The Nov. 1 launch of a “Minecraft” version tailored for the classroom is exciting educators and parents alike.
“Phenomenal” is how Mark Minghella describes the test version of “Minecraft: Education Edition,” the new iteration of the popular building game.
“I’ve got an overwhelmingly … positive attitude toward ‘Minecraft’ in the classroom,” says Minghella, a technology teacher in the nation’s capital at the British International School of Washington. He says he was familiar with “Minecraft” thanks to his two kids. “It’s actually being used for education purposes and not just for students to play games.”
Minghella says the game can help students understand the concepts involved with building a sustainable community, as well as how to work collaboratively, overcome obstacles and prioritize tasks.
“Understanding that logical sequencing and systems thinking” is one of the many benefits of gaming for students, says Lisa Douthit, an emerging technology teacher with the Turner Unified School District of Kansas City, Kansas. “It’s all about logical thinking and critical thinking, and how it expands that student’s mind from that perspective.”
For Microsoft, the parent company of “Minecraft,” the foray appears to make sense, as the game-based learning market is expected to reap revenues of $4.9 billion by 2019. The company, which acquired “Minecraft” developer Mojang for $2.5 billion in 2014 in one of the largest acquisitions in gaming history, announced the updated game version in January. The original “Minecraft” version has seen more than 100 million downloads on PCs alone since 2009.
Based on MinecraftEdu, a licensed game developed by TeacherGaming LLC and purchased by Microsoft earlier this year, “Minecraft: Education Edition” has been free to more than 35,000 students and teachers around the world taking part in an early access program. Since June, schools and students have been testing the new edition, providing feedback to the company to refine the game before its official launch.
“We have high hopes for this title to be a game-changer in classrooms around the world,” Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of “Minecraft” education at Microsoft, tells U.S. News. “Our first priority in the short term is driving awareness of the new title and getting continued educator feedback to finesse the experience as we go.”
“Minecraft: Education Edition” provides a team-play mode for up to 30 students and allows them to take pictures of their work for teachers to track their development. It also adds a chalkboard feature so teachers can post information or give instructions during the game. It has a single sign-on feature for privacy and security protection, and a non-player character function in the November version enables educators to act as guides within the game.
The technical nature of the game itself may impede classroom adoption for some, as it takes place in an open “sandbox” format in which players build worlds from scratch using 3-D blocks.
“For educators who know and love ‘Minecraft,’ the blank canvas is an exciting opportunity, but for those who are new to ‘Minecraft,’ this format can be overwhelming,” Microsoft’s Quarnstrom admits.
But features like an in-depth tutorial, lesson plans, a variety of templated worlds and a classroom mode can help reduce the learning curve. So-called “Minecraft” mentors will be available to aid teachers working to incorporate the game into classwork as well.
That schools and interested parents will adopt the game on a widespread level is the gamble Microsoft is taking. “Minecraft: Education Edition” will be available in the Windows Store for $5 per user per year from Nov. 1, while schools also can obtain the game under a districtwide licensing agreement that charges in the range of $1 to $2 per user per year, the “Minecraft” team tells U.S. News in an email.
The November launch comes as efforts to connect more classrooms to the internet have ramped up in recent years, involving advocates such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the nonprofit world and the Obama administration on the federal level. Yet concerns about children and teens spending too much time watching television or using other media devices remain prevalent, with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending parents set consistent limits on such activities.
But while some may balk at the idea of making gaming a focal point in the classroom, most of the educators contacted by U.S. News say they have overwhelming support from parents.
“There are definitely parents who would not agree to applying gaming, but I would like to think that it is a function of not understanding the association with the learning objectives,” says Steven Isaacs, a game design and development teacher at William Annin Middle School in New Jersey, who also will be serving as a “Minecraft” mentor.
Minghella says his school did receive a complaint from a parent who was not convinced about the benefits of applying gaming to the classroom. But he says most parents have been very supportive.
“I think that some parents play games and as such, get the idea. Some don’t play games but understand that we can harness games to enhance education. Finally, some don’t play games and can’t see past games as being anything more than just games,” Minghella says.
He also thinks efforts by schools and teachers can mitigate parents’ worries. The British International School of Washington, for example, hosted a “Minecraft for Parents” event to let parents experience the game and see what the students can learn.
Mark Blair, a technology specialist with the Douglas County School District in Colorado, says some teachers testing the game did have technical difficulties getting it running. But he thinks those issues will be minimized in the new edition, in which teachers will simply have to create a world for the students to operate within after joining.
“Because they added some new modifications for teachers to better manage their class, and to be able to do things like coding and other things that teachers are interested in, it’s just easier for teachers to adopt it,” says Mimi Ito, research director of the Digital Media and Learning Hub at the University of California—Irvine. Ito also is a co-founder of Connected Camps, a for-profit online learning organization through which teenage coaches use “Minecraft” to teach younger children computer coding and Spanish.
Some educators and after-school programs already using the standard “Minecraft” version may be reluctant to switch to the education edition, worried it may pale in comparison to some of the original’s more powerful features, such as modded weapons, characters and game modes.
Whether students can continue their learning at home using the education edition is another question for users. While Microsoft has said kids can play the game at home as well, Ito notes their particular identity in the game is tied to where they currently attend school, meaning switching to another may force them to start from scratch or scrap the game altogether.
“What’s very important for our learning model is that it’s about having a social relationship, a community, being a part of a shared ‘Minecraft’ server community,” Ito says. “And in order to do that, kids need to be able to connect from home and need to be able to maintain that ‘Minecraft’ identity, which is different from the education edition where the school is going to buy the accounts and the school owns the account for whatever period of time that they want to subscribe their kids.”
However, Douthit says she’s excited to see how the new version evolves.
“Obviously they are developing their regular version of ‘Minecraft,’ so I have great confidence that they are gonna do the same with the teacher version,” she says.