With MinecraftEdu, are video games the future of education?

Microsoft announced on Tuesday that it had acquired MinecraftEdu, an education-oriented version of the popular video game. 

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Adrianna Mitchell a student from Newark, New Jersey, taking part in an "Hour of Code"? event at the White House in Washington in December, 2014. In his State of the Union speech on in January, 2016.

Microsoft announced on Tuesday that it had acquired MinecraftEdu, a classroom version of the popular video game Minecraft.

Prior to its acquisition by Microsoft, MinecraftEdu was developed by TeacherGaming, a collaboration between teachers and developers in the United States and Finland. The company released another game, KerbalEdu, based on the space-flight sim Kerbal Space Program, in 2013.

“By creating a virtual world [in Minecraft] and then advancing in it, students can learn digital citizenship, empathy, social skills and even improve their literacy – while getting real time feedback on their problem solving skills from the teacher," wrote vice president of worldwide education Anthony Salcito in a blog post that announced Microsoft’s new acquisition.

The original Minecraft was developed in 2010 by Markus Persson, more widely known by his nickname, Notch. The game allows users to mine, harvest, and build using cube-shaped blocks that represent different natural and manufactured substances within a virtual world. Minecraft users can craft swords, bake cakes, and create circuits.

MinecraftEdu differs from the original game in that it is an adult-controlled platform, where the teacher has full control over the world that students enter when they join the game. Teachers therefore use the game as a controlled educational tool, with specific projects and goals in mind.

The idea that Minecraft has value as an educational tool is not new. Just two years after Minecraft was created, Daniel Short published a brief paper in the journal Teaching Science that discussed the game’s utility in a classroom setting. Dr. Short identified several areas in which Minecraft could be used to teach children. Microsoft’s acquisition of MicrosoftEdu will allow a wider audience of educators to use the game in classrooms.

Numerous studies have found that creativity-minded video games can increase student engagement and teach substantive concepts.

According to Mr. Salcito, Minecraft is already in use in more than 7,000 classrooms worldwide. With its acquisition by Microsoft, its reach will broaden even further.

Video games have been used by teachers since 1979, when students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., created the game Oregon Trail as a way to engage students with the history of westward expansion in the United States. Since that time, teachers have used video games in the classroom with increasing frequency.

In 2005, author Steven Johnson wrote in his book "Everything Bad is Good for You" that, far from rotting brains, video games challenge both children and adults to think differently and more creatively. 

As recently as 2014, Scientific American wrote that although educational video games are a “powerful learning tool,” critics still argue that they bear little fruit in terms of actual learning. Video games have also been prohibitively expensive in the past, and often train working memory rather than creative thinking. 

Despite these objections, video games are now beginning to be widely used in classrooms. According to a 2014 survey, 55 percent of teachers who use video games in the classroom at all use them at least once per week. There are even schools, such as the Quest to Learn public school in New York City, that focus on video game based learning.

Part of MinecraftEdu’s value as an educational tool lies in its applicability to any number of disciplines. The company’s website notes that teachers have used the game to teach a variety of subjects, from creative writing and art to math and science.

Educators and computer scientists increasingly agree on the importance of teaching children to interact smoothly with the digital world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group has developed what it calls a creative learning software called Scratch that allows children to interact and innovate.

According to a 2013 TED talk by Mitchel Resnick’s, one of the learning researchers who developed Scratch, “as [students] learn to code, it enables them to learn many other things.” Children who become “fluent” with the digital world will grow up to become better innovators and citizens for the future.

Computer science teacher Jason Wilmot of Lincoln, Neb., shared his views on the importance of teaching children in a creative and flexible way in a YouTube video posted on his website. Mr. Wilmot says that, “what kids want is to be met with something they find interesting, something they find relevant... If you’re listening to what kids are saying, there’s a lot of them talking about Minecraft, about apps, about these dynamic environments that let kids control their own learning.”

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