Friday, 29 January 2016

Conceptual Math and Minecraft

I really enjoy working with different people and getting a different perspective on teaching things. At the moment I am discussing with another teacher at my school about teaching conceptual math, rather than contentual. (I know that is not a word, but you get my meaning)

Usually I teach the students 'how' to do things, not the 'why do it like that' or the 'why it works that way' stuff. I know that students retain the knowledge better when they understand how it works, but I had 'forgotten' it and had stopped using that in my classes. I am lucky enough to be working with a teacher that has reminded me what conceptual thinking and teaching is and how we can use it.

So the first thing we are talking about is fractions, everybody LOVES fractions, because they make so much sense. That statement is of course a lie, so how do we teach fractions conceptually, and can Minecraft help students visualise some of these concepts easier is really the point of this post/brain dump.

The basic concepts we would like students to understand at this stage are: equivalent fractions, adding and subtracting fractions and multiplication and division of fractions. My colleague had already written the conceptual worksheets for equivalent, adding and subtracting concepts. In my opinion they clearly lead students to an understanding of the concepts we are trying to get across. So now we are trying to address the multiplication and division of fractions.

Multiplication was fairly easy, it is just a matter of the language we are using when we are talking about it and some diagrammatical representations (I think Minecraft might be useful here but I will continue this a bit farther on). So instead of reading one third times one fifth, we are swapping out the "times" for an "of". So the question becomes one third of one fifth. Mathematically speaking this is fine, and I think that will get the point across to the students what the multiplication of fractions is actually 'doing' or finding out.

Division had me stumped for a while, again until I talked to others and got different perspectives. This concept relies on the understanding, or at least using the language, that division means how many fit in. So how many one fifths are there in one third rather than one third divided by one fifth. Which is something I had not considered before, but I think will really help students grasp the concept.

The interesting thing about the division concept was that it was a diagram that the other teacher started to draw that made it click for me. So I think that one of the most important things for building conceptual understandings like this is having an image/picture/model to look at and mess around with. And it is at this point where I started thinking I could use Minecraft, particularly for the model of multiplication. However there was a niggle that would not leave me alone (and still has not). Is Minecraft actually going to be 'better' than drawing in pen and paper for the students? In terms of engagement my answer is "of course it will be better" but in terms of the student understanding I am not sure it is going to make it any better. So lets talk about time, that thing that I always complain about.

If students explore these concepts visually in Minecraft, will the time taken to gain that image/picture/model be comparable to the time it would take to do it with pen and paper? Notice I am not even considering whether it will be faster, the models I can think of are 2-dimensional, and the instructions I give to students for creating their first few representations in Minecraft will, while not fully, be mostly 2-dimensional, or at least just as easily represented in 2-dimensions. So should I use Minecraft just because I can? What benefits will using Minecraft give the students? It is not an increased understanding, it is not a decrease in time taken.

Could the benefit be in that more easily memorable and therefore easily accessible image/picture/model just because they did it in Minecraft? I mean that was reason enough for me to do my first ever lesson in Minecraft, giving students a model of how neurotransmitters work, not a complete model, but a model regardless. Same as the solids, liquids and gases model the students and I completed, I feel that the students got a great model of a concept. However both of those 'feel' different to this idea. Those opportunities gave the students a different perspective than they could get by using paper and pen or discussion.

So when should I use Minecraft? If I am not increasing student understanding more than other options, I am not decreasing the time taken and I am not giving them a different perspective. Is this particular concept worth exploring within the world of Minecraft or should I stick to a paper and pen model? I would value any input as to when you think it is 'worthwhile' using Minecraft, what tips it over the edge for you into a 'must use' for the activity?

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Microsoft Acquires MinecraftEdu - What it Means.

Last night Microsoft announced that they had acquired MinecraftEdu from TeacherGaming and that they are planning on releasing their own Educational Edition ready for the start of the new school year (not the AU one, the US one).

