Digital game-based learning isn't just fun, it's subversive.
To call Minecraft anything less than a phenomenon would be an understatement. Since releasing in 2009, it has sold more than a hundred million copies across almost every gaming platform and continues to sell another 50,000 more each day. Among children anywhere from toddlers to young adults, Minecraft is especially popular, so it's no surprise that it has seeped its way into more than a few classrooms through teachers looking to build a sturdier bridge to their students.
Earlier this year, Microsoft announced an official investment in bringing Minecraft to the classroom in the form of Minecraft: Education Edition, a reimagining of Minecraft with additional tools aimed at educators. And on June 9, Education Edition was launched as a free early access version aimed at giving teachers time to prepare to use Minecraft in the classroom this fall. But Minecraft: Education Edition is more than a reskin of the popular game with a few extra tools, it is one part of a powerful change in the way we are thinking about learning and growing in the classroom.
"We've seen a decade and a half of research and interest in game-based learning," said Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of Minecraft Education at Microsoft. "Educators are looking for new ways to reach and engage their students and to bring new technology [into the classroom]. Game-based learning fits in very well with meeting students where they are. They're playing games at home, using digital devices, and navigating virtual worlds, so they're already very familiar with this."
Minecraft: Education Edition is, what Microsoft hopes, the tool that educators need to reach a modern generation of students. Developed in 2009 by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson and published by Mojang, Minecraft started out as a relatively simple "sandbox" style game that would randomly generate vast worlds composed of blocks. Players could then break these blocks to harvest resources, fashion tools, and then reform them to shape the world however they pleased. As the game began to explode in popularity in early 2011, new features were regularly added to increase all the ways players could interact—giving Minecraft an absurd amount of depth. Players can do everything from erect one-to-one models of fictional cities to building a working guitar.
In classrooms, that kind of creativity can be harnessed to teach students problem solving and critical thinking—two areas of growth that traditional curriculums struggle to teach. One of the lessons provided by Microsoft, for example, uses Minecraft's simplified representation of different ecosystems to challenge students with modelling the effects of deforestation. Instead of just receiving a lecture on the dangers of clear-cutting, students can actively participate and experience those effects firsthand through Minecraft. They can learn through doing rather than listening.
But how did Minecraft's romance with education get started, and can it really make good on its ambitions of pushing learning forward?
Block By Block
That MInecraft could be such a unique teaching tool is exactly what Joel Levin discovered back in 2011 when he decided to incorporate itinto his curriculum as an experiment. "I was playing with my own daughter and was just really impressed with what she was getting out of the game," Levin said. "And I thought, this is something that I really wanted to try with my second grade class."
Excited by how itwas changing his relationship with his students, Levin started a blog and YouTube channel to showcase how he was building lessons around Minecraft so that others could hopefully get inspired to try itin their own classrooms. He told me that through an initial blast of exposure on his blog, teachers, parents, and even students were reaching out to him to get more ideas. "It was really the first tip-off that something was going on that was maybe a bit bigger than just my classroom," he said.
Around the end of that school year, Levin was approached by Santeri Koivisto, a Finnish entrepreneur who was also wrapping up his masters in education. Koivisto pitched Levin on the idea of taking his experiment in Minecraft one step further by licensing the game from its publisher, Mojang, and developing a version specifically aimed at teachers.
While Minecraft is a relatively simple game to grasp, creating a multiplayer environment for students to collaborate in is a complicated process that involves setting up a dedicated server and other demanding tasks. Koivisto's idea was to modify Minecraft to make the whole process as simple as possible so that teachers would spend less time fiddling and more time teaching. At first Levin turned Koivisto down, but when the now-former CEO of Mojang, Carl Manneh called him, Levin couldn't resist. "How could I say no?"
That's how MinecraftEDU and its developer, TeacherGaming, were born. During the next few years, Levin became an ambassador for digital game-based learning, helping to design MinecraftEDU while also spreading the word to teachers.
"The most important thing is that Minecraft is fun, and school is not a fun experience for kids," Levin said. "That's really upsetting to me. It's not bad, they're still getting a good education, but it's sucking a lot of the joy out of the process of learning. Bringing games into the classroom makes kids enjoy being in school and that makes them more receptive to learning."
But it's more than just having fun in class. Video games can also inspire the kind of personal growth that is not always easy to obtain within the confines of a school building. "A lot of people talk about resiliency as a core strength we wish to see more in our kids, and that's really hard to teach in the classroom," Levin said. "But this is a trait that gamers naturally have; you play a level, it's hard, you fail, but failure isn't the end of the world—it's not like getting an 'F' on a test. You take a different approach and you try again until you succeed."
When Microsoft purchased Mojang and Minecraft in November of 2014 for $2.5 billion dollars, Levin and the rest of the team at TeacherGaming began wondering about the future of MinecraftEDU. In January of 2016, they sold the rightsto Microsoft, which would soon become the foundation for Minecraft: Education Edition. "Minecraft has already gotten a lot of ground into schools," Levin said. "But Microsoft's involvement and its ability to push it so much farther is going to give games in the classroom a lot more legitimacy."
Breaking Away From Tradition
That kind of optimism isn't just unique to Levin. Earlier this year, Microsoft brought together 2000 students and teachers from around the world to help design and beta test Education Edition to prepare it for launch. Steve Isaacs was one of those teachers, but his experience with Minecraft in the classroom taps into a much deeper shift in the way we're thinking about education.
"Minecraft changed things in so many ways," Isaacs said. "It is fascinating. I was used to being the one delivering the instructions and now I am a student with my students and quite often a student of my students."
