Chris Bradbeer, Associate Principal of new Auckland primary/intermediate school Stonefields, wanted to engage his students in discussion about improving the school’s learning spaces. He arrived in class armed with large sheets of paper, cardboard, marker pens, scissors, templates of existing rooms, Lego and cameras. He had even loaded SketchUp onto a number of devices.  But the first question the Year 5-8 students asked, as Chris says on his Open Learning Spaces blog post, was: “Could we do this on Minecraft?” And the answer, to steal a phrase from Barack Obama was: “Yes we can.”

Stonefields School asked students to design their ideal learning space. Many chose Minecraft as the medium

Technically, like UFB, the fast fibre installed when Stonefields was developed meant the computer system could happily handle large numbers of students connecting to the internet at the same time. The school is doing “great things” with its fibre broadband, Chris says, including Google Docs for students and staff, the Knowledge Net learning system, and a host of web 2.0 applications.

Pedagogically, Chris was happy to try something new – he didn’t know much about Minecraft, though he’d seen students using it at lunchtime. But if the students were more engaged using a medium they were familiar with, he decided, so be it.

(Developed in Sweden in 2009, Minecraft is incredibly simple: in “creative mode” users build structures with blocks of different materials, and in “survival mode” they battle with monsters. Still, it’s addictive enough that so far over eight million students worldwide have paid the equivalent of NZ$30 to buy the game – and the developer Mojang is adding around 10,000 users a day.)

Back at Stonefields, Chris was pleased with the results. “Learning spaces were quickly modelled and remodelled, constructed and improved. Screenshots were taken from multiple angles and pretty soon my email was overflowing with images. This, I am assured is just the start – just wait for the narrated 3D fly-throughs!”

Equally important from a pedagogical perspective, Chris says, were the discussions students had around the Minecraft constructions. Overseas research shows it’s the dialogue that accompanies drawings or constructions that is the critical part of the learning, he says.

“The same concept can equally be applied to using Minecraft. It’s not about just what students constructed, it was about the conversations they had during and after.”

Across the city, at Takapuna Normal Intermediate School, Andrew Cowie maintains the school’s video channel and Digital Citizenship programme, and is one of the main movers at the Northern Education Access Loop(NEAL). Recently he has also started using Minecraft as a learning tool, via a Thursday lunchtime bring your own devices (BYOD) session.

Takapuna Normal Intermediate students made an Inca village using Minecraft

Working on the “ancient civilisations” theme, he asked the students to choose and research a culture (Maya, Egypt, Norse etc) and create a virtual village in Minecraft, with at least three buildings from that age. Next the kids had to make a PowerPoint slideshow alongside their Minecraft village and present facts about the village – anything from food gathering to the system of government, from religion to how they dealt with their enemies. So far, about 20 students have made and demonstrated their villages. They aren’t “giving up their lunchtimes” so much as developing a new, engaging way to spend those precious minutes.

Now Andrew hopes to use the project to get other teachers using Minecraft in the classroom.

“It’s about creating an opportunity for students to use what they love as a conduit for learning. It’s simple, but it gets them engaged. A student who had not previously shown leadership capability took charge of this assignment and led a group who were able to present at the Bruce Mason Centre in front of another school. He’s never stood out as a leader before, but he did here.”

It doesn’t stop with Minecraft. Andrew is looking at how to use the mysterious Slender Man creature as a literacy tool (getting students to write a story about how this horror creature came about, for example).

Ultra-Fast Broadband is one of the key parts of the picture, Andrew says, giving teachers the confidence to try innovative ideas involving the internet with all students in the class, knowing that the connection won’t let them down.

Takapuna Normal has had fast broadband for a while, Andrew says, and speed and reliability have become the norm for teachers. “You can be running a programme where you have high volumes of students on the internet and you just know it will work.”

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