Monthly Archives: November 2012

Minecraft Mania – Course 5 Final Project Reflection

I’d like to briefly describe the project under consideration at the start here: it’s a narrated video tourist guide to a virtual structure based on a real-world building or artwork from the Renaissance or an important historical empire, for Grade 7 MYP Humanities. However, due to technical issues involved in setting up server space for the students, none of the video reports are finished yet, so these reflections will be mainly about the process of setting up the server and beginning the modeling.

UBD Unit Planner for Project

1. What were your goals for your lesson/project (Standards)?

The academic side of this project, while I think it’s solid and interesting, is not really the heart of this initiative’s innovation, and I’ll try to explain the reason for that now. The academic goals of the project were focused on meeting the standard MYP criteria for a Humanities (a.k.a. Individuals and Societies) project about Empires and the Renaissance.

Although the goal of this final project was to plan and implement a unit/project/lesson which used technology in a way that would be “redefinitive” on the SAMR model, for this project it would be possible for students to reach almost the same outcomes by not using Minecraft at all, by making a slideshow or other type of model of their building. This was, however, by design – due to the unusual nature of the tool being used (Minecraft), I planned from the beginning to make the academic side of the project something that could be completed by students who – for technical reasons, parental refusal, etc. – weren’t actually proficient in Minecraft, and it would be possible to meet most of the project’s academic goals by making a slideshow or other visual representation of the structure.

In other words, the use of Minecraft in this project – considering only its academic goals and standards met, and not its wider possibilities – is not necessarily redefinition, but could be seen as mere “substitution”.

However, I think the redefinition aspect of this Minecraft initiative is definitely present and has great potential, but it’s not on the individual project, or even unit level. The use of technology here which I think is most interesting, powerful, and “redefinitive” is three-fold:

1) The opening of a shared virtual space for physically or temporally separated students to work on models together; and

2) The possibility of mixed use of the space as a place for both expressly academic work and free creative expression and play; and

3) The maintenance of the same virtual project space into the future, to be added on during future projects.

It’s the third one that most intrigues me – I think would be amazing for a particular grade level to have a Humanities “world” strewn with construction projects which had been tied in to different units, at different times, throughout the year, and this project was the first step toward that.

2. What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?

Minecraft, of course! Reasons for the choice were:

1. Student interest.

Over the past year several of my students have made models in Minecraft as supplements to their project work without being asked (pyramids, temples, volcanoes, biome simulations, etc.). When we’ve shared these extra-curricular models in class, the interest and excitement level was always very high. I want to find a way to let students have the chance to make similar models as “official” parts of their Humanities projects.

2. Educator interest.

At the same time, many people in my extended personal learning network of educators have been discussing the game and gaming in education in general, and I’ve seen high interest in Minecraft expressed by educators around the world.

3. Personal interest (the less said about this, the better)

3. How did you go about introducing your lesson/project?

First, I had to lay the groundwork for the acquisition and setup of Minecraft in an academic setting. This started with meetings w/ my amazing admin and IT department last year. The introduction of the project involved a lot of intermediate steps after that, some planned out well in advance, some less so. Here’s a list from an e-mail I sent out a few days after the project was official underway. It details some of the steps that led up to the actual project start:

