By Brenna R. Kelly
Fifth-grader Olivia Staples is building a castle, not just any castle – a floating castle.
Sitting at a computer in the Longbranch Elementary School library, she follows instructions written by a classmate to create the structure in the pixelated world of Minecraft. If the essay is detailed enough – the castle will hover over the video game world, if it falls flat, Olivia’s partner will have to revise the essay until the directions match the intended outcome.
“It’s a really great lesson for them to see where their writing lacks, what worked and didn’t work,” said Stacie Kegley, library media specialist at the Boone County school. “It allows partnership and collaboration and of course, I’m totally teasing them with the Minecraft game to get them excited about writing.”
Like Kegley, teachers across Kentucky and the world are using Minecraft, a video game often likened to a sandbox as an educational tool both inside and outside the classroom.
“For my parents and fellow colleagues that aren’t familiar with it, I tell them it’s kind of like unlimited Legos and the sky is the limit,” Kegley said. “You can build infinitely and that’s what I love about it. I love the three-dimensionality of it and I love that they can create with an unlimited imagination.”
The original version of the game, which has both a creative mode and a game mode, has more than 100 million registered users, according to its creators. An education-themed version is used by more than 3,000 teachers in more than 40 countries, according its creator TeacherGaming.
The cost varies depending on how schools plan to use the game; an iPad edition is $6.99 but a server with multiple players could be more than $1,000.
The classroom applications for Minecraft are infinite, said Marty Park, chief digital officer at the Kentucky Department of Education. Students can recreate historical settings, learn to manage resources, see the workings of an economy or even build machines that create energy.
But as with any technology in the classroom, teachers should know what they want their students to gain from using the tool, he said.
“No matter what the digital experience there is going to be some learning of skills associated with it that make it the right and acceptable experience for our kids,” Park said.
Bringing video games into the classroom is a trend called the gamification of learning. The idea is that students will learn through playing games because they are engaged and motivated to play. Gamification concepts in learning are different than simply playing games for entertainment value or reward systems. The focus is on student-centered motivations while learning. So if students are already playing a game at home, like Minecraft, teachers can use that interest and turn it into creative ways of learning.
With video games such as Minecraft, students can not only gain a deeper understanding of the content, but also they use critical thinking skills and learn how to fail, Park said.
“It’s that idea, you fail fast and learn,” he said. “You are trying things and you are failing but that helps you learn how to be awesome.”
Minecraft also teaches students to collaborate because they can work together inside the game and the teacher can be there too, said Jeff Sebulsky, program manager for Kentucky’s Student Technology Leadership program.
“There are teacher tips and tools available to put your class into this virtual world and then you can manage your classroom while you are in there with them,” he said.
This year Sebulsky saw a dramatic increase in the number of projects using Minecraft at the regional STLP showcases. Students at Tyner Elementary (Jackson County) learned how to generate power in the game. Their project “Minecraft Keeps the Lights On”, explored energy sources including wood, biofuel and nuclear power.
“This was really chemistry, and these are 3rd graders,” he said. When they blew their city up using the nuclear power, they decided it wasn’t the best option, he said.
“That’s a lesson, they figured out what worked best for them,” he said. “It was resource management, it was chemistry, it was economy and it was amazing.”
In addition to using Minecraft at school, some teachers use it to encourage students to continue learning at home.
Fifth-grade teacher Jason Hubler and his wife Crystal, who both teach at Carter Traditional (Jefferson County), built a Minecraft server that can host more than 100 students at a time.
Their customized version of the game includes historical settings and educational games that are built around the Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Students get in-game rewards for completing tasks and answering questions tied to the English/language arts and mathematics standards and the social studies standards.
Students play from home usually in the evenings when Hubler or his wife are on the server helping guide them or answering questions.
“This way we can actually work on the standards outside the classroom,” Hubler said. “And it really helps you build more friendships with your kids and be closer with the kids.”
Hubler, a self-described gamer, said building a server isn’t for every teacher. He and his wife spent six months building the customized version and have been working on it ever since.
But a lack of gaming experience shouldn’t stop teachers from exploring Minecraft’s use, Park said. Teachers who want to use it should just spend some time playing to see how it could fit into the experiences they are designing for their students, he said.
“Playing is not bad,” he said, “The idea that, ‘Oh you’re just playing on a computer’, we need to break that mentality. Playing is learning.”
For Kegley, who describes herself as the “furthest thing from a gamer on this planet”, the more she learned about Minecraft the more she saw its potential as a learning tool.
“I’ll do anything to make my children want to learn,” she said. “If they are going to walk in my door and not want to leave – I’m going do it.”
She bought the program last year with money raised from a book fair and started a Minecraft hangout. More than 40 students quickly filled two computer labs playing for 45 minutes before school.
“I allow that to be very student led,” she said, “it’s a chance for them to teach each other.” They also taught Kegley enough about the game that she decided to use it in instruction this year.
She chose writing because test scores in that area lagged behind others at the school.
Under the English/language arts standards 5th graders must be able to write an informative/explanatory essay. So for the Minecraft lessons, students write the instructions in a five-paragraph essay.
In addition to Olivia’s floating castle, students described how to build the White House, a football field and giant iPhone. One student was instructed to build his name floating in the sky.
Revising the essays after seeing how their directions work or didn’t work in the game allows students to hone their writing skills, she said.
Kegley hopes the lesson is just the start how she’ll use the game in her instruction.
“Even the short period of time I’ve been working with Minecraft I’ve seen huge benefits,” she said, “and I know I’m nowhere near tapping what I could do with it.”
Stacie Kegley Stacie.Kegley@boone.kyschools.us or @Stacielyn2000
Marty Park Marty.Park@education.ky.gov or @MartyPark
Jeff Sebulsky Jeff.Sebulsky@education.ky.gov or @JeffSebulsky
Jason Hubler Jason.Hubler@jefferson.kyschools.us @AdventureEdu