Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Magical Minecraft

"If we all could see the world through the eyes of a child, we would see the magic in everything." ~ Chee Vai Tang
It was my daughter who first introduced me to Minecraft. I could hear funny crunching sounds and the occasional tinkling of glass coming from her computer and when I looked over to see what she was doing I was struck by her focus and obvious excitement as she worked. I asked her what she was up to and after waiting for her to 'finish just one more thing' she very happily launched into an explanation of Minecraft and a tour of her creation. While I admit I felt a little queasy after the roller coaster ride through her village, I was intrigued by the virtual space and hugely impressed with what she was doing in it. She invited me into her world and we've been playing Minecraft together ever since.

That was four years ago and at the time I was teaching a Grade 4 class in Hong Kong. When I asked my students how many of them knew about Minecraft, the majority of my students chuckled as they informed me that they played 'all the time.' It didn't take long for me to realise that this type of immersive game would be a wonderful learning platform. Our school already had a Minecraft club for older students and so I was most fortunate to have some knowledgeable colleagues to talk to about the possibility of using Minecraft with my students. We created an initial project aligned to a math investigation, which was a great success and this led to further explorations and an action research project about gaming and student engagement for my SUNY Certificate of Educational Technologies course.

I was a total convert. I would have loved to set up a Minecraft world for my class to use throughout the year - a virtual sandbox to explore ideas, collaborate, play, build, solve problems and compliment the work we undertook in our physical classroom. But, instead, I moved (new country, new role - been there, blogged that) and Minecraft took a back seat while I adjusted to my new context.

Then last year I was chatting with one of our new students in Year 3 and quickly learned of his passion for all things Minecraft. He loved that I knew what Minecraft was and it wasn't long before we were sharing stories about our favourite projects. While on playground duty I learned about his experiments with redstone and when he joined our computer club I learned about his server and his current challenges. When I told him about how my class used Minecraft when I was a class teacher he asked why weren't using Minecraft at our school. Hmm...why not indeed!

With the support of our school administrators we were given the green light to introduce MinecraftEdu as a learning tool in our Primary school. The server was installed in December and we had time to introduce it to the teachers before launching it with the students in January of this year. Being an advocate of Minecraft I was a little nervous as I wanted my colleagues to love it as much as I did. Our initial session was a bit flat, and in fact, one of the teachers felt quick ill from the jerky movements on the screen. There did not seem to be much enthusiasm for the project and I'll admit I felt a stab of panic. Then, a few days after the lackluster session with the teachers, one of them agreed to bring her class in to test it out - just to make sure the server was working when we had everyone online at the same time. That was the golden moment - the "Oh - now I get why teachers like Minecraft!"

There was a range of Minecraft expertise in the class, from students who had used it regularly for a couple of years to others who had never played before. We paired the experts with the novices and in a matter of minutes not only were all of the students in the tutorial world, they were using the chat function to ask questions and teach others how to do things in the space. They were collaborating to solve the challenges, laughing and learning - it was fabulous!

We are now well into our unit using Minecraft as an integral part of the learning and all of the participating teachers are keen to see how we can continue to use it. We are just scratching the surface, but I know this is a pebble that has caused ripples. Teachers who have walked by while the Year 4s are working on Minecraft have stopped, just to watch. Some have come back to ask about using it with their students. We will be introducing a Minecraft club soon and our coding club is planning to experiment with programmable turtles.

I'm so glad to have Minecraft as a part of my teaching and learning world again. There are so many new facets to explore - from ComputerCraft and engineering with redstone to survival mode tactics and crafting. I'm looking forward to learning right along with my students and marvel at the magic of Minecraft.

ps - I'll be sharing our Year 4 projects in a future post.

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