Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Time for an Update

OK, I have been sitting on an update post for quite some time, but the time has come for me to finally let everyone know what has happened, is happening and why I appear to have dropped off the face of the Earth (again).

To put it simply, I have changed jobs, I am not currently a classroom teacher, at least not for the next 12 months or so at this stage. I now work with around 400 schools and it is my role to support them in their uptake of virtual learning. I have been in this role for about 10 weeks, am really enjoying it, miss the classroom a bit, but a change is as good as a holiday.

You would probably think that a role like this would give me great scope to get some awesome Minecraft projects up and running. Sadly, however, there are a couple of blockers to that at this current time. The first is that the role is tied quite tightly to video conferencing at this stage. Don't get me wrong, I am still hoping to get some Minecraft related projects up and running while in this role, I just need to get some other things going first.

The second, and perhaps the biggest blocker is software related. With Microsoft's continued persistence with the O365 accounts, Windows 10 and annual license fees, for what is currently a product I would not recommend for schools, I have no option for schools that do not already have MinecraftEdu to join in, which could be an equity issue that I would need to address. Not only that, my new work computer is still rocking Windows 7, which counts me out from even installing the software.

On the bright side of this particular coin, I know that Victoria was one of the biggest purchasers of MinecraftEdu in Australia (and the world) which means that there are heaps of licenses out there that could be used to collaborate on projects across the state, so stay tuned, I am not giving up, just taking my time to get it right!

In general Minecraft in education news, Microsoft is continuing to develop their version, with the upcoming release of the companion app in early November. It is called Classroom Mode and has some features that is getting MC:EE closer to the flexibility that MinecraftEdu provided educators in their classrooms, but they still have a fair journey ahead to catch up. I get the impression that the community in general is still shaking their head about the purchasing arrangements and I still live in hope that Microsoft will see that a 'game' is not something that a lot schools will pay $5 per head per year for students to use.

In my opinion one of the biggest reasons MinecraftEdu got such great traction in education was because of the pricing structure. A one off fee of <$500 to explore gaming in the classroom across an entire school of any number of students is something that many schools can afford without too many issues (or can fundraise for easily). What this one off cost got you was a great educational space in a classroom setting (Minecraft), as well as the great work that TeacherGaming did on making that space more flexible and easier to access by building many features into MinecraftEdu for teachers.

I still think Minecraft, as a base, is an awesome platform for learning, and it saddens me that many students may miss out on the opportunity to use it within their classrooms to learn because of the pricing structure when we know how powerful it can be for student learning. Will classrooms around the globe go back to being 'boring' with students disinterested in the learning because we are not meeting their learning needs or wants? I think Microsoft has dampened a brilliant opportunity to shake education away from the lecture, university style learning that has been the norm for countless years. I don't think they have killed it entirely, but I honestly believe they have slowed it.

OK, time to get off my high-horse, thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment below.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A Taste of Open Endedness

I cannot remember whether I have posted about this prior to now, but I am currently working at a summer school in Greece, teaching a 2 week project for 3 hours a day (it is a hard life!!).

My learning space for the two weeks. Say hi to #FamousFrank.

This project is, of course, based in Minecraft, the essential, underlying goal of the project is for the students to create something of their own design for public consumption within Minecraft.

It is my first ever fully open project, which of course is only happening because it is a summer school, and does not have to be tied to a formal curriculum in any way, shape or form. It is definitely an interesting process to go through with the students, what I am finding interesting is that while the students are enjoying themselves, and are learning new things to help them with their map design, be that redstone, or commands and command blocks, they are certainly not 'actively' pursuing information or researching the tools they could use to help them build their map.

If I truly reflect on what my expectations were coming into this, I expected the students to be 'different' to those 'forced' to learn within my 'normal' classroom. I also, given the many discussions over the years regarding "letting go" and allowing students to self direct their own path and how Minecraft was such an amazing place to let this happen, felt that I had not ever had a better opportunity to 'try the other side of the fence'.

By 'the other side of the fence' I mean, that in my opinion, there has for many years, been a fairly large divide in the Minecraft teaching community. A divide between teachers like myself, who are restricted in their use of Minecraft by the demands of curriculum or administrators and others who have a much more open ended approach, who are not as restricted and can 'just let the students play and learn' with Minecraft as the medium. Some of those on 'the other side', have on occasions, been extremely vocal about how their way is better and that the students will truly learn more, if only we could let go of the reins.

Now if you are a long time reader, you know my position on this and if you are a new reader, I will summarise my position in one sentence. As a professional, each individual knows their students, their own limitations, and the limitations of the system they work within best, and because of this they know what is best for their students and themselves. I am a big proponent of doing whatever you can in the situation you find yourself in.

Now I have tasted 'both sides of the fence', I have been a classroom teacher using Minecraft for nearly 6 years, and I have had some awesome experiences over that time within the virtual world, but I can also say that, currently with, what I am very willing to admit, very limited experience from the other side, that open ended, unrestricted projects do not necessarily, on their own, increase student learning or engagement.

Don't get me wrong, my students are engaged, my students are learning new things, they are exploring, they are adapting and they are producing something which by the end of next week will be something that they can be proud of, if I could not say this, I would not be doing my job as a summer school instructor. That being said, they are no more engaged than any of my more formal classes that have used Minecraft as the basis of our lessons in the past. They are not learning at a vastly increased rate and they are not any more willing to step out of their comfort zone or investigate possible solutions to their problems by themselves.

Now all of this is just a brain dump, as my blog posts generally are, and I do not know what these students are like in formal classrooms, as I have never had them in that setting. But the one thing I am currently thinking is, the "letting go" does not immediately make using Minecraft in education way more powerful as I have been led to believe by those vocal 'other siders'.