    • Parent letters for signature went out last week for 7A and 7B, and an e-mail version went out earlier this week to 7C. 
    • I set up accounts with numbered usernames for everyone in G7, named which are all linked to one e-mail account so we can reset the passwords and take them away from students if necessary (or for reuse next year).
    • I requested server space for educational use from a recommended hosting service – We can theoretically have up to 100 users on each server at any one time. In a rather surreal development, several dozen squatters from around the world were holding deathmatches in one of the servers before I had the chance to change the security settings, but I’ve successfully evicted them, changed the server to private, creative mode, and re-booted the world they were using.
    • I’m planning to only have the G7 multiplayer server on from about 5-10 in the evenings, and if there are any parent complaints or any issue of people spending too much time on it, I can change the hours.
    • We designed a Humanities project where students, in teams, will propose to study an important Renaissance or imperial structure or work of art, write a report on the structure and its importance, model it in Minecraft, then conduct a virtual tour while narrating their report. Students who aren’t experienced in Minecraft will still be able to pick a structure and complete the project regardless of their modeling skills.
    • Rebekah and I used about one class period each to get students set up with their accounts earlier this week, but this will mostly be a project to be worked on entirely for homework. One of the neat possibilities about this is that students from all 3 G7 classes can collaborate on the same buildings during the hours when the server is on in the evening.
    • The G7 students have been using the server for the past 3 evenings, and have already built dozens of separate buildings – not all are historical, but everyone seems to be having fun, and construction on 5 or so major historical buildings has started already. Attached is a shot of the Colosseum, Big Ben, the Parthenon, and Juulia’s cathedral as of yesterday.
    • So far there have been an average of 10-15 students from all three classes online, building things peacefully, during the evenings. However, since the virtual world includes things like fire and lava, there is the possibility for vandalism of others’ buildings. I see these issues as a chance to explore evolving digital citizenship issues in a new space, and aside from a few hiccups I think the G7s can be trusted to share this construction space in a…. well, constructive way. There are hourly and daily backups of the world that we could restore from in an emergency, but so far I think most students have been regulating their own risky behavior and learning to share space with their neighbors.
    • I’d be glad to take anyone on a tour of the current state of the server if you’re interested. We have a few extra account codes – if any teacher or admin wants to set up an account and look themselves that’d be really cool. If any teacher already has an account, I would just have to add them to the “whitelist” (the list of people who can go on the server). Rebekah was on for a while last night, and the students seemed to really enjoy showing her around their buildings.

4. How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection (video, images, etc)

[long story short, reaction was overwhelmingly positive and resulted in an immediate and enormous construction spree – see the relevant section of video presentation above]

5. Outcome? Did you meet your goals?

As described above, the academic side of the project is still in progress, but server has been a success overall (but with issues of digital citizenship and responsible behavior still being explored), and the three main “redefinitive” aspects outlined in section 1 seem to be creating some powerful interest in the server both from students and other teachers.

6. Evidence of learning? Remember to include student evidence like video, images, reflections.

[Again, please see the relevant section of video presentation above, which includes a lot of student feedback, including: ]

Student Feedback:

I think overall it is going well. We are able to work on a lot of the project in a short period of time. However, there was some vandalism that made the server a bit unsafe to use. Sort of like the medieval time!

I prefer minecraft because it’s a game and easy for us to learn how to play the game. It’s motivational if it’s a game. 

I think Minecraft is a good source for students to make buildings connected to Humanities. But I do not like about people burning and breaking buildings down because students take a lot of time building it. But it is a good idea to cooperate with other students and friends to make a historical building. 

I think the renaissance report would be best because we can all have a video about our building and we could all have something different to say in each of our videos. Also making a slideshow would not be very fun and you maybe cannot show the whole building itself with moving around. 

I think so far this minecraft project is going well because we are all working hard and I think we should continue this for a while. I really don’t like all the griefing that is going on and we should somehow fix them.

Students are still working on their academic reports, and have already shown some great learning about their historical structures being modeled, and evidence of learning in other ways has been tremendous. Students have learned and demonstrated new skills of digital negotiation of a shared space, finding each other and figuring out how to deal with the problem of numbered usernames. They’ve had virtual events like parties, come together to put out fires and stanch lava flow, taught each other construction techniques, figured out etiquette for visiting other peoples’ houses, used Skype as an additional communication tool for times when Minecraft’s chat function wasn’t sufficient, and any number of other things.

7. What would you do differently next time? What did you learn? (Reflection)

A lot of these reflections are on an ongoing process. The first thing I’d do differently would be to set things up more collaboratively and with more input from others. I tried to meet and ask for advice from several people, and I got some terrific advice from friends on Twitter, but I also did a lot of the planning on my own and think some aspects of the setup could have been stronger if I’d sought more advice. Another thing would be to have set up the timetable of this rollout differently. I think things have worked out OK, but as it turned out I set up the server quite quickly once the space became available, and wish I’d have had more time to plan the project, meet with my teaching partner and IT department to set things up beforehand, etc.

In terms of how things have progressed since students have had access to the server, I think the biggest issue has clearly been “griefing” or vandalism. The game includes things like TNT and fire, and it’s relatively easy for someone to use them undetected. I think dealing with these issues, however, has resulted in some of the most powerful learning and reflecting on digital citizenship both for the students and me, and I am glad we’ve had to struggle so publicly and openly with the issue of destructive behavior on the server.

It’s been an interesting journey. However, since student feedback overwhelmingly identified vandalism as the biggest problem with the server by far, I’ve recently taken steps to turn off TNT and fire by using mods and plugins. Destruction remains an issue, but it’s less likely now that someone will lose an entire building to fire, and I think some traumatic events could have been avoided if I’d modded the server from the start.

