Friday, January 31, 2014

Lightbulb Moment: Use Tablets for Accessing Wikis!

The other day I was playing in survival mode on the PC for practice, and I realized that I didn't know how to craft a single thing. Not even a darn pickaxe! That's lame.

I pulled up the Minecraft wiki and began looking up crafting recipes, but because I don't have a dual-monitor setup I had to keep switching back and forth between Minecraft and the wiki every time I needed to craft something.

Finally I resorted to pulling out my iPhone and using that as my wiki resource, which worked out great! Then it occurred to me - the kids are going to have this exact same problem, and would probably appreciate using a second device as a wiki too!

I spoke with our Outdoor Learning teacher, who has ten Samsung tablets for his program, and he agreed to let us borrow them for our next cluster meeting. Awesome!

Since then, I have discovered a new, easier-to-use wiki resource: Diamond Boots

This site looks great on a tablet and is easily searchable. It's my new go-to crafting source!

Braving the Build Tools

The pilot is going really well. The kids are having such a great time, and they've learned what they needed from the tutorial world. It's time to branch out. To what, though?

I decided it was time to break out of my safe zone of using pre-made worlds that other, more talented people than me have created. MinecraftEdu has all these helpful world-building tools, and here I am avoiding them like the plague. Why? Because I'm afraid I won't do it perfectly, so I'm not even trying to do it. (I'm one of those people)

Yesterday afternoon, I bit the bullet and gave it a try. I launched a new world - not perfectly flat, because kids don't seem to like that as much - and put myself in build mode. What I envisioned was making something like I've seen on YouTube with Elfie, Joel Levin and others with fantastic portals that transport you to other parts of the map. Yeah, that didn't happen.

I flew to a big body of water and used the build tools to make a huge rectangular layer of grass. Then I fenced in the perimeter of the rectangle with the border blocks, so the kids would have to stay on my island. Then I put fencing around the perimeter and created little build areas for students to create in, and gave each area a crafting table, a furnace and a large chest. I laid out big blocks of stone, coal, wood planks, and iron ore for the students to mine. (The build tool can be a dangerous thing if you're not paying attention. I accidentally created a huge block of fencing which took a while to undo. Too bad Ctrl+Z doesn't work in Minecraft!)

Luckily, Thursdays is when my Tech Club meets, and they're ALWAYS up for testing out Minecraft. We spent the first 20 minutes of the meeting testing out my new build area.

Here's what I asked them to try:
  • Escape the island by any means you can think of
  • Find flaws in my creation
  • Use the materials and build areas to make something

Here are the results:
  • My border blocks worked! Nobody was able to get off the island - not even by falling into the ocean and swimming underneath
  • I totally should have made the grass layer more than one block thick, because I spent the next 20 minutes constantly teleporting people out of the ocean and back to the surface (until I remembered that I could turn on surfacing and they could do it themselves - push the letter M and click "teleport back to surface")
  • The kids immediately started moving the crafting tables closer to the resources. When asked why, they said it was easier to use that way. 
  • I need to disallow building under my fencing, because some kids moved it around.
  • Some people built structures in the build areas, but some kids used the now-mined resource areas to make houses. I hadn't thought of that, but it was a clever idea. 

What the kids told me I should do differently:
  • Put a layer of obsidian under the grass so it can't be mined through. When I pointed out that obsidian can  be mined, he pointed out that I wasn't handing out diamonds or diamond pickaxes, so it wouldn't matter. Good point.
  • Make the build area bigger. They said it was too crowded for all of them to use at once. 
  • Let them get off the island somehow once the build objective had been achieved. (This is something I intended to do, but ran out of time to try)
  • Make it so that the crafting tables, furnaces and chests can only be used by the people who have ownership of those things. (I don't know how to do this yet)

My kids are so smart. They think of things that never occur to me! I need to make a separate club for Minecraft, because once we got started playing they didn't want to stop -  not even to make stop-motion movies! 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Recording Gameplay: So Obvious, It Never Occurred to Me

So much of this new pilot has been challenging for me, especially because I'm new to the technical side of computers and IT. Teachers don't generally have to modify permissions and read Java, so my brain is often overloaded with information that I would normally never need (or want) to know.

I knew I needed to figure out how to record gameplay so we can show off the products the students are creating and the worlds my team and I make. I figured this would be just as difficult to learn as some of the other things I've encountered so I've been putting it off.

Turns out, it is simple. REALLY simple.

I create screencasts all the time for my teachers, usually using Jing, which records what's going on in my screen while I talk about it. This is EXACTLY what I needed for recording Minecraft - it just didn't occur to me that the tool I use all the time was the perfect thing for this too!

I just tested it out, and it works great! So now in my account there's a lovely video of me cooking steak. (Ok, it's not really very interesting, but I figured I should prove it.)

