is focus the educator on learning.

I have seen so many educators using Minecraft in sessions and Tweeting pictures of pixel art alongside a first night hut and a TNT cannon.  While I am sure the learners developed lots of “soft skills” in the sessions, I am always left asking “What was the intended learning outcome in these sessions?  How did learners demonstrate what they had learned?  How did it relate to curriculum outcomes?”.

Now there is a lot published about the skills developed using play as a medium for learning.  There is more again about the transferrable skills involved in using Minecraft as a collaboration medium in an educational setting.  For most school leaders, parents and sceptical educators, however, this simply won’t cut it.  They don’t want to see an activity that has had learning outcomes “crowbarred” onto them as a justification.  They want to see outcomes that are measurable and sustained.

So, yes, Minecraft has heaps of potential for exploring and developing “soft skills” and “21st Century Learning” and I am in no way taking anything away from this.  But what about demonstrable learning outcomes within a given curriculum area?  What about the stuff we are doing now, every day in our classrooms?  The solid curriculum stuff that today’s education comprises.

By asking the question “What are you teaching next week?”, what I am actually doing is asking the educator to consider several different options.  Let’s say they give me five things they are wanting to cover next week.  There will be something within those suggestions that prompts the question “Could you…?”.  When I am planning my non Minecraft lessons I ask this question more than any other.  “Could I use X app?”, “Could it be better with Y approach?” or “Could little Johnny do it better if he used Z?”.  It leads to a whole discussion with educators around what learning is being explored, what outcomes are expected and how those outcomes can be realised and demonstrated.

So start with the learning in mind, not the Minecraft!  Here are my top five tips for keeping the core thing, the core thing:

  1. Start with what you are teaching next.  If you were going to cover it in class over the next few weeks, then chances are it is based on solid curriculum content and attached to demonstrable learning outcomes.  These should always be the core starting point of all your planning, not just planning a Minecraft learning session.
  2. Think about how you were planning to teach the next thing. If you are delivering content, could this be prepared using a premade Minecraft environment?  So you were going to have students examine the structure of cells: could you set up that structure in Minecraft for them to explore?
  3. What activities were you going to incorporate? Look for ways to incorporate a blended approach to your Minecraft sessions.  Sometimes immersion is best where there is no break from the Minecraft experience and sometimes it is best to have students constantly refer to research notes or discuss with their team of collaborators.
  4. Re-imagine the learning. Look for opportunities to explore and demonstrate to learning in ways that would be impossible without this rich digital environment.  This could be anything from interacting with historical figures to actually following blood cells as they flow through the cardiovascular system.
  5. Keep the core thing, the core thing! Never start your planning with what you want learners to do in Minecraft (unless of course Minecraft skills are specified in your curriculum area).  And never try to press artificial learning outcomes onto an activity you think will be fun in Minecraft.  This learning will be shallow and short lived.  Look for ways to enrich the learning experience and explore new ways to demonstrate learning but have clear outcomes in mind at the very outset of planning.

Reach out to the community either through a Minecraft Mentor or via the #MinecraftEdu on Twitter if you have any questions regarding anything in this blog.  As always, your feedback in the comments would be gratefully received regarding your own journey and feel free to connect if you have any questions or support needs that I can help with.

Minecraft: Education Edition and the Power of Community

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Humans are social creatures; thriving when we form groups, networks and social structures.  We are often an active part of hundreds of different community networks including family, work and interest groups.  How we connect with and interact with those communities contributes to how successfully we operate both as an individual and a collective.  A community can be an incredibly powerful organism of connected individuals that add up to far more than the sum of their parts.  The Minecraft community is one such group (albeit one larger than many nations on Earth).

Part of the success of Minecraft is that it doesn’t come with a user guide!  Most people pick up the basics of moving, mining, building and crafting pretty quickly but that will only get you so far.  I absolutely guarantee you, that nobody created their first Nether Portal through individual experimentation.  So they must have reached out to the community in some way, choose whether that be a friend, family member, work colleague, Google search or YouTuber.  Every query, search result, image and YouTube video has a community member behind it.  Someone that has already made the journey you are embarking on and has trodden the ground and left a path.  Every idea, step, failure and achievement made and shared, strengthens that path and shifts it from a trail to a super highway over time.  The community knowledge is greater for it.  As is the way of every community across the globe.

My Minecraft Community

My community of connections within the broader Minecraft community are personal to my perspective and my journey just as yours will be to you.  When I set out to write this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t name anyone for fear of missing someone off the list but suffice to say there are some incredibly selfless, generous, helpful, knowledgeable, creative, funny and all round fabulous people out there that have supported me over the years.  My thanks go out to each and every one of them and, yes, I even mean you at the back there!  But that isn’t the point of this blog at all.

