I just listened to a new (to me) podcast, EdGamer (#151), hosted by Zack Gilbert (an Illinois teacher) and co-hosted/produced by Gerry James (another Illinois teacher). The purpose of their podcast is to “highlight the trends, the tribulations, and the best in educational gaming.”
On podcast 151, the guest was Dr. Seann Dikkers, an assistant professor in the Educational Technology division of the Patton College of Education at Ohio University. Dr. Dikkers has served as a teacher, principal, and consultant. Now he researches and writes about the uses of digital media for teaching. Dr. Dikkers has recently written a book about Minecraft as an educational tool, TeacherCraft: How Teachers Learn to Use Minecraft in their Classroom. This is a free download available at the link above. It is also available (rather cheaply, I might add) in print at both the link above and Amazon.com.
Throughout the podcast the host and co-host discuss educational gaming trends. Sometimes it was only a sentence, sometimes more in-depth. I think these side-paths could contain a lot of value for a growing teacher. They sent me to a different podcast of a teacher who likes to use Star Wars themes and ideas in his classroom – very cool! I definitely bookmarked a number of the things they brought up. They spoke of a number of side projects and ideas – like their Game clubs, extracurricular activities where they focused on technology and games as tools for education. They spoke of Mindstorm LEGO robots, which is something I’ve actually seen in the classroom (was amazing programming instruction), tabletop games, and a few other elements that they were starting to include in their club. It seems that they are very motivational, getting 60+ kids in their afterschool clubs (which is awesome!). The hosts also talked with Dr. Dikkers about the possibility of kids creating content for Virtual Reality headsets like Oculus Rift (one of my own personal random ideas for this while listening was related to the drone programming lesson I talked about last week – I’ve seen drones flown through VR helmets – how awesome would it be for kids to use VR helmets to fly drones and explore buildings and cities, comparing maps to overhead views?), kids creating any kind of new games, and a new kickstarter that I found just simply amazing amazing amazing – a new take on the old classic Oregon Trail – Orion Trail. I fondly remember playing Oregon Trail in the classroom, and would love to see this new take in the classroom as a way to learn about space themes and ideas!
Eventually, the hosts came back around to the main theme of the podcast – Dr. Dikkers’ book on Minecraft as an educational tool. Dr. Dikkers spoke of coming home one day to his kids having drawn out a 5 foot by 5 foot hand-drawn map on graphing paper spread out on the dining room table to plan an elven city that they then spent days in Minecraft planning and building with a problem-solving group of friends. I definitely did things like this as a child for games like Zelda and Metroid – but I was mapping someone else’s creation. I was vicariously excited to realize that kids were using Minecraft to map out their own video game creations!
As Dr. Dikkers researched Minecraft further, he realized that thousands of teachers across the globe were already trying to use it as an educational tool in the kinds of classrooms that he found inspirational. He spoke of the magic being not really the game, but the open space that allows children’s’ imagination to run wild and create anything they want. He compares it to a piece of paper – not exciting in itself, but exciting to a child because it can be anything they want! Minecraft is a blank slate, anything you want it to be, it can be – with very little skill and very little learning to master the system itself. He spoke of a website and product, minecraftedu.com, that helps teachers learn how to host and protect their own minecraft servers, specially designed for the classroom. Minecraftedu is a custom edition of the minecraft game that is designed especially for the classroom. After looking at it myself, it seems like it can be an amazing resource. It has a number of lesson and unit plans that will give me a direction and a boatload of ideas to drive any education plan utilizing minecraft as a tool – I’m pretty excited to do the reading and include some of these methods as one differentiated possibility for research and work in my classrooms.
In Dikkers book, he discusses first the question, “Why gaming?” and how some games sometimes aren’t actually appropriate – the teacher has to be the judge and realize when the fight to justify isn’t necessarily worth it. He then goes on to talk about historical game resources that could be amazing if the game companies would stop and think about the possible educational impacts of their games. He specifically discusses Ubisoft, the publisher of the popular game Assassin’s Creed – they have built exact replicas of cities like ancient Rome inside their games. Why not remove all the blood and violence, and let students wander that city and learn about it? This kind of struck me – I played Assassin’s Creed for a little bit and was struck by how accurate and historical it was – some of the architecture is amazing and I would just wander around and look at it – how much more striking would a lesson on ancient Rome be to a student if you could wander around the city and put all the buildings in a contextual map?
Something positive stated about Minecraft was that it just works right out of the box to build a lesson because it doesn’t require 45 hours of exploration like Assassin’s Creed – if a teacher has balance and understands that not every game is great for the classroom, they can use gaming to go far. A teacher’s ability to filter the useless games from the useful is going to be one of the most important tools to bringing playful learning and gamification into the classroom. I have to be able to discern between the usefulness of a sandbox game like Minecraft and a sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto to the classroom.
Dr. Dikkers’ book gives you a list of reasoning to justify Minecraft in the classroom – ways to justify it to parents, to students, to principals. He also includes a chapter on how a teacher should get started playing the game – a mini-walkthrough. He stated that the biggest obstacle to getting Minecraft into the classroom was getting the teacher through learning the first hour of gameplay. He also includes a chapter that discusses a number of different amazing ways that teachers around the globe are using Minecraft successfully in their classrooms. The biggest thing that I saw in his description of this process was that Minecraft has driven a removal of the spoonfeeding process – it helps the students become responsible digital residents because they have to figure things out on their own, problem solve, do research, and apply that research in a meaningful way. I think it’s a really important aspect of gaming and technology and classroom that allows the teacher to step back and let the student responsibly drive their own learning.
Dr. Dikkers discussed different approaches to pedagogy, from teachers pre-building worlds to show their students, and teachers letting the students build their own worlds. The takeaway for me here was that there is no best-practice yet, but over time we might figure out a good best-practice pedagogy. But regardless of which method, you’re still pushing a great tool. They also discussed how teachers have been trying it out – from after-school clubs, to lunchtime clubs, to morning-work mini-lessons. This is an important factor – I’ll have to consider how I’ll test-push any new technology in the classroom, not just Minecraft.
Throughout the podcast, I was thoroughly impressed with both the hosts and the author. Their interest in learning about the process of teaching was inspirational, and drives me to think about a number of things I might not have considered for my classroom. The process of researching this podcast has also given me pause to consider how I might integrate listening to educational researchers discuss their research into my daily process – perhaps during grading time in the background? I heartily recommend this podcast to any educator, regardless of their intent about technology or gamification in the classroom.
As for Minecraft itself – are you on the fence? Download the book, read chapter 7, and give the game an hour’s chance to change your classroom.
You never know, it could inspire you.