minecraft

MinecraftEdu: How We Started Using It In Our School

Incorporating computer games that children play at home into the curriculum has long been an aim of mine. Find a game that mimics what the children play at home but has educational value and you’ve got a hit. I have long harboured a desire to use the glorified database that is Championship Manager in lessons (we have a demo version of CM4 on the system) but until recently we were limited to maths and brain training games on the DSs and occasionally firing up the Wii for some gross motor skills work. Just over a year ago I used the demo version of ‘Electro City’ as a quick simulation activity whilst studying power sources. Although quite different in focus, it mimics Sims in its general concept and is still a much-loved activity to this day though the topic has long since passed. Then, in November 2013, I did some more research about Minecraft and discovered MinecraftEdu…

I confess to not knowing much about Minecraft that time. I first became aware of it when books about it started appearing as free-readers and pupils would choose Minecraft-related usernames for activities. I looked it up and saw some potential, but after playing the demo online and being killed within minutes by a creeper following the slaughter of several pigs I didn’t see much use for it at school. On discovering MinecraftEdu however (via various sources on Twitter and Google+ my mind was changed. I watched a few videos on YouTube, studied the site carefully, had another go at the demo and started to think there might be something in it. A few casual questions in class (“How would you feel about having Minecraft in school?”) resulted in the kind of excitement usually associated with boy bands arriving at airports and when I mentioned after morning break that I’d just bought Minecraft for use in school I was greeted with a gasps and spontaneous cheering! We were onto something.

One term on and we have three over-subscribed after-school MinecraftEdu clubs for Years 3 to 6. We’re about to roll-out its usage to Golden Time and, now we know it works properly, into the classroom proper as part of a study on medieval castles, and potentially into Year 2. We’re only just at the beginning of our MinecraftEdu experience, and we’ve only just scratched the surface of its potential, but already the results have been fantastic.

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The first ever full session with the children, (we ran a staff-only session, above, first to test the system and then our digital leaders Team Tabecat had a go), using Creative Mode, saw a group of 24 Year 5/6s working in groups of 2 or 3 engrossed for the best part of an hour as they tried to recreate iconic buildings for use as part of the PTFA quiz night! Many were experienced Minecraft users at home, a few had never played it before, yet the language and social skills used as they worked collaboratively were of the like I have seldom seen in the classroom. By 4.15 they were half way through creating recognizable versions of ten buildings from The Colosseum to the Burj Al Arab via Stonehenge, with the only sight tension being when the foundations of the Taj Mahal strayed too close to those of Wembley Stadium!

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Throughout the session and afterwards I was buzzing – this was amazing! I am rarely evangelical about things, but MinecraftEdu is an exception. I’ve been a teacher for 17 years, but making MinecraftEdu possible is one of the most satisfying things I have achieved in that time.

Here is a bit more about MinecraftEdu and the process we went through to it into the classroom…

MinecraftEdu is the product of a collaboration between Teacher Gaming, based in the US and Finland, and Sweden’s Mojang AB, the company behind Minecraft. The creators saw the educational potential of Minecraft and developed the add-on that makes it so powerful in the classroom.

The MinecraftEdu site has a wealth of information but the bottom line is that a pack of 25 gift codes (licences) and the MinecraftEdu Classroom Software is, at the time of writing, $376 (approximately £230). This is astonishingly good value for money in my opinion. For that you receive The MinecraftEdu software, which allows you to tailor the Minecraft experience to your classroom needs, and 25 Minecraft codes at discounted prices. (You don’t actually need to use all these codes if you set up your own Minecraft Server in school as you can have as many children as you like with access to the game, but you should only have 25 people playing at the same time. We have experimented with more than 25 to see if our system would cope if the need were there in the future. It did, but we won’t make a habit of it unless we buy more licences.)

I bought the package via the website and once the transaction had taken place, I received several e-mails from Teacher Gaming containing the gift codes and links to installation guides online. I paid via PayPal and claimed the money back from school as it was the quickest and easiest way. I couldn’t give a VAT code as the school isn’t VAT registered so I used our DfEE number instead. This seemed to cause Teacher Gaming more issues than us but they sorted it out and it didn’t stop us receiving access to the software within minutes.