When I started out with Minecraft in my classroom, I was both daunted and excited.  I used Twitter as my primary community connection tool (although I consequently discovered other routes, this remains my primary tool) so I followed Minecrafters widely and not just Teachers and Educators.  I followed YouTubers, Map Builders, Coders, Command Block experts, MCEdit Filter Writers, Digital Artists and Consultants, as well as amazing chalk face Teachers doing incredible things with Minecraft in their own classrooms.  Whenever I was stumped or needed help, I Tweeted.  Without exception, my cries for help were answered quickly and my skills grew.  When I felt confident enough to start sharing my experiences, I did, and people reached out to me for help.  I tried to either advise or refer them on to someone that could, as quickly as possible.

With “The Baddlands” came my first ever publically shared Minecraft in Education resource (download it from education.minecraft.net).  Until now, I never felt confident enough to share either my builds or my lesson plans with the community.  Sure, I shared ideas and solutions and I took part in many Skype support sessions with other developing practitioners but I never felt confident enough in my own skills to share until now.  Having put something out there, albeit as basic as it was, I have to say I wish I had done it years ago!  I spoke at several conferences, conventions and teach meets (and even on BBC Breakfast) about what I was doing, before I felt confident enough to share the resources.  With the launch of the new “Classroom” additions to Minecraft: Education Edition in September, and the additional community support and collaboration tools it will bring, there has never been a better or easier time or way to share your resources.  So why not take a chance and put something out there?

A Brave New World

As Minecraft: Education Edition becomes more established and grows its user base, so too the wider community will grow.  The diversity of experience and skill this will bring is something that I personally am very excited about.  I am very much looking forward to growing along with an entirely new generation of Minecraft Teachers and Educators and collaborating in ways that have yet to be explored and using platforms, tools, ideas and approaches that have yet to be invented.  So consider yourself a trail blazer, an innovator and an explorer and connect as widely as you can to forge this brave new world into a thriving, living, breathing community of growth.

Now you will come across things that frustrate you.  I have many times, in my Minecraft in Education journey.  Sometimes this is due to a knowledge gap and my community are amazing at plugging these.  Sometimes they are due to a narrowing of vision; I have got myself so far into a mine of discovery that I have reached a dead end and have lost sight of the many other mineshafts of approaches I could have taken to achieve my ends.  Now occasionally, I exhaust all avenues and still find myself frustrated by either a missing feature or tool.  If I’ve learned anything from the team at Microsoft, it is that they are absolutely open to any suggestions, feedback and ideas that the Education Community have to offer.  They are not always feasible but they are always listened to.  So feel free to Tweet @PlayCraftLearn or submit via the user voice at http://education.minecraft.net/support/

Top 5 Tips for Creating Your Own Minecraft Community

Reach Out:  The world of Minecraft in Education can be daunting and outside your comfort zone (trust me when I say it will NOT be outside your learners’ comfort zone).  There is a wealth of experience out there just ready, willing and keen to be shared.  The Minecraft Mentor programme is a great place to start your search but please don’t be put off by the experience of the Mentors.  No question is too small, too big or too complicated and there is no such thing as a “stupid question”.  One thing I will urge you to keep in mind however is that the Minecraft Mentors are volunteer Teachers and Educators, that are giving their time freely without re-numeration, in order to support the future development of the community and its educational impact.  Be nice and please be patient, they are often fitting your queries in and amongst full time jobs as teachers!

Share Your Journey:  Don’t be afraid to Tweet, Blog or share your journey in any way you find natural or comfortable.  Please don’t be intimidated by the things you see others doing.  Your journey is personal to you and your learners and is absolutely worth sharing, the negatives and positives.  You will often find others doing similar things that will connect, collaborate and suggest additions or improvements you hadn’t thought of.  Tweet a picture (use the hashtag #MinecraftEdu to connect with other likeminded Teachers and Educators) to start with and see what the response is.  It may just surprise you!

Share Your Discoveries:  If you see something that grabs your interest, share it with your own community.  If you’ve been offered advice, had a solution to a problem suggested or used a great resource then share it with your community.  You will not only be helping others grow but be growing your own learning.  Teaching others is a skill that both consolidates and solidifies learning in any learner.

Follow Widely:  Your Personal Learning Network may consist solely of Teachers & Educators, at the minute, who are sharing the latest and most innovative practise within your field.  Don’t be afraid to ask the most basic question, everyone has to start somewhere. Be prepared to expand this network and integrate into a whole new community of people. Some you may regard as “the elite”, some you may regard as “the watchers”.  Never, be afraid to ask the simplest of questions because someone somewhere will be happy to help and they may be a step further than you.  The broader Minecraft community, is as diverse as it is vibrant and amazing things are done outside the field of education that can be easily adapted and integrated into your own practise.  You may even have the best source of information and inspiration sitting in your classroom every day.  Open your mind, diversify your knowledge, consumption of input and great things will happen.