Until the Educational Edition is released, MinecraftEdu can still be purchased. Which means that in less than 6 months MinecraftEdu will no longer be available to purchase. I am not sure what is happening with updates in the mean time, I know the devs were working towards a 1.8.9 release so hopefully we can get a stable version out before Education Edition is released.

Now to my current feelings about all of this.

First and foremost I personally think the pricing structure is wrong, I am sure there are details I do not know about, but the current thought is $5 per student per year. Note, that is not a per head, that is per student. One of the key things it seems Microsoft wants is students to be able to use their own account. Which on one level I get it, it is nice to be 'yourself' online, but from a school perspective that kinda counts me out. I mean, come on, to get the initial purchase (which was, and still is less than $400 one off cost) I had to write a formal request to our school council for approval.

So lets say, for example, this year I am teaching year 7 Science and year 8 Math, and I would like to use Minecraft for these classes. Lets say that there are 20 students in each class, with Microsoft's proposed pricing plan just for my classes this year, it would cost me $200, now granted that is not much. But, what if my school had a focus on equal opportunities across all classes (which we do). Basically I cannot do things in my class if they are not also being done in another class. This means that I would need to purchase licenses for the other 2 year 7 classes, and the other year 8 class. This puts the number of students up to 100 and the price up to $500, for the year assuming that there are no discounts. Now again this is not exorbitant, but what about teachers that teach across all grades, and teach all students within their school or even larger schools.

Actually if you think about it, students generally attend my school for 6 years, and I have used Minecraft at every year level within my school, at $5 per year that is $30, the current price of Minecraft (PC version) is $27, so it would actually be cheaper to buy students vanilla Minecraft and use that instead, that just doesn't seem right. In my opinion concurrent user licenses are much more education friendly, schools are not flush with money, education is not something that money is thrown at.

Now it is not all doom and gloom here, there is talk about whole school discounts, volume discounts and the like. Not only that, I know my education department has a deal with Microsoft for software, you never know Minecraft Education Edition might get included in that. Also any current MinecraftEdu user will get 1 year free access to Education Edition, and Microsoft is also giving out free trial licenses to educational institutions 'this summer'.

Secondly, and I am not sure whether this article has paraphrased incorrectly (I sincerely hope they have) but this statement "Kids won't be solving puzzles or taking quizzes in these worlds. Minecraft will essentially just be a way to let them step into historical and scientific settings to get a better understanding of what's being taught in class." which is from here really makes me sad. I mean I have done quizzes in MinecraftEdu the past, I have given puzzles in MinecraftEdu for students to solve, all to better engage my students in their learning and sometimes to get a truer picture of student understanding for some of the more disengaged learners in Math.

I have also used it as an environment to begin discussions and learn more about what we are learning in class. If this is the viewpoint of the people behind Education Edition, then I feel that this is a big step backwards from the "Lets see how far we can take this" attitude us early adopters and the leaders in this space have had since we began many years ago.

Thirdly, the lack of mod support I feel is a big detriment, I understand that they are trying to consolidate the code, and get cross platform play happening. But, in my opinion, one of the greatest assets that TeacherGaming ever added to MinecraftEdu was Forge. That hidden backend piece of software that allowed us to add mods that made sense in our classroom.

This allowed a huge customisation of the classroom setting, from adding NPC characters for students to interact with to really get them 'into the world' to adding machinery, chemical elements, planets, computers to code or decorative blocks, even functional blocks that made our lives easier as teachers to get student work out of MinecraftEdu; like the book copying machine from Bibliocraft, that took students writing out of books and put it in a text file that I could read without being in-game.

Fourthly, (is that even a word) there is no Mac version, I know this is followed by a yet, but still. A lot of schools have Macs, mine doesn't, but I personally own a Mac, and being unable to get into worlds with students or even build worlds at home to use with students without getting a Windows 10 machine would cripple my map making, and my budget too. Word on the street is that there will not be a Linux version at all. Now this doesn't affect me, but I can see this being an issue for the 'gamers' out there, not so much for the schools. I am not sure of a school that uses machines with Linux on them, but who knows there is bound to be one somewhere that is going to be prevented from using Education Edition.