Isaacs is no stranger to using video games in the classroom. For almost ten years he's been teaching video game design and development at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, NJ, and for the last four years Minecraft has been a part of his curriculum. He's now a key voice in the Minecraft: Education Edition community, helping provide feedback on its development while also becoming a "Minecraft Mentor" to other teachers needing guidance.
Both Isaacs and Levin agree that one of the biggest benefits for using video games in the classroom is that, in many cases, it provides opportunities for students to demonstrate an area of expertise that they'd so rarely get to use in school. Because Minecraft is so popular among children, Isaacs told me that it's not uncommon for teachers to be the ones who have something to learn—and the impact that can have on a student is profound.
"The first thing that I'll always share with [teachers] as an idea is have that experience of asking that group of kids to teach you how to play the game," Isaacs said. "It's amazing how excited and patient kids are about being put in the position that they're the expert teaching you as the supposed teacher. It creates a space for building relationships with students. There's so much power to that."
And then there's the actual learning that students partake in. Because Minecraft is a sandbox game, meaning there are no clear objectives but plenty of tools to create your own, the only limit to how it can be used to teach is the imagination of the teacher designing the lesson.
A problem then, is that actually designing a lesson in Minecraft: Education Edition can take an exorbitant amount of time—something teachers are already lacking. And that's not even diving into the issue of teachers failing to understand how to use it effectively or being misled to think that it can be a substitute for every lesson. "This isn't an innovation that's going to solve everything," said Richard Van Eck, the associate dean for education and learning at the University of North Dakota. "And despite the fact that [Microsoft] has simplified the interface and made it classroom situated, it's still going to be a lot more work than a traditional lesson plan."
Van Eck is optimistic about Minecraft: Education Edition, but he's also not afraid to address the real cost of incorporating video games into the classroom. "You have to understand what it is and what you're getting into before you jump into it," he said. "It's a lot of work, and it's not something that can replace everything that you would normally teach." Using Minecraft to teach a lesson about city planning, for example, is a much better way of imparting that knowledge than a traditional lecture. But using it to teach multiplication tables when flashcards are just as effective is a potential waste of resources.
Not every teacher is going to have the creativity to create good lesson plans that incorporate Minecraft, either. That's where education.minecraft.net plays a role. While it's somewhat limited right now, the website already has a host of resources including lesson plans educators can use. Eventually, Quarnstrom told me that the website will be a hub for the community to share and vote on lesson plans, creating an endless resource for teachers who might lack an intimate enough understanding of Minecraft to develop their own.
That Old Way of Thinking
Perhaps the biggest problem facing digital game-based learning and Minecraft: Education Edition is that, in an institution as massive as education, change happens slowly. "Public education is a massive bureaucracy. You're not going to solve its problems all at once by flipping the magic game-based learning switch," said Chad Sansing. A teacher for 14 years, Sansing has extensive experience in incorporating digital game-based learning into schools. In 2014, Sansing worked with his school to create a STEM-based academy for 90 eighth-graders in which digital game-based learning was a large focus. In 2015, he left teaching to join Mozilla as a web literacy curriculum developer across several of Mozilla's learning initiatives.
The problem with bureaucracy comes from the way teachers themselves are educated. "Teacher education programs by and large do not model what they preach," Van Eck said. "Pre-service teachers will teach the way they were taught. You can teach them about technology integration, but if their teachers that they are learning from aren't using technology themselves the way they want their students to, pre-service teachers will just fall back on the same methodologies. One of Microsoft's biggest hurdles is going to be finding out where in pre-service teacher education this is being integrated into curriculum"
Getting educators at every level experienced with digital game-based learning isn't going to be an easy battle. Because video games are so dynamic, it means not only relinquishing the control you can exert over the learning process, but also facing the trepidation that comes with letting go. "Teaching is a high stakes profession right now," Sansing said. "It feels really weird and messy to be asked to use something that you don't have an understanding or a passion for."
For Sansing, a major concern is that, in trying to make Minecraft: Education Edition more appealing to educators, Microsoft could also be compromising what makes Minecraft such a powerful tool.
That problem has to do with the way Education Edition has rebuilt certain concepts of MinecraftEDU to mirror a classroom. Sansing pointed to the "blackboard block" (a block that lets teachers write messages as if it were a blackboard) as an example of the ways Education Edition injects the classroom aesthetic into an experience he feels would be better served by having as little to do with our notion of school as possible.
"I am very appreciative of the efforts to get Minecraft into the schools," Sansing said. "But I'm kind of hesitant and disappointed too. I would like it if what Microsoft had to say is that schools should be more like Minecraft, not that Minecraft should be more like a classroom."
Making Way For Change
Though the ideas of digital game-based learning have existed for decades, there's no denying the number of hurdles that still stand in its way to becoming a widely used method of teaching. Despite Education Edition eliminating several barriers of entry, like the technical requirements, there's still the issue that many teachers will struggle to use it to its full potential. Not to mention education is an institution slow to change and the nuances of how best to use video games is still being debated. But despite all that, educators like Van Eck are optimistic. "These are all problems that are solvable," he said.
Despite those hurdles, Van Eck is quick to talk about perhaps the biggest benefit of Minecraft: Education Edition: setting a precedent for more companies to see the merit in building educational tools into their games. "Game designers are not interested in modifying their games in anyway to account for the limitations or strengths of classroom," he said. "Those of us who have been doing digital game-based learning have been arguing for years that if commercial game companies would open up their software, then we would have the ability to do things in the classroom that would greatly improve what we're trying to do. If Microsoft can make a go of this, it might convince other game companies to at least consider more educational applications of their games."
The future of digital game-based learning doesn't ride on Minecraft's shoulders alone, but rather on a diverse ecosystem of quality games that can continue to affect the change that educators like Sansing, Van Eck, Isaacs, and Levin wish to see.