Take Time To Play:  This cannot be understated.  I make a point of sitting with my son every night to watch his favourite Minecraft YouTubers and to play multiplayer with him at least twice a week.  This connection with what captures the imaginations of our young people keeps me constantly “on my toes” in terms of what I incorporate into my classroom learning.  How I like to play, differs from how my son likes to play Minecraft and this diversifies both our experiences and skills.  He remains my “go to” expert in my community when it comes to Red Stone.  The connection with “play” is something that we often lose as adults due to time constraints but something which very much governs how our young people learn.  If we have lost the ability to play, how can we connect with the ability to learn?

The Bottom Line

Your Minecraft Community will become a vibrant and stimulating personal web of support and encouragement if you engage with it.  The relationships you create and nurture will reward you many times over, as they will in any other community.  And never be put off by the experiences of others or be afraid of your own voice.  I stand by the mantra; “Never judge your own Day One by someone else’s Day One Thousand”.  Share widely, engage often and nurture your own Minecraft Community so that every day of your development matters.

Minecraft:Education Edition and the Power of Immersive Engagement

Minecraft Story Village

Minecraft: Education Edition and the Power of Immersive Engagement

For fifteen years, I have taught English in some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK and worked with some of the most disaffected learners that main stream education has to offer.  Learners that face significant social, emotional, behavioural and developmental barriers to learning, with low self-esteem and even lower aspirations for their future.  My absolute core, driving educational principle is that education is the key to unlock a world of opportunities beyond the cycle of social and economic deprivation that some of my learners are currently trapped within.

For my learners, education is often a scary experience which triggers a “fight or flight” response.  From their perspective, English was very much “Here’s a bunch of words that I don’t understand, can’t read and don’t really want to try and work out.  How do I avoid showing my peers that I “can’t”?”  If my lessons are to have any kind of lasting effect, I have to overcome this emotional response and engage the mind of the young person before their body has time to formulate an escape plan.

I was fortunate enough to attend a professional development day some time ago led by Hywell Roberts on the power of accidental learning and the “Mantle of the Expert”.  It unified in my mind several strains of practise I had been trying out and gave meaning and direction to an approach that had been transforming my classroom.

My planning became driven by a simple but crucial question: How can I make this learning feel less like work?  The hunt was on for approaches and strategies that could sugar coat the learning pill or immerse learners so significantly in a scenario that the learning could get close enough to my learners for them to engage with it before it scared them off.  I transformed my learners into “genuine fake” expert movie makers, interior designers, zoologists, astronauts and game designers.  We explored technology, got messy with play and experimented with failure in the pursuit of learning.

Then I discovered Minecraft and my world changed yet again.

Here was an environment within which my learners could become immersed so that they experiment without fearing the failures, create without fear of judgement and explore without fear of getting lost.  They failed to trigger an explosion many times before they succeeded but, when they did, their explanation of how they did it was written from the perspective of an actual expert not one I’d engineered for them.  They created and iterated characters, settings and story structures without the fear of their ideas being judged by their peers.  They explored polar ice caps, developed sustainable living solutions, visited historical settings and wandered freely without fear of getting lost, getting hurt or getting it wrong.  Ask them what they had done in those sessions and their response would have been “We played Minecraft” not “We learned how to write a persuasive speech”.  Learners were so significantly immersed within a Minecraft world that the emotional “fight or flight” response hadn’t had time to take hold before the engagement had drawn them in.  But the learning was very real, quantifiable and measurable.

I structured the sessions and projects carefully, without being overly prescriptive in how things were to progress.  There was room for flexibility, creativity and individuality without leaving gaps for deviation and distraction.  Simulation and exploration were key elements of the sessions to try and maximise the potential for immersion.  I found there were far greater outcomes when learners had a base on which to build their ideas.  Giving them a central village to expand and anchor to,  created far more purposeful sessions than simply starting with a blank canvas world.  But I always structured the learning around a central “expert” scenario which empowered learners with credibility and purpose.  Learners took risks, experimented and eventually collaborated like I’d never seen before and none of it ever felt like “work” to them.

So how should you go about creating Immersive and Engaging Learning in your own Minecraft learning space?  Here are my top 5 tips:

1. Set up a scenario.  The power of immersion within Minecraft is huge.  Add a little back story and role play to take immersion to the next level within the environment.  Don’t just explore geographical features in the terrain; turn the learners into geologists studying a new land and reporting back to a panel of “genuine fake” experts.

2. Keep the core thing, the core thing.  Plan your project with the key learning in mind from the outset.  Never approach a project with what you want to do in Minecraft but with what you want to learn as the core driver.  Then add a scenario with a back story giving purpose and direction to the learning and an added layer of immersion.

3. Failure is Fine.  If we want experimental learners that take risks and try out new things we need to model that behaviour ourselves.  Engineer situations in which failure is a key factor towards success.  And don’t worry about things going wrong with the project; identify, iterate and move on.

4. Don’t be the expert in the room.  Empower learners with a scenario in which they are the expert or with a journey that will result in them feeling like an expert when they emerge.  Guide them from the side of the learning rather than leading by the hand.  And always add a role for yourself within the scenario which you can fulfil without breaking the immersion factor.

