## Friday, 29 January 2016

### 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?

## Wednesday, 20 January 2016

### 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.