MinecraftEDU: The teacher struggle is real
A great deal of our discourse in the educational technology community is around how to use Minecraft in the classroom. It’s a fantastic creative tool and very engaging. I’m Minecrafting at home with my daughters and often find myself excited to get home and start working with them. Minecraft is an open platform with endless opportunities to modify and hack… and some of the latest innovations that have my attention actually use Minecraft to interact with the real world… just wow. I can’t wait.
I teach electives and enrichments, and I’ve been piloting using MinecraftEDU in a couple of my classes to see how I like it and what I could teach with it. I have my enrichment classes using creative mode to create missions and lessons that are educational, so we can upload them to the MinecraftEDU world server. I got my Robotics class to program ComputerCraftEDU Turtles to be their helpful companions in a world where they cannot build, and learn about programming and physical computing this way.
It’s been good. But it’s also been a struggle, and as I’m finishing up the week before Thanksgiving break – a normally busy time anyway that doesn’t always bring out the best in teachers or students – I have plenty to reflect on.
Think about all the things you don’t like about your students or your own kid when they’re playing video games. The obsession and tendency to tune everything else out. The desire to go on side missions that seem more engaging than the real objective. At times, the anger and temper flare-ups. Think about natural tendencies of middle schoolers outside of video games that are hard to manage. Tattling. Bullying. Inability to use words in a conflict. Stubbornness. Seeking revenge. I believe in Minecraft as a creative tool and I am struggling with the reality of managing 30 adolescents on a server at the same time. I give them challenging work – it causes interpersonal problems and I am still learning the tools of managing those.
MinecraftEDU does give you important tools to manage your students. You can freeze and teleport individual kids anytime. There are border blocks, so even if the kids are in creative mode, you can confine them to a certain area. You can turn on and off their building power, and use “build allow” and “build disallow” blocks to limit where they can build/dig and where they can’t.
You can turn off fire, TNT, Player-vs-Player, and animals and monsters. You can always see logs of the chat and who was on the server at a certain time, and I know Minecraft even keeps logs of what blocks were placed and removed, where and when. These are helpful, but kids are more resourceful and determined than you give them credit for. Every boundary is one that can be pushed.
Here are my MinecraftEDU struggles laid bare.
The very feature of Minecraft that makes it so universally interesting, its openness and hackability, can also be a downside in an educational setting. I paid for licenses for my school but found that kids could easily copy the MinecraftEDU directory on a flash drive and paste it onto their own laptops, giving them a free version of Minecraft EDU. I wish this were fixed. It should not be so easy to pirate the software. I actually found today that kids from outside my classroom were logging onto the classroom server and griefing students in my class. I’m in a position now of needing the ability to password-protect the server and changing the password every day as a result.
I have a few students who yell and rage at video games. I have a couple of kids who are sensitive and they cry. Great kids who are still learning appropriate emotional control. This feeds other students who find it funny and do mean things. Little things. They break a block or two, or steal a couple of items from a chest, or just walk into or next to their area and stand there. I don’t even see them do it, I just hear the angry children yelling and crying. Super mean, right? We have normed around appropriate Minecraft behavior multiple times, at the beginning of the unit and every couple of weeks since then. Problems still crop up and you will still have to deal with them. I always wish I had more tools to do this. I can tell the server is keeping logs of who is placing, removing, and crafting at each time and position, but I would love a teacher tool to open the correct log and search by username so I can find evidence of what happened and who was involved – this would be so nice when having that hallway conversation with kids and would eliminate the he-said-she-said dynamic. It also doesn’t seem to save the log if the server crashes. Or maybe it does. Again, tools to view the log files would be really helpful.
I also would really like a sort of limited creative mode, where I can have them use unlimited numbers of certain blocks but not others. It would let me give kids power to make a house but not necessarily an army of Iron Golems. I could apply limited-creative mode to students as needed, or apply it to everyone and gradually release to creative mode if all is going well. Filling the screen with chickens? You must be on limited creative mode, creating with only oak and brick, until we can have a chat about Minecraft citizenship. Another helpful feature would be a teacher request tool. Right now my system for kids getting help from me is to have them write their username and help request on a sticky note, and I keep a line of sticky notes next to me. I work on the sticky notes in the order received. This also means I’m not monitoring the chat or student positions while I’m working on help requests, and bad behavior goes unnoticed.
Ultimately though, kids need to be explicitly taught about video game citizenship, and very few are perfect at the interpersonal side of multi-player gaming. Minecraft is about much more than building and creativity and problem-solving. I went into it excited about the creative aspect and have been quickly brought back down to earth – there are boring and uncomfortable and otherwise not-fun lessons the students need to learn about working in this virtual society. I’ll need to spend just as much energy creating a positive culture in the class as I do creating building challenges. If there are videos or discussion guides or other interactive resources for doing this, I am a very willing audience.