5. Ask and promote the asking of questions.  A curious mind is a great thing and inquisitive learners are a joy to work with.  For some it comes naturally but it is also a learning behaviour which can be modelled and developed in those that find it less easy.  So question everything from “why have you chosen that place to build?” to “what would happen if..?”.  Model the asking of iterative questions that promote growth and development.  It never ceases to surprise me how quickly learners pick up on this and begin to use the language of iteration with their own work as well as with their peers.  Make the questioning part of the scenario.

As always, if your classroom feels much like mine, feel free to reach out and connect if you want to collaborate on an immersive learning project or if you want any advice or support adding these elements to your own practise.  Your comments would be gratefully received and engaged with.

Minecraft: Education Edition. Creating Stories in Minecraft

Minecraft Story Mountain

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Welcome to the Baddlands!!

The Baddlands is a literacy playground in which educators and learners are free to customize, adapt, build and create as they see fit.  From a starting point in the hills above a central village, the story unfolds as the exploration expands.  It evolves as your narrative develops.  Explore in it, build in it, play in it.  Create YOUR story, YOUR way!

Lesson Plan

https://sway.com/s/TxyVEgBHj1ZiomHJ/embed

Map Download Here

If you’d like to share what your group creates, connect with others using the Baddlands or collaborate with me on a project, feel free to get in touch.

Minecraft: Education Edition Beta – First Impressions

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Minecraft: Education Edition Beta

First Impressions

A new age has dawned in the Minecraft in Education world.  On May 2nd over 100 eager schools from over 30 countries finally got their hands on a small packet of code that had been hotly anticipated for many months.  Minecraft: Education Edition Beta had finally been released for testing.  And boy what a launch.

The group is made up of educators and students from diverse backgrounds, using myriad devices (albeit those running Windows 10 or OS X El Capitan) and drawing from a broad spectrum of experience.  In short, everything that makes the Minecraft community the rich and vibrant group it is today.  There were those eager to break their very first blocks, those that had used Minecraft outside of education and were looking forward to bringing it into their classrooms and those that had previously used various versions of Minecraft in their own classroom (including MinecraftEdu users).  All waited with baited breath for the announcement that the download link had gone live.

Now I would love to say that the initial launch days ran seamlessly however that is not the way of beta testing software.  There were hiccups and hurdles, bugs and broken bits with the Minecraft Education team worked tirelessly to solve and remove.  My personal experience was one of seamless installation and booting on my laptop and a slightly less than seamless installation on my Windows 10 Tablet.  The niggles and bugs and frustrations are irrelevant to me at this point.  I have every faith in the Microsoft team to release a solid package later in the spring for open testing that will have none of these things.  After all, that’s why there is a closed Beta, to catch these things before launch.

There are some features I am not allowed to write about here and some that I don’t want to until later in the spring.  One thing I do want to mention however is the link to an Office 365 account for schools.  This has caused everything from panic to hysteria to scepticism and cynicism.  I have been party to more conversations about “tenants, switches, hubs and IP’s” than I care to think about over the last few days.  As a collaboration platform I see its worth 100%.  But then I am a little more “bought in” to the Microsoft education package than some in the beta test and so am looking more towards an awesome future of seamless integration than those.

So what about the experience?

The familiar menu screens of Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition give way seamlessly to a world that runs like silk over ice.  I remember first booting the java platform Minecraft and then spending a good 10 minutes adjusting video options to get something running over 6fps.  The first thing I did on booting M:EE was turn all the display options up to maximum and go for a wander.  I cannot overstate how smooth the experience in world is.  Those of you experienced with java Minecraft will get what I mean within seconds of launching.  This thing runs like greased lightning and renders to horizon and beyond seamlessly!

There are a number of education specific features that have been added to this version (some of which I can’t talk about at the minute but suffice to say the future looks very bright indeed).  What I will mention is the Camera and Portfolio.  One of the biggest barriers to using Minecraft in a classroom has always be “How do I demonstrate student learning?”  Well here it is… and it works amazingly well!  Point the camera at what you’ve built and snap a shot to export into whatever document you wish.  Or place the camera and frame yourself (and your classmates if you can round them up) in the shot.  It tracks the player brilliantly, can be pre-placed by teachers at set points to structure the progression and exports seamlessly in a far more user friendly way than screenshots ever have before!  All these snaps are collated automatically into a handy Portfolio.  This looks very much like a scrap book of memories and allows the shots to be captioned and exported to enable their integration into other apps.  It works smoothly and has clearly been designed with education in mind.  Give us the ability to “geotag” the image with map coordinates and video capture as well as static snap and this pairing would knock the socks off anything similar in previous iterations.

