Some of the biggest concerns regarding Minecraft: Education Edition have surrounded the use of in game “mods”, managing the learning environment and creating content to use in lessons. With the use of the Windows 10 Edition (or Pocket Edition as it essentially is) of Minecraft as a platform, none of the old favourites would work. Custom NPC’s couldn’t be added to worlds, the MinecraftEdu tools and blocks would be gone and content creation and editing tools incompatible. If you were an early adopter like me you will have come to grips with these things and learned ways to cut preparation time considerably while adding features that enrich the learning experience greatly. So what are the implications for the new Education Edition of Minecraft?
Firstly let’s think about controlling the mayhem of students running around in a Minecraft world. MinecraftEdu had a series of blocks, tools and settings that were invaluable to educators using Minecraft as a learning platform. The ability to freeze students in game, teleport them out of a cave when they get lost or protect areas from being altered whilst allowing creation in others cannot be underestimated. With the acquisition of MinecraftEdu by Microsoft it is fairly safe to say that these tools will be incorporated into the final release. Some were even on show at BETT. So we can breathe a collective sigh of relief over this one. I am going to leave the addition of the camera and portfolio tools for the next blog as these tie in more with the subject of that. Suffice to say they are some of the most exciting things to emerge from the BETT2016 early demonstration build.
Secondly; build tools! One of the key features of MinecraftEdu was its own incorporated build tools. The ability to place a block 50 blocks away from you rather than 5 meant less flying around positioning the camera and allowed an overview while building. Being able to select a whole area and fill it with a certain block in order to build walls or place build allow blocks quickly avoided hours of flying backwards and forwards placing row upon row of blocks individually. Tools designed to make map creation easier and quicker for teachers.
I have a love/hate relationship with tools such as WorldEdit and MCEdit. I have blogged about their pro’s and cons before. They are quirky and sometimes cumbersome to use but often invaluable. Imagine building for 3 or 4 hours only to discover you were too close to that cliff all along and have run out of space just as you are about to add a key feature. Or having to laboriously build a whole row of houses that are very similar. A simple copy and paste function solves this problem quickly and allows easy editing of maps to suit different outcomes.
Similarly, the ability to import a schematic of a building or structure that meets your needs from one map to another is also a must. However (and it is quite a big however) this schematic bank needs to be built from scratch in Windows 10 Edition or converted over from PC Edition. I sincerely hope Microsoft include a set of build/edit tools and that they use established build teams, working in conjunction with teachers to stock a schematics bank that can be easily accessed (as well as added to by teachers themselves of course) and easily imported into maps. The lesson bank they are adding to the website hints at this already so on this one I am holding my breath rather than breathing a sigh of relief.
Finally; those pesky “mods”! Packets of code that “modify” the way the game works. MinecraftEdu is effectively a modification to the core game of Minecraft itself. It did, however, allow teachers to add other mods alongside it. For example, teachers could install ComputerCraftEdu which uses the in game environment to teach coding principles (Think of the code.org Minecraft coding application but actually in game using cute little turtles!).
Now, I have never liked using mods personally. In a lab of 30 PC’s, they mean accessing the Minecraft directory on each individual machines and manually copying the file across to each one. They sometimes interfere negatively with the way the game works or stop it working altogether. However certain mods really add to the educational experience teachers are able to create. Take “Custom NPCs” as an example. You know those computer controlled villagers that wander around offering to trade you items? They can be modified to perform certain tasks like, for example, sending students off on a quest to retrieve pages from a book or revealing information about a story. They serve a very real and valid educational purpose and both enhance and enrich the learning experience on offer.
Here, however, is where I differ from many in the Minecraft Education community. When teachers cry out that they love certain mods and what they bring to the experience what I actually think they mean is that they have found a mod which serves a particular purpose in enhancing the learning experience they can offer. I think there is a golden opportunity here to do it differently, more efficiently and more with more stability than ever.
What I actually want to see is the ability to set up in game quests and learning progression paths as a core feature of the package. MinecraftEdu teachers used mods and command blocks when in actual fact, all they were looking for, was a way to structure and enhance learning in the Minecraft environment. By adding things like the camera and portfolio Microsoft have basically thrown down the pedagogical gauntlet and said that they are prepared to add whatever it takes to enhance learning! Microsoft will tick off a large number of doubting teachers that previously utilised mods to achieve their learning aims if they include new functionality that caters to the needs these mods filled. Of course integration with Office 365 will play a huge part in that (and something that I am really excited to explore) but I’ll save that for the next blog.
Since I’ve mentioned command blocks I may as well explore my thoughts on them here too. Command Blocks (CB’s from here on in) are notoriously difficult to learn to work with. This makes the achievements of the CB Masters even more impressive. It is possible to do some truly incredible things with a few (OK maybe not a few) lines of CB code in a Minecraft world. Try incorporating them when you create content for a lesson however and you will quickly realise how skilled the CB masters really are! So why not reinvent them for the Education Edition? Code.org’s “Hour of Code” clearly demonstrated the engagement power of Minecraft to learn coding. So how about a cross over? If Microsoft look at the most useful CB functions to enhance the learning experience and add these as a “drag and drop” coding feature it would add new realms of learning possibilities to the classroom Minecraft experience. But why stop there? Bring the full “hour of code” package into the “in game” environment as ComputerCraftEdu did? I urge Microsoft to start with the basics on this one (from an enriching learning point of view). Speak to teachers about the most used CB functions, what they would like to do and how they would enhance learning and build those in first. Alongside the “Hour of Code” principles of course.
In short, teachers need the tools to manage the in game learning experience and create the content they want quickly and efficiently and easily in order to fully exploit the learning opportunities that Minecraft offers. If Microsoft speak to teachers widely, early adopters of MinecraftEdu and the Minecraft community in general (which I’m sure they have and will do more widely) I’m pretty sure they’ll reach the same conclusions as I have here… if they haven’t done so already. Minecraft ignited a touch paper of collaboration and creativity within the educational world of the early adopters community. Microsoft, are you listening?