Introducing StAC’s new Director of ICT – Mr Dave Hart

dave-hart

Mr Dave Hart

Since 2012 the StAC IT team had been led by Mr Sam McNeill. His resignation, to take up a role as a Senior Education Specialist at Microsoft, meant that our team needed a new leader. I am very excited to introduce Mr Dave Hart as that leader. He will become a contributor to this Blog as he continues the transformational progress begun by Sam, as our team continues the College’s commitment to ensuring both staff and students are equipped to maximise the opportunities presented by technology.

The interview below introduces Mr Hart and his role.

Dave, can you give an outline of your previous roles/experiences?

I have been working in ICT for over twenty years, and predominately within education in the UK. I started out in programming before moving to support and ultimately management and department head. My last ten years in the UK were spent at the University of Oxford, most recently as IT Director of Oriel, Corpus Christi and Merton colleges.

Although I greatly enjoyed my time at the university, I emigrated permanently from the UK to New Zealand in October 2015 for a new personal and professional challenge.  The latter came about quickly when I took up the position of Senior Project Manager at CPIT (now Ara Institute of Canterbury).  The former challenge came earlier when I had to convince my wife that we should sell our house, quit our jobs, pull our three daughters out of school and move to the other side of the world (not to mention shipping our dog out too)!  Happily, my family and I are very comfortable with the decision we made to emigrate and we love living and working in Christchurch.  Our dog has also yet to lodge a complaint.

What are the main aspects/responsibilities of your new job at StAC?

Before I joined, I was keenly aware of the College’s reputation as a leader in the area of the effective and transformational use of technology in New Zealand education.  To ensure that this reputation continues, a key element of my role will be to focus on looking externally and observing best practice and new technologies that will allow for the continued shaping of a progressive and innovative vision for StAC.

As you might expect, the role also includes oversight of the school ICT network and infrastructure, ensuring that it is fully operational and fit for purpose now and in the future, maximising benefits to staff and students.  To assist me in this, I am in the fortunate position in that I have inherited an extremely capable and customer focussed team.  This provides a wonderful platform upon which teachers, support staff and students can be assisted to use ICT successfully.

What are the main aspects of your role that you are most looking forward to?

From my very first visit to StAC I was struck by the feeling of community.  This is very much reminiscent of my days in Oxford colleges and I feel fortunate to be part of something similar here at StAC.  Those years at Oxford taught me to expect that every day at work to be different from the last and they would quite often not pan out at all as planned.  That variety is something I greatly enjoy and I am already getting to relish that same experience here.

I am looking forward to building relationships with others in all parts of StAC and beyond to ensure that we continue to use ICT as a tool to enable teaching and learning in an efficient and fruitful manner.

Other than technology and education, what are your main interests?

I am a family man first and foremost, so my main interests tend to be my daughters’ interests!  When time permits, I am keen spectator and occasional participant in a number of sports, but mostly these days can only get out for an occasional forest or beach run, or a round of golf.  I hoping to increase the frequency of my running over the coming year to the point that I can attempt some reasonable distances, however I am making no firm commitments at this stage!

Here at StAC we are excited to have Dave leading our team, and the experience and ideas that he will bring.

Introducing Wilj Dekkers – Head of Innovation and Information Services

Starting in 2017, St Andrew’s College has created a new position to support teaching and learning with technology both in and out of the classroom. This role, called Head of Innovation and Information Services, has been filled by Mr Wilj Dekkers and reflects the College’s continuing commitment to ensuring both staff and students are equipped to maximise the opportunities presented by technology. Wilj has moved into this role from a position in the St Andrew’s College Preparatory School. He has been the subject of posts on this blog in the past, particularly this description of his implementation of Minecraft and this one which describes his exciting journey to Budapest as part of the Microsoft Innovative Educator Programme. wilj-dekkers

The interview below introduces Mr Dekkers and his role.

Wilj, can you give an outline of your previous roles/experiences?

I began teaching 19 years ago in a bilingual school in Mangere.  My interest with technology in education was quickly picked up on by the school principal who had me draw up plans to cable the old school buildings and network their Acorn computers.

From there the technology advanced and I became a teacher, network administrator and tech support in a new Apple school in Manurewa, eventually becoming an ICT facilitator working with a cluster of schools across Auckland where I worked with school Heads, teachers and students.

