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Amid the pandemic, so many teachers and students started using the video game Minecraft as a virtual learning space that Microsoft created an official Minecraft: Education Collection marketplace. The game allows multiple players to come together in a virtual space, which they can build together into anything they want using the digital equivalent of LEGO bricks. The downloadable content in the marketplace lets them refine the content of the worlds they build even further, adding things like “Marine Biologist Role Play,” explorations through “The Human Body,” and a model of the “International Space Station.”

The downloadable

The downloadable

Suddenly, this relatively simple game with a retro style modeled on old 8-bit games has become highly relevant to everyday education in the United States. Though it was used in schools long before anyone heard of COVID-19, its popularity has exploded in the virus’ wake, with a whopping 63 million pieces of content having been dowloaded from the Minecraft: Education Collection marketplace since March. Since its release in 2011, Minecraft has amassed an incredible 126 million active players around the world, a number that undoubtedly continues to grow as the fall school season ramps up. More specifically, Minecraft sales are expected to jump at least 25 percent by the end of 2020.

Minecraft owes part of its educational popularity to the fact that it’s a virtual blank canvas, allowing users to build whatever their imaginations can come up with, including models of their own schools. But what this moment also reveals is how looking at schooling through a different lens could actually encourage students to be more engaged and active as they learn. Why shouldn’t learning be fun?

Kids enjoy learning via Minecraft, while a parent stands nearby willing to help them along.

Luckily, Microsoft already spent years creating Minecraft lesson plans in all kinds of subjects, including computer science, math, writing, and even art. Teachers can choose from the library of lesson plans or create their own specific assignments. The education version of the game functions the same way as the regular version, just with different objectives in mind. Students as young as six years old can use it to learn basic concepts, while high school students use it to learn how to code or see how complex mathematical problems play out in three-dimensional space.

Here’s a rough idea of how it works, from Microsoft:

Spatial thinking and pixel art in Minecraft create an excellent opportunity for students to work on mathematics and visual arts objectives in an engaging environment. Additionally, pixel art is a medium that’s already engaging to students and one that allows educators to take their first steps with the game without being the expert. Students open up a Minecraft world to use as their canvas. Their pixel art creations range from portraits to landscapes to patterns and language. Students take care to transfer their plans to the immersive space.”

“For this pixel-art lesson, students turn in not only screenshots from their Minecraft creation but also their grid diagram from their plans. The educator also includes questions about scale and ratio to push student thinking. After the first year using Minecraft: Education Edition, educators can adapt, edit, and learn from the successes and missteps along their way. Each new year brings with it the opportunity to deepen their practice and refine their students’ learning experiences with Minecraft.”

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Of course, there are a few downsides to watch for. Like its direct competitor, Roblox, Minecraft: Education Edition is an open social platform, so teachers and parents have to take an active role in preventing potential predators from accessing their children’s digital worlds. Plus, there’s the fact that students’ ability to access computers and Wi-Fi at home is highly unequal, a big problem in today’s environment of remote learning. But as long as those ideas can be addressed, leveraging gaming for educational purposes could be expanded long after the current pandemic is over.