When Deirdre Quarnstrom first took the job as the head of Minecraft for Education, she was given a very specific mandate:
“We want to change the world,” Mojang, the developer of Minecraft, told Quarnstrom.
This product forms the backbone of Mojang's quest to change the world, one student at a time. And it's a big piece of how Microsoft wants to make sure that Minecraft, which it got in the $2.5 billion acquisition of Mojang, sticks around for generations yet to come.
People already have the impression Minecraft is a fabulous tool for getting kids excited about learning to code. Quarnstrom says she understands that impression. After all, you play Minecraft on a computer, and “people equate computers with coding.”
But from Quarnstrom's perspective, it could also be used to teach all kinds of other stuff — project management, architecture, design, or any number of other important skills. And it has the potential to totally change how kids learn.
“We see Minecraft as something that can be foundational to education,” she says.
Pink fuzzy buildings
The idea of educational video games stretches back decades: Lots of millennials have fond memories of playing games like Oregon Trail or Math Blaster during school hours. But those games were rarely used as part of a lesson plan.
But Minecraft: Education Edition is pitched as a major learning tool, the same way students might rely on Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.
During the beta testing period, which spanned 35,000 students in 100 schools, teachers were using Minecraft to teach stuff like architecture by having a real-life architect come in, demonstrate what a brutalist building might look like, and then instantly cover it in pink fur to demonstrate how much materials matter.
Or, instead of assigning a shoebox diaroma of the First Thanksgiving, why not have the whole class work together to build a themed Minecraft world, and then act out the scene? Or build a scale model of the Taj Mahal as a class, assigning everybody a role in its construction? Microsoft will also be offering resources with suggestions for teachers.
Quarnstrom says Minecraft: Education Edition had 35,000 students in 100 schools using it during the beta testing phase.
Kids already know and love Minecraft, its world, and how to build to their heart's content. That love translates into a much higher engagement with lessons run in the virtual world, Quarnstrom says, and leads to a more participatory, fun way to teach vital skills.
“That's where the magic happens,” Quarnstrom says.
One big challenge, Quarnstrom says, is to make sure that the game stays fun, even when they're supposed to be learning something. To that end, Minecraft's signature crates of TNT make an appearance in Education Edition, just for fun. Teachers get tools to gather up students who may go walkabout during lessons, to balance.
It may be a little while before teachers are assigning Minecraft homework. But because the two versions are so similar, it encourages students to keep on experimenting with whatever they learned in class that day, while they're playing Minecraft at home.
Another hurdle, Quarnstrom says, is getting in front of teachers in the first place. Selling software to schools is an arduous process: Different school districts have different rules for how they buy technology, for starters, making it kind of a minefield to sell at the necessary scales.
That's where Microsoft comes in. Microsoft already has relationships with school districts all over the world thanks to Microsoft Office, giving Mojang and Minecraft a big foot in the door. Plus, students log in to Minecraft Education Edition with their Office 365 accounts, which means the kids' accounts are up to Microsoft's high bar for security.
Going forward, Quarnstrom sees Minecraft: Education Edition integrating with other Microsoft products like Skype, letting teachers do things like have special guest-lecturers in their Minecraft lessons.
In the shorter-term, though, Quarnstrom thinks Minecraft is primed to make a big impact in education. There are more tablets and laptops entering the classroom than ever before, she notes, and teachers are looking to find new ways to engage their students in this digital world.
“The world is ready for game-based learning,” Quarnstrom says.