Walking through a vast network of medieval streets and houses, it’s easy to get lost. Luckily, I can fly. So I can see that up ahead, a team is building a castle with parapets and a wide moat. Someone next to me is posting signs with historical facts about the city. In outlying areas, people tend farms and raise livestock. Below, another team is creating a vast network of dungeons and prison cells.
I’m in Minecraft, of course—the phenomenally popular, open-ended game that places players in a world in which they can live and build things infinitely. Marcus “Notch” Persson, the Swedish creator of Minecraft, started out by creating a simple game, allowing players to construct whatever they wanted, using a few different colored blocks, each equivalent to one cubic meter. Released in 2009, it has evolved into a massive, world-building video game in which players uses those blocks to create anything they can think of, from houses, caves, and machines to a scale version of the Death Star. Microsoft purchased Minecraft from Notch and his team for $2.5 billion in November 2014.
There aren’t any express objectives or any real way to win in Minecraft. It’s a “sandbox,” in gaming speak—offering free play without a specific goal and currently used by more than 18.5 million players, with some 20,000 more signing up every day. Users may choose between Creative Mode, in which they can build using unlimited resources by themselves or with friends, with no real danger or enemies, and Survival Mode, where they fend off enemies and other players and fight for resources and space. They can trade items and communicate using a chat bar. Modifications (or mods) can add complexity by creating things like economic systems that let players buy and sell resources from in-game characters using an in-game currency system. These downloadable mods can also add computer science concepts and thousands of additional features.
Minecraft’s worlds and possibilities are truly endless—and increasingly, so are its educational adaptations for school use. Available on multiple platforms (Apple, Windows, Linux, PlayStation, Xbox, Raspberry Pi, iOS, Android, Windows Phone), the game’s flexibility and collaborative possibilities make it a favorite among devotees of gamification.
“Minecraft is like LEGOs on steroids,” says Eric Sheninger, a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education. “Learners of all ages work together to ultimately create a product that has value to them,” he adds. “The simple interface provides students in the classroom with endless possibilities to demonstrate creativity, think critically, communicate, collaborate, and solve problems.” A Swedish student research study also showed that collaboration in Minecraft provided a more immersive problem-solving experience than group LEGO building.
These days, MinecraftEdu is the premiere source of educational resources for the game. Developed in 2011 with Mojang, Notch’s video game company, MinecraftEdu’s original objective was to create a way for teachers to deploy Minecraft in schools with minimum cost and effort. Educators and game developers have collaborated via MinecraftEdu to create many sharable worlds for the game that are directly correlated to the Common Core State Standards. “This is true game-based learning,” says Christopher Harris, currently a fellow for Children and Youth Technology Policy Initiatives at the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy. “The key point about MinecraftEdu is that we aren’t just playing Minecraft in the classroom, we are able to manipulate the game to create an intentional instructional experience for students.”
Prebuilt worlds expose students to places like the Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty and Virginia’s Jamestown Settlement. There are worlds centered on mathematical and scientific exploration. You can easily place your whole class into a world built to teach them long division, and then transfer them to a new one where they can dig for scale replicas of dinosaurs.
In a MinecraftEdu world called “Decimal Island,” students are placed on a small map and are required to find three different quests hidden on the island. These quests ask students to calculate different sums and differences for purchasing items. Students must complete these math problems and put their answer into the game. The teacher can track each student throughout the world and find out how many questions they’ve answered and which ones are correct.
Players of MinecraftEdu’s “Water Challenge Remix” are in an environment with a single source of water. They must work collaboratively to survive with a limited water supply, planning together to develop methods of irrigation and farming, as well as build a settlement planned out on graph paper. A large scoreboard tracks the number of deaths for each group in order to show how effective different societies are at managing their resources. Further extensions to this world challenge students to develop self-sustaining farms once they have mastered the original objectives.
One great benefit of a framework like MinecraftEdu is the community surrounding it. MinecraftEdu offers discounted licenses to schools to get them started, along with a huge community of fellow educators who can help teachers and librarians sustain their programs. Educators from around the world post lesson plans, activities, tutorials, and worksheets for others who want to use their game worlds. They provide step-by-step instructions for teachers who are new to the game.
MinecraftEdu isn’t without costs, especially if you need support getting your server up and running. The base program varies in price because of the need to purchase individualized licenses for students. A classroom of 25 students will cost about $400 after buying the licenses and the MinecraftEdu server. If your district has a designated IT staff member, or even a tech-savvy parent who can help, this should be your only fee. Alternately, for $20 a month, MinecraftEdu will host and maintain your worlds. Some educators leverage their Minecraft-savvy students to get them up to speed—recruiting them to explain the game over a few lunch periods or during after-school programs.
