Billy is six years old and watching the world burn. “I set the ground on fire!” he giggles as flames engulf everything. His glee is a little worrying for his parents, perhaps. But it’s very encouraging for the people behind what he’s playing: MinecraftEdu.
The newest tentacle of Minecraft’s ever-expanding empire, MinecraftEdu is an easy-to-network, easy-to-modify mod aimed squarely at teachers. Created by Santeri Koivisto and Joel Levin (pictured teaching above) – and supported by Mojang – it’s put Minecraft in over 400 schools to date. And it’s showing that children – whether guided through cooperative scenarios, or just left to explore and experiment like Billy – get an amazingly broad range of learning experiences in cube country.
“It’s being used right across the curriculum,” says Levin, a New York teacher who set up TeacherGaming with Santeri in 2011. “There’s a science teacher in Australia who builds Minecraft models of cells and gets the kids to roleplay as messenger RNA inside them. A language teacher in Denmark asks his students to build and chat in English, and told me that it’s been the most effective way to teach high-level mastery of the language he’s ever seen.”
Billy was playing MinecraftEdu during its recent outing at the Games Britannia festival in Rotherham. It was a smash hit on the public showfloor, the six networked PCs never empty of young Minecraft fans. But in meeting rooms, Santeri was wooing school groups with ingenious pre-built scenarios that showed off MinecraftEdu’s power to teach problem-solving and cooperation – such as teams building a bridge.
Teachers liked what they saw. MinecraftEdu is affordable, and offered with onsite workshops and training, and there’s the option of buying ‘vanilla’ Minecraft at a significant discount. Robert Drummond, a primary teacher from Brockburne whose seven-year-olds “talk about Minecraft every time I turn on the class computer” left Games Britannia buzzing with ideas about using MinecraftEdu to teach English, mapmaking, maths and geography.
The parents at the festival were fans, too. Minecraft is that rare beast: phenomenally popular with kids – it’s seen off Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin – but also highly regarded by mums and dads. “I like it because it’s social,” says mum-of-one Kelly Loughlin, “and you don’t have logos and advertising on everything.”
That parental approval is one of the things that’s putting Minecraft in the tantalising position of triggering a new wave of games and computing in schools. It’s resurrecting computer clubs, as children spend their lunchtimes down the mines. In retrospect, it’s obvious that a near-literal sandbox is the perfect fit for classrooms – but it’s taken MinecraftEdu’s initiative to lift computer game use in primary and junior schools beyond traditional, prescriptive educational software.
Harvey McCarthey, head teacher of Filey Junior School in North Yorkshire, has found some unexpected and encouraging effects. “Some children are unsettled and struggle to get on with others,” he says. “Put them in MinecraftEdu, and they’re working together, cooperative and focused.” Crucially, he’s also found that Minecraft crosses the gender gap: boys are more naturally open to it, but after girls are introduced, “the next day, they tell you they played the demo all night”.
Admittedly, MinecraftEdu has some way to go. McCarthey’s school has a forward-thinking approach to IT, and he’s a gamer and Minecraft early adopter. “To convince non-gamer teachers, it’s going to need ready-made packages of educational ideas with lesson plans and schemes of work,” he says. “As with any new innovation, it needs passionate people to champion it.”
That’s already happening. On YouTube, Tumblr and the MinecraftEdu Wiki, a growing community of teachers – including Levin – are keeping diaries of their Minecraft lessons. There’s debate and exploration of open-ended sandbox play versus directed scenarios, and tutorials about how to investigate maths and volume, explore digital citizenship, or use redstone to teach about electricity. By the time you read this, TeacherGaming should have added simple scenario sharing to MinecraftEdu too.
Innovative as the teaching community is, it’s likely the kids who will drive MinecraftEdu’s success. After a tweet from Notch in February, it was students who pestered teachers to bring Minecraft into the classroom. As Santeri says: “How many other teaching tools are bought by schools because students demanded it?”
“I started out just playing Minecraft with my own kids, and using it in my classes,” says Levin. “To take these customisations that I coded myself, and wrap them in a package for schools worldwide – that’s really gratifying.”
Mojang has also now announced Block By Block, a collaboration with the UN which aims to get communities around the world involved in their local urban planning by opening a dialogue between youtng people and city planners and decision makers.