While MinecraftEdu could not be played on mobile devices, it could be used on any machine that would run the PC version of Minecraft, whether that machine be Windows, Mac or Linux based. I know I used a Linux based server early on, as it was the most stable server that we had. This release without the Mac version is going to cut a lot of schools out of using Education Edition, and if they don't already have MinecraftEdu, then they are paying full price for Minecraft and not getting any of the benefits that the educational versions have. I could be, and hope that I am, wrong here and they do have a Mac version ready on release day.

Fifthly, (seriously that is a word too?) the Education Edition is based on the Windows 10 version code, which in turn is based on the Pocket Edition code. I loaded up the Windows 10 version to have a look not too long ago. It really runs majestically and the view distance is amazing. Then I looked in the creative inventory and quit. That sounds dramatic, but honestly a lot of the appeal of Minecraft, be it in my classroom or out of it, is about the flexibility of blocks, the contraptions I can make using redstone and the really out there things that can be done with command blocks that I am still trying to learn.

The Windows 10 Edition is so far behind the PC version that it doesn't have stained glass, dispensers, droppers, comparators, hoppers or command blocks. This is a massive step backwards in the kind of functionality I use in my maps. I mean we didn't have some of these way back when we first started, but again it is the flexibility that they bring to the space. I could go back to my first ever lesson, that I cringe about whenever I see the thumbnail on YouTube and rebuild that in Education Edition. But I cringe for a reason, and that reason is not that it is a terrible lesson, it is a good lesson, but it could be(and has been) improved. Unfortunately I believe that many of those improvements will not necessarily be available in Education Edition at launch.

Now I know all good things must come to an end, and I also know that the end is not necessarily now, I can continue to use MinecraftEdu in my classes for as long as the computers at school support it. I also sincerely hope that by the time (and hopefully much, much earlier) MinecraftEdu no longer runs on the computers at school Microsoft have a comparable tool set in Education Edition with a more easily digestible pricing scheme, I know we have been very spoiled with the pricing scheme that TeacherGaming had and Microsoft is taking another route, but it is very hard to swallow right now.

Microsoft if you are reading, there are a couple of reasons around 10,000 schools in 45 countries purchased MinecraftEdu. It was VERY affordable, it crushed the vast majority of technical barriers to getting Minecraft into a school network and it made teachers jobs of managing server and managing students in the virtual space easier. If you want Education Edition to see the same, or even more success, in my opinion you have got to do something outstanding and I really look forward to seeing you do it.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Blended Assessments in Minecraft.

In the past I have created many maps that I believe help students understand some of the content that I am trying to teach them. I have even planned whole projects within Minecraft tied to particular curriculum standards. I am, however, about to embark on a new branch of Minecraft in my classroom. A map designed to be a formative assessment blended with real world assessment.

We are just about to finish off our Linear Algebra unit in my year 8 math class, and I suggested to the students that I would like to do an activity with them in Minecraft, but was concerned about the time taken to do that given how much curriculum I have left to cover. So most the students really liked my suggestion that their test be within Minecraft, some were not so keen. Now the reality is that I need a Minecraft map that will ask the exact same questions as the pen and paper test so that no student is advantaged or disadvantaged by choosing Minecraft or the paper and pen test.

This alone was an interesting enough experience, to take a written test and see how much I could readily not only present but also formally assess within and alongside Minecraft. The multiple choice questions were easy, use the ECAS. Some of the short answer questions were easy, others were not, so some will be based on dialogue with NPC's and others will be based on real world paper pieces that students will have to show me to move through the map and the remaining short answer questions will be based on some scoreboard trickery. Finally the analysis task, I have still not figured this one out completely yet, but I think it is going to be a combination of NPC dialogue and the in-game book and quill.

