• Guest Blog: Joel Mills: Using Minecraft to teach real-life skills

    620 413 Stuart O'Brien

    The University of Hull is using building game Minecraft to engage and inspire students – and acting head of technology enhanced learning, Joel Mills, says that schools can do the same.

    Just as our counterparts in commercial industry have employed game-based learning to increase engagement with a product or service, universities across the world have begun to embrace the broad notion of game playing in education. I liken the idea to feeding children chocolate-covered broccoli. It’s an accessible way of exploring challenging concepts – giving students something they know and like, while subtly introducing trickier ideas.

    At Hull, we’ve focused on exploiting the pedagogical potential of the world-building computer game, Minecraft, using it to bring subjects to life for a wealth of students at the university and beyond. Recreating a medieval village and getting ‘hands on’ with the work of a renowned Yorkshire architect are just some of the ways in which Minecraft has been used at the institution, and teachers from many disciplines have enthusiastically embraced the tool since we introduced it in 2015.

    I’ve been instrumental in introducing Minecraft to Hull, and, latterly in showing the wider industry how they can use the game through MOOCs, conferences and seminars. And, along the way, it’s become clear that, just as Hull is working to gamify more theoretical degree subjects, there is also a significant and important place for this sort of technology in schools.

    So, for tech savvy teachers – or potential converts who’d like to be more switched on to the immersive world of game playing in education –  here are my tips in getting started.

    Fail and learn. Learn and succeed

    Minecraft puts people in an environment where it’s OK to fail, where it’s safe to get things wrong, and where rebuilding and change is encouraged. And that’s an enlightening process – for staff and students alike.

    When schools invest in this technology, it’s vital that they explore and test to ensure that all parties know that trying and failing is a crucial part of education. Learning to learn – through projects where the process is as valued as the outcome – is key to making the most of tools like Minecraft.  And it’s through experiential learning, exploration and experimentation, that schools can really get under the skin of theoretical subjects – bringing to life tricky concepts, and engaging students in a way that textbooks or videos just can’t.

    Put students in control

    At Hull, our undergraduates are in control of the way they use Minecraft – inventing worlds and sharing experiences. Our chemistry students have created a world called MolCraft, which aims to help youngsters learn about the structure of proteins and chemicals – giving a whole new perspective on the concepts outlined in science textbooks.

    When schools use Minecraft, students should be able to control the experience in a similar way. While K-12 students may need more guidance and help than their HE counterparts, feeling ownership of an educational experience is crucial. Putting children in charge of how they use the tool – even suggesting areas to cover, or elements to build, increases engagement and motivation – and fuels adoption.

    Create an immersive experience to maximise engagement

    In the virtual world of Minecraft, encouraging  an immersive experience seems like an obvious tip. But we’ve worked hard to make as much learning ‘in-game’ as possible. We use Canvas, the open source VLE, to facilitate collaborative learning across Hull University – and using Minecraft in Canvas modules allows grading and feedback to happen seamlessly in the game environment. Linking to Canvas also provides students with the ability to submit assignments in-game, ensuring that students don’t have to move out of the environment to complete tasks.

    Don’t reinvent the wheel – let us do that

    My last tip is an important one – there’s lots of support out there for teachers or students who want to use Minecraft in a learning environment. From my MOOCs, to the MinecraftEDU forums, there are lots of folk who’ve done this before and who can share valuable experiences and lessons learned. The gaming world is known as a community and this holds true in educational gaming too. Collaboration is key for all of our success, and seeing advice and support from others is vital.

    So the Higher Education sector is realising the potential of gaming as a tool for learning – and specifically Minecraft as a developmental tool. I’m looking forward to seeing many more projects in HE and schools using Minecraft, allowing students to learn and create in a brand new way.


    Stuart O'Brien

    All stories by: Stuart O'Brien

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