Exploring minecraft

Update/recommendation: The following may be helpful for some, but it has it’s limitations. For example, in terms of coming up with L&T applications for Minecraft I was constrained by my limited knowledge of Minecraft, and even worse, a limited view of L&T. For a broader view I suggest reading about and engaging with Massively Minecraft. You have to be in it to learn it.

The ICTs for Learning Design course I’m taking has a second assignment that requires us to engage in a number of technologies (organised into four groups) and analyse their applicability for learning and teaching. Group 4 is fairly open and includes simulations. We’re allowed to choose our technology. I have been tossing up going the easy route and looking at a given technology, or branching out. The Minecraft movement has encouraged me to choose it. This is a very early, incomplete analysis.

Why Minecraft?

It started with a week or so ago with me stumbling across The Minecraft Teacher. Sorry, I can’t remember how or who directed me this way, but thanks. But it was probably via this article. An important point to make, this teacher is primarily teaching 1st and 2nd graders.

Skimming this blog I came across the mama’s Minecraft birthday post. The story of a 9 year old girl so engaged by a game that she wanted it as a theme for her birthday party was interesting.

But I left it there, didn’t connect it to my situation.

The over the weekend @deangroom started tweeting some, apparently very successful experiences

Dean has since blogged some of his experiences.

And just as I’ve written this, Dean has tweeted this

(Can you tell I’m using this as an excuse to try out WordPress’ new “embed a tweet” functionality? Mmm, they come up big in this theme, must look to see if there’s a way to customise the presentation.)

In the days leading up to this I’d been thinking about and starting to do some groundwork on how I could use this assignment to reflect on work I’d already done or examine technologies that I was interested in. All this movement has encouraged me to add Minecraft to the list.

A particular reason I wanted to add it is that most of the “digital simulations” included in the study material were somewhat close. Minecraft is much more open.

What is Minecraft

It’s a game. According to the Minecraft Wiki (implemented using Mediawiki)

Minecraft is a sandbox construction game, inspired by Infiniminer, and created by Markus Persson, the founder of Mojang AB. The game involves players creating and destroying various types of blocks in a three dimensional environment. The player takes an avatar that can destroy or create blocks, forming fantastic structures, creations and artwork across the various multiplayer servers in multiple game modes.

The following video is shown on the Minecraft home page and gives some feel for the interface, variety of the world and the intent of finding resources and using them to build.

Getting started – the purchase

The first step to playing the latest version of Minecraft is spending 14.95 Euros and then either playing it within a Web browser or in a downloadable client.

If you’re more advanced, there is a server that can be downloaded and used to play multiplayer. This appears to be a common approach within a class context. Each class having their own server.

So, off to play.

Okay, so that’s my first pig killed. Picked some flowers and oh dear, night has fallen. This, I believe, is when zombies are supposed to come out. It’s quite dark. I’ve found myself a hole to sit in. Not sure this will be sufficient. The ad hoc comments I’ve seen suggest a need to built a shelter before night fall. Will I die?

Ahh, a Beginner’s guide, this would have been useful to see earlier.

Yes, I did die. That is a bit annoying, you respawn 5 minutes after dieing, which means it is still night time and you die again. I can feel a new world coming on.

Mmm, it appears that Minecraft really chews the battery life on a laptop not plugged in…CPU and 3D I assume. more tomorrow.

A couple of days later and I’ve used a few hours to play the game, as @deangroom found, I’m starting to get a bored with the single user mode. I can see how a multi-user world would be much more interesting. I have developed quite a little underground shelter, have done lots of mining and crafting, killed a creeper and then died in a freak boating accident (actually silly mistake). Death can be a bit frustrating as you lose the resources you were carrying.

So, I have a feel for the game, how is it used in teaching?

Using it in teaching, in schools

Following up on the teaching angle I get pointed to the Minecraft in school wiki. It appears to be early days but they have started on lesson plans. Currently with a single lesson plan for the Language arts with an idea for teaching non-fiction/procedural writing in primary school.

As described in the ArsTechnia article the game very much is used to achieve certain learning goals. The class starts with an explanation and the teacher has pre-configured the world with some sort of task. For example, exploring a pyramid and thinking about what to do with the artifacts. As described here the classes being taught are basic computer skills. So skills like typing, manipulation etc fit. “Minecraft makes it fun for them”.

The big question about using Minecraft – as with any of tool, ICT- based or not is whether you can come up a purpose connected to the learning objectives which emphasise the strengths of the tool.

This blog post (from what appears to be the IT director of an Australian school) points out some of the following

  • “First, the kids really needed to know how to make decisions based on priorities.”
  • “Another thing that came out of it was how students quickly developed an appreciation for the value of hard work.”
  • “it became clear (quite by chance) that the discussion around Digital Citizenship was more and more relevant.”
  • “I’m not even mentioning the incredible amounts of math you can get into when you start to talk about building plans”.

Some of the requirements for use in schools

  • Purchase a licence of the game for each computer to be used.
  • Probably set up a Minecraft server.
  • Install any mods deemed appropriate.

