Thursday, June 28, 2012

School-Year Reflection

Well, the school year has finished here and the kids have gone home.  Not for long, though.  Our summer program starts in 2 weeks, and I have the chance now to figure out how to make Minecraft a part of it.  As I've been working on ideas for how to use Minecraft this summer I realized I never took time to appropriately reflect on how my use of the virtual space went these past few months, so here's some thoughts:
  • Take advantage of kids' natural excitement -- I struggled this year between setting up a structured activity in Minecraft with concrete goals, and giving kids opportunities to just be creative and explore unbounded in game.  I had successes and difficulties in both areas.  At times it was difficult to get students excited about something I had prepared; they just wanted to put some more work in on their house.  Other times they would get bored if I didn't give them goals to achieve.  Part of this is probably me over-thinking everything as well.  I wanted to make sure that "learning" was happening, and it can be hard to determine whether this is happening or how this is happening without measurable, specific goals.  This summer I'm entertaining the possibility of creating a list of achievements for students to work on together.  One possibility is having in-game rewards, such as free resources or tools, for completing achievements.  But this would only work in survival mode; if the groups want to be in a creative mode server, what could I use as rewards?  Or would it be enough to just make a chart or something on the wall of the classroom to track progress? 
  • Too many boys -- Because using Minecraft in this way is so new to me and our limited resources, I put a lot more effort in designing the club as opposed to advertising it.  As such, the only students involved were ones that were self-motivated to be part of the club.  And for our program, that meant that only boys were part of the club.  I did have a few girls express interest in it by the end of the year, but by that time all the spots in the club were filled up.  The boys in the program (for the most part) were at least somewhat comfortable using a keyboard and mouse to navigate in a 3D environment -- not the case with the girls.  This created a barrier for them in getting involved.  I hope this summer to have at least one all-girls group in Minecraft so they can all tackle this barrier together and not be worried about falling behind other students that already know how to play the game.
  • Technology limitations -- Being entirely grant-funded means we have to improvise with what we have a lot of the time.  Our technology budget is not that big.  So the Minecraft club had to make do with our somewhat outdated laptops.  We do have a few desktops as well, but the software will not run on them.  This limited the club size to 4 students at a time.  The simplest way to increase student collaboration would be to buy more computers, but that won't happen anytime soon.  Other ways would be having all the students building in the same server, maybe having them create different villages, figuring out ways to develop relationships between separate tribes, or something like that.  Another way is to get connected to an outside server, get them involved with students around the world.  That would be great.  Also, I need to figure out why the laptops running Vista and Windows7 are lagging so hard.  
Any other thoughts out there about fun summer activities in Minecraft?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Roller Coasters!

Two things have worked really well so far in Minecraft: survival mode and the students' free build area.  They are coming up with pretty neat things in both places.  But I have yet to accomplish much in the way of a designed build or project.  They like to do their own things; getting them to work together on something I have in mind has proved challenging. 

So this week I decided to try something new: minecart roller coaster.  I went into the map ahead of time and set up a series of colored pillars, each one being only just in vision range of the next.  Each student was to build one section of the roller coaster.  Their only requirement was to build a track connecting one pillar to the next.  It didn't matter how they did it, as long as it was connected.  It was a little difficult at first because none of them had ever worked with minecart rails before and needed a quick tutorial of how it all worked, but after that they were off and running.  Most of the students finished or almost finished their section of the track by the end of the session, but we didn't have any time to do any testing.  I'm thinking that next week will involve a good amount of trial and error, as we try to get everything connected and then figuring out where we need to put in powered rails to get the cart from start to finish.  I don't have a way to capture video of the coaster, but I will try to post some pictures of the finished product (and maybe I can get a few work-in-progress shots as well).

The only hiccup this week came from one of the laptops we are using to run the program.  It's odd, because this laptop is newer than all the others and should be doing better.  I assume that it has something to do with the fact that it is running Vista -- all the other laptops are on XP and are doing fine.  Anybody know why I might be having problems with what should be a strong machine?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Goals and server safety

More than anything else this year, I am coming to realize that at one point I did not know many of the things I take for granted today.  Speaking English, for example, or being able to navigate a video game world.  Last week I found yet another skill that must be taught and learned: setting realistic and meaningful goals.  Since the first foray into survival mode had been fairly aimless and confused I thought it would be good for the students think before getting in game about what they hoped to accomplish in their 45 minutes that day. They were to write down three goals in their journals before logging into the server, and at the end of the day they were to look at their goals again and see whether or not they had accomplished what they hoped. Most of the goals involved building a house, constructing weapons to fight zombies, or exploring the world. Maybe I am being picky, but I was hoping for more specific goals. The goals they came up with were very vague, and easy to accomplish. But the more I consider it now, the happier I am with the goals they set. Sure, they weren't specific, attainable, short-term goals, however, they did give the students a sense of self-direction. One goal that stood out to me was to have unrestricted exploration. This is the way I run things already in survival mode with the students, but it is a good reminder to me to keep things that way and let the students be the creators. My conclusion from last week is that if I want students to accomplish a specific goal, I shouldn't set that expectation unless I give them that goal and the means to accomplish it. Maybe this week I will do the goals assignment again, only this time I will supply one goal while the students come up with the other two. Ooh, maybe I could give each of them a different goal...a sort of secret mission...they could get into that. We'll have to see.

