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From Diamond Swords to Gold Stars: Microsoft Brings Minecraft to Schools

“Can we change the way we learn?” asks the Minecraft Education information page.

A question to ask that 20 years ago may have sounded odd for a phenomenon that started off as a game. A game? An experience so many of us delved into as youngsters so readily, to escape the constraints of the bygone classroom, in favour of blasting bad guys and collecting some treasures, wants to teach me chemistry?

Nowadays, it’s not such a bizarre notion. The power Minecraft holds today is as undoubted as it is un-ignorable, and now Microsoft have plans to bring the game’s modular world into the classroom. Admittedly, the concepts of ‘fun’ and ‘school’ have been vehemently understood by learners and teachers alike as two separate entities. Although many of us have been gobbling mushrooms and shooting up aliens for decades, these adventurous joys have often been banned, frowned upon and otherwise criticised as distractions that have no place in Mrs. Dimble’s Mathematics class. But notebooks, pens and amusingly styled highlighters are going out of fashion fast, and as the digital age appears to be rapidly changing how children approach the world, perhaps the way in which they’re taught is also in need of a fresh angle.

 

minecraft edu

 

Where Did This Come From?

Minecraft has certainly had a huge impact on gamer culture. Evolving from plucky indie game to rampant phenomenon, the pixelated title allows players to explore, survive and above all build to their imagination’s delight. It still holds a sizeable influence over the games industry today, with crafting systems frequenting even the revered ‘triple A’ scene.

In 2014, Microsoft bought the hugely successful Mojang for $2.5 billion, and since then creepers aren’t the only thing the build-a-thon title has been spawning. Available to all who own a bit of tech, Minecraft has garnered Pocket Editions, Merchandise, Story Modes and a deluge of awards. Hell, there’s even a fan conference for those who can’t get enough diamond sword action. But the game’s impact has been confidently edging its way beyond the domain of pop culture, existing in many schools as a valuable teaching tool already.

In 2011 an organisation based in Finland – TeacherGaming LLC – created MinecraftEDU, which has served as an online hub for tutors across the globe to access teaching tips, lesson plans and modified games, all surrounding Mojang’s open-world creation. Priding a building block emphasis, it’s easy to see Minecraft’s mathematical use. The calculation of areas, perimeters and the like is useful to know if you dream of building a cavernous dragon-fortress, but since  MinecraftEDU’s launch five years ago the game has been adapted for a myriad of subjects, from art to poetry. The adventure title has even lent a helping hand teaching Japanese Medieval poetry by getting students to build pathways that highlight quotes as characters progress.

 

minecon3

 

Why It’s Important

With MinecraftEDU reporting a success rate from over 40 countries worldwide, and still proving an engaging force in many a classroom, an educational expansion by Microsoft could represent Minecrafts integration into mainstream teaching. If this is so, could the ballooned PC original change how teaching is approached?

This is a troublesome question to answer right now, especially considering the multitude of subjects that the education system covers, and the vista of styles with which children learn. However, it won’t be just Microsoft’s name at the helm of the scholarly project. Having acquired the Finnish resource site, Education Edition is being contributed to by a multitude of online educators; a community that is claimed to be growing continuously.

This is good news, as a greater variety of tutors at hand will usually mean a developed sensitivity to different learning styles, as well as potential learning issues, ultimately resulting in a greater accessibility for the younger generation. If a keen balance is kept between the fun, universal tropes of the Minecraft experience, and mechanics that motivate use of classroom skills, Minecraft: Education Edition could be a game-changer. Indeed, Vu Bui of Mojang states;

“We’ve seen that Minecraft transcends the differences in teaching and learning styles and education systems around the world. It’s an open space where people can come together and build a lesson around nearly anything.”

It’s a malleable platform; it could be used to teach anything. And balance truly is key, too, as the path between ‘video games’ and ‘school’ is seldom-crossed. When thinking about game-meets-education, I’m thinking about the banalities of UK’s MyMaths, not sculpting mega-castles with my marvellous diamond pick-axe. Games that pander to education end up becoming virtual versions of what kids see in exams, and veering too far from the Minecraft formula could be risky.

 

minecraft edu 3

 

How You Get It

The service requires both teachers and students to have their own Office 365 login, and will also be granted access to Microsoft’s productivity software via cloud; reassuring to those wanting to avoid the clutter of multiple accounts.
Currently, MinecraftEDU’s service costs a one-off payment of $14 multiplied by the maximum number of simultaneous users, along with $41 for service software. However, Education Edition is essentially a subscription service, asking an annual $5 (or £3.50) for each child and teacher. Whilst perhaps a little steeper than EDU’s present arrangement, Microsoft’s cloud-based server negates schools’ requirement to own and maintain their own server hardware.

Microsoft have also stated that players will have access to brand-new additions to the EDU model. Learners will be able to retain customised characters between sessions, as well as snapshot their progress via an in-game camera. All the while players will be using the most recent version of the game.

A free trial of the game will be available this summer, with current MinecraftEDU users receiving the first year of Education Edition free. The game will be available in the USA first, but given EDU’s previous global success, there’s a strong chance that schools across other nations will be addressed afterwards. This gives Microsoft a weighty opportunity to hear feedback from the public, potentially adapting gameplay elements to suit the classroom, on both sides of the teacher’s desk. With the knowledge and experience of TeacherGaming having contributed so much to MinecraftEDU already, Microsoft already has tremendous support behind them, and with added opportunity for feedback from those actually implementing their schemes, Minecraft: Education Edition could have a hugely positive impact on the education system today.

 

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Charlie is a platforming romantic from England, that still speaks in a fashion that died with the Elizabethan era. Having been gaming since the days of Crash Bandicoot, he champions the Playstation, and is only a little bit embarassed that Super Mario Land keeps spelling his defeat.

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