I’m talking to one of the educator/gamers who is turning Minecraft into a powerful school resource, Minecraft Edu. It’s Mikael Uusi-Mäkelä in Finland.
GeekDad: What do you do?
Mikael: I create educational material such as lesson plans and curricula at TeacherGaming in Tampere, Finland. My days are currently spent working with the popular game Minecraft and the MinecraftEdu mod. I am also a member of a university research group that focuses on engagement and learning through games in both Finland and the US.
GeekDad: What is Minecraft Edu?
Mikael: Minecraft Edu is a custom mod to the original game Minecraft. It enhances the original by adding teacher tools, custom blocks, easy server set-up, and a world library which is a map-sharing service for teachers to make adopting the game in educational settings easier. The mod is a one-time $41 purchase that includes the mod, server tool and access to our world library. We also sell the original game at discount to educational institutions, making it more accessible to schools that would otherwise not have the opportunity.
GeekDad: What does it mean for you to develop curriculum for teachers?
Mikael: Like many in our team, I have a teaching background. As a standalone game Minecraft is incredibly fun and offers great potential for learning. I don’t know if it is the case all over the world, but it is rare to find game-based pedagogy taught in teacher training. The process of integrating games to a curriculum or even a lesson isn’t always straightforward and that’s something we seek to facilitate.
GeekDad: How easy is it for teachers to use? Do teachers need to be programmers or hardcore gamers to be able to use it?
Mikael: It definitely gives you an advantage if you are both a gamer and a programmer, but it is not at all necessary. With the tutorial we provide, and with the wonderful thriving Google Group community, anyone can grasp the basics; how to move around, and building and crafting the core gameplay. Chances are, the kids will know more about the game than we do — and that’s just fine as it empowers them and provides them with a sense of value. The hardest part for many teachers though will be that leap to admit this and tap the students as a source of knowledge. As for the technical part, the server launcher makes it easy to get your server up and running within minutes and the in-game teacher menus are very intuitive.
GeekDad: Can it be run in a school or classroom without networking with the rest of the world?
Mikael: Yes! That’s one of the advantages of using our server launcher. MinecraftEdu allows users to connect to a LAN server without ever having to connect outside your schools network. With that said, there is proxy support that will allow those behind a proxy to connect. Providing the users with options and making those options easy to achieve is one of the goals at TeacherGaming.
GeekDad: It’s been used for math and even history but you’ve been using it for language instruction. How successful has it been? What has surprised you?
Mikael: Games have a long history of teaching languages. Many people of my generation grew up playing video games. We had to translate English instructions or quests to get anywhere. I’m sure many US gamers have similar experience with Japanese import games, for example. What makes it successful is the genuine internal motivation to understand the language and thus understand the game, whether it’s understanding questgivers’ objectives or group members warning you about a trap. While this premise makes it possible to teach languages it is easy to mess up too; at one point I asked kids communicate in English in a classroom full of Finns. Needless to say, they resorted to Finnish the minute they left the class. The solution was so simple and yet so effective; swap the other player for someone who doesn’t speak your language and you won’t hear a word of your first language for the rest of the class.
GeekDad: What is the magic that Minecraft adds to a classroom that any other collaborative game might not?
Mikael: In a single word, engagement. The open-ended sandbox gameplay seems to inspire people of all ages; we have a great community of teachers who’ve shared their ideas and maps for all the other teachers out there.
GeekDad: You Finns are famous for the success of your schools. Is there an underlying philosophy in your work?
Mikael: I’d say one important aspect is trusting in the students. The learning process isn’t about transferring the knowledge from the teacher to the student. As much as possible, the teacher should take the role of an objective facilitator and let the learning take its course while being ready to redirect and refocus whenever necessary. Children’s natural curiosity is a force to be reckoned with! As developers we need to follow a similar kind of philosophy; creating games that work in schools is about finding the learning opportunities within a game without compromising what makes the game great. We work with indie developers who have already made games that are fun and engaging to play. What we need to do is observe the game and let learning take its course and only jump in to add things when we see it is possible to make the learning part easier.
GeekDad: Do you see a time when games and tools like this will be widely available in schools?
Mikael: I sincerely hope so. Whatever schools decide to do, games will continue teaching the players. What schools miss is the chance for reflection to make that learning more explicit and show that the skills students can learn in a game are applicable outside in the classroom too.
For more on Minecraft in the classroom, checkout this post at Institute of Play.