Once your classroom is up and running, all other MinecraftEdu resources are free, including teacher-made lesson plans, worlds, tutorials, and worksheets.
Embedding the Common Core
Jason and Crystal Hubler, teachers at Carter Traditional Elementary School in Louisville, KY, have been running an educational Minecraft server for over a year. They spent six months creating their world, which includes separate areas across the landscape focusing on different Common Core standards. In this open “sandbox,” Jason notes, “students can travel to different regions, each containing different activities for each of the content areas.”
To get up to speed on server knowledge, Jason got involved in online forum communities, reading tutorials, and documentations for servers, and researching frameworks, including MinecraftEdu. He connected with computer programmers who were passionate about education and agreed to create additions. “We distributed an in-game quiz that was custom-made by a programmer [and] asked Common Core questions every 15 minutes,” says Jason. “The server scanned for correct answers in chat,“ and students could win materials for use in the game. Programmers also created unique items, such as bookcases where students could write their own in-game books that can be loaned out. Once students acquire an empty notebook, ink, and a feather, they can write a book up to 50 pages long.
Another section of their world allows students to use pressure-sensitive plates in order to create graphs. Players step on these squares to move colored blocks on the x/y axis to place them at certain coordinates. A different area is modeled after the American South during the Civil War, with a plantation, a ferryboat, and architecturally accurate houses and railways. Throughout, in-game characters enhance student learning with targeted questioning and accurate storytelling.
The Hublers studied the impact of their Minecraft game on student achievement as part of their National Board Certification for teaching. Responding to a survey they created, students “commented time after time that they were pulling information from the game” for short and extended test answers, Jason wrote. Local schools and the public library now use the Hublers’ server in their educational programs. Jason added, “I now have a virtual classroom in which to engage my students, and those of several other schools, beyond our classroom.”
Five Outstanding Worlds
Great learning environments in MinecraftEdu
Escape from Everest Players awaken after 200 years to find that Mount Everest is the only dry land on Earth. They must work together to balance environmental concerns through a series of quests in which they attempt to re-green the Earth.
qCraft Curriculum Map (above) Students explore the three principles of quantum physics through guided experiments within the world. Created in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology.
Coordinate Hunt Students must find 40 hidden objects within this world, laid out in a coordinate grid. Once the object is found, the students must document its coordinate location within their journal.
The Forbidden City—Digital Historian Project (above) An accurate 1:1 representation of The Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty. Built by a team of amateur and professional historians as an opportunity for students to tour this ancient site.
HungerCraft This world allows students to explore Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” universe. Users are either placed in the Capitol or District 12 and must procure different resources to survive.
Minecraft and visual thinking
Colin Gallagher, a teacher at the International School in Singapore, has used the MinecraftEdu framework and Minecraft to teach about medieval times to sixth graders, cultural influences in architecture to second graders, and communities and systems to third graders. His classes have even created an entire student-built city that is modeled after ancient Chinese settlements.
His third graders had created cardboard dioramas previously; when using Minecraft, they became “highly motivated to plan, organize, and create a model community of systems” and a form of governance, adds Gallagher.
“Minecraft can help students visualize concepts, work on communication and collaboration skills, foster positive online behavior, [and] differentiate for students who need more than just words in a textbook,” says Colin.
Gallagher describes an experience with a fifth-grade student who was not a native English speaker. “During a project on renewable sources of energy, he asked if he could use Minecraft for his summative assessment,” Gallagher says. “He ended up creating a functioning hydro dam in Minecraft with gates to release water. He may not have been able to stand up in front of the class and present in English…but he could show what he learned using Minecraft.”
Teachers like Gallagher enhance their students’ Minecraft experience with mods (Minecraftmods.com)—downloadable, user-created additions or changes to Minecraft that create entirely new aspects within the game. There are thousands, allowing players to do everything from creating nuclear reactor technology to large, automated machines that can dig and facilitate farming.
Additional mods can add computer science concepts, advanced manufacturing techniques, and even more complex problem-solving activities. A mod called ComputerCraft adds actual computer systems into the Minecraft world. Users can create robots, called Turtles, that harvest resources for them automatically. They can create a wireless network of computers using modems to communicate with others. All of these systems are built off of a real-world programming language, Lua, that players use within the game. The community around these mods is just as supportive as the MinecraftEdu community.
Teams of programmers also create “mod packs,” combining mods to completely change the game. One example is the RPG Immersion Pack, from a prolific programming team called Feed the Beast (feed-the-beast.com). RPG Immersion transforms the game from an open-ended experience to a traditional role-playing game by adding in bosses, new weapons and blocks, and quests.
Minecraft’s education options are as vast as the game itself. Don’t worry if you feel limited by time or your own imagination. Thousands of others are imaging worlds, too—and are willing to share.