My main takeaway from the architecture group was that I need to find a new location for our server computer. Half an hour into our time someone accidentally unplugged the server's power strip (this is in a different room from where we actually played the game). Thus 30 minutes of coordinated lighthouse construction was lost. So the server will have to move to a safer location. But beyond that, I'm concluding that the current architecture project is too big of an endeavor for what we can do the rest of this school year. I'm going to let them finish the lighthouses they have been working on, but after that I decide what sort of direction to take the group. Maybe they would be more into building a model of something they know, like our building, instead of a lighthouse they have never seen or heard of before.  Any ideas on other sorts of projects that can be done in Minecraft?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Mister, how do you spell zombie?"

Sometimes I am not sure who is learning more here at the after-school program, the kids or me. This week I very intentionally used what I learned last week about different kids having different needs in planning what we would be doing in Minecraft. I gave each student in the first group a journal and let them loose in survival mode, while I started an architecture project for the second group. Planning separate lessons does mean extra work, but I like what I do and it gives the students a better experience (at least that is my hope).

For the survival group I first found an area in our creative map far away from any student's previous work to strand the students and let them have at it. Because the vast majority of our time in MC has been spent in creative mode, most students needed a refresher in crafting and gathering resources. I wanted to give as little guidance as possible during this time to keep as true as possible to the survival theme. A couple of the students were asking me to just give them tools and resources, but I had to tell them they needed to pretend that I wasn't there.

This was working well for a while, until night fell. The students were braced for a zombie apocalypse, but it never came. Lesson number one for me of the day: Always test EVERYTHING beforehand. Sure, there is a button that allows monsters to spawn, but does it actually work? Maybe it didn't work because the world had already been started in creative mode. After that disappointment I had a brief conference with the students and they decided that they would be ok with starting in a new world to get the complete survival experience. So I restarted the server in a fresh world with monsters enabled from the beginning. Things were going well, night fell, but still no monsters came. I couldn't even spawn monsters into the world. Not to worry, I was able to release the hoard simply by disabling and enabling the “Spawn Monsters” option in the MinecraftEDU option box. As I was saying above, I was giving kids as little guidance as possible. They were not prepared for night in Minecraft. Luckily, they didn't stray too far from the spawn point so they could recover most of the resources they had gathered during the day. Day came again and they started right away on a shelter. We ran out of time at this point, and I had the students pull out their journals to make Entry #1. I hadn't planned the writing portion of the activity particularly well ahead of time, so I gave the students a chance for a free written response to what happened in the game, at least three sentences. I was not sure at all how this request for extra writing would go – I braced myself for complaints and whining, but there was none. They all eagerly wrote their names in the journals and started on their entries. Granted, they were pretty short, and I didn't really have an idea of how confident any of them were with writing. The thing that surprised me most during the day was when one student, bent over his journal, asked, “Mister, how do I spell zombie?” Believe it or not, I had given them something to write about. Sure, they got destroyed in the game, but they all had something to say about it. I'm excited to see where things go from here with the group, and what else I can do with the journals.

This is getting to be a pretty long post. But here is how things went with the architecture group. Looking back, I put way too much into this lesson. In preparation for the lesson I printed off pictures of famous buildings along with their measurements; found pictures of work others had done in MC; made a blueprint and started my own reproduction of the pyramids of Giza. In order to finish the project, students need to do historical research on their building, make a building plan on graph paper, scale the dimensions appropriately, and spend a good amount of time just placing blocks in-game. This was too much for one day. I did understand that the project would take time to complete, I just did not appropriately space out the content for the project. Instead of working on one element at a time (first researching a building, then figuring out how models and scales work, then working with graph paper to make a plan, etc.) I expected them to just go and do it all elements simultaneously. Needless to say, it didn't go as I planned. I realized this fairly early, and was lucky to have a smaller group than usual (some kids were out on a field trip), so we focused on the buildings I had already researched, and the students ended up starting their own interpretations of the lighthouse at Alexandria. Once they got going, they were fine, and we were able to talk about the lighthouse, why it was important, and what happened to it. I'll have to do some more thinking before next week comes on how to proceed with this group.

Well, thanks for getting through this lengthy narrative of what happened yesterday. Comments and new ideas are always welcome, especially any thoughts on how to better run the architecture project.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Different students, different needs

This week's goal was for students to learn a little about redstone, what it does, and how to use it.  For this goal I set up an indestructable room (using the MinecraftEdu mod's "build disallow" blocks) with an iron door, and gave students a chest of materials and instructions to find five different ways to get inside the room.  My two groups handled this task very differently.  The first group needed very little assistance before they set up a line of redstone with a lever leading up to the front door.  They even made the line of redstone too long to activate the door, so I was able to pass out redstone repeaters and explain what they did.  The group eagerly wrote down the different methods they used to open the door, after which I activated the teleporter inside the room which took them to the village they had started in the previous weeks. 

