Seven-year-olds build houses nowadays. And skyscrapers. And entire cities.
And if Microsoft gets its way, such engineering feats will be part of the everyday grade school curriculum.
The tech giant has created an education edition of its super-selling game Minecraft, and is pushing schools to adopt the search-and-build sandbox experience as a means of digitizing the classroom.
While there are obviously some learning advantages in letting students exercise their imaginations with what amounts to an unlimited Lego set, with the addition of a video conferencing component, the education edition of Minecraft could go further.
In fact, video conferencing could not only improve the Minecraft experience, it could be the basis for a whole new way to play the game.
Minecraft: Education Edition
Minecraft is a pretty safe choice for deployment in schools. There’s no violence, no conflict of any kind, really, no time limits or opponents to thwart your gameplay, and no losing. Players simply search for and dig up blocks and then use them to build a world sourced from their imagination.
Microsoft has made a few minor changes to the format to tailor it for school use, but these alterations are mostly concerned with security and making the game easier for teachers to manipulate.
Commercial aspirations aside, Microsoft’s claim that the game could work as an educational tool stems from the trial-and-error nature of the game that encourages lateral thinking. There is no instruction manual for Minecraft, you just get a design in your mind and try to create it among the engineering realities of gravity and structural integrity.
There’s also plenty of evidence that learning through play engages students’ minds and opens up new ways of processing information.
The open-plan nature of Minecraft also lends itself to cooperative play, and Microsoft has boosted the multiplayer aspects of the game to let entire classes of students work together on city-building projects. The game world can also be opened up to local networks within a school to let students play together across grade levels.
But to take the collaborative aspect even further you need to embrace a little video conferencing.
Video Chat for Minecraft
Opening up the Minecraft Education experience to the internet would let students play with their peers across the globe.
Opening it up to video conferencing would let students actually meet those international peers.
Now teachers could add cross-cultural understanding to the list of lesson goals, and let their students get a taste of life beyond their school district. The landscape and construction projects within the game could to tailored to the various communities students are interacting with, and each side of the video conversation could learn a little about physical world of the other.
It would make foreign language classes a lot more interesting.
Or, teachers could invite expert speakers to join students in the game world. Designers and builders could demonstrate some real-world construction basics, or you could get more self-reflexive and invite IT professionals to show how such games work and how they connect to the wider world through the internet. After all, Minecraft has given many young minds their first experience of advanced IT engineering by encouraging server building and network creation.
To facilitate all this dialogue Microsoft need do no more than integrate its own Skype product into the game world. Through the use of affordable video conferencing cameras, students could have a new a friend from half a world away pop up in a chat window and play with them online.
And to really create an immersive learning environment you might turn to some more advanced video tech.
Minecraft for a New Decade
If you’ve played Pokemon Go or ever put on one of those cartoon masks some smartphone video chat services provide, you’ll be familiar with augmented reality. Essentially, the technology lets you superimpose images over real-world streaming video.
For students using Minecraft that could mean using tablets or smartphones to build digital creations within their inhabited world. Strap that smartphone to a VR mask and now you’re totally immersed in a world where you can heave giant blocks into position atop skyscrapers, and divert rivers with a movement of your hand.
And all the while the teacher, classmate, or that friend in Canada the student met online earlier can work right alongside them, collaborating and brainstorming with them.
It could go further still. Incorporate a 3D printer into the game and students could render their designs in take-home plastic and have a tangible outcome for all their efforts.
Or imagine if the guys at MIT’s Tangible Media Group ever get around to commercializing their inFORM technology that transforms digital movements captured during video chat into real-world shapes and sculptures. These real world shapes could be manipulated by each party on the video call, meaning students could physically touch and delicately shape their design into all kinds of marvels.
Perhaps one day they may even be able to build a new school gym during IT class.