Sunday, 22 April 2012

Beta Testing and Bug Hunting

I have never really been a true beta tester prior to getting involved in MinecraftEdu. I mean I purchased Minecraft while it was in beta, but never reported any bugs. So I might not have a lot of experience to call on but I can tell you working with the developers of MinecraftEdu is an absolutely amazing experience. I get access to what they call 'pre-release' versions to go on a bug hunt and test out new features and make sure everything is running smooth enough for a public release.

For the last 2 nights I have been chatting to the lead developer Aleksi about the lag happening in MinecraftEdu servers, on world start up and also there was a cry for help on the Minecraft Teachers Google Group about a map that was having huge lag issues in a particular area of the map. So Aleksi and I were both flying around the map on our respective servers suffering from a large amount of lag trying to work out the source. I was clearing edu specific blocks to see if that was the issue, as loading the same map in a vanilla Minecraft server caused no lag, so it was definitely specific to the edu version.

Anyway after about 4 hours of testing I went to bed, and since Aleksi is in Finland and it was day he kept working. I woke up this morning to the wonderful news that he had found the source of the problem and had fixed it, it was simply that the edu server was calling the 'sign' file almost constantly. So, with my very limited understanding, Aleksi made the server put the sign file into memory instead of pulling it off the disk, that has sped up the server markedly. The reason it was causing lag in this particular region of the map is because there were "seats" everywhere, which if you are a minecrafter you will know, have signs as the arms.

Now tonight we have been trying to work out where the lag is coming from when you start an edu server. Using the same settings vanilla Minecraft was generating a new world in around 15 seconds, while the same map was generating in 50 seconds if you did it in edu, this is different on every server of course, but those were the times on mine. After several hours of messing around, again nothing can be attributed to me, Aleksi has found the issue and has fixed it, so now vanilla and edu generate the world in the same amount of time. He is about to give me the new version to test out for myself and I am amazed at his coding prowess and bug squishing skills.

The reason I am writing this post is to acknowledge, again with my limited experience, the amount of work that the development team producing MinecraftEdu put into creating a stable, bug free build for public release. I don't think that I would have got the same response from the developers of Minecraft when it was in beta stage, perhaps because so many people were testing it. A massive hat tip to Aleksi for listening when we say "this isn't working" or "this doesn't do what it is supposed to" and actually spending so much of his time not only fixing and altering things based on our feedback, but also for chatting and explaining to me what he is doing while fixing issues.

I really appreciate it, and thought that I should let the MinecraftEdu community know that Aleksi (who I am currently calling the 'code king') does listen to feedback, acts on it and uses it to create a better product for you. So if you are having issues with MinecraftEdu let us know via the google group linked above, request membership if you have not already and join us in our discussions about using MinecraftEdu (or Minecraft) in schools.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Word Is Spreading.....

And that word is MINECRAFTEDU!!!!! Finally I have another staff member on board, and it is not because I have been trying, in fact I have not been trying at all with my staff. I know one other staff member is interested in using Minecraft with her class later in the year when they study the novel "Hatchet" as a creative writing prompt, but I have not been pushing my staff to use it until I am 100% sure the server is stable and that they have had the appropriate 'training'.

But, today I had a visit from the other Year 7 Science teacher in which we were discussing our upcoming assessment on methods of heat transfer and conserving energy in houses. In the past years I have usually just explained how you can conserve heat in houses and avoided creating models, while last year the other teacher got the students to make models. The reason I tend not to let the students make models any more, I have done so in the past, is because I think they spend so long making their model that the 'learning' that I want them to achieve gets lost. I know some of you will disagree with that, but it is the way I feel, so much time gets spent on these models in the classroom that what really is a brief topic becomes something of a marathon to get through, and of course once you start down that path, it is impossible to say to the students "well actually the idea I had for assessing your knowledge by getting you to make a model explaining x,y and z is not worth the time we are putting into it, so lets just forget about it hey."

In the discussion I had with my colleague today, her feeling was the same, for the learning we want to assess, the time to create a model is just not worth it in an already crowded curriculum. Now I do know that 2 of our 3 year 7 classes have experienced Minecraft, one in my Science classes, the other in Humanities with me, so that only leaves one class, and I think both of the Science classes that my colleague teaches have been hassling her to let them use Minecraft in their classes. So after some discussion about how we want to go about this particular assessment we have come up with a plan, that hopefully will meet our time requirements, assessment requirements and also enable the students to create a model depicting their understanding.

We are hoping to wrap this up in about 4 lessons, and here is our basic plan as it stands now (it will probably change).

Lesson 1: Introduce the task, explaining what the requirements are, and how we are going to assess it. Then show a tour of a 'house' created by myself in Minecraft explaining some of the additions to my house to help in energy conservation. Brainstorm some of the ways we can conserve energy in houses. Then research new ways of conserving heat in houses.

Lesson 2: Continue researching, write a plan of ideas to teachers for approval prior to beginning to entering the Minecraft world to create their model house.

Lesson 3: Building of models, writing a 'script' for the tour.

Lesson 4: Finishing touches to model or script, then recording a tour of their house explaining their additions and which form of heat transfer they affect.

So the learning intention is something along the lines of "Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of how heat can be conserved or gained through conduction, convection and radiation."

Our criteria for meeting this intention are:
  • My model has ?? additions for conserving/gaining heat through conduction.
  • My model has ?? additions for conserving/gaining heat through convection.
  • My model has ?? additions for conserving/gaining heat through radiation.
  • I used the appropriate vocabulary when explaining how my additions conserve/gain heat in my tour.