For hardware we are using our newish (all less than 2 years old) Windows 7 laptops via our managed Ruckus wireless system. Just under a year ago we were faced with a failing admin server and a curriculum server which, although not lacking in power and only 4 years old, needed costly upgrading of its hard drives to cope with our increasing use of computing. A new all-in-one server was invested in, and we have put the old curriculum server to use as our MinecraftEdu server! This allows us to use MinecraftEdu without any resource drain on the main curriculum and admin servers, but isn’t absolutely essential. Even during our 30+ users trial the MinecraftEdu server was only using around 10-15% of its system resources. It is absolutely possible to install Minecraft on your existing curriculum server or to utilize a standard PC to act as a standalone server.

I didn’t actually install the Minecraft software across the laptops or set up the server. That work was all done by our onsite engineer Lewis Taylor, working for our technical support partners Joskos Solutions. He continues the process:

The backbone to MinecraftEDU is essentially the same as the standard Minecraft just with a much more friendly to use graphical user interface (GUI). MinecraftEDU is based purely on Java and was actually a breeze to setup for Holy Trinity. As mentioned by Karl above you absolutely don’t need a dedicated server to utilize this fantastic piece of software, it can simple be run on a separate desktop PC or even your existing Curriculum server without too much fuss. Obviously take into account the amount of people that will be using Minecraft at anyone time to judge how your particular system will cope with the extra traffic and disk usage (if you plan to use this on laptops through wireless you must make sure you have a fully managed and robust wireless network).

Installation: The installation that you’re given for MinecraftEDU is a simple executable Java file. Its quick and easy to install manually on your machines, and if you have a large network of computers as Holy Trinity does it might be easier to deploy it. I achieved this by using a clever MSI Package Builder application made by a company called EMCO. This software has the ability to record an installation of software (regardless of its executable) and then once complete compile the actions undertaken into a Windows Network friendly MSI file that can be easily deployed using Group Policy. Due to Holy Trinity having a standardized network setup I was easily able to distribute a desktop shortcut to all machines that points to the installation of Minecraft on the local machine giving the ability to use the software the second the MSI had been deployed. When it comes to the server setup it’s actually the same MinecraftEDU setup file that’s used to install on the clients! You just simply select server rather then client during setup and once installed the shortcut created during installation starts the MinecraftEDU server and gives you the simple, brilliant and easy to use GUI for complete control from the server.

The MSI I created installs the MinecraftEDU package to a folder called MinecraftEDU on the C: Drive of the machine. This was so I could create one Minecraft shortcut that could be placed on all machines desktop that would work on any machine around the school to open Minecraft.

It is worth stressing that if you’re not experienced with MSIs and rolling out deployed software you can just go around each of the the computers you are going to use Minecraft on and install the software that way. It really is easy.

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Once installed, this is how MinecraftEdu works: The children all login using a unique username. This is yours to choose but because there is no password attached to it I’d recommend something easy to remember. We have the children using their system login names as they are unique and well known to the children. Once a username has been ‘created’ (they’re not created by you, you just type it in when asked for it and MinecraftEdu does the rest) the player’s location and inventory in your Minecraft World are retained when they log out, much as in the normal game. As there is no password needed however, “username” typed “useranme” will create a new profile without querying it and the player will be spawned afresh. This can be sorted by simply logging out and then back in again as “username” but it is worth noting. Teachers log in via a password that allows access to the teacher tools that control the MinecraftEdu world. We are using a basic, flat world at the moment and I have placed various teleport blocks around which allow me to move all current players to a particular location depending on the particular club or lesson. You can also teleport to particular students or teleport them to you. This allows us to get straight on task without getting in the way of other groups’ work. The teacher tools allow you to switch on or off monsters, killing, fire, animals, day/night, weather etc. and provides powerful building tools so you can create and dismantle structures quickly should you wish to prepare for a session in advance. There is the option to switch between creative, survival and mining modes, and as a teacher you can become invisible via viewing mode. One nice option is the freeze mode which stops all the players from moving or building so you can have the attention of everyone immediately – can they do this for paper and pencil yet?!

