#MinecraftLA: The “EDU” Dilemma

Time to tackle the two most controversial questions that came out of our discussions at the Minecraft Education Summit in LA.

Q4: Is the term “edu” problematic and, if so, why?

Q5: Can a commercial platform, like MinecraftEDU, meet the needs of all?

As an outspoken educator on the trend to repackage commercial games under the “EDU” label, I get a great deal of push-back from colleagues. My adamant delineation between using original games vs. “EDU” versions puzzles them. For me, this a question of whether we use games to understand what they can teach us about modern learning culture, or if we alter games to mimic our current construct of school. The former affords us the potential to change our teaching practice to more closely emulate the kind of learning suited for a rapidly changing world. The latter keeps us stuck in our old paradigm.

Commercial games can successfully and thoughtfully enhance existing curriculum and standards. The keyword is; thoughtfully.  One of the best examples I’ve seen of this in action is the “WoW in School” project. Lucas Gillispie and his colleagues designed the original curriculum based on their deep understanding and respect for the play mechanics and culture of the game. THEY did all the heavy lifting to show how their curriculum aligned to required standards. Peggy Sheehy took the approach to a whole new level when she built on the WoW in School project and developed a year-long Humanities curriculum. She constructed lessons to mimic the quest-like system of the game. Using the 3D GameLab interface, she built in lots of choices and autonomy for students to pursue their own path through the learning. Both examples are brilliant!

Realistically, most teachers do not have this depth of game expertise to develop this type of curriculum. This opens the market to the development of “EDU” versions of games. These are commercial products developed by third party vendors to modify or augment off-the-shelf games for use in the classroom. Companies like GlassLAB Games have “EDU” versions of uber-popular games: SIMCITY and Plant vs. Zombies. TeacherGaming has created “EDU” versions of Minecraft and Kerbal. I believe companies like these enter the marketplace with good intentions. However, their products are built on the premise that games need to be altered to have learning value for schools, an approach that perpetuates the outdated narrative of ‘teacher knows best’. The primary objective of these platforms are to make it easier and more comfortable for educators to use and “manage” games for their own teaching objectives.

Third party “EDU” platforms may make it easier to get games into school, but at what cost?

This is the conundrum! If games are not easy for teachers to use, they are difficult to get into the classroom. In making the games, ‘easy for teacher,’ the real learning is too often diluted. This is not only a lost opportunity to improve pedagogy and curriculum, it is disrespectful to the players (our students). Think about it this way, if you are a master baker and someone expects you to make a cake from a box, that’s pretty disrespectful!

The first time you enter “MinecraftEDU” you are led through a step-by-step tutorial demonstrating the most basic mechanics of game play. You cannot leave the tutorial area until you have proven proficiency at each task. Teachers are given an array of controls that allow them to control students in games by teleporting them from one coordinate to another. They can even freeze students’ avatars to force their attention to directed tasks.

This feels like Skinner to me! It’s an approach that a lot of teachers find familiar and comfortable. But then, that’s the point, “MinecraftEDU” is designed for teacher comfort & control.

In the “real world” (outside of school), Minecraft comes with NO instructions. How is it possible that a game with NO instructions has become so massively popular with young children? Who taught the kids how to play? Exactly, THAT’s my point: Minecraft, in its “vanilla” form, is pure Vygotsky!  Derek Robertson writes eloquently about this in his article: “If Vygotsky Played Minecraft…

Some commercial “EDU” platforms offer lesson plans and worksheets, many of them already aligned to Common Core Standards. It’s all very convenient for busy teachers but, again, that’s all about supporting the teacher.

I believe the “EDU” mentality keeps us stuck in our old school mindset. We believe knowledge only has value if it is distributed via the teacher, even if the content, skills or pedagogy is irrelevant or outdated. More importantly, in staying within that mindset, we miss the most important impact of games: teaching us, the teachers, about what learning looks like in today’s real world.

The social world of gaming is a democratic learning space. Self-agency and autonomy steer the learning. Each player sets their own path and pace. Expertise is earned. Sharing knowledge acts as a badge of honor. Players use their distributed knowledge to collaboratively solve problems. Communities develop their own norms based on shared interests and goals. It’s complex.

