Education Week - August 19, 2015 - (Page 12)
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS >
Tracking news and ideas in educational technology
By Benjamin Herold
One of the world's most popular
video games has made significant
inroads into K-12 classrooms, opening new doors for teaching everything
from city planning to 1st graders to
physics for high schoolers.
The game, of course, is Minecraft,
a 21st-century version of Legos in
which players use simple 3-D digital
blocks to build and explore almost
anything they can imagine.
"It's no longer a farfetched idea that
Minecraft could be useful for teaching and learning," said Joel Levin,
the co-founder of TeacherGaming
LLC, a 4-year-old company based
in Tampere, Finland, that has sold
MinecraftEdu, its customized classroom version of the game, to more
than 6,500 schools, libraries, and museums. "The conversation has shifted
to taking a closer look at the types of
experiences that are possible."
While the game's power to engage
children has made it a compelling
draw inside schools, there have been
hurdles to its growth.
Three-quarters of teachers now
report using digital games in their
classrooms, but many remain uncomfortable with integrating open-ended
games such as Minecraft into instruction. Minecraft is also not free.
And the game's surging popularity-
a Warner Bros. movie is currently in
development, and legions of children
spend time watching YouTube videos
of other people playing the game-has
led to some concern that Minecraft's
creative elements are slowly being
replaced by more passive forms of
Still, Levin said, the game is providing a growing number of teachers and
students with opportunities to make
"It's a powerful moment when you
take something kids love and are passionate about, and you bring it into
the school day, and you say, 'Show me
what you can do with it,' " he said.
Millions of Players
Released in 2009, the commercial
version of Minecraft is a virtual sandbox, with no set narrative or goal.
Players are given tools and opportunities to build, create, destroy, and
interact with each other. (In Minecraft's "survival" mode, which is separate from its "creative" mode, players
must find food and avoid animals and
monsters that are trying to eat them.)
In March 2014, the computing and
software giant Microsoft Corp. bought
the game's creator, Swedish developer
Mojang, for $2.5 billion.
If that seems like a lot of money,
consider: A June 2015 report by international gaming-research and -analytics firm Newzoo tagged Minecraft
as the second-most-played computer
game in the Western world. Newzoo estimated last fall that in North
America and Western Europe alone,
36 million people play Minecraft
The experience of Sara Richards,
an instructional technology specialist at Laurel Mountain Elementary
in Texas' Round Rock school district,
offers a window into how the game
has gained a foothold in schools in
the United States.
Richards, a self-described techie
and gamer, was introduced to Minecraft by one of her students in 2011.
She quickly saw the game's educational potential, but was unsure how
"All the kids played it at home, but
they like killing monsters and putting armor on their guys and throwing potions on people to turn them invisible," Richards said. "None of that
fit with the lessons [Laurel Mountain] teachers were teaching."
So, during the 2013-14 school year,
Richards started an after-school tech
club that included heavy doses of
Club members figured out appropriate ways to use the game in
school. They collectively chose their
goal (building a medieval village) and
worked together to set ground rules
(no flooding someone else's Minecraft
house with digital lava).
The experience was a hit.
Laurel Mountain's principal and
the district's administration-which
had previously blocked student access to Minecraft, because too many
children were trying to play the game
during classes-approved Richards'
proposal to buy a MinecraftEdu package for the school. For less than $400,
the school received enough game licenses to outfit a computer lab. MinecraftEdu now also offers access to
cloud-based classroom servers, which
allows teachers to limit access to the
game to their students.
The first Minecraft classroom
lesson at the school took place with
3rd graders who had just learned
about perimeter, volume, and area
in their math class.
After a brief demonstration, the
students set about building Minecraft houses with floors (for which
they had to calculate the area), multiple stories (to calculate volume), and
fences (to calculate their property's
perimeter). When the students were
done, they created a Minecraft sign,
complete with the results of their
calculations, to hang in front of their
The lure of the game was powerful
motivation for some students who
might otherwise have been uninterested in the math content, Richards
"But the part that surprised me
was how well [Minecraft] lent itself
12 | EDUCATION WEEK | August 19, 2015 | www.edweek.org
Charles Mostoller for Education Week
Teachers Use Minecraft
To Fuel Creative Ideas,
FROM TOP: Educators participate in
a Minecraft training session this
summer at the ISTE 2015
conference in Philadelphia.