So all that really is left is to find a couple of good 2 bedroom unit floor plans, and then transfer these into a Minecraft world in a snowy area, a desert area and a plains area depicting the different climates that students can choose to build in. Now here comes the bit where I am not entirely sure what to do. I would hope that one of the ideas that students come up with for an energy efficient house is which way the house faces. So do I lay the floor plan down for them, or do I just give them an example one to copy and make them lay down the plan themselves?

I am actually leaning towards creating a quite large estate with different 'house' lots for the students to build on, but laying the floor plan down facing different directions on different lots and the students can choose the one they want, and those that do understand the ramifications about which way a house faces can talk about that in their tour.

The excellent thing about this is that I only really need to create each floor plan once, and then use the new 'worldedit' features in the latest development build of MinecraftEdu to copy them over again as many times as required in the different climates. My long term aim, is to have a world specific to each year 7 class, or perhaps an area in one world for each class, and then the students can 'live' in the houses they create and we can keep coming back to this world for any future Science classes, and maybe even Humanities classes, but just use different areas of the map for different models or experiments and lessons.

I have about a week or so before this begins, so if you would like to share some ideas or thoughts about this, I would really like to hear it soon so that I can perhaps add more value to this idea, so please add them in the comments below.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Cyber Safety

Normally when I hear the phrase 'cyber safety' I inwardly groan, however now that I am publishing a lot more things online that involve students I am beginning to realise that it is a very important thing. I don't want to give away information about students that is private and I would hope that they would show me the same respect.

The reason I am bringing this up is that I had a fairly big dilemma over the holidays. I had the neurotransmitter footage, and it was excellent footage, I was really happy with it. Except for one minor detail. One of my students had used their full name as their nickname in the game. Now I had a 4 options, 1) forget about the footage, 2) find footage without the name in it, 3) try to blur the name or 4) publish it whole.

I knew that publishing it whole was not fair on that student, and that I really should not consider that as an option, so that left me with the first 3 options. Forgetting the footage was not something I was willing to do without putting a bit of effort in to save it, so that was a last resort. I searched through the footage and came to realise that since the camera work is so dynamic, finding decent scenes without the name in it was almost impossible, so that left me with option 3, trying to blur or cover the name.

I tried covering the name with a blue square in Screenflow, it took a long time, and was also very distracting to watch, which was going to take away from the great lesson happening behind the blue square. So that left trying to blur it, now iMovie, the latest version at least, is an awesome software package for basic editing, but since Apple removed the ability to work with plugins there is no way to blur parts of the video.

After a fair amount of investigation as to what was the best option if I wanted to try blurring I settled on Adobe Premiere Elements. I am impressed with the software, it makes editing in HD possible for me and after watching a youtube tutorial on adding a blur away I went. 15 minutes of video at 30 frames per second, I visited each frame, making sure that if the name was there, you couldn't read it. This took an astronomical amount of time (about 6 hours) and I thought I had it nailed, so I published it to youtube as private and asked someone to take a look as well as taking a look myself.

I could see the name about 15 times, so I went back to Premiere and found those frames, re-edited and re-published. Looked at it myself, asked another person to look at it. We both thought it was ok, there was not a time when the name could be seen. So I made the video public. It is no longer public. Somehow people were managing to see the name. I have no idea how it works, I checked each frame individually in Premiere and each frame, if the name was present, had it blurred out.

So I have had to resort to option 1, forget about the footage, unfortunately. So if you were looking forward to seeing the map in action, sorry but I just don't have the time to spend, especially if it isn't going to work, to edit the footage and blur the name out. So instead I have just recorded a 13 minute or so walk-through of the map, explaining what we did, the concepts I covered (and missed) and the different areas of the map. I will upload this to my youtube channel shortly.

On a more positive note, classes have started again after a 2 week break, and I am heading back into teaching my year 7 class about states of matter. I am planning on showing the students the video I published to youtube and having a discussion about what they learnt at the time, and what they still remember. I am going to record the audio of the discussion we have and might publish that for you guys to have a listen to.

The interesting thing is that I showed them this comment that was put on that video

"13 copies of minecraft= $338
13 budget gaming computers=$5200 @400 each
5538 USD to teach 12 kids 3 states of matter.
It may look cool, and fun, and super awesome, but I'm sorry, it's still a poor way to teach. There is no reason you can't do the same thing with a text book. Games must remain games, and school must remain school. This is like giving a 13 year old a copy of Call of Duty 1 and thinking that will teach him all he needs to know about WWII."

and then asked them what they thought. They were very defensive, they completely disagreed with the idea that this was a poor way to teach. Of course they did, they were playing a game, but they were also learning. I asked them what they would prefer, me or them reading them a slab of text, or what we did. No surprise here, they chose Minecraft. But I took it one step further and asked them whether they thought they learnt more this way. Their response was that they felt they did, and my gut feeling from the discussion we had today as we kept learning about the states of matter is that even after a 2 week break, they still remember what the 3 states are and how the molecules are 'spaced' in each state. For me, this is a massive win, it means that they do at least remember the lesson. Also that my goal of introducing them to the 3 states of matter, and sneakily, without mentioning it, the particle model was a success.

Anyway I think that is enough ranting for now, I will hopefully be posting a bit more regularly now that classes have started again, and will most certainly be updating you on the year 7 science class. As always thanks for taking the time to read and feel free to share your thoughts or feelings in the comments below.