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.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

What a Month!!

Well I have had a half written post reflecting on the Sheep Probability session I had with students about 3 weeks ago. The reason it never was completed, nor published is because things got crazy busy. About 2 weeks ago my main computer had a OS failure, and it took about 3 days to recover all of my data. Following that I had a TEDx talk to write, memorise and present. Then last week I went to Los Angeles to be a part of the first Minecraft Educator Summit, hosted by Microsoft Research.

So things went from running smoothly to absolutely crazy busy over the last 3 weeks. So now to brain dump and reflect on all the things. Sheep probability first.

The map itself is quite client graphical lag intense. More so than I originally thought, so I will be 'removing' half of the sheep in the initial barn area to see if that helps it along a little bit. The actual activity worked well, students were mostly on task and engaged, but with the lag it is a bit difficult to say the map was an outstanding success.

The jeb_ sheep activity was a bit of a let down in my class. I am quite disappointed that we didn't get to it and complete it properly as I really wanted to see the discussions that could stem from that activity. Unfortunately students were a bit out of it by the time we started. The lag had gotten them all unsettled, and in my excitement to try a new activity I forgot that these students are new at learning in this kind of environment. So the students began getting a bit silly and things started to get frustrating for all students. So we stopped playing, had a reflection time on what went well, what didn't go so well and what could be done different next time.

I always amaze myself at how quickly I forget that it take students quite some practice to be able to learn effectively in such a different environment, especially when using the game mechanics so that they enjoy themselves and it is not a boring repetitive task, no different in essentials to a worksheet. I did screen capture the lesson, and will hopefully find time over the upcoming term break to edit it down and publish it to my YouTube channel.

TEDxRosalindParkED was amazing. What an awesome experience to be a part of. Having never been involved in anything quite like it before made it a very new experience for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing my own speech, editing it, making sure it sounded 'like me' and still got the most pertinent information across. In the end I was very happy with the script I had written, and I even think I managed to stick to the script when I got on stage. The video is reportedly going to be uploaded by around the 10th of April so I am really looking forward to seeing how it actually sounded.

Enough about my own speech and presentation, the other presenters on the day were fantastic, and I cannot wait to revisit them when they are uploaded as there were some really cool 'things' that I would like to try out in my own classes. The networking opportunities at the pre-dinner and post-dinner were also highly valuable, being able to pick peoples brains and have others pick mine is something I think I need to do more often.

The Minecraft summit in LA was also an amazing opportunity to meet some people I have been working with for almost 4 years now in person for the first time. It was also an opportunity to meet some of those who I feel I have been working against face to face and have a proper discussion, instead of passing 140 character notes to one another via Twitter.

If there is one thing I hope that Microsoft/Mojang and the community of educators that were there take from this summit, it is that we, as a community of people using Minecraft to educate students need to ensure that we don't tell anyone they are doing it wrong. There is no one correct way to do this, as I have mentioned in the past, people need to start where they are comfortable and evolve their practice from there until it works for them.

If you can do open ended projects where students play to learn, great do it, but if your school, classroom, curriculum or teaching style does not allow that and you want to do some more scripted play, or direct instruction in the virtual world, do so. I think as a group, educators are not that great at sharing what didn't work in their classrooms, they will happily share the successes, which is great, but I think there is also a great deal of valuable information about what didn't work, and why, being left unshared.

So after this insane month, what am I taking away, apart from the need for a bit of a break? Share, share often, share everything (within reason) and talk to people. Remember people are passionate, most educators are not in this job for the money, most are passionate about education, about educating students. Make sure you don't belittle others opinions just because they differ from yours, listen, reflect and share your own opinions freely, try to explain the reasons for your opinions, use evidence if you have it. Most of all, share your passion, if there is one thing that will bring people on board it is seeing your own passion, passion is contagious, it is very hard not to be infected if you really get involved in the discussion.

Well if you managed to get this far, well done, and thanks. Any comments you have would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

On Minecraft and Curriculum.

So I read an article the other day http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-case-against-minecraft/385678/ and after I read it I was all a bit "meh" about the whole thing. So I read the comments, which is normally where some decent debate occurs, unfortunately the comments devolved very quickly into nonsensical arguments over the syntax used by others. So I left it alone and went to do something more productive with my time.

Then this morning I find this blog post by Donelle Batty https://dbatty.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/does-everything-need-to-be-educational-minecraft/ and found a resonating opinion. Is Minecraft educational? Does it have to be? What makes it so great in education? All of these questions are valid, and I feel Donelle does a brilliant job of bringing into light what should have been the 'real' questions that article addressed.

I felt the original article was lacking in any real substance for me, not saying that the article itself was pointless, but for my purposes, and with my experiences, this article really did not add anything to my own understanding of Minecraft and how it can be used in education. What it did do however, is bring to the forefront something that is becoming an increasing concern for me as someone actively working in the global community of educators trying to use Minecraft in their schools. Some people hear about the wonderful things students are achieving in Minecraft (both in and out of classrooms/schools) around the globe and immediately think that this will teach for them.

And that is just not true. As Donelle states, it is just a tool. In my opinion not much different to a pencil. With the right instructor or instructions the pencil can be used to create wonderful pieces of art, fantastic geometric drawings, a map to buried treasure or even a literary masterpiece, but without that key instructor or instruction what does it create? So how can we as educators utilise this tool called Minecraft properly? I think the first step is understanding it, understanding how to utilise it effectively for the learning objectives you have, the first step is not just expecting it to teach for you.

So in and of itself is Minecraft educational? Probably not, but while I was playing I saw a very large potential for teachable moments, particularly for Math. But that is probably my Math brain altering my perceptions. It is a great environment for teaching about digital citizenship, something that I have never 'really' been able to cover effectively in my classes prior to utilising Minecraft, as it is was a contrived lesson, rather than authentic and the students are very quick to realise that it is not real for them unlike in Minecraft where it is real for them, very real.

Minecraft does not educate my students, that is my job. Minecraft in the end is just a medium of communication between the students and me. I mean I use Minecraft to teach specific concepts, or reinforce them at the very least, and I believe I do that well for my students. But without my input what would having Minecraft in my lessons end up producing for my students?