As always I have been grinding away at a good way to build this map for quite some time. I want to make sure that it 'makes sense' and is not just a jumble of math problems thrown into Minecraft in a haphazard way that is more grindy for the students than fun. This morning I finally figured out the story that could possibly make this map work. A dungeon/prison escape!

I am going to put some play elements into this map but not in the way I normally do. I will still use some game mechanics to my advantage, but this incorporation of play is something I normally do in a much more controlled way than I am planning to do this time. I am thinking of giving students the option of the 'fun and dangerous' path through the dungeon which will probably include some slaying of monsters and some questions based around that. The other option will essentially have the same questions without the slaying of monsters and will be the 'not quite so much fun and not all that dangerous' path. I think it will be interesting to see which path the students choose to take.

This current plan of course, is just a plan, and it is still changing, even as I write this post new ideas are springing into my head about how to get students to answer 'real life' linear algebra questions in a more fun and engaging way in Minecraft while still enabling me to assess them the same as those who are doing a paper and pen test. I will do my best to keep updates, and possibly even screenshots coming as I move forward with the production of this map.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

What Does it Take?

I have been sitting on parts of this post for quite some time (about 6 months), mulling over my thoughts, trying to sort them out into some form of clarity, and I think I might finally have some form of coherent post to publish.

At Minecon I was lucky enough to be involved in Microsoft's teaching space as well as being a support member in the training space. The teaching space was amazing, I was not able to use MinecraftEdu, so there were some handy features that I am used to missing, but overall the experience for the participants was very positive. I created a custom map that allowed the participants to explore and interact with some of the activities I and others have actually run in real classrooms. I was lucky enough to have the support of Shane as well, so I could focus on the teaching of the participants, and he could 'manage' the 'stuff' in game. I will gather the map, as well as the supportive materials and share them to the world library at some stage in the near future.

The training space was for teachers and parents to explore Minecraft. There were two sessions I was involved in, one where the participants were taught the basics of the game, so how to move, break and build. The second session was more about problem solving processes using redstone and exploring that. It was really interesting to see the way the sessions were designed, the helpers were to be 'hands off helpers' and the participants were to be exploratory learners. So there were a couple of occasions where a participant would ask a question, and all I could answer was, "why are you asking, why don't you just try it?"

This led to some very interesting occurrences, also for me some very funny ones. There was one question "Can I hit the sheep?" so my response "Why are you asking me, just try it." led to a right click on the mouse, then a left click on the mouse and a jump and squeak from the learner as the sheep went red, baa'd and jumped in the air. Another situation occurred as they were exploring the applications of redstone, as I walked past one screen I noticed the flashing TNT in the corner, so I just stood back and watched the mayhem unfold. The avatar of the learner exploded, died in a catastrophic fashion, and the real person literally jumped out of her chair in fright. What did she learn? TNT is dangerous. Will she forget it? Probably not.

So all of this has had me thinking recently of how I could include more exploratory learning in my classes. Not necessarily within Minecraft, but just in general, how would students respond, would they learn 'more' or 'better', would they be able to 'prove' their learning in a meaningful way? Unfortunately I have not come up with a way to actually trial it yet, the thought process is continuing though and I will definitely be looking for resources on this style of teaching/learning.

Also on my mind has been the question What does it take for a teacher to implement Minecraft in their classroom? I have had a teacher here, one of the most open minded and willing to try anything teachers I have worked with, who, late last year, was super excited about using Minecraft in her class this year. I helped her set up the server, trial some things with students and now 35 weeks into the teaching of this year she has still not tried anything in Minecraft with her classes.

Over the last few days I have been involved in a discussion with a few other educators from around the globe trying to work out how, as a community, we can better support more teachers using Minecraft in their classes. So I approached this teacher with the idea that we could work out how to plan for using Minecraft in a classroom. I have a Minecraft project I want to run next week and I thought I could share my planning process with her and see if that would prompt her to plan her own project. Instead we ended up with a very uncomfortable discussion about why she hadn't used Minecraft yet even though she was super excited about it.