Questions or thoughts I have about using this with students:

  • I don't want my kids to have accounts. It looks like they can save their videos as .swf files. I can get them to save to their H: drives, then I can go in and grab them and upload as needed.
  • The movies made in Jing aren't editable. We might need better capturing/editing software (like Camtasia?) in the future.
  • Jing movies are limited to 5 minutes. Would we need more than that? 
  • I saw a few student-created movies on YouTube where it looks like they just pause the recording in-between narrators. This seems like the easiest solution for group presentations. 
There's probably a much better way to record Minecraft game play, but this works for now!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Minecraft Cluster: Day 2

Today was the second meeting of our Minecraft cluster, bright and early on a Friday morning. Mrs. Shrull and I were armed with our morning-drinks-of-choice (tea for her, coffee for me) and the kids came hurtling into the room at precisely 8:01, out of breath with excitement.

First thing, we reviewed the rules we had created last time and discussed whether revision was necessary. One student suggested we add "no pushing into lava or off cliffs", but after further discussion we decided to integrate that into the "Don't kill each other" rule. Now it reads "Don't hurt or kill each other".

We also asked the students what they learned about playing Minecraft on the PC from the previous meeting. Many kids were surprised at how much more difficult the controls were. Apparently playing on a tablet is MUCH easier!

Next we discussed the first of the Essential Questions for clusters, which is "What do people with an interest in this topic or area of study do?" The students all agreed that the main thing people who love Minecraft do is to build amazing things. Another thing we talked about was that some people who enjoy Minecraft also do some programming to change the game to their liking (and here we introduced the term "modding").

We dismissed the students to their computers, had them log in and join the tutorial world. I used my teacher tools to teleport them all to a point further into the game so they wouldn't have to replay the beginning part of that mission.

Working through a maze on the way to the group room

Today's goal was to learn how to mine and build, so we spent most of our time in the team building room. I introduced the room and explained the expectations and purpose for playing in it, but it was up to them to figure out how to do the work. Some students read the signs that gave directions, a few just figured it out by exploration, and many asked their peers for help.

Working in the team room

The students worked with partners to dig up materials and recreate structures found in the room. Some students caught on right away. Others needed to be redirected and reminded of the goal, but by the end of our time everyone had successfully learned to mine and build - even if not everyone completed the task.

Technical issues from today:

  • The server was acting a bit strangely. There was much more lag this time. 
  • While everyone was building together in the team room, many of the players were invisible, although you could see the blocks disappearing and reappearing as they worked. 
  • I restarted the server after the cluster was finished to see if that would help. 
  • I learned how to take screenshots today! (Just push F2)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Enrichment Cluster: Day 1

The first Friday back from the winter holiday was an exciting one. It was the first meeting of the Minecraft cluster, comprised of 16 2nd and 3rd graders from different classrooms.

I am running this cluster with a co-teacher, Mrs. Shrull, who is one of our TAG teachers and who also has a Minecraft-obsessed son.

We began the meeting by taking roll and introducing ourselves and our two 5th grade helpers. We then asked each child about his or her personal Minecraft experience and proficiency level. Here is what we learned:

  • All of the students have played Minecraft before.
  • Almost all of the students had only played Minecraft Pocket Edition (PE), which is the version available for tablets.
  • A few of them had played on Xbox 360.
  • Only a couple had played on a PC.
  • Most students described their proficiency level as mid-level, although a few were self-described "Minecraft Gods".

We showed a teaser video about the cool things people have created within the Minecraft environment, as ultimately the goal will likely be to have the students collaborate on some kind of creation. (With enrichment clusters, the end product is supposed to be student-driven, so it's difficult to predict what the kids will ultimately decide to do)

Then we began a draft of our group's rules for behavior, which we can modify in the future as needed. The rules the kids decided on were:
  • Always sign on with your real first name. (This was the only rule written by the teachers, but was necessary for management purposes)
  • No griefing. (This means no messing around with other people's stuff)
  • Don't kill each other.
  • Help each other.

Based on the data we gathered about the students' experience, we decided it would be best to begin with the MinecraftEdu tutorial level. Playing on a PC is VERY different than using an Xbox or tablet, so this would help level the playing field.

With 15 minutes left of our meeting, we had the students move to their PCs and showed them how to log into MinecraftEdu. This involved explaining how to go through C: to Program Files (since I still haven't had a chance to figure out how to fix that), but they did great. We also had to explain what an IP address was and why they needed to type it in. 

Signing in

(Management note: because students are not using accounts, their preferences and work are saved based on PC rather than user account. To combat this, we made sure to assign a computer to each student. They will use that computer throughout the cluster. What will happen once these machines are replaced during our computer refresh? NO IDEA.) 

Learning the controls

Once we got everyone connected and in the tutorial world, we let the kids start exploring. A few kids needed help with the controls, but everyone quickly mastered the basics. We did not get to progress very far in the level, but will continue where we left off at the next meeting!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Testing the Server Connection -- Success!

