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

Further posts about MinecraftEdu can be found by clicking here.