OK so the beta isn’t without bugs, can’t handle any of the mods or build tools that we have relied on in the past and isn’t as fully featured as other versions (pistons anyone?) but as a platform on which the future of Minecraft in Education can be built, it is a great start point.  The Microsoft team are listening and open to any and all feedback from the community (whether you are involved in the beta test or not).  Now is the time to let your voice be heard.  Feedback

Minecraft: Education Edition and Office 365 Integration

Library
StoyLand Central Library – Simon Baddeley

When I first saw Minecraft Windows 10 Edition at Minecon 2015, my thoughts started buzzing around the potential that the Education Edition would have if it integrated with the Office 365 suite of applications.  This is where Microsoft can really push the limits of what has been previously possible for Minecraft in Education.

With a school Office 365 account, students can access the Office suite of applications on pretty much any device capable of accessing the internet.  With tools in there such as Sway, Mix and OneNote, the choice of mediums through which to explore and evidence learning in different ways is limited only by the imagination of the user.  Minecraft itself presents an almost limitless palette of learning potential.  If a student can use their Office 365 sign in to access Minecraft Education Edition on any device (I know it is limited to Windows 10 at the minute but read my thoughts on this here first) like they can the Office 365 suite then we can really push the boundaries of what is possible both within and beyond the classroom walls.

When I saw the news and screen shots emerging from BETT 2016, I was most struck by two things: the new camera and portfolio tools.  As an English teacher, the vast majority of my use of Minecraft in Education revolves around the exploration and creation of stories.  How to evidence these once created has previously been a somewhat cumbersome and disjointed affair.  Using screenshots from the Minecraft environments required a significant amount of file navigation resulting in a loss of actual learning time.  The ability to export these shots directly from the students’ portfolio into a specified OneDrive folder is a major step forward and allows much easier integration with other applications.  But why stop there?  If students were able to specify a default folder to always export to but were also asked which application to export directly into it would further cut file navigation time and leave more learning time.

For example, I have used PowerPoint to create Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories for a while now.  Students write the set up (paragraph one let’s say) on slide one of the presentation.  At the end of the paragraph the reader is presented with two options for continuing the story.  Students create hyperlinks from the first option to slide two where the story is continued along that progression path.  They also create a link from the second option to slide three where that progression path is explored.  I moved this into OneNote with linked pages and collaboration space so groups of students could work on different paths of the same story.  Sounds complicated but in practice it works well to instil the principles of paragraphing.  I developed this by having students build the story lines in a Minecraft environment and use a screenshot to illustrate the choices on offer.  If the camera tool allowed students to specify which slide or page in OneNote they wanted to export to, it would speed up this process exponentially.  If my learning intention is how to structure a story or when to start a new paragraph but the majority of the time is spent navigating folders, what am I really teaching my students?

One key development I’d like to see (and I strongly suspect it is already in the pipelines) is the ability to place the in game camera and have it follow the student whilst capturing video and audio.  The ability to demonstrate learning in game is key to the success of Minecraft in Education.  Having a student give a guided tour of their build or being able to capture their explanation of how they solved a redstone problem would be a really powerful learning tool.  From my perspective I would be able to capture role plays and video story pathways whilst still being able to export to OneNote to document and evidence the learning.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on Office 365 integration but I think you get the idea.  A single sign in to access both the suite of applications and the Minecraft environment is a massive step forward.  With the addition of in game tools that better communicate with this suite the learning potential is huge.  I am really excited to see how this develops.

Minecraft: Education Edition – Mayhem, Making and Mods

MCEdit Minecraft Building Tools

Some of the biggest concerns regarding Minecraft: Education Edition have surrounded the use of in game “mods”, managing the learning environment and creating content to use in lessons.  With the use of the Windows 10 Edition (or Pocket Edition as it essentially is) of Minecraft as a platform, none of the old favourites would work.  Custom NPC’s couldn’t be added to worlds, the MinecraftEdu tools and blocks would be gone and content creation and editing tools incompatible.  If you were an early adopter like me you will have come to grips with these things and learned ways to cut preparation time considerably while adding features that enrich the learning experience greatly.  So what are the implications for the new Education Edition of Minecraft?

Control!

Firstly let’s think about controlling the mayhem of students running around in a Minecraft world.  MinecraftEdu had a series of blocks, tools and settings that were invaluable to educators using Minecraft as a learning platform.  The ability to freeze students in game, teleport them out of a cave when they get lost or protect areas from being altered whilst allowing creation in others cannot be underestimated.  With the acquisition of MinecraftEdu by Microsoft it is fairly safe to say that these tools will be incorporated into the final release.  Some were even on show at BETT.  So we can breathe a collective sigh of relief over this one.  I am going to leave the addition of the camera and portfolio tools for the next blog as these tie in more with the subject of that.  Suffice to say they are some of the most exciting things to emerge from the BETT2016 early demonstration build.

Create!

Secondly; build tools!  One of the key features of MinecraftEdu was its own incorporated build tools.  The ability to place a block 50 blocks away from you rather than 5 meant less flying around positioning the camera and allowed an overview while building.  Being able to select a whole area and fill it with a certain block in order to build walls or place build allow blocks quickly avoided hours of flying backwards and forwards placing row upon row of blocks individually.  Tools designed to make map creation easier and quicker for teachers.