One thing that has been extremely interesting about all of this is the social simulation side of it. I – as the overlord of the server – found myself becoming suspicious of students, following them around to see if they were behind the vandalism. I also deputized some students by making them “OPs”, which gives them access to more commands, and I quickly found that my OP brownshirts had constructed a jail for incarcerating suspected “griefers”.

This whole social microcosm of crime, suspicion, punishment, and rebuilding after tragedy has probably been the most interesting side of going on the server for me, even if it has been slightly unpleasant in its moral and ethical implications at times. I wanted to create a place for peace and creativity, but found myself spending a lot of time thinking about rules, punishments, and banishments. I think I’m starting to reach a balance between accepting that the students will do crazy things on the server, but also doing what I can to minimize uncertainty or conflict so that it won’t – in the words of one of the students – be like “medieval time”.

8. How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

Here, on Twitter (hashtag #yisminecraft), through a Pecha Kucha talk I recently gave (video to possibly follow soon), and by inviting people to tour the server.

9. What was your greatest learning in this course?

I think it was the realization of just how much more productive, cooperative and organized the students are when they’re passionate about something they’re doing. It’s something you hear all the time, but watching entire cathedrals rise in just a few hours really demonstrated the power of motivation to me.

10. Did this implementation meet the definition of Redefinition?

As explained above in section 1, in terms of the goals of this pilot project in Humanities (integrated into the curriculum) itself, no – but in terms of the collaboration between all sections of the grade, the ongoing digital citizenship negotiations and combination of academic pursuits and play in the same space, and the creation of the shared space for possible future use, a resounding “yes”.


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Audience Inspires Art

source: Me. Note the contrapuntal juxtaposition of analogues. What bold compositional legerdemain!

In recent months Instagram – of which I am a very infrequent and frankly unskilled user – has given me a great example of the inspirational and creative power of community, sharing, and audience – all of the things that educators are always saying should be part of projects that encourage student learning and achievement.

The example worked like this: I am a terrible photographer. I’m shy and hate being on either side of a camera. I feel like taking pictures of people is a really invasive and weird thing to do, so I usually only take pictures of large buildings and monuments. But I feel so self-conscious and trite standing around pointing my camera at large buildings and monuments that I rarely take the time to focus or even point the camera properly. During an entire year abroad in London, I took a total of 2 rolls of photographs, and half of them are of my thumb, the other half of Stonehenge.

But Instagram has changed something. I’m still a terrible photographer, but I feel the urge to take pictures of things. It’s not a lot by most people’s standards, but I’ve probably posted more photos to Instagram in the last few months than I’ve taken in the last five years combined. And I want to add more. The only real reason for this shift? Having an audience, even if it’s just a few people.

I can’t remember having personally been part of such a clear example of how an audience can energize creativity  (or at least interest) where none existed before. I’ll try to keep the lessons of Instagram in the back of my mind when planning projects for students.

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My Semester in Tech

The semester’s far from over, but I’m thinking ahead to final grades and winter break already. I’ll try to take advantage of this mood to make a few reflections on my use of technology in the classroom  and out over the past couple of months.

Push Notifications 1

Last year, I would frequently have students share their finished work with me – by sharing on Google Docs or e-mailing it to me – and then I would sit down with a heavy sigh and start making a spreadsheet of who had turned in what. This year, for each project, I’ve been creating a Google Document with a blank table, and telling students to add their own names and links to finished work. For more complex projects, I’ve been adding more columns for each blog post, reflection document, etc. that’s required. This simple change has been a big success – I think it’s saved me some time, but I also think it’s got some ancillary benefits for students – they get a visual reminder that it’s their responsibility to fill in the gaps in the chart, early finishers can proudly add their names to the top of the list, and late finishers have an easy place to review some of the turned-in work (if it’s public) to get a better idea of what they should be doing. Vandalism of the shared document is a distinct possibility, but it’s easy to discourage after a couple of shaming trips through Revision History.

Push Notifications 2

Conversely, I think I’ve been getting some positive results from pushing a bit more information out to the students, particularly through the use of e-mailed Google Calendar invitations as homework reminders. Last year I think I tended to only place this information on my blog or in a central Google Doc of class reminders, but thinking of my workflow as an adult, my e-mail inbox is my main way of telling when someone wants something from me, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t take the extra minute or two to push reminder e-mails out to students’ inboxes.

