An Official Microsoft Blog post by Anthony Salcito, published on January 19, 2016, announced that Microsoft has acquired MinecraftEdu and is investing in a customized version of the game Minecraft that could be used as a classroom learning tool. Like me, your first reaction to this news is probably one of skepticism and perhaps even derision. But when you think about it more deeply, the concept of using a game environment as a teaching mechanism for children, if implemented correctly, is really not a bad idea.
Without going into much detail, Minecraft is a virtual environment where the players build, refine, change, and destroy a virtual world of their creation using building blocks. What gets made in this virtual world is limited only by the players' imaginations. There are also multiplayer environments that allow players to cooperate in the creation of their world.
Each building block has properties that can be used to create simple procedural programs. By combining many simple procedures, players can create very complicated machines. One of my favorites is this scientific calculator (video). Using Minecraft, this person created what is essentially a virtual mechanical scientific calculator. This takes some incredible focus and organization of thought.
If students using Minecraft as an educational tool can achieve even a small improvement in critical and analytical thinking, it is well worth the unconventional nature of the activity.
Gaming raises skill
As someone who has played video games since the early 1980s, I can attest to the power of gaming to help shape the mind. The strategy games I played back then (and still do today) helped me learn how to think both tactically and strategically. The adventure games taught me the benefits of thinking outside the box. Later, the first person shooters honed my abilities to think quickly and focus.
Back in the “old days,” gamers not only had to know how to play a game, they also had to know how to get a game to run in the first place. Under DOS, to get games to work, one had to know about batch files, and subdirectories, and file structures. This is how a career devoted to explaining how technology works was started.
Work of the future
The Information Age has changed the way society does just about everything. At TechRepublic we have been talking about big data and the Internet of Things for years now. However, these concepts are no longer phenomena of the future; they are a reality. The amount of data being collected on everything you and I do, on every transaction that takes place, is mind-boggling.
To sift through this ever increasing mountain of data we are going to need well-trained minds. We need minds that can analyze trends, that can see patterns, that can formulate plans of action, and that can imagine where those actions will eventually lead.
Microsoft funding a project to transform Minecraft into a learning tool that educators can use to help develop those analytical minds we need is a good thing. Sure it's a bit unconventional—and some skeptics will downplay the benefits. But any attempt to create people who can analyze and solve problems on the fly is well worth the effort, don't you think?