One night, Diane Main logged on to her class's MinecraftEdu server, and saw one of her students building.
Main is the director of learning innovation and design for a private independent high school in San Jose, California. She introduced MinecraftEdu into her class after learning about the original version of the game two years ago. She uses it to teach what would essentially be computer science for non majors to her highschoolers.
"I was like, dude, you're doing amazing things— and this is a guy who never really speaks," she said of the student she saw building. He rarely talked in class, but had become surprisingly vocal within the game, helping other students and explaining items he had built. He'd been working on a few things, the main project being a waterfall that could function like an elevator to move players from one level to the next, which is far more complicated than it sounds.
Playing Minecraft changed the way he functioned in a class setting.
For the uninitiated, Minecraft is an open-ended game where players build their own pixelated worlds — some say it's like Legos, but that doesn't quite begin to describe the limitless, sandbox-y nature of this game. Search "Minecraft" on YouTube and pick almost any of the millions of videos for a glimpse of what's possible.
New York City teacher and now-founder of TeacherGaming, Joel Levin, had introduced games into his classes before, including the original Minecraft. It didn't take him long to realize that there were other educators out there wanting to use it too. Levin got together with another teacher and gamer in Finland, and approached Mojang, the company that makes Minecraft, about making a version for schools. MinecraftEdu isn't the official educational version of the game, but it is officially supported.
"There's a reason why it's so popular and kids love it so much. We would not want to spoil that magic, so what our version of the game is really about [is] layering some additional tools on top of that for teachers that make it easier to facilitate the Minecraft experience in the classroom, and make some of the technical headaches a little easier," he said.
The uses for MinecraftEdu in the classroom are manyfold. Levin uses it to teach "digital citizenship" to his second graders. It's a topic that encompasses ideas like internet safety, privacy, communication, and the lesson that actions have consequences, not only in the real world, but in the digital world.
"We were really able to act out scenarios where the students had to work together, had to solve problems, had to overcome differences in this virtual space," Levin said.
MinecraftEdu isn't confined to computer-based topics. English teachers are having students journal about their adventures in the game. Foreign language teachers have students communicate only in that language while playing. Science teachers have students set up and perform experiments, and history teachers take their students on tours of famous locations.
"I can't take my kids on a field trip to ancient Rome, but we can go to the Minecraft version of ancient Rome," he said.
Response to the game has been positive. The MinecraftEdu Google Group for teachers has more than 1700 members so far. While the version is young, there are a few reasons why educators are trying it and sticking to it.
1. Visualized learning - Colin Gallagher is a technology integrator at an international school in Singapore. After seeing a few of Levin's videos, he jumped on board and starting using Minecraft and then MinecraftEdu for interdisciplinary projects on subjects like community spaces and the influence of culture on structures. One outcome he has experienced is the way that Minecraft allows students to not only visualize their learning, but communicate it in a non-verbal way. That's an especially important ability for English as a Second Language students.
A veteran teacher at the school told Gallagher that this was the first time she'd seen a tool in that enables a student to show their learning in that manner. "If it came down to it, if they have to write something — a few sentences, it wasn't happening," he said. "They couldn't get that knowledge out of themselves in that way, but with Minecraft, they could actually physically represent their learning in a 3D environment and talk about it vocally as they show on the screen or whatever in front of the class."
2. Engagement - Kids are more accustomed than they have ever been to playing video games. "Meeting them there is actually something that's really powerful because they get it," Gallagher said. And what's more, this game in particular is ridiculously popular.
"This is a game kids love and if you can take this game that they love and that they're passionate about and bring it into the classroom, that's going to make school more enjoyable and more relevant to the students' lives," Levin said.
Since kids get invested in the game, they end up learning skills and applying them without thinking about it.
"There are plenty of parents who are reporting that their kids are learning how to operate a server because they want to play with their friends," Levin said.
Or, they end up teaching themselves bits of Java in order to program mods. Educators seem heartened by a situation where students are motivated and taking initiative in completing assignments.
"I don't know if your educational experience was like mine, but that was a rarity. You were usually looking for ways around what the teacher was telling you to do," said Devon Loffreto, a Long Island after school program director and teacher who has been doing educational product development for the past 12 years. He also runs a non-profit called kidOYO which produces entrepreneurial ed-tech programs for kids.
3. Trend toward integration and technological literacy - "It's come to the point where technology is not taught as a discreet subject anymore," Gallagher said of his experience. Even if a child doesn't pursue a career in programming, learning the principles behind it — logic, analytical thinking, etc. — will be a beneficial experience.
And if students do have a desire to learn to code, programs like ComputerCraft (programmable computers for Minecraft) are making that easier within the game. Players can learn to program little robots to help them dig and build.
Loffreto even mentioned a mod called qCraft that teaches the basics of quantum physics. It ends up being a sneakily attractive way to draw kids to the STEM area.
The introduction of such a non-traditional tool does have its challenges, however. Both Gallagher and Main said sometimes their older students can't understand why they're playing a video game, whereas younger students geek out and get excited when they see what they're learning.
Another challenge for some schools is having the resources, like tech-savvy teachers on hand. While Main, Levin, and Gallagher reported no static from their schools or even parents, Main did talk about the greater importance of being mindful of what attitudes toward technology teachers communicate toward students.
"Often teachers don't allow students to have experiences, especially where technology is concerned, if the teachers themselves don't feel comfortable with the technology," she said.
The teacher doesn't necessarily have to be the expert in the room. Plus, she doesn't believe in the idea of digital natives — a term describing people born into a digital world, who supposedly have some innate understanding and appreciation for technology — but rather that kids don't know to be afraid until they're taught to be afraid. "When teachers are not willing to try something because they haven't become an expert, they both model for the kids that fear should stop you from doing things, and that the adult in the room is person who has the most capability," she said. There's a benefit to having students learn to teach each other and learning alongside them.
Access can also be a problem. Loffreto said one hurdle will be making sure access to a tool like MinecraftEdu isn't limited to schools or programs with the means, whether it be monetary or in terms of staff.
On an individual level, not all students can afford the most up-to-date laptops. Main has a student for whom she's trying to figure out a solution for a computer that can't support the latest version of MinecraftEdu.
Though, MinecraftEdu is still developing and the community around it also learning as it goes. Levin wants to see other educational versions of games, in the future, and TeacherGaming already makes a version of space game Kerbal Space Program.
As of Monday, Microsoft bought Mojang for $2.5 billion. There's no word on how that may affect MinecraftEdu.
On the kid level, they're probably unconcerned, as long as they can keep building.
"It works out for me that I do like to play video games," Gallagher said. "I don't know what I'd do if I was into knitting or whatever. It wouldn't be as much fun. And kids don't knit. Kids play video games."
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.