I have a love/hate relationship with tools such as WorldEdit and MCEdit.  I have blogged about their pro’s and cons before.  They are quirky and sometimes cumbersome to use but often invaluable.  Imagine building for 3 or 4 hours only to discover you were too close to that cliff all along and have run out of space just as you are about to add a key feature.  Or having to laboriously build a whole row of houses that are very similar.  A simple copy and paste function solves this problem quickly and allows easy editing of maps to suit different outcomes.

Similarly, the ability to import a schematic of a building or structure that meets your needs from one map to another is also a must.  However (and it is quite a big however) this schematic bank needs to be built from scratch in Windows 10 Edition or converted over from PC Edition.  I sincerely hope Microsoft include a set of build/edit tools and that they use established build teams, working in conjunction with teachers to stock a schematics bank that can be easily accessed (as well as added to by teachers themselves of course) and easily imported into maps.  The lesson bank they are adding to the website hints at this already so on this one I am holding my breath rather than breathing a sigh of relief.

Command!

Finally; those pesky “mods”!  Packets of code that “modify” the way the game works.  MinecraftEdu is effectively a modification to the core game of Minecraft itself.  It did, however, allow teachers to add other mods alongside it.  For example, teachers could install ComputerCraftEdu which uses the in game environment to teach coding principles (Think of the code.org Minecraft coding application but actually in game using cute little turtles!).

Now, I have never liked using mods personally.  In a lab of 30 PC’s, they mean accessing the Minecraft directory on each individual machines and manually copying the file across to each one.  They sometimes interfere negatively with the way the game works or stop it working altogether.  However certain mods really add to the educational experience teachers are able to create.  Take “Custom NPCs” as an example.  You know those computer controlled villagers that wander around offering to trade you items?  They can be modified to perform certain tasks like, for example, sending students off on a quest to retrieve pages from a book or revealing information about a story.  They serve a very real and valid educational purpose and both enhance and enrich the learning experience on offer.

Here, however, is where I differ from many in the Minecraft Education community.  When teachers cry out that they love certain mods and what they bring to the experience what I actually think they mean is that they have found a mod which serves a particular purpose in enhancing the learning experience they can offer.  I think there is a golden opportunity here to do it differently, more efficiently and more with more stability than ever.

What I actually want to see is the ability to set up in game quests and learning progression paths as a core feature of the package.  MinecraftEdu teachers used mods and command blocks when in actual fact, all they were looking for, was a way to structure and enhance learning in the Minecraft environment.  By adding things like the camera and portfolio Microsoft have basically thrown down the pedagogical gauntlet and said that they are prepared to add whatever it takes to enhance learning!  Microsoft will tick off a large number of doubting teachers that previously utilised mods to achieve their learning aims if they include new functionality that caters to the needs these mods filled.  Of course integration with Office 365 will play a huge part in that (and something that I am really excited to explore) but I’ll save that for the next blog.

Since I’ve mentioned command blocks I may as well explore my thoughts on them here too.  Command Blocks (CB’s from here on in) are notoriously difficult to learn to work with.  This makes the achievements of the CB Masters even more impressive.  It is possible to do some truly incredible things with a few (OK maybe not a few) lines of CB code in a Minecraft world.  Try incorporating them when you create content for a lesson however and you will quickly realise how skilled the CB masters really are!  So why not reinvent them for the Education Edition?  Code.org’s “Hour of Code” clearly demonstrated the engagement power of Minecraft to learn coding.  So how about a cross over?  If Microsoft look at the most useful CB functions to enhance the learning experience and add these as a “drag and drop” coding feature it would add new realms of learning possibilities to the classroom Minecraft experience.  But why stop there? Bring the full “hour of code” package into the “in game” environment as ComputerCraftEdu did?  I urge Microsoft to start with the basics on this one (from an enriching learning point of view).  Speak to teachers about the most used CB functions, what they would like to do and how they would enhance learning and build those in first.  Alongside the “Hour of Code” principles of course.

In short, teachers need the tools to manage the in game learning experience and create the content they want quickly and efficiently and easily in order to fully exploit the learning opportunities that Minecraft offers.  If Microsoft speak to teachers widely, early adopters of MinecraftEdu and the Minecraft community in general (which I’m sure they have and will do more widely) I’m pretty sure they’ll reach the same conclusions as I have here… if they haven’t done so already.  Minecraft ignited a touch paper of collaboration and creativity within the educational world of the early adopters community.  Microsoft, are you listening?

Next: emptying my head on Minecraft: Education Edition & Office 365 Integration!

Minecraft: Education Edition: The Windows 10 Edition Platform

At Minecon 2015 the new version of Minecraft that would only work on Windows 10 was unveiled.  It was greeted with scepticism and even derision by many in the community and the overriding response I heard in my discussions was “I’ll stick to the full fat PC version rather than the skimmed Pocket Edition thanks”.  There are many reasons for this, some of which I agree with and some that are easily solved, justified and understandable.  I’m going to leave the ability to “mod” the experience for a different blog and explore practicalities in this.