Luckily I have a good enough relationship with this colleague that she doesn't hate me, nor did she feel threatened by the discussion, so while it was uncomfortable for both of us, we had an open discussion about what had prevented her from taking the leap. Interestingly enough it was fear, two very different fears. The first was a fear of the virtual space due to some negative incidents during the trial phase. Some students had dug her into a hole and then put a block over her head so that she could not escape. Now while this is 'normal' behaviour on a multiplayer server between friends, this teacher did not have the ability to get herself out of the predicament they placed her in, and so her discomfort increased and that interaction became a very negative one. To the point where she said "I have never had a student do anything like that to me before." Which is an interesting comment, but certainly explains her fear, if students could 'lock' her in a dark hole, and she could do nothing about it how could she ensure they were learning, or facilitate the learning of those that need support?

The second fear was of map production, she was comparing what she believed her skills to pre-generate maps or content were to what she has seen me do and felt that she came up well and truly short on those skills and therefore she would not be 'doing it right' if she tried. This thought process intrigues me, as I have never said to anyone that pre-generating maps and content is the only way, or the best way. So this fear was quickly alleviated when we looked at how she could get students to generate the map by demonstrating their learning. So rather than Minecraft being the medium in which students learn, for her project it is a medium in which they can show their understanding and pull together their research on the current study.

So now back to the original question. What does it take? I think the answer is one word: Support. Interestingly enough, at the Minecraft in Education Seminar in LA earlier this year, one thing that all the successful panelists that had incorporated Minecraft into schools or classrooms had in common was an 'expert' to call upon. I never mentioned this at the time, but it has been weighing on me since then, as there was a lot of discussion about being called a "Minecraft Teacher" and I am ok with that name, but there was plenty of vocal opposition to the 'title'.

I do teach within Minecraft but do I teach my students how to play Minecraft? Only the skills they need to get through my learning activities, if they want to learn how to play the game 'properly' that is up to them, I do not have time in my busy curriculum, unfortunately, to teach them this, or give them time to learn it. I am not just a Minecraft educator, I am a discussion educator, a question educator, a literacy skill educator, a Biology educator and many different other types of educator depending on the students I am teaching and the requirements placed upon me in terms of curriculum and reporting. I don't think being tagged as a specialist in a particular area, in light of these recent developments, is a bad thing. So be an expert in whatever you choose, be proud of it, but also be willing to be supportive of others who may need your support to begin their own journey.

I would like to highlight that in the panel at MinecraftLA the expert was not always the teacher, it may have been a student, it may have been an external party or it may have been the teacher. But one of the common factors in each of these cases there was a support person to call upon when things got rough, someone who was thought of as a "Minecraft Expert". This to me means we need more "Minecraft Experts" willing to be called upon when support is needed, for my own school and my team of teachers, who will now be implementing a Minecraft option for students to display their learning since the discussion yesterday, that expert will be me at this stage. But more importantly students will now get the opportunity, with support from their own teachers and myself, to use Minecraft as a way to showcase their learning journey and the research they put into an upcoming project.

This is what "we" want, teachers willing to take an idea of how Minecraft could be incorporated, think about it and try it in their own classes, and if they need some support to be able to take this first step, then lets provide them with that support. I think the support could take many forms, from just ideas linking to curriculum, a sounding board when things don't go well or even as a supporter or helper in map generation if required. I feel that the most important thing is that students get access to this extremely powerful "learning platform" that we call Minecraft.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Wrong Kind of Algebra...

So my initial plan of using Minecraft to help students make and understand function machines has to be put on hold until we actually cover that part of algebra. I had forgotten that we split this topic into 2 parts, an introduction where students learn about pronumerals, expressions and terms. How to manipulate these things to solve problems. It is not so much about the 'solving of algebraic equations' that I would be using the function machines for.

Now this leads to an interesting point for me, and hopefully my class. Last year I did a mini-project introducing algebra using the crafting system in Minecraft. I am about to make that a full blown topic length project, or at least offer it to my students as an option instead of the 'standard' exercise questions that we would normally complete to cover this topic.