It is interesting to see how the flexibility of the game is used by “The Minecraft Teacher”, examples include

  • Making students invulnerable so they cannot be hurt or killed.
  • It is played on a school only multiplayer server version of the game.
    i.e. only the students are in the world, but they are all in the same world.
  • The teacher uses a “god” mode in the game to help students who get stuck.
  • Provided a narrative and a constrained world in which the lesson will take place.

Why use it

Well, engagement seems to be a significant reason

Not only did we have a productive and fun unit, but I would say that this was the best project I have ever done in the classroom. In my 8 years of teaching I have never seen students so excited and engaged.

Something about letting go as per this comment

If we give kids the appropriate motivation and respect, they can be a lot smarter than most people expect them to be.

Not to mention some of the comments on the post that are from students “wish i had a teach like you”

The sheer openness of the possibilities is perhaps one of the major advantages of the game, possibly also one of the major challenges. There are folk who have built 1:1 models of the Enterprise or the following video that shows someone who has built an Arithmetic Logic Unit (the component of a computer that performs arithmetic).

This is one of the major advantages of the game, as described here

Minecraft has gained a cult following for essentially allowing players to create anything they can imagine; it has the same cathartic ability as a drawer full of Lego bricks

Applications

As mentioned above, there appear to be some obvious mathematical applications around space. One quick idea would be that once students are familiar with Minecraft

  • Give them a specification for a building within Minecraft. (e.g. length, breadth, height or some other primitives).
  • Have them calculate the amount of resources they would need.
  • Use the “god” mode to provide each group with exactly those resources.
  • Get them to construct the building.

I’m somewhat ashamed to include that example, as it doesn’t explore the full capabilities of the tool.

A related, and perhaps slightly better example, would be to go the whole hog with a building project for the school. i.e. set groups of students up as builders who have won the tender to construct buildings for the school. The buildings would be the existing school buildings, each group given a different one. The allocation of buildings to groups could be random. At this stage the steps could vary

  • Each group might have to convert an existing “real-world” plan for their building into a Minecraft plan.
    This could be used to teach scale, but also requires decision making etc.
  • The group could be given the Minecraft plan for the building but then have to develop the quantities of material required.
    In fact, this step could be put first and the groups could be asked to tender for the building project. i.e there could be some market rates set for different Minecraft blocks and the students have to compete against each other for the tender process.
  • The quantities they estimate are then provided to them (via the teacher in god mode) and they are required to construct the building.
    Before this, they could be asked to develop plans for how they are going to build it. In fact, this stage could also be turned into a game. i.e. The speed with which they complete the building could be rewarded. Either through competition with other groups developing the same building, or through bonuses for early completion.

Other possible application in a mathematics class, coming from a beginning mathematics teacher, might include the following. This is a brainstorming list, the validity of the ideas has not been checked.

  • Some linkage with graphing.
    The block like nature of the game seems to lend itself to this.
  • Length, perimeter, area etc all link with the building examples above or similar.
    e.g. introduce the pyramids and get them to calculate how many blocks would be required. Could actually start with the complete Minecraft pyramid in a WCYDWT type application using the game to show it, rather than video.
  • Angles and direction.
    Having small groups of students each with their own computer in single player mode. Have the same world loaded up and use it for an orientation game. They are given a in-world compas or other tools to estimate angles/direction and have to follow a set of directions. If successful, they will see neat things, gather good resources etc.
  • Shape recognition.
    Rather than simply ask the students to name a set of shapes. Have them explore a Minecraft world that has various shapes already created in it. They have to correctly identify the full list of those shapes and perhaps record other characteristics of those shapes. The task could perhaps be combined with the previous one.
  • Probability.
    Am wondering if/how statistics and the study of probability could be used to estimate the best places to look for resources within the game. Depending on the game mechanics, have the students (in groups) estimate the best locations to search, perform the search and see what they find. As a whole class they could perhaps compare where they want to search, what they find, and then calculate some rules of thumb.

    In fact, perhaps a better way to frame it is to ask, where is the best place to mine? And have them empirically test it by performing experiments in mining in different locations, comparing and analysing the resource data and developing rules of thumb.

  • Money.
    Wondering about the setting up of a Minecraft economy in which the students have to participate and subsequently exchange money. Perhaps even countries????

In an IT course, especially a junior one, I can some applications in teaching students about the value of combining different tools and manipulating data. For example, show them the guy who create 1:1 scale model of the Enterprise and ask them how they would have done this. The idea being that manually creating this model by putting block on block would be a very silly idea. Instead, it’s about grabbing plans from one place, converting them into another, feeding it into another program (map editor) etc. From here, see if similar projects can be set for them in terms of constructing some rather large local or important artifact.

And let’s not forget the guy building a computer in Minecraft. Obvious connections between that and an IT class. Beyond that, having the IT class support the local school community in its use of Minecraft offers some positives.

