I've been running some Friday afternoon sessions with a small group of middle primary students on our relatively new MinecraftEDU server. I'm running this as part of a small research project to explore what links to learning are possible and useful using Minecraft as the forum. I know that Minecraft can be a successful vehicle for learning - my son shows me this with Massively Minecraft, and there are a multitude of Dean Groom blog posts to cement the point home. I also read another informative blog MinecraftEdu Elfie that share first hand experiences of using this tool within the classroom. I've also been out to a nearby local primary school where a teacher, David Tucker is doing fabulous things with students from a wide range of cultures and social backgrounds. So, I know that the potential is there - but my school's question is definitely along the lines of - "What could this mean for our kids?"
So, the group of students is my test bed for some action research on a weekly basis, which is a bit infrequent for my liking. But I thinking that a secondary goal is to create some awareness and teacher buy-in, so a slow build up is OK with me for the moment. My other issue is that I'm not a big Minecraft fan personally, lacking motivation and patience to get much past creating a very basic house and mastering flying around the world. So, I recruited real expertise to run the teacher function of the MinecraftEDU set up in the form of a very knowledgeable Year Six student who had the right blend of responsibility, ability to listen to layman style goals (from my mouth) and willingness to improvise for the benefit of a group of younger students. This student has been awesome, bringing a steady hand to the controls within the teacher interface, and he has been constantly offering ideas to make each session a worthwhile experience. He has suggested treasure hunts, separate zones for specific activities and even worked on griefer-management strategies. In his classroom, he's just another quiet kid but in my sessions, he has grown in confidence to display real leadership and decision making skills - a real commander-in-chief, allowing me to take on a more observational role and see what kids will actually do in the Minecraft environment.
David Tucker's classroom had highly developed concepts where he had students working in pairs researching and building castles, while EduElfie has his students building models of DNA in the Science classroom. But I decided to start with a much blanker slate. Basically, I wanted a blank "world" where the invited student researchers would be free to create their own choices of buildings etc. I wanted to see what learning naturally evolved without too much teacher intervention - could the kids be self directed learners within MinecraftEDU. I liked the idea of a "teacher" moderator role and found the ideal candidate in the before mentioned student who has explored the meta-controls to a much greater depth than I could. I certainly didn't want anything being held up by my lack of knowledge. So, the kids came, logged on and I logged in as well as a casual observer to see what would unfold.
One interesting thing that I noted early on was that the students all started building structures in close proximity to each other. In a world where no one was restricted by borders, everyone clustered together within elbowing distance of each other building structures that were so close to each other that I could barely fly between them without colliding with a wall (that could also be my lousy mouse control within Minecraft). And some of the social and play problems that plague our students out in the yard started to replicate themselves in Minecraft - instead of arguments and interference in others' games, we had "griefing" issues and lava pouring out of walls. So social skills and play skills are another potential application for the MinecraftEDU environment.
I've seen some great sharing and collaboration between the students over the term. Students have paired up in their building ventures, some have sought help and expertise from the older moderators to improve their tool sets and crafting abilities. Quiet students have come out of their shell to be quite animated in a liberating display of self-consciousness loss, and for a number of our ESL students, using the common language of English to describe quite complex processes to others has led to improvements in their oral abilities.
Another important thing to note has been the difference between the two modes of "Survival" and "Creative". With my students, Survival brings out a tense, almost agitated atmosphere where decisions have to be made quickly and instinctively. Voices are high, the pace is frantic and it seems to be every player for him or herself. A switch to creative mode changes the mood significantly. Voices are calmer, more interactive and the deeper thinking and creative side of students has enough time and space to make an impact. Some kids enjoy the Survival mode as it is most game like, and aligns more with the experience they would have on a console game but there are some who find this mode to be too intense and something they don't like. From a learning point of view, Creative seems to hold the most potential for our students.
From this research group, I am thinking that I now need a volunteer classroom for 2013. A place where this tool can help engage learners to meet some of the capabilities and achievement standards of our new Australian Curriculum. Time to scout out that teacher.