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As mentioned earlier we are in the very early days of using MinecraftEdu at Holy Trinity Halstead. As we develop how we use it I can see it being used in Computing, Maths, English, History, Geography, PHSE and many other subjects across the curriculum, in addition to the after-school clubs we currently use it for. Mods are constantly being created for many aspects of the IT such as coding, complete with lessons plans and resources – these can be found via the MinecraftEdu website.

I hope this overview has been useful and I will endeavour to update my blog with our progress, but in the meantime if you have any questions or comments please leave a message below, and if you’d like to see MinecraftEdu in action please contact the school and I’m sure we can arrange for you to come an visit us.

Karl Handy

Computing Teacher & Subject Leader, Holy Trinity Primary School Halstead

MinecraftEdu Website

MinecraftEdu on Twitter

Holy Trinity Halstead Website

Ofsted

The Week After Ofsted

This time last week I was halfway through a visit from Ofsted. I’d had 3-4 hours sleep the previous night and was faced with the same prospect again that night. I’d not been able to face eating and Red Bull was my friend. I was running on empty. So much rides on a ‘good’ performance these days, and it’s all based on what 2-3 people you’ve never met before and know nothing about think during 2 days in your school. They put everything under enormous scrutiny and if they don’t like what they see lives are turned upside down and careers are ended.

We’d been expecting them to visit any day but still, when we did get the call, the initial feeling was of a bowling ball in the stomach. “Here we go…” went the thought in my head, and then a sort of numb tranquillity set in and I set to getting ready. In actual fact, apart from feeling physically sick from the time I found out they were coming in at 12.30 on Tuesday to their arrival at 7.45 on the Wednesday, the anticipation was worse than the inspection itself – what can you do about anything at that point? The weeks of ending every sentence with “in case Ofsted are in next week” are far worse because there is always something else you could do, always something else that you fear might be held against you.

The consequences of a bad inspection are well known and don’t really bear thinking about. You can flippantly suggest that if you’re doing your job properly you’ve got nothing to worry about but what is ‘properly’ these days? The goalposts are always changing and often are placed according to an inspector’s loose personal interpretation of ever-vaguer Government policy. The feeling is that if they want to ruin you there are enough gaps in the system to have you whatever you do. Michael Gove recently dismissed the suggestion that Ofsted should be a cause of fear. He demands that teachers are held accountable and I don’t have any real issue with that, but accountable in such an arbitrary way with such grave consequences? If they don’t like what they see over that short time frame a teacher’s job, their career, can be over either through being asked to walk, or due to the unbearable stress ‘school improvement’ puts on people. What jeopardy does Michael Gove have in his job? So long as he doesn’t do something really stupid the only consequence of any incompetence is, because he’s an MP in one of the Conservative’s safest seats, a backbench job for life on £65000 a year. How would he deal with the daily threat of having to have every bit of paperwork perfect and available for inspection at 19 hours notice AND having his performance in parliament, meetings and interviews scrutinised in minutiae with the prospect of unemployment (or further continuous scrutiny of the same kind) hanging over him? I expect he’d reject the comparison, but that is the way of the politician. One rule for you…

A week on then, as the title suggests, how do I feel? Well apart from not being allowed to know how we did (it’s our hard work, it’s our school, it’s our careers, but we the staff are not entitled to know the inspectors’ judgement until the rest of the world does) I feel OK. The weekend afterwards I felt like an arm had been lopped off because there was no need to do the extra work I had been subconsciously doing to cover myself in case we got the call. What I had done was enough – perfection was not needed for a while – and I could relax with the young  family I hadn’t seen for three days earlier in the week without constantly remembering other things I ought to do “in case Ofsted are in next week”. That display could wait until Tuesday, the planning for Thursday could be done on Wednesday, the weekend was mine. This week, after school, I spent a while reading in my neglected garden and, for the first time this year, took the time to properly water the vegetables whilst listening to the birds singing and looking at the clouds. I hadn’t noticed I’d stopped doing these things for fear of Ofsted, and I was glad they were back in my life.

In its current form and under the leadership of Wilshaw and Gove that’s what Ofsted does – it looms in the ever-closer distance robbing you of perspective. It takes over your life until, if you notice it’s happened, you don’t like what you and your life have become. Too much rides on too vague a set of criteria judged in too opaque a way. The week after Ofsted I feel free – I await to see how long it is before my vegetables start wilting again.