The experience described on this comment strikes me as something much more interesting. The idea of exploring bartering for resources as part of an economics class. Or perhaps constructing Minecraft renditions of “important” environments and having the students role play various tasks. Starting to make connections here with the early work of Mike Wesch.

Analysis

So, for the purposes of assessment, let’s bring the analysis together into one place. A SWOT analysis as used in previous posts. As previous, the idea is that the “internal” perspectives (strengths and weaknesses) are associated directly with the technology (Minecraft) while the “external” perspectives (opportunities and threats) are associated with the pedagogy used for the technology and the broader social setting/issues.

Strengths Teacher Students School leadership
Strengths A “sandbox” game, limited only by the imagination of the users.
Ability to set up a “school” server.
Flexibility provided by mods.
Possibility that students could continue playing at home (at least single user mode).
It’s a game! The ability to run a school server provides a safe environment for the students.
Weaknesses The theory is that students require a significant amount of scaffolding to engage effectively in the game *
There are a few online reports of technical problems with the vendors servers.
It’s no Call of Duty. Why would I both playing such a silly game.
It’s so basic and a little difficult to get going in
You want to spend $$ on installing a version of a game on every computer?
You want to set up a school server for Minecraft and allow the students to access it from home? And others from around the world?
Opportunities The motivation/engagement of a game.
All of the positives that arise from a more constructivist approach to education
It’s fun. The chance to be seen as innovative?
Threats The difficulty of coming up with applications that actually work within the constraints of schooling
Finding the right balance of freedom, scaffolding and control would appear to be difficult in an open game like this, especially in terms of balancing perceptions of children, parents, management etc.
All the difficulties that arise from a more constructivist approach to education.
All we do is play games. Aren’t the parents going to question whether playing a game is learning i.e. the “fear of games” (Squire, 2002)

* There is an alternate perspective (e.g. as shown in the Hole-in-the-wall experiments) that children don’t really need all this scaffolding. Instead, given the right setting they can figure much of this out themselves.

There is a significant literature around “game-based” learning. I have not had the opportunity to engage with it in any meaningful way. And will not have a chance to do so for this assignment, though it is definitely on my list of tasks to do. That literature will have significantly more informed perspectives on the application of a game like Minecraft into education. I would imagine there is also quite a history of using such games within education that would offer insights.

References

Squire, K. (2002). Cultural framing of computer/video games. Game studies, 2(1), 90. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from http://gamestudies.org/0102/squire/?ref=HadiZayifla.Com.

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4 thoughts on “Exploring minecraft

  1. VRBones

    I’ve broached the subject with my former IT guys that we need a Minecraft server, but I’m still hesitant in setting up a space where griefing is part and parcel of the game. If it’s only used within a class environment, or under supervision it’s fine, but dealing with defacement when you have no way of knowing who did what is a real cause for concern. I know in year 1 and 2 you can talk about those issues and deal with them in a moderately secure environment, but i can see my year 8′s abusing the efforts of others just for the kicks. Heck, we even have problems with griefing in our own LANs amongst adults …

    That said, a probability / economy unit might be cool. Use probability to estimate how often you can find coal / steel / gold / diamond. Use statistics to collect data on time between sightings (of fresh seams) and quantity. Use these facets to set up a baseline bartering system. Compare this bartering system to traditional bartering systems. Discuss the value of coal initially compared to mid-game when torches are abundant. Discuss how the value of a product is directly linked to its supply and demand. Choose a material to use as a base for a monetary system (probably gold). Try an alternate system where saplings are the base monetary unit (money literally growing on trees) and cover the value of investment (planting instead of spending).

    I think the time pressures would make it more amenable to primary school where you have the opportunity to hit multiple KLA’s in one unit rather than attempting to justify the whole experience just for the maths.

    Reply
    1. davidtjones Post author

      On the griefing question, I had wondered about the idea of not using a school server. But lots of stand-alone versions of the same World created by the teacher (for a specific purpose). Have two or three students around a computer. Assuming you can create and distributed worlds to stand alone versions.

      In the assignment post, I mentioned the idea of having an entire Year 8 class use Minecraft throughout. In part to justify the workload, but it just reduces a bit. A cross-curricula activity might be better, but would, I imagine, bring its own problems.

      As I said in the assignment, all of these ideas are somewhat flawed simply due to my limited to complete lack of knowledge about the context and what really works.

      Time will tell.

    1. davidtjones Post author

      G’day Nadia,

      I’m sorry to report that I fall into the category that @deangroom refers to as “talking about it, rather than doing it”. i.e. I haven’t used Minecraft in the classroom.

      Mainly because I’m a student teacher. My classroom time is within classes run by a mentor teacher that typically have an established culture/routine. And none of the ones I’ve experienced have the space for trying out minecraft.

      I must also admit that my novice stature as a teacher also gives me pause, especially when confronted by the pull of curriculum, testing etc of school.

      I did use it as an example as a small part in one classroom and got quite excited reactions from the students. Quickly killed by moving onto more traditional approaches.

      So sorry, nothing interesting to report. Just more talk, but who knows what next year holds.

      David.

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