The past two sessions of my after-school Tech Club have been devoted to testing out the installs of MinecraftEdu in the computer lab and seeing whether they can successfully connect to the local server and play.

They can!

The kids were SO excited to hear that I'd finally gotten Minecraft approved and installed, and they were beyond ecstatic to try it out! All 22 students were able to launch Minecraft (which let me know that I had successfully modified the permissions on each machine) and connect to the server (so I knew the server had been set up correctly).

The first time we played the included tutorial world, since some of the students had never played on a PC before. There is quite a learning curve if you've only played on Xbox (like me!) or a tablet, as many students soon found out. During the second session (which was our winter party) the students convinced me to launch a survival world with PVP (player vs. player) enabled. Wow! What a difference that made on the server! With students dying and respawning left and right, there was quite a lot of lag going on. Eventually, we had to turn off the PVP setting and that seemed to help the lag issue a little bit. One thing to note was that this time we only had 16 players, so the PVP must somehow eat up a lot of memory.

Learning the controls

Checking out the tutorial world

Playing with others allowed me a chance to try out the teacher tools that come with MinecraftEdu. Freezing students was pretty useful, as once the kids had begun playing they were not interested in being interrupted! I only froze them a couple of times to give directions (and once just because I could and it was fun to hear their groans of irritation). I also found the teleportation function really useful. I had several kids who had a really hard time making their character jump and move the way they wanted, so when I could see the frustration level coming up I would teleport myself to them to help or just teleport the kids to another location.

What I learned:

  • I still need more practice using the teacher tools, especially the building ones.
  • My server needs more memory.
  • When PVP is turned on, kids will kill each other and steal their stuff. I need to have discussions about in-game ethics, have kids generate community rules and consequences for infractions, and enforce those consequences consistently and fairly.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Technical Challenges Overcome! (Well, some anyway...)

MinecraftEdu is purchased and installed on a few test machines, and every time I log in it works fantastically! However, I quickly ran into a couple of unexpected problems, both of them occurring when another user logged into that same machine.

First of all, with any other user but me logged in, MinecraftEdu was not installed. It turns out the default installation location was in my roaming app data, so I changed future installs to go to Program Files. That seemed to fix that problem.

Once that was fixed, whenever a user would launch MinecraftEdu nothing would happen. Nothing. The program would just disappear. I had some help from Information Services, who figured out that it was a permissions problem. To solve this, I had to change the permissions on the MinecraftEdu folder for all users to "write". That seemed to do the trick!

Issues still to be figured out:
- Minecraft is installed on all the machines in the lab; however, most of them did not get the desktop shortcut installed (so the kids have to navigate through C:>Program Files>MinecraftEdu>startlauncher.jar) OR the shortcut DID get installed but the icon won't show up correctly so it just looks like a white piece of paper.

-Can anyone with Minecraft connect to my campus-based server? I have tested it from other campuses within the district, and was able to connect successfully (which will be good when we want to collaborate with other schools). I still need to test it from outside our network.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Piloting Minecraft, or Why Did I Get Myself into This?

Minecraft is all the rage with kids these days (and some adults, too!). You can play it on PC, Xbox, Playstation and even iDevices. Even my own son is totally obsessed with it. But is it something we should bring into the school environment? Will it be an effective teaching tool? I think so, and I am ready to start a pilot to prove it.

Video games can be a tough sell to administrators, and games that connect to outside servers are a tough sell to IT admin who try every day to make sure our students and networks are safe. How did I manage to get approval for this pilot? After talking with my super-supportive principal, I wrote a proposal to help convince administrators and Information Services to get on board. They are all excited about the project and eager to help, which I am incredibly thankful for.

I am working with a couple of other Instructional Technology Specialists in my district who are also beginning a Minecraft pilot at their middle school campuses. This is very helpful, as we can troubleshoot and try things out collaboratively. There's a lot to learn about setting up and maintaining servers, installing mods, and gameplay (redstone continues to be a challenge for me!).

How do I intend to use Minecraft at my school? For now, it will just be a part of our Schoolwide Enrichment Model in the form of an enrichment cluster of 2nd and 3rd graders. This cluster is mainly student-driven, so another teacher and I will be facilitating whatever projects the students decide to create.

I have used my after-school Tech Club as beta testers already, just to make sure the computer lab's computers can communicate with the server and that everything runs okay. This beta testing taught me a few lessons that I'll post about later.

I am really excited to begin this new adventure, although it can be a little overwhelming at times. Gamification and the use of popular games within the curriculum is a really interesting topic that I don't have much experience with (research ongoing!), but I hope that this pilot shows that effective use of Minecraft results in

  • increased positive attitudes about school
  • increased student interest and performance in other subjects when used in conjunction with Minecraft
  • improved student communication and collaboration skills
  • fun!