It is my belief, hopeful as it may be, that students will apply themselves with greater gusto and learn the content 'better' if we do this Minecraft crafting assignment. I am about to enter the class and negotiate the 'terms' of the assignment with the students and see where we end up. I have many ideas about what I would like the students to do to learn and demonstrate their understanding of algebra, but I would also like to have some student input on how they would like to see this move forward. It is going to be at least another 2 weeks until we can get the solid 90 minutes in Minecraft, but I might try and sneak in a few 45 minute sessions in the interim for them to begin their investigations.

Well it has been provided to students as an option, and interestingly enough only 4 of the students chose this. Now this is not an issue, I have negotiated most of the terms with these four students and the project appears to be going along nicely. I still have some work to do in terms of ensuring that students do actually gain the knowledge, through practice, of all the same content as the other students doing the questions from the book.

However they have made a good start on their tasks, they have listed all the items required to craft their chosen product, assigned each of these items a pro numeral and are now in the process of simplifying this expression down to the base materials required. They will then submit this list, I will 'give' them access to the list of materials they say they need and they will need to test their simplification in game and see if they can successfully craft their chosen items.

There will be some worksheets that involve using brackets but multiplying and dividing terms is something I still need to work out how to incorporate and finally factorisation as well. I have some ideas about how to get the multiplication and division working within the current project by discussing with students about multiples of their chosen crafting pathway, or just particular sections, I think this could also be used for brackets.

I will update more as the project continues, so thanks for reading, and if you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading.

Monday, 27 April 2015

An Inkling.

So I was doing some thinking today (about 4 hours ago) about how to differentiate some of my coursework for my students, particularly the volume of 3D shapes I am currently teaching. However my thoughts ended up on the next topic, algebra. I have used Minecraft as a discussion point, and a data collection tool for algebra. As well as having students recognise the algebra built into the game, from logs to planks to sticks to torches, that is a nice sequence of basic algebra. However, I have a feeling I can use it for more.

In typical 'me' fashion, I cannot stop thinking about this idea. Here are just some of the questions about planning the task that have been running through my head for the last few hours. What if I could teach students to think even more about algebra through the game? What if I could make a 'function machine' within the game for students to explore? What if I got them to create their own 'function machine' to share with their classmates? How much of that 'extra' knowledge will students need, and can I afford the class time for students to learn this before we build our machines? Will they take it upon themselves to learn these new mechanics at home if given the opportunity?

Then there are the actual mechanical questions about the game. Would it be better to use redstone mechanics or command blocks? Dispeners, droppers and water streams? Can I actually build a machine that will allow me to not only multiply or divide the input, but also add or subtract as well and how 'adjustable' will this machine be for giving students different problems to think about? Single player adventure, or multiplayer teamwork?

So all of those questions above are the beginnings of an idea, I am going to try and share this from concept(now) to development to implementation, something I always think I should do when developing lessons for students but never get around to because I cannot stop myself 'doing' long enough at the time to actually write about it. Step one is complete though, I have all these questions flying around, and I expect in the next couple of days I will have a clearer picture about what I want to do, and what is possible within the virtual world itself(development).

Of course I will also share the final product and lesson(implementation) as I always do, that is the easy part. Quick update today, thanks for reading, if you have any further questions you think I should consider while developing this lesson, please leave them in the comments below.

Friday, 17 April 2015

TEDx Video is Live!

Well it has been just over a month, but it was definitely worth the wait. The TEDxRosalindParkED talk I did is now live on the TEDxTalks channel.



I have watched it once, just to see (and to check that I didn't miss anything important from the script I had written), and I am very happy to have had the opportunity to share some of my experiences in relation to the power of MinecraftEdu in my classes and how it can really have an impact on students in this format.

If you have about 13 minutes please watch, and consider sharing some of your own experiences that resonate or that show some of the other powerful ways that it can affect students and their learning either in the comments on that video, or in the comments section below.