This shouldn't surprise me, but as I am writing this post, with years of Minecraft education behind me and many times being told I have been doing it wrong and that I should be letting go if I truly want to see the power of Minecraft in education, I feel cheated by the other side. I feel like, inadvertently they have lied to me. I am sure it is not deliberate, but like me, they may not get the opportunity to truly see the other way, and what it looks like, feels like and sounds like and so don't truly understand it, as I have not (and probably still do not fully).

The saying "the grass is always greener on the other side" applies here, I thought that if I could get to the promised land of no restrictions and open ended projects that I would see students reach greater heights than ever before. Now that I have reached it, and found that it is not all that different, my gut feeling is is that using Minecraft in any classroom can be powerful, whether you, as the teacher has control, or whether your students are the ones with control, whether you have a closed project, or an open ended one.

I now have an even stronger belief that it does not matter how you use Minecraft in an educational setting, just that you use it and see what happens, explore the possibilities and actively reflect on what works for you, and what does not, keep iterating and see how far you can push it.

As always, if you managed to get this far, thanks for reading, and more importantly if this has stirred any thoughts, or you have a comment please leave it below, this is something I would like to get a wider range of thoughts on.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

So What Happened?

I have been holding off posting anything about the Minecraft Education Edition Beta because while I could get it running on my personal machines we ran into several problems getting it working on the school machines.

The first of which was an installation issue, which theoretically will be resolved with the 'proper' deployment method Microsoft is implementing for the upcoming early access. However, even though we managed to get the software installed with the support of the development team, we could not launch it, and unfortunately there was no fix forthcoming within the timeframe of the beta that would allow us to get up and running.

We are still unclear on what the issue was, we looked at Windows 10 version numbers, and we started with quite an old and apparently outdated version, which was the only Departmental image for Windows 10 when we installed it 6 months ago. There has been an updated image released, and even updating to that did not resolve our launching issues.

We then started exploring whether it was the network connection, more likely the proxy blocking traffic, causing issues. However if I had no internet connection on my windows 10 machine I could still launch the program, of course I could not log in, but the program would at least launch, so that was not a great deal of help in the end either.

I guess the issue is some sort of permission issue on the local machine, or an incompatibility with some other piece of departmental software bundled into the image. I am not really complaining, even though it sounds like I am, I am more disappointed I could not get more heavily involved in testing and use the software with students.

I guess I am also used to a different development method, when testing for TeacherGaming we got random builds to test out on a fairly regular basis. I now more fully understand that Microsoft is different, and that the style of development I am used to in this space is not the norm, nor is it likely to happen. There will not be little updates to fix the issues we see as we progress, but big updates that fix all the issues but take longer to develop and deploy. I also 'get' that it is Microsoft and they don't want to release 'buggy' software to the masses, even though I thought that was mostly what a beta is about.

Anyway that is pretty much my post that says nothing, but also sums it all up. Hopefully the fix I need to get up and running within my school comes with the early access program and I can get started exploring with students and also start developing new lessons based in the new software to share. It just doesn't feel right to share without trialling it to make sure it works in my own class first. Also once the early access program starts I can also share the neat features that are already in the Education Edition.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Minecraft: Education Edition Beta Starts!!

It is an exciting day, the MC:EE Beta program officially started today. With something like 4000 users trialling this software within schools, the next few weeks are going to be super busy for Microsoft's development team.

I have loaded it up and explored it myself, but am having trouble getting it installed on student machines so I have not been able to get students involved yet sadly. My other big blocker is something called a tenant. My O365 account is linked to my departments 'tenant', but I cannot get student accounts on that same tenant as far as I am aware. Which unfortunately means that even if I manage to get students online using locally hosted O365 accounts I will be unable to join their worlds unless I can change my 'tenant' or get my O365 account also added to my local tenant or get a new O365 account on the local tenant(about as clear as mud right?). All of which is going to take time and effort from my technician. First job is to get it installed and running on school computers, from there I will begin exploring how I can get students on, and join them in their exploration.

Many of the concerns I raised in my last post have not been addressed, I think the only one that has is that there is a mac version in the beta. However platform is still a big issue, it still only runs on Windows 10 and El Capitan. I think this is going to cut out many schools from getting involved in Minecraft for education. I hope the development team seriously consider this after the beta is over. I have not heard any more on the pricing structure and I believe that the modding option is completely off the table at this stage. It feels like Microsoft wants to make EE a self contained unit, which I can understand but at this point it is limiting the flexibility we are used to. Hopefully the key functions we used mods for in MCEdu will become a part of MC:EE without needing to add parts.

As it stands currently however I have a new concern, and that is the lack of a central server option. Since it is based off the Pocket Edition code, which allows players to easily connect to one another that is the process that the current form is taking. Any student can create a world and allow other students/teachers to join it. This could be a very big problem in terms of 'load' on the machine 'hosting'. Another concern is that it only allows others to join if they are a member of the same 'tenant'. Which means global collaboration is out of the picture at this point. So is teachers joining together on the one server and collaboratively building lessons, or helping each other out as others have done so many times for me and I for them. This is something I sincerely hope the development team look into and support teachers and students joining together and working collaboratively with people from around the globe, ideally on a central server of some sort rather than a client machine hosting and definitely with easier management of allowed users.

There are some very neat features that I am not allowed to talk about just yet, but rest assured that as soon as I can I will be sharing them. I want to stress again, having met and talked to some of the team behind this, they have their hearts in the right place, they are seriously open to feedback, suggestions and ideas, so if you have some let it be known on the user voice:

It is certainly an interesting and challenging time to be involved in the Minecraft in Education space.

Thanks for reading, please, as always, feel free to leave any comments below.

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.