I’ve been playing Minecraft Education—mostly with students or other teachers—for about four years now. My experience came to a head two weekends ago, when I attended MINECON, the annual Minecraft convention and fan fest held this year in Anaheim on September 24-25. I go to a lot of educational technology conferences, but I don’t have a lot of experience with “fandom conventions.” Experiencing MINECON 2016 as an educator, I found it to be a melding of the two—and a clear indicator as to why the education world is obsessed with Minecraft.
Bringing Together Teachers, Parents and Students
MINECON is definitely aimed at kids, who are among Minecraft’s biggest fans. I, in fact, took my 12-year-old son with me, who contributed to this article. But upon attending the conference, I found that there were a lot of parents and quite a few educators in attendance, as well. Minecraft is especially unique in the sense that it’s a tool that brings together each of those three different groups of individuals, all in pursuit of creative expression, adventure, and fun.
I know how I use Minecraft in my own computer science classes, and I’ve heard and seen amazing applications that other teachers have shared. But if you really want to feel as inspired as I felt coming away from this weekend, you need only look to the kids who use Minecraft without adult intervention. In mass amount, I saw how students try, click, play, guess, and take risks with computer applications and other devices, all in attempt to figure out “What happens if I…?” I’m ecstatic to see a generation of willing pioneers who know no fear when it comes to bravely experimenting and inventing, with little regard for adults who may want to steer them toward more traditional and pragmatic pursuits.
As Minecraft is a gaming experience popular with both adults and kids, it can often be a family endeavor, where parents and their children play together. Many parents I’ve talked to became interested in Minecraft themselves because they were curious about the obsession that had such staying power with their kids; it wasn’t a fad that came and went. As they started to see how much their kids were learning, they felt naturally drawn into the game themselves. And it’s worth noting: many families in attendance at Minecon were homeschoolers who use the game as a learning tool.
A Rich Variety of Activities, Projects and Partners
When it comes to Minecraft, the implications for student engagement and project-based learning are endless. A clear indicator of this is the list of top five favorite items that my son identified from MINECON, from his perspective as a student:
- Celebrity Minecrafters: My favorite thing was meeting famous YouTubers who play Minecraft. I met, took selfies with, and got autographs from Stampy, Squiddy, Sqaishey, and Wizard Keen.
- New Items Inside the Game: Everyone who went to MINECON got an email afterward with a code for the official MINECON 2016 cape that you can wear inside the game!
- Minecraft Activities with LEGO and More: The LEGO booth had a fun activity where you could build a Minecraft LEGO solution to get Alex (a Minecraft avatar character) out of a problem. Two other activities (unrelated to LEGO) that we could partake in were punching trees and a Minecraft witch hunt in the game. These were really popular with kids!
- Student Voice Panel: There was a student voice panel that had kids who talked about their Minecraft experiences, such as making games inside the game and making videos of their builds.
- Exploring Biomes Exhibits: There were cool biomes—big physical constructions—in the expo hall, such as a real-life tundra, underwater, forest, and even a farm with Minecraft animals. There was also a replica of a Minecraft house with all the stuff inside that you would need in a real Minecraft house in the game, like a bed, a crafting table, a furnace, a jukebox, and cake.
Leading the Minecraft charge is a small army of YouTubers—veritable celebrities in a setting like MINECON—who make videos of their game play as well as tutorials and artistic creations within the Minecraft world. I don’t know who most of these digital celebrities are, but my son knew of a few big names, and most of the young Minecraft fans knew who everybody was.
Minecraft itself has worked its way into so many facets of life—YouTube and LEGO, to name two—that adolescents connect with, and as such, the classroom is a logical place where Minecraft can help bridge the gap between life inside school and life outside of school.
New Minecraft Developments, to Keep Users Engaged
My focus on Minecraft in the education space has meant that I’m an early advocate of Microsoft’s new Minecraft: Education Edition, which officially launches on November 1st. This new edition, aimed at schools, includes some new features and some improved Minecraft features:
- There are chalkboards of varying sizes, which can be used to post information in-game as part of the students’ learning experience. (Think directions or clarifications, for example.)
- There are some NPCs (non-player characters) that can be added to the game. This isn’t an entirely new feature, but it’s an add-on to previous educational versions.
- Cameras—and the portfolios they feed into—garnered the most excitement from teachers I have talked to about the new updates. Players can now place a camera to take a “selfie” with their work, or use the camera to capture images of their builds, caption them in the portfolio, and then export them to use in any applications they’d like.
- Finally, a new classroom mode, which will be released with the new product in November, allows the teacher to check in on various worlds that students are using. Teachers can also view students’ in-game chat, move students around as needed, give students items, or communicate with them without having to enter each world individually.
Some of today’s students have already been lucky enough to be in classes with teachers who’ve been using Minecraft for the past few years as a learning platform. It’s popular with kids and teachers because it’s familiar and fun, but also because it provides a space in which students can visualize, build, and experiment in a 3D environment.
But there are so many more students out there, who have yet to really exercise their creative spirit and impulses. We’re going to need creative student thinkers, because they grow into courageous, innovative adults who can solve the world’s problems.
The collaboration, engagement, and exploration opportunities that Minecraft provides are well-suited to give kids the experiences they need to build tomorrow’s solutions—but Minecraft is just where they start.