09 Feb 2019

Why Educators Probably Shouldn’t Use Minecraft In Their Classrooms: Reality Check Edition

As a fulfillment of my librarian duties, this is a post dedicated to an opposing viewpoint. A nod towards objectivity. Readers should be aware that I’ve been playing Minecraft on and off for nearly a decade—I’m a bit biased. So in this post I’m responding to a high school teacher’s article titled Why Educators Probably Shouldn’t Use Minecraft in Their Classroom which I encourage you to read in full, it’s a quick read. Michael MacFadden wrote this in 2016, so it doesn’t include some of the latest developments happening in Education Edition, but he does a great job describing the problem. Below are some direct quotes and my reply.

Expectation vs. Reality

But starting students with a plot of land, allowing them to write the story, and cast the characters doesn’t teach them anything about the world in 1776. In fact, none of the above steps teach students anything.

This is a perfect example of what I think a lot of people imagine when they first hear about Minecraft in the classroom. That you’ll be exploring or creating virtual worlds in some sort of 8-bit, blocky time machine for the rest of your days. A low-fi virtual reality using inexpensive hardware.

Not so! The reality is that Minecraft works best as an extension of offline learning. In the above scenario, without a very specific objective in mind, the “simulation” is meaningless. Could a virtual village set in colonial times work though? Yeah! Role play is time-honored teaching technique, but let’s pair our simulation with a discussion of imperialist economic models and create an imaginary tax system using an in-game currency that keeps going up with every 20 minutes. The writing prompt comes after.

So you can see, it does take some creativity to make this work. The use of video games does not automatically create a learning experience, in the same way watching a documentary film for a course assignment is more about the group discussion which follows rather than the experience itself. Students need to express what they’ve learned. Your focus as an instructor is typically about the time before and after gameplay, not during.

Remember Second Life?

Remember when universities everywhere followed suit and started offering their own virtual classes via Second Life and transformed higher education forever?

That’s right, they went there! While Second Life seems like ages ago (first released in 2003!)  let’s recall for a moment when many folks were jumping on the hype-train to this not-really-VR-ville and setting up shop. I personally think this failed because it was an attempt to bring a user base to a somewhat clunky game environment, rather than leveraging an existing fanbase and meeting your audience where they already are.

In the case of Second Life, a few years later we all realized group video calls, live streaming, and other Skype-like services that hooked into our mobile phones were a much easier way to deliver online lectures. The audience was already there.

The Voice of Reason

“Some of the best teachers I know use their personal interests as gateways to learning. When teachers teach with compassion and genuine enthusiasm, it’s really hard for students to not feel similarly. This is why one of the most popular business classes in my high school is… Honors Accounting.”

In my last post I said something similar, but Michael illustrates the idea perfectly in these two sentences. Video games in classrooms work best when the instructors using them are passionate about it as an education tool and can share the enthusiasm that gameplay creates in their students. I can’t stress this enough—not only should the learning objectives be compatible with the game, but so should the instructor.

This was is a guest post by Chris Markman, Senior Librarian at Palo Alto City Library in conjunction with PLP’s 2018-2019 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, “Cybersecurity for Youth Using Minecraft”. This project is supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services or the California State Library, and no official endorsement by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services or the California State Library should be inferred.