When educators appropriate games for the classroom, they often lack understanding of the gaming culture. Without this background, teachers disregard the learning systems already in place within the game design. Deeper learning embedded in playing the game is bypassed in favor of pursuing more linear and literal goals pre-determined by classroom curriculum. Doing this runs the risk of dumbing down the learning possibilities to encompass only what the teacher already understands. “EDU” models are complicit in keeping teachers stuck in this modality.

What would happen if we trusted our students to help us understand and navigate these new learning platforms? What if we honored their expertise. What if we were able to suspend our own need to control the learning path? What would happen if we became co-players (co-learning partners) with our students? What would we learn? What would change?

Educators are not the only ones grappling with these questions of design. In her keynote address at the 2013 Games For Change FestivalBrenda Romero spoke about the nexus between serious games and commercial games. She advises game designers not to be heavy handed in designing the player experience. She urged them to trust the player’s ability to extract the experience from the game environment. She went on to share her own profound experience of self-discovery as she played Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution.

Romero’s keynote got under my skin. I’ve thought about it a lot over the last couple of years. While her address was targeted to game designers, those same principals apply to the curriculum we design for our students. We can try to control the experience, or understand the real magic often happens in the spaces we leave open.

A well designed game (and curriculum) is a gorgeous learning space! Players move through skillfully scaffolded objectives designed to allow advancement at their own pace. Assessment is built into the play and no worksheets or reflections are required for learning to take place. The best platforms offer players opportunities to freely explore, play and create their own experiences. Unlike the traditional classroom, no one person is in charge of the learning. The space is designed in such a way that the player takes that role on for themselves. It is BRILLIANT and I want the learning in my classroom to reflect what I’ve learned from well designed games rather than taking great games and making them look like school!

Given the calibre of some of the conversations taking place at the 2015 Games For Learning Summit, I am starting to garner hope that we are ready to advance our thinking beyond games as delivery mechanisms for content.

I was encouraged to see so much interest generated around what games can bring into the classroom. The conversation is growing beyond the question of “Do games belong in the classroom?” to ‘What do games in the classroom look like?“.  This is a huge step forward and frees us to focus on the pedagogy of games and learning.  Zac Chase, Project Lead, 2015 National Education Technology Plan, hosted an event for teachers and developers to brainstorm how to move forward. I enjoyed the amazing conversations with the Ubisoft team. We grappled with the question, “Is it the developer’s task to design what teachers what, or is it the teacher’s task to understand what great game design teaches us about learning?”

Educators and Developers exchange questions.

Nick Bonardi, developer of Rocksmith, found this line of inquiry fascinating as he had delineated between the value of his work as a commercial designer and its value in school. The prospect that his game design could actually provide educators with valuable insight into modern learning modalities was a surprise for him.  We don’t need developer’s, like Nick, to change their games to look like school. We need developers to create the best games they can so we can learn from them! IMHO

The robust conversations continued at the 2015 ISTE Conference. In a meeting for the Games For ED Workgroup, a pretty rigorous discussion took place surrounding the topic of Game Jams and Hackathons. When participants were discussing ways in which to incorporate these types of activities into school, I became rather defensive and animated in declaring these as sacred spaces that work precisely because they are NOT school. The conversation following was incredibly rich about what we define as educational and what learning looks like outside of school. Wanting to document my ‘rant’, Chris Davis, a teacher in Bogota, interviewed me for his mini podcast series, Voices at ISTE 2015.

My greatest frustration regarding the current “EDU” model is that it is generating a new culture of misinformed educators and policy makers who think a game ONLY has value IF assigned the “EDU” ‘stamp of approval’. They use the label as a clearinghouse. Entire countries have designate the “EDU” version of Minecraft as the ONLY version allowed in school. They fail to realize that the “EDU” vetting process is merely a commercial vendor adding “EDU” to their product title. This marketing strategy is good for edu-business, but limits educators’ thinking in respect to why games have learning value.

I think “EDU” platforms can evolve to help transform our schools, but it means a conscientious effort to move educators’ beyond the comfort of what they know. Instead of maintaining status quo, commercial vendors can help teachers to understand game mechanics and the learning naturally embedded in play. This will help teachers make more informed decisions about how to keep learning relevant in their classrooms. I believe we will see more effective models emerge as the companies who develop learning games expand their own vision and think outside the box. We are at the threshold of discovering how games can transform teaching practices, but the answers may surprise us.

Let’s take a risk and free ourselves from old paradigms and the “EDU” mindset. It will clear space for new possibilities and allow us to reimagine learning in a modern world.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *