mercredi 10 août 2016

Blended Assessments in Minecraft.

In the past I have created many maps that I believe help students understand some of the content that I am trying to teach them. I have even planned whole projects within Minecraft tied to particular curriculum standards. I am, however, about to embark on a new branch of Minecraft in my classroom. A map designed to be a formative assessment blended with real world assessment.

We are just about to finish off our Linear Algebra unit in my year 8 math class, and I suggested to the students that I would like to do an activity with them in Minecraft, but was concerned about the time taken to do that given how much curriculum I have left to cover. So most the students really liked my suggestion that their test be within Minecraft, some were not so keen. Now the reality is that I need a Minecraft map that will ask the exact same questions as the pen and paper test so that no student is advantaged or disadvantaged by choosing Minecraft or the paper and pen test.

This alone was an interesting enough experience, to take a written test and see how much I could readily not only present but also formally assess within and alongside Minecraft. The multiple choice questions were easy, use the ECAS. Some of the short answer questions were easy, others were not, so some will be based on dialogue with NPC's and others will be based on real world paper pieces that students will have to show me to move through the map and the remaining short answer questions will be based on some scoreboard trickery. Finally the analysis task, I have still not figured this one out completely yet, but I think it is going to be a combination of NPC dialogue and the in-game book and quill.

As always I have been grinding away at a good way to build this map for quite some time. I want to make sure that it 'makes sense' and is not just a jumble of math problems thrown into Minecraft in a haphazard way that is more grindy for the students than fun. This morning I finally figured out the story that could possibly make this map work. A dungeon/prison escape!

I am going to put some play elements into this map but not in the way I normally do. I will still use some game mechanics to my advantage, but this incorporation of play is something I normally do in a much more controlled way than I am planning to do this time. I am thinking of giving students the option of the 'fun and dangerous' path through the dungeon which will probably include some slaying of monsters and some questions based around that. The other option will essentially have the same questions without the slaying of monsters and will be the 'not quite so much fun and not all that dangerous' path. I think it will be interesting to see which path the students choose to take.

This current plan of course, is just a plan, and it is still changing, even as I write this post new ideas are springing into my head about how to get students to answer 'real life' linear algebra questions in a more fun and engaging way in Minecraft while still enabling me to assess them the same as those who are doing a paper and pen test. I will do my best to keep updates, and possibly even screenshots coming as I move forward with the production of this map.

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.

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?

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.