In my previous blog I shared a brief summary of my evolution through the world of Minecraft.  I started with the extremely limited Pocket Edition in the days before caves were added and the world was limited to a tiny chunk of land.  I expanded my experience and skills along a path of discovery in bite sized chunks.  Teachers completely new to Minecraft will be starting from the very beginning in their journey of discovery.  They will need to learn a whole new skills set.  Stripping away the complications of full PC Minecraft and leaving only what is needed for learning to take place is a bold move by Microsoft but I like the logic of it when it comes to expanding Minecraft in Education. If someone wanted to learn how to use Lego you wouldn’t put them into a warehouse full of the stuff, you’d give them enough variety of bricks and some instructions to help.  This is how I see the current position of the Windows 10 version of Minecraft.  It is the carefully selected box of bricks that is needed to get learning going. (Click here for a much better explanation from Stampy).  I am certain that, over time, Microsoft will respond to calls from the emerging community of Minecraft educators and add features that are most asked for.

There are of course costs involved.  I will leave the subscription model alone for now until more details emerge however there are other costs.  By only running Minecraft: Education Edition on Windows 10, Microsoft will be effectively shutting out the schools that use Apple products or have stuck to Windows 7 or 8 until Windows 10 gets rid of some of its teething problems.  So in order to use Minecraft: Education Edition schools will have to factor in the cost of purchasing Windows 10 devices.  Now admittedly the cost and variety of devices on offer is improving rapidly.  If you are a school lucky enough to be able to afford a suite of Surface devices this is a match made in heaven for you.  For the rest of us however we face the dilemma of buying new devices, upgrading a number of older devices and hoping Windows 10 “behaves itself” or being shut out of Minecraft in Education.  Add to this the subscription costs and I’m afraid very few will be able to afford it.

At present, anyone with a device capable of running Minecraft can use it.  It doesn’t matter how old the machine is, whether it is Windows, Apple or Linux (yes there are some out there) or whether you have a mixture of them all.  If it can handle the graphics, you are in.  By locking out the vast majority of existing school machines, Microsoft have taken a step I can simply never agree with.  They are in the process of creating, what I believe, will be the best possible package of Minecraft in Education.  By limiting it to Windows 10 and charging a subscription fee for it however they have locked out the many and invited in the few.  The “haves” in affluent areas with flush budgets may choose to buy in.  In areas where social and economic deprivation are high however it will be impossible to justify the cost when schools are funding breakfast clubs in order to feed children before school starts.  The “have nots” will be excluded from participation.  Of course, Microsoft is a business not a social enterprise and perfectly entitled to make whatever decisions they like.

However they aren’t dealing with an Office 365 product here.  This is Minecraft!  It is an organic community of collaborators, sharers and carers that have nurtured it through hundreds of millions of hours collectively into something they love and are proud of.  There is a community of over 7,000 early adopting educators out there that have broken the ground into Education.  They have tested, collaborated and developed ideas and pedagogy over many years and invested thousands of hours in the process.  From my discussions with other existing Minecraft educators, the things that taint this whole evolution the most are the cost of upgrading to Windows 10 devices on top of the subscription and the way their previous work is effectively null and void.  They can’t use their existing resources on the new platform and most can’t even use their existing devices.  Having paved the way for this move and broken the ground, even built the foundations on which it is constructed, most are now excluded from going forward.  I sincerely hope Microsoft can address this and bring the cost involved down significantly.

Hang on a minute.  That’s a very pessimistic outlook isn’t it?  So let’s draw breath and work some things through logically…

Let us assume that Microsoft want to make some money out Minecraft (and $2.5 billion is a lot of money to make back!).  Forcing people to use an operating system and buy new hardware just to run an educational software package isn’t going to cut it.  So let’s assume someone at Redmond has already scribbled that on their ideas board and work this through logically.

Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition is essentially Minecraft: Pocket Edition.  It runs majestically on even poorly specced machines (like my cranky old Galaxy Tab 2 that I started my Minecraft journey on) with frame rates and view distances that PC gamers dream of and spend a fortune on monster gaming rigs to attain in full PC Minecraft.  More importantly, it already runs on iOS and Android!  With Google announcing the end of Chrome OS and its integration into Android, it is safe to assume that the Android Pocket Edition will even run on Chromebooks in the not too distant future.  I fully expect to see it running on an Xbox One by the summer to enable students to continue their learning at home.  So in terms of infiltrating as many classrooms as possible it makes absolute logical sense to move Pocket Edition up to desktop level rather than exclude mobile devices by sticking with the full fat PC Minecraft.  Using a platform that already works on mobile devices that are well established in hundreds of thousands of classrooms worldwide is the absolute best way to make Minecraft a truly global educational product.  Why on earth would Microsoft make the strategic decision to shut these devices out of a product they can already run?  It doesn’t make sense and if it doesn’t make sense it is safe to assume it isn’t so.  I don’t think Microsoft would want to exclude millions of devices in the hope schools will buy Surface or upgrade to Windows 10.  That is too big a risk and would ultimately fail.  Education is about choice after all.  Now locking the Beta down to Windows 10 only… great way to get early adopters to upgrade and test the software as well as sell a few devices along the way.  My prediction is that the next 12 months will see dedicated educational Minecraft running on more machines and in more classrooms than ever before.  They already know the software works on existing tablets and desktops.  So my prediction is that Minecraft: Education Edition will very soon be running across operating systems and on any device you want to put it onto.  That really would be a quantum leap forward for Minecraft in education.

