Deirdre Quarnstrom vividly recalls the “powerful learning experience” she had from playing The Oregon Trail learning game, a popular school resource in the United States developed in the 1970s.

Fast-forward to classrooms today and games like The Oregon Trail have been replaced with tools such as Minecraft Education Edition. While text-based strategy prompts may have been replaced with features such as coding and virtual reality, game-based learning is not new. Nor is its appeal. It has simply evolved, and continues to do so, says Quarnstrom, who is Microsoft’s General Manager of Minecraft Education.

Upon talking to Quarnstrom during her recent visit to New Zealand, it becomes apparent that there is more behind Minecraft than building forts and locating creepers and endermen.

Quarnstrom points out some key findings from Professor Jim Gee’s research around learning games and literacy that have helped inform the development of tools like Minecraft Education Edition. For example, having an avatar to represent you in the game actually increases a student’s willingness to experiment, take risks and become more comfortable with failure. Another finding is that students benefit from the learning progressions that are built into game-based learning – that sense of struggling with a challenge, mastering it and progressing to the next challenge.

But the main appeal of bringing a game like Minecraft into the classroom is that students are comfortable with it and likely to engage with their learning.

“So when a teacher is introducing a new concept in an algebra class or in a history class the students are coming at it from a point of confidence when they’re engaging with it through Minecraft,” says Quarnstrom.

The beauty of using a tool like Minecraft is that it can span subjects across the curriculum and be used to teach 21st century skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and problem solving.

Quarnstrom gives the example of a popular assignment to build a civilisation in the Minecraft game.

“Instead of an exam or test when content might be forgotten, kids are left with the memories of creating a civilisation together in Minecraft and all the learning that went along with that – all the planning, collaborating, applying what they’d learned in class, and critical thinking.”

Microsoft is eager to make Minecraft accessible to every teacher and student. Indeed, some more than 35 million people in 115 countries around the world are licensed on Minecraft: Education Edition. One of those countries is New Zealand;  in a recent agreement with the Ministry of Education, Microsoft has granted state and state-integrated schools in New Zealand free access to Microsoft’s standard suite of learning and collaboration tools, including Minecraft Education Edition.

Quarnstrom is confident even the most reluctant teacher could grasp the game – especially with the help of students. There are also over 450 lessons created by other teachers spanning all subjects which teachers can access and adapt to their purposes.

One of the easiest ways for a teacher to introduce Minecraft to a class of students is to have them build a model of their school in Minecraft. From there, the sky is the limit. Methven Primary School students used the programme to build a virtual village, complete with a free range chicken farm, crop fields and shops to sell the produce.

Students can now explore aspects of chemistry in Minecraft, creating all the elements on the periodic table and then creating things like latex and helium balloons.

Quarnstrom says the current focus for Minecraft Education Edition is on further incorporating coding, computational thinking and Artificial Intelligence (AI) literacy and education. She believes that games like Minecraft with its focus on problem-solving, creativity and collaboration, will play a role in helping prepare students for a future steeped in AI technologies.

Minecraft has become heavily involved in the Hour of Code initiative. Since 2015, learners around the world have completed nearly 100 million Minecraft Hour of Code sessions. The tutorials offer more than 50 puzzles, as well as professional development, facilitator guides and online training to help educators get started teaching computer science.

Just yesterday Microsoft announced a new Hour of Code Minecraft Tutorial – the Voyage Aquatic, which takes learners on an aquatic adventure to find treasure and solve puzzles with coding.

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