Tuesday, December 1, 2015

10 steps to getting started with #Minecraft in the classroom; a design challenge to build teacher and student capacity

For the last few years I’ve helped teachers get started using Minecraftedu in their technology classrooms (and in one art classroom). Usually they express interest in learning about Minecraft because they hear about the education potential in the game and they overhear so much student interest. After working in a number of classrooms, I’ve settled on an approach that works best for me to help teachers feel confident in launching and managing a collaborative server and to support teachers in capitalizing on the open-ended, collaborative nature of the sandbox game. We begin with a simple house design challenge.

Since Minecraft is so flexible, there are surely other ways to structure initial gameplay in class. The approach I take is meant to build the capacity of teachers and students to take the game play in a direction that results in collaborative, innovative design. My recommendations intentionally only go about three or four class periods deep because that’s the point at which a teacher who started out unfamiliar with Minecraft will feel comfortable using the server management tools and can start to design Minecraft projects and challenges on her own. Three or four class periods is also about the amount of time during which a group of students- some of whom won’t have played the game before- will develop basic navigation and building skills to participate fully in whatever the teacher comes up with next.

It is important to note that I aim to build the student capacity for instructional design in those first few classes, too. After three to four class periods, even students who had no experience with the game before will have learned enough to help envision what the class might do next with the game as a learning tool. To me, that’s the ultimate assessment of how well those first lessons have gone: can the students suggest other relevant possibilities for using Minecraft in the classroom? 

Here’s how we usually get there:

Before you play

  1. Purchase and download Minecraftedu. This education-friendly version of the game simplifies server setup, so all the students in the classroom can be in the same “world” and the teacher can save their work on her machine. For me, the goal is to help teachers run a local server and know how to create a world, get students in, and save the work each day. (In my school district, teachers who want help acquiring the software and setting up machines should contact their ed tech coach for help.) 

  1. With the classroom or computer lab still free of students, test to be sure that the machines will connect by test launching a tutorial server and making sure that a student machine can access the server. The tutorial server comes with the Minecraftedu software and is a world built to teach novices basic navigation in the game by sending them through an obstacle course. 

The first day with students in Minecraft- play the tutorial

  1.   I recommend that teachers use the tutorial world as their first lesson in Minecraft. It provides guidance and practice for novices. It is also challenging and scenic enough to occupy experienced Minecrafters in class. Asking students afterward what the most challenging part was for them will reveal students’ skill level. 

The first design challenge- Build a basic house in creative mode

  1. For the first design challenge, have students build their simple house. To demonstrate, play this YouTube video tutorial "How to make a fast and easy house in Minecraft" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No9KhwH5_Ew). In it, YouTuber KrystalKraftofficial demonstrates how to build a house in just under 4 and a half minutes. Though he builds his house really quickly, don’t be deceived. The majority of students will need 40-50 minutes to build a house. Explain that his simple house is an appropriate goal for Minecraft novices, and that experienced builders should try to build something more “fancy” inside the time constraints. 

  1. Launch a creative world that is flat. The creative mode will give students the ability to fly around and provide them access to all of the building materials they’ll need. The flat world has no trees or hills for them to get lost behind and also will discourage them from running around and exploring instead of building.

  1. Ask students to “spread out" in the game before building, leaving 20-30 blocks worth of room between them and their nearest neighbor.  When they find a place and begin to, instruct them to use the Function F3 key to see their coordinates. Direct them to write down their coordinates so they can always find their work the next day. Direct them to find a sign and label their house. Don’t forget to save the changes to the server at the end of each day and each class period. 

Establishing a learning culture with game play- writing and reflecting

  1. How long this first design challenge will take depends on how much you ask your students to write or discuss before, during and after game play. I encourage teachers to at least ask students to journal about what they plan to work on each day before playing and what was successful and challenging at the end of each day. Fifteen minutes of writing at a minimum every class period will reinforce that this gameplay has academic goals and will also support students’ in writing a more detailed reflection after the project is over. 
  1. Freeze the students every so often and ask them to reflect with a neighbor and articulate their next steps. This reminds the students that even building by themselves can be a collaborative endeavor. It also gives you practice with the 

Ending the design challenge

Ask, “Now that we know how to build together in the same space, what are some ways we could more intentionally design and build a Minecraft community? What would our learning goals be?” 
  1. When the challenge is over, have the students watch a projection of your screen as you fly over their houses. Say something like, “By building houses individually in a shared space, we’ve inadvertently built a kind of neighborhood or community.” Ask, “Now that we know how to build together, what are some ways we could more intentionally design and build a Minecraft community? What would our learning goals be?” 

In my mind, that last question could take 10 minutes or 10 days of class time. This is the point at which a teacher might ask students to develop proposals for how Minecraft might advance their learning. My experience and belief is that students will be able to suggest unique ways the game might help them meet the goals of the class, whether those are defined as standards or essential questions. If students struggle for ideas, prompt them to think of ways they see Minecraft used by other youth.

Part of the reason I recommend these steps is because the teachers I’ve worked with develop really unique and different ways to work with students in Minecraft after this first launch. I’ve seen projects that range from history simulations to video design projects. It is vital to me that the teachers and the students can explain why they’re playing the game after this initial work and what they’re learning from the experience.  

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