Push Notifications 3

It’s a small thing, but this is the first year that we’ve had a database that allows one-click sending of an e-mail to one or all parents in a particular class, and I’ve really appreciated the function. In previous years I’d often found that dredging up a parent’s e-mail seemed to take forever, and half the time they had changed addresses since the last time I’d collected them. The new system we’ve got makes communicating with parents almost instantaneous (so thanks, IT department and Veracross). Another thing this new system is great for is for finding, within just a click or two, where a student currently is (or should be) in the building. Invaluable.

The Death of the DVD

Confession time. Earlier this semester, I wanted to watch part of a video which was on a DVD about 10 feet away in a cabinet at the back of my room. I found and watched a streaming version of the clip instead. It probably wasn’t good to take up some of the school’s bandwidth just because I didn’t want to go fish around for the disc, but, well, it happened. Something similar’s been happening with some of the resource books I have around the class – I’ve actually spent more time looking at PDFs of certain books with the students than I have passing the actual books around. I love books, but overall I’m at peace with this odd development.

Google and Apple

This is a very minor thing to note, but I think this semester I’ve started mentally distancing myself a bit from my previously feverish admiration for these two behemoths. While I still use their products constantly, I sense possible rumbling portents of their upcoming Microsoftification, and I think I’ll be ready not to care. A couple years ago, I was really excited about seemingly dozens of things like SketchUp (since sold), Blogger (haven’t used it in ages), Google Plus (tumbleweeds), Ping (avalanche of tumbleweeds), etc. The fact that the two of them seem to be starting to getting a bit childish and evil-er in their competition with each other – Google forcing me to use Chrome for various things, Apple killing iOS Google Maps, etc. – is making my preemptive mental cold shoulder that much easier.

The Twitter Convergence

For a couple of years, my window to the Web was my RSS reader. I might be late to realize this, but this past semester I’ve really noticed that, since I’m following the Twitter feeds of most of my news sources, Twitter has begun to almost replicate my RSS inbox. So, yes, Twitter is still the place where individual people can bore us with what they had for breakfast – but it’s also now the first place I go for news, blog updates and, well, pretty much everything else. I’ve also started to notice a greater awareness of, if not use of, Twitter among the Middle School students. They still don’t seem interested in it at all, but they’ve heard of it.


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Cargo Cult, Part 2

In a previous post I gave free rein to my disapproval of a One Laptop Per Child “experiment” (maybe I’ll stop doing the scare quotes – just imagine scare quotes in future) which involved dropping off a few boxes of Motorola Xoom tablets in a remote Ethiopian village. In this follow-up post I’d like to turn down the sarcasm and try to think a bit more calmly and specifically about how the OLPC approach seems to differ from my ideas about tech and education.

I actually think this was an interesting experiment in many ways, even if I disagree with what I know of its methods, and it does point to some interesting areas for future thought – how necessary are teachers? To what extent can current handheld devices provide a satisfactory elementary education, and satisfactory by whose standards? Which viewpoint is more culturally patronizing: OLPC’s apparent assumption that all Ethiopian villagers must learn English, or (my position in my previous post) to assume that maybe they don’t need it and won’t use it? Is patronizing intervention better than no intervention at all? I could analyze my mixed feelings about this for hours. I’d like to switch gears and jot down a few more focused thoughts on relevance that this article might have for me personally as an educator interested in technology integration:

  • Reading about this experiment makes me grateful to be in an educational environment made up of assorted stakeholders and different voices.
  • Parents and students at our school have a say in their own education – decisions aren’t all being made by invisible people on the other side of the world. Don’t even underprivileged students deserve something of the same experience?
  • Our school provides a supportive social environment where students learn how to interact with each other – with and without technology. Don’t even underprivileged students deserve something of the same experience?
  • The “education” (I’m back to scare quotes, sorry, I’ll try to control myself) in the experiment by OLPC seems to lack a moral or ethical dimension, and in fact the experimenters are delighted when the children “hack” the devices. Would OLPC be equally overjoyed if, in a few years, the students used their tablets and new English skills to scam people around the world with spam 419 e-mails? Education isn’t just learning how to use language or technology, but the concomitant imparting of skills in good citizenship when using these tools.
  • When we do use technology, we use it to connect humans to other humans, and we do it with thoughtful and experienced guidance, even if it’s sometimes with a “light touch”.
  • We use technology to help students produce authentic projects, not passively absorb (even if through a game) predetermined, pre-loaded content.
  • Games can be part of education. Computerized sing-alongs and quizzes and cartoon videos can be part of education. But only if they provide something meaningful to the student at that point in the student’s life, and build toward a larger underlying understanding. Otherwise it’s either just a game, or just memorization – but neither of those is necessarily learning, or education.
  • We learn together – teachers and students – and we use technology to constantly improve and refine what we learn and how we do it.

