Microsoft wants to get Minecraft into schools, and it's starting by trying to get teachers on board. Minecraft: Education Edition, which was announced in January, goes into an open beta today that's meant to let teachers try it out before the game's public launch in September. Microsoft's hope is that teachers will use Minecraft as a way to help younger students engage with lessons, allowing them to, for example, step into a blocky re-creation of a historical world or a scenario from a book.
Minecraft: Education Edition is almost identical to standard Minecraft, but it includes a handful of features designed for the classroom. A couple smaller features were announced in January — like an in-game camera for taking screenshots — and some more substantial ones are being announced today. That includes adding in-game chalkboards that can display large blocks of text and letting teachers place characters that'll say things when a student walks up to them.
The biggest new feature won't come until September, when the game launches. It's called Classroom Mode, and it's essentially a control panel for teachers. Teachers will be able to use the interface to grant resources to students, view where everyone is on a map, send chat messages, and teleport people to specific places, which will be useful should students run off or get lost.
Teachers will be able to use Minecraft: Education Edition for free until September. At that point, Microsoft will begin licensing it to schools for anywhere from $1 to $5 per student for a year's use. There remains a very legitimate question around how effective Minecraft is as an educational tool — teachers have to learn the game and figure out ways to make gameplay educational, largely without Microsoft's help — but the fact that kids are excited to play Minecraft may be enough to make it worthwhile.