As part of an historic preservation
unit for 4th graders at Hulstrom
Elementary School, in Colorado,
students researched prominent
architectural sites in the state and
built replicas in Minecraft.
to differentiation," she concluded.
"The kids who totally got the concepts
were able to build these elaborate
structures and challenge themselves
to find the area and perimeter and
volume of something more complicated. The kids who were unsure of
themselves could build something
Richards has since expanded Laurel Mountain's use of the game to include eight classrooms and hundreds
of students, including 1st graders
who built an entire Minecraft city as
part of a lesson on city planning last
The game's growing popularity
inside schools nationally can also be
seen at events such as the annual
conference of the International Society for Technology in Education.
The group's most recent gathering,
in June in Philadelphia, featured no
fewer than two dozen different sessions on Minecraft in the classroom.
As the game takes off, some educators are working to ensure it is
used to reinforce the academic and
technology standards educators are
increasingly held accountable for
Take Laura Israelsen, a teacher
librarian at Hulstrom Elementary
School near Denver, and Michelle
Pearson, a language arts and social
studies teacher who is on leave to
work as an educational staff member
with the Colorado State Historical
The duo has spent the past two
school years developing, implementing, and sharing a three-week Minecraft unit on historic preservation.
In their unit's initial rollout at Hulstrom, 4th graders learned how to access a public database typically used
only by professional preservationists
and read primary documents from
the national and state park services.
The students then prepared presentations that included virtual replicas
of Colorado's significant architectural sites, constructed in Minecraft,
as well as written arguments on
whether or not a site should continue
to be preserved.
The game is excellent for helping
teach the state's digital literacy standards, such as preparing students to
use Web 2.0 communication tools and
learn new software, Israelsen said.
Pearson said that Minecraft can
also be used to help motivate students to tackle two of the more challenging standards associated with
the Common Core State Standards:
reading challenging informational
texts, and writing for an "authentic"
For Connor Smith, now a rising
6th grader, the unit was memorable,
mostly because it represented a rare
opportunity to use his imagination in
"Minecraft is a way to express how
you think," he said, describing how
his desire to get every detail correct
in the Minecraft reproduction of the
site he chose, as well as the opportunity to show his creation to real
historic preservationists, prompted
him to do more in-depth research
and preparation than he otherwise
"They didn't believe that you could
play Minecraft in school and build
something historic," Connor said.
"Proving them wrong was great."
For all the excitement, it can still
be a challenge to get many classroom
teachers to embrace teaching in such
a newfangled way.
Israelsen, Pearson, and Richardson
all suggested that many teachers are
willing to take on such an unconventional tool only with outside support-from a technology specialist or
a teacher librarian, for example.
And though MinecraftEdu is not
prohibitively expensive for most
schools, it does cost money. Software licenses to use the game for
educational purposes cost $14 to $18
apiece, depending on how many are
purchased, and the game's server
software costs schools $41.
While Microsoft has trod lightly so
far, there is also uncertainty about
what the future holds now that the
game is owned by a corporate titan.
In June, the company launched a
website that is intended as a destination for educators interested in using
the game, and that seems to parallel
much of what MinecraftEdu already
Ultimately, though, observers
from the gaming and education sectors predict continued growth inside
schools, both of Minecraft itself and
of other games that seek to harness
its open-ended approach.
"We're at the beginning of creating
new kinds of virtual-reality learning
spaces," said Jordan Shapiro, an instructor at Temple University and an
author and speaker on game-based
education. "I think Minecraft is the
beginning of that."
The DIGITAL EDUCATION blog tracks
news and trends on this issue.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - August 19, 2015
Education Week - August 19, 2015
News in Brief
Rookie Principals’ Group Sheds Light on Early-Career Challenges
Education Week Acquires Television Production Company
Historians See AP U.S. History Revisions as ‘Evenhanded’
Handcuffing of Students Reignites Debate On Use of Restraint
Study Casts Doubt on Impact of Teacher Professional Development
Teachers Use Minecraft to Fuel Creative Ideas, Analytical Thinking
Blogs of the Week
Education Stakes Are High in Ky., La., and Miss. Governor Races
Accountability 3.0: What Will State Systems Look Like?
Budget Deadline Could Put Education Programs at Risk
Blogs of the Week
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
How Do We Help Students With Mental-Health Issues Return to School?
Lessons From Successful School Improvement Grants
2005: In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
Do We Need Quality Assurance for Teacher Feedback?
Education Week - August 19, 2015