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Can Minecraft in the classroom teach valuable lessons?

Posted on September 23, 2014 by Sunny South News

Many southern Alberta kids (boys and girls) and adults alike are addicted to the multi-platform video game Minecraft, which allows users to craft and create primitive or highly-advanced buildings and civilizations — just watch out for Creepers.

Deemed the next big thing since Lego but its online alternative, Minecraft is available in PC, X-Box, iTunes and Android versions and Minecraft swag is a hot commodity including t-shirts, toys and collectibles.

Mojang, the company that founded the crafting craze and the game’s creator Notch sold the company to Microsoft last week, amidst speculation and disbelief, amongst its arsenal of loyal users of the game. But… is Minecraft simply a game?

Originally, yes… but it has evolved into a vessel in which to educate kids in a variety of ways, according to U.S. researchers.

Video games, including Minecraft, are being used in U.S. classrooms and across the globe to assist in student learning. Are parents worried about this new phenomenon and change in teaching?

“Many students and their parents introduce the idea to their schools. Overall, I’d say parents are happy with the development. Currently, we have almost 3,000 schools in our network and it’s growing over 200 schools per month. The community and the movement is growing very rapidly at the moment and has far more impact than other gaming plus education projects out there,” said co-founder of MinecraftEdu Santeri Koivisto, who is a teacher in Finland. Koivisto, along with another collaborator, started using Minecraft in their classrooms before establishing a connection with Mojang.

Koivisto noted sometimes schools start from afterschool programs and develop the connections to the curriculum, when teachers are more aware of the possibilities.

“Many times you can find a couple of teachers who are very into the game already and they have a solid plan what they are about to do with it,” added Koivisto.

MinecraftEdu recommends teachers to throw the ball to students, while asking students to come up with connections to everyday school life.

“In some cases, (students) design the learning activities for their peers or younger grades,” said Koivisto, adding MinecraftEdu has schools in close to 40 countries, with the most busy areas being the U.S., the U.K. and Australia (with almost 4 per cent of schools using MinecraftEdu there).

Koivisto fully supports using this type of method to teach students.

“There are far greater benefits than people might originally think — starting from making the school more democratic.”

Koivisto is not suggesting schools should spend 90 per cent of class time in the gaming world but 15 per cent of class time could be spent connecting with other topics and methods to virtual worlds and vice-versa.

“The movement is growing so fast that I can’t think of anything else than positive developments. A good mix of ‘traditional’ and digital tools in the classroom, with more focus on getting kids to explore the different fields in their free time and activating the students to be involved in school development and curriculum development, can create a very solid ground for 21st century skills,” said Koivisto, adding there are a number of schools in Canada adopting the idea of video games in the classroom. Koivisto added sometimes it just takes one excited student, parent or teacher to get the ball rolling.

Koivisto’s advice to students involved with Minecraft in the classroom is to be active, collaborate and draw ideas from the “real world.”

“Share your ideas and connect the physical and the virtual world to create something truly awesome.” Isn’t that Lego’s mantra — “everything is awesome?”

One aspect of gaming, in general, many parents have is the challenge of possible addiction and problems gaming could create. Koivisto said this aspect seems to be the favourite topic of the media and doesn’t represent gaming used in the classroom for educational purposes.

“It’s more about activation, engagements, collaboration and a safe environment with an adult present,” said Koivisto.

“My opinion is that everyone who’s worried about this should first start the work from their own court and take a look what their own kids are doing and take part in that. After that, they may realize that now teachers, when using video games, are doing exactly that — being there as an adult, when young people spend time in the digital world,” said Koivisto.

In southern Alberta, a Calgary-based online Palliser school teacher Verena Roberts was heavily involved with a project entitled, “Gamifi-ED.” Roberts teaches Palliser’s Beyond Borders online school. The project, not affiliated with Palliser, included Grade 9 students from Georgia and education technology graduate students from Alaska, along with other contributors.

“The teachers and students assessed various games and assessed their educational value and shared what they learned on an open website any teacher or student or anyone can access,” said Dawn Sugimoto, communications officer with Palliser Regional Schools. The online link to the project is http://gamifi-ed.wikispaces.com.

Originally, Roberts noted, she and other collaborators started a U.S. project-based learning company called Edu-curious.

“They had a PDF, a module or unit on ‘The Hunger Games’ and we thought wouldn’t it be cool if we could put ‘The Hunger Games’ into Minecraft or Gamifi-ED in some way? — so we could integrate literacy and games.”

Roberts and the group followed up with an inquiry-based approach to the idea.

“We became the learners, as well. We actually didn’t know what the project would look like, which is the scariest thing we’ve ever done in our life,” said Roberts, in regards to the integration of literacy and games.

At first students involved with the project had the opinion teachers didn’t let students integrate games into the classroom.

“That was their perception. It doesn’t mean it’s the truth,” said Roberts, adding collaboratively the group came up with the idea to evaluate games available in the digital universe including apps, online games and software. The first quest, Roberts said, was to evaluate serious games but the challenge was the differences in perspective between teacher and student.

During the aforementioned process, Roberts said, her job was to find leading experts in anything to do with games. And she did. She found one YouTube user from Germany, who wrote a letter and created a video expressing his opinion on why teachers should integrate Minecraft into schools. Roberts said the YouTube user’s opinion was everyone learns differently and the YouTube user never made those connections in school. Roberts said the YouTube user also finds Minefcraft incredibly engaging.

After the evaluation of games by students and teachers, the Grade 9 students were asked to create a preview of a game based on “The Hunger Games” and created it in the Minecraft world —based on what they learned from evaluating the games.

According to Roberts, the number one thing she witnessed was the engagement of her students increased exponentially. Another positive aspect to the results from the project, according to Roberts, is teachers could watch a student’s progress in the game and could witness first-hand how a particular student learned.

In a regular classroom, with a face-to-face teacher, teachers can stand there and watch a student working on a project but can’t see the evidence of learning just by observing a student engaged in an activity. Roberts believes, depending upon the focus at a school, the model the group created can be replicated and be used in a wide-variety of different angles.

Roberts has been with Palliser since April and she believes Palliser has a strong focus on differentiated learning or trying to meet the needs of kids in their own way of learning and Minecraft could be an option.

“It might be an option for one kid but it might not be an option for the other. That is what I really see the focus is within Palliser, that they’re really trying to meet those different needs,” said Roberts, adding her own kids are obsessed with Minecraft and that is why she got involved with the project in the first place.

“As a parent, I would say I don’t understand it. I’ve tried to get into it and I know my preschooler learns colours from it and my other son makes the Titanic,” she added. “And they’re already doing things that blow my mind.”

Roberts said the frustration as a parent is how does that apply to education? How do you connect the two?

“It’s the changing role of the teacher and the teacher accepting that you look at it from a curriculum point of view. He (Roberts’ son) created the Titanic and all the state rooms and everything in it by looking at books and created it in Minecraft,” said Roberts, adding from there kids can branch out and learn how big the ship actually is and learn what buoyancy means. The key is to make it authentic for kids and that is what new curriculum could be about.

Some other ideas for parents is to get kids to make a diary about their adventures during each Minecraft visit or get kids to look up various pieces of history and create replicas in Minecraft, after learning about each topic.

An example would be getting kids to check out information online regarding Egypt and the pyramids or the Great Wall of China and get kids to create those historical pieces in Minecraft, after learning about each topic.

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