Group two did not do as well with this task.  While they did figure out that you can put a button or lever right next to an iron door and get it to open, they did not have the patience to see what they could do with the redstone.  They did not want to work together on the project, so they started wandering and exploring the world around the room on their own.  Eventually I got them back around to the room and activated the teleporter, giving them some free time. 

I'm learning that I need to tailor my lessons to the group I am working with, and not just assume that one lesson will work for all. Also, when the planned lesson does not work with a particular group of students, they are still engaged in playing the game.  I need to pay more attention to what it is that engages them when they wander from the planned activity and use it to my advantage, instead of just teleporting the explorers back to the lesson area and asking them to stay focused on what I want them to do. 

So  where do I go from here? The students in the first group have been requesting some time in survival mode.  I want to put together a survival scenario for them.  They even responded positively when I mentioned I would ask them to make a survival journal of the experience.  As much as I would like to do a Rube Goldberg project with them, I want to take advantage of their motivation in this area and see where it goes from there.

The second group would not do as well in survival mode, I think.  They are more interested in building and exploring.  Maybe I could take this group in a more architecture or mapping focused direction.  We'll see.  Any comments or suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Oh, WOW"

I think the recent meeting of the Minecraft club has been the most successful so far.  I learned last week that the students want a challenge, a problem to solve, but they also want a way to preserve their work from week to week.  So my new strategy for the group is to have some sort of challenge for them to complete, and upon completion reward them with free-build time.  All of this will take place in the same world, but I will keep the challenge areas in a different part of the world from where they are working on their village.  This week was the first time I experimented with the teleportation and information blocks included in the EDU mod.  Those were handy.  I had a little bit of problem with the info blocks teleporting people above ground when you walked over them, but I solved that by putting a block on top of them.  The teleporters were great for allowing students to explore the world to find the perfect building spot and making it easy for them to find the spot again, or allow others to easily to see what everyone else was up to.

The students had become fairly proficient navigators of Minecraft, but they had no experience in caves or relying on torches for light.  So for yesterday's challenge I used the no-clip build mode to fly underground and find an expansive cave network.  After exploring the cave and blocking off a couple of side passages I decided it would work for what I wanted to do.  Students began in one end of the cave, had unlimited torches, and had to find their way out.  It went fairly smoothly, with students splitting up in the cave to explore the different passages.  The final challenge of the cave was that once they found the exit, they had to swim up a waterfall to reach it.  Slightly counter-intuitive, but they figured it out quick enough.  The best moment of the day happened when one student exited the cave, saw the world outside, and exclaimed, "Oh wow!"  From that point on they rushed out into the world, staking claims and beginning construction.  While they were in the cave I kept them out of creative mode so they couldn't just bust their way out, but once they were above ground I put them in creative mode.  I would like to do something with survival mode in the future, maybe a shipwreck-type simulation with a journaling component, but that can wait for another time.

This week at the after-school program students were doing some experiments with circuits and lightbulbs, which could segway perfectly into beginning some work with redstone in MC.  I could easily integrate this into my new strategy of giving students a problem to solve with the reward of free-build time.  An assignment  might look like this: "Create a circuit to open this door using elements x, y, and z.  Beyond the door lies a teleporter to take you to your village."  I could create some sort of math challenge, requiring students to build a structure with certain square footage or volume requirements, or do an architecture project where they need to draw up plans for a structure on grid paper and then build it in game.  Feel free to offer ideas for other challenges or ways I could be using this tool in the comments -- all input is valuable.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Prison Break

This week in Minecraft I put my students in groups of two and gave them the task of building something, anything, in 40 minutes and then to display their creation to the other students.  I wanted them to focus on building without having to worry about terraforming or gathering resources, so I made two large bedrock boxes (approx. 40 block cubes) and provided them with unlimited resources.  I felt bad essentially dropping them into prisons and forcing them to build, because a lot of creativity in MC can come from the environment around you.  I tried to remove a little bit of the prison ambience by at least giving them a grassy floor to start out with.

One of the pairs surprised me with their first actions in the arena: instead of building, they started digging (halted quickly by bedrock) and made patterns in the dirt ground, writing their names, replacing the grass with colored wool, etc.  Understandably, most students' first actions were to try and escape the boxes, but when that wasn't immediately attainable they began building.  It was their first exposure to stairs, glass, and colored wool, which led to interesting discussions about whether or not it is ok to build a glass house as well as attempts to build staircases out of the boxes (which were eventually sucessful).  Outside the boxes was just a flat grassland, but that wasn't really the students' goal in escaping.  They wanted to look over the wall at what the other students were building.  Although I don't think I will use this type of activity again with these students, I am pleased at how everything worked out.

The students are getting fairly comfortable (for the most part) with the controls of MC, how to build, etc.  Also, the students want to explore more -- boundaries can be used as powerful tools.  The boxes I dropped the students in originally served to keep them focused on the task I was hoping they would complete (building a structure), but it turned into a puzzle (how do I spy on what they other groups are building?).  I didn't intend for it to be a puzzle, but the kids made it one.  I want to figure out more ways to do this -- use MC to give students a simple task and let them find a puzzle in it.