For all these reasons – and not, I hope, just because of a childish instinct for occupational self-preservation – I don’t think that we’re ready to exchange teachers for a few boxes of solar-powered tablets. Not even for very poor or very isolated children. Maybe in a few years this program will conduct a similar experiment, but with online devices – and with living human teachers and students on the other end of the line. That’s an experiment I’d be much more interested in hearing about.

A less top-down communication method than leaving monoliths, also from 2001

A less top-down communication method than leaving monoliths, also from 2001 source:

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Cargo Cult, Part I

In my last post I argued that good tech integration might require a “light touch”. However, I’ve recently read an article which makes me consider the risks and limitations that would await anyone taking this approach to an extreme.

In this article (here as well) from just a few days ago, there’s a very striking example of a recent “light touch” success story, as told by the founder of One Laptop Per Child at MIT Technology Review’s recent EmTech conference.

It seems that OLPC went to rural Ethiopia and set out – like the coyote setting out birdseed for the Road Runner, or (provocative allusion alert) the Starchild from 2001 placing a monolith for apes to find – some enticingly sealed boxes containing around a thousand solar-powered Motorola Xoom tablets.

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up.”

What a delightful shiver of pleasure goes through the first-world reader at this amazing story of learning in action! A human being – one who knows how to survive in one of Earth’s most complex and difficult environments, who probably knows how to butcher a goat, start a fire, build a house – found a Motorola tablet’s on switch! What an unexpected result! I was so startled and bemused that I sat up in my lounge chair, spilled caviar on my smoking jacket, and almost lost my monocle!

“That was my third monocle this week!” source:

The astonishing results continue:

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

The apparent aim of this project, aside from illustrating every possible meaning of the word “patronizing”? To get illiterate Ethiopian children to play with apps, in order to teach them English. Never mind that they would then be the only people for miles around to speak English. Never mind that the only things for miles around for them to read English on would be these tablets. Never mind that once the tablets break down, the majority of these children will have gained absolutely nothing except for the fading memory of playing some sing-along alphabet apps. The important thing is… something something English!

The bold little rascals not only used a lot of apps but they “hacked Android” as OLPC’s founder puts it (or, in slightly more realistic terms, changed their desktop wallpaper)!

 “…the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. ‘The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that…’”

Learning in action!

If I seem a bit skeptical of this experiment, it’s because I am. Not of its results, but of its aims and methods. Of course students can learn on their own. Of course if you air-drop interesting tools or games into a remote area, people will find uses for them. Of course students don’t need teachers guiding them at every turn. Of course kids will sing the alphabet along with a tablet app. Everyone knows how kids work. They play with things, and learn.

But – and maybe this is simply the fault of the way these articles were written – what’s the long-term plan here?

  • Will there really be no support or service at all for these devices, aside from monitoring the kids’ use like lab rats?
  • Did anyone ask the adults in this village if they wanted their kids to waste time learning to use touch-screen technology that they might never see again in their lives once this experiment is over?
  • Did anyone ask the kids if they wanted to be lured into learning English through colorful educational apps?
  • Did anyone at any stage question the apparent assumption that learning English is such an important goal that some Ethiopian village children should be tricked into it at tremendous expense?
  • Wouldn’t hiring an English tutor to come out to the village a few times a week be orders of magnitude cheaper than 1,000 Xoom tablets?
  • Did anyone, at any stage in this, say “Wait a minute, these kids aren’t lab rats, and we aren’t gods?”
"This Motorola Xoom has opened a whole new world for my backward people! No... words...!"

“This Motorola Xoom has opened a whole new world for my backward people! No… words…!” source:

Seriously, what’s the endgame here? After they learn English, will somebody help these kids use it somehow? Or will they just record their use of the tablets until they break or OLPC loses interest, and then leave the kids to their own devices (no pun intended)? Are we hoping that the children start a religion based on Motorola? Do the pre-loaded apps on these tablets include plans for a giant catapult to launch one brave Ethioponaut back to the One Laptop Per Child headquarters…?

to be continued in Part 2


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