So on the one hand I applaud and support the move to a new platform and more focused package aimed squarely at learning.  However on the other hand I fear that the choice of Windows 10 will be the prohibiting factor that shuts out the many.  I sincerely hope Microsoft has something in the pipelines that they are keeping very quiet about.  The logic and business sense tells me they have.  Time will tell.

So what about the classroom management, creating content and those pesky mods…?

Footnote:  The images at the top of this blog are from a small ported section of a Dickens map produced in collaboration with Pure-Imaginations.  Download the full PC map from their website to explore with your students or even produce the play in game!

Minecraft: Education Edition

A New Hope

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Image source: http://education.minecraft.net

Since its announcement prior to BETT 2016 on Tuesday 19th January, Minecraft: Education Edition has been causing quite a stir across the globe.  Visit education.minecraft.net to read the full announcement and keep up to date with news and progress.  But if you are reading this then I’m guessing you already have an interest in Minecraft as a learning tool and therefore I’ll spare you the details here.

It was obvious at Minecon 2015 that the new Windows 10 Edition of Minecraft was really a way to Beta test the platform on which Microsoft would build its education package of the game.  Many questioned this move and ridiculed the limited feature set compared to the PC version of the game.  Discussions were had across the community:  Would it alienate Apple users?  Where are the command blocks?  What happened to sticky pistons?  Where do my world save files go?

It has been a long road since Minecon in July and I have had many discussions with numerous Minecraft educators, community members and content creators along the way.  The hundreds of thousands of hours that the community has collectively invested in Minecraft as a learning platform looked under threat and tools that we rely on seemed to have been forgotten.  Again questions were asked: Will my worlds still work?  Can I add “mods” such as Custom NPC’s and ComputerCraftEdu?  Will the MinecraftEdu classroom management tools be included?  Will I still be able to use WorldEdit and MCEdit to help create and edit content?  Will I be able to use my existing resources?

I’m going to leave my thoughts on the pricing structure until more is known.  And yes, I know, it’s the biggest issue that has caused the most upset and disgruntlement.  But let us pause and draw breath until further details emerge.  There are however other costs involved, outside the subscription fee, that simply must be addressed.  I suspect they will be but for now they remain a concern.

Before we enter this exciting stage together I’d like you to remember back to your first experience of Minecraft while I share mine.  Maybe you experienced Minecraft in its own beta format over 6 years ago.  Maybe you stumbled across it this week at BETT.  Or maybe, like me, you were sucked in by your children.  If, like me, you have grown with Minecraft as it has evolved it is important today to connect back with those first few blocks and remember why you started your journey.

My journey began 3 years ago when my son asked if he could try the Pocket Edition demo on his tablet.  So one wet Saturday afternoon we both installed it (and within hours went on to purchase the full version) and spent many happy hours building modest houses together.  Were we put off by the small world size or lack of caves to explore?  Of course not.  We enjoyed creating, crafting and exploring together.  As with all things, our experience grew.  We watched YouTube together and were hooked by the incredible story telling of people like StampyLongHead, iBallisticsquid and Finnball  (Ask your kids.  They’ll be more than happy to fill you in!).  We developed onto the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game and ultimately onto the PC version together and I discovered it had a profound effect on his engagement with writing.  I integrated Minecraft into my own classroom and developed projects for reluctant readers and writers, SEN students with communication and social interaction difficulties and to teach real world navigation and map reading skills among many others.  Along the way I have learned from some of the greatest creative minds in the Minecraft community and my thanks go out to all of them (you know who you are!).  But I’ll never forget that first discovery of creating an infinite water source to help fill our glass bottomed, rooftop swimming pool where my journey began.  As we start this next adventure in Minecraft together it is important to reconnect with that first experience and remember exactly why we chose to begin it in the first place.

We are entering exciting but uncertain times for Minecraft in Education and so I want to explore my thoughts regarding the future of Minecraft: Education Edition over a series of posts rather than write one epic piece.  I hope you’ll stick with me.  Feel free to comprehend, communicate, collaborate, create, compute and craft (the 6 C’s of Minecraft) along with me in the run up to Minecon 2016 and the (prediction alert!) launch of the full version of Minecraft: Education Edition.

First – The Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition platform…