I returned to the classroom in 2003, teaching and running various departments in the United Kingdom until my wife and I returned to New Zealand towards the end of 2013.

I began teaching in the Preparatory School here at St Andrew’s College with the responsibility of eLearning Co-ordinator added to my main function as a Year 6 classroom practitioner.

Over the past three years my use and combination of technology to enhance and promote learning continued develop and I was fortunate to be selected as one of five Microsoft Innovative Educators to be sent to Budapest, Hungary for the annual E2 education conference.

What are the main aspects/responsibilities of your new role at StAC?

My new role in the College is as Head of Innovation and Information Services.  I will be running programmes and projects with students and teachers that involve everything from coding, robotics and 3D printing through to helping collegians use technology more effectively within their learning programmes.

What are the main aspects of your role that you are most looking forward to?

2017 will be an exciting time.  With the new challenge of also running the Secondary Library I am looking forward to working with the team to redevelop the space into a modern library technology centre.  This redefined learning space will become the venue for testing new technology before introducing them into the classroom, various coding and robotics programmes and will also be a variable learning classroom for Science and other departments to book as required.

The core library function will be enhanced with a more modern look with the library staff role altering to work more closely alongside subject teachers to support the curation of resources and to teach the effective use of information literacy skills.

Other than technology and education, what are your main interests?

Aside from my teaching and learning role with technology I also thoroughly enjoy running the Preparatory School Football programme.  Each Wednesday I am out on the Prep School field with 60 players ranging in age from 5 to 10 and in the winter months I have the pleasure of coordinating the Under 9 to 13 teams.  The last three years have seen football number continue to increase with the sport becoming very popular with both boys and girls.

It’s great to welcome Wilj more formally into our team, and it is exciting to hear of the developments he will be implementing. Wilj will become an occasional contributor to this blog so check back to hear of his progress!

Digital Image Manipulation in English

Earlier this year I was approached by Ms Tam Yuill Proctor, the Head of Department for English. She was interested in the potential for students to use digital image manipulation during their study of static images. I thought that this an exciting project to assist with, but immediately recognised that this is an area that I had very little experience in! What was particularly exciting is the potential to expose Year 9 students to the concept and then progressively up-skill them through to Year 13 where the requirements are obviously a lot more challenging.

static

Challenges in Digital Manipulation

My limited previous experience with students in their area has taught me that students primarily fall into two categories. In any class there will be a small number of students, typically 2-5, who have extensive experience, and interest in, digital manipulation of images. These students have typically used Photoshop, and are relatively advanced in their capabilities. The second, much larger, group of students have virtually no experience in this field – and they can often be intimated at the prospect.

Finding a tool

Here at St Andrew’s College we have a range of devices in each classroom as part of our 1:1 program. As an IT team we felt that there were three main criteria that any product we were going to recommend must meet:

  • Able to be used on Mac and Windows laptops
  • Be free to download and use
  • Be complex enough for Year 13 English students

Based on these criteria we decided to investigate the potential of GIMP as a platform for these tasks. gimpEarlier in this post I mentioned the two categories that students fit. The same is true of staff. I fell, very clearly, into the second category – totally inexperienced. It was great that here was a situation that was forcing me to upskill in an area, ready to help students investigate and apply the potential gains to be had using such technology to display their understanding of curriculum content. I found Gimp to be intuitive, relatively easy to use, and it was pretty easy to apply its basic manipulation tools.

“It was great that all students were using the same platform and that they had access to technical support.” – Mrs Helaina Coote – English Teacher

Year 13 Task

The focus of the Year 13 unit of work was for students to create a 8-10 minute presentation or visual essay that explores a theme from the film studies; in this case Tsotsi. Students were being assessed against the Achievement Standard 91477 ‘Create a fluent and coherent visual text which develops, sustains, and structures ideas using verbal and visual language.’

“This standard forces students to develop grit, resilience and perseverance. Progress does not always come easily or immediately.” Mrs Helaina Coote – English Teacher

In previous years many students were attempting to use Photoshop to complete this task, but were becoming bogged down in the detail of the product, with staff frustrated that they did not necessarily have the skills to assist. This year, the decision was made to directly teach students how to use the tool, and support them during class time to use it effectively.

Prior to beginning the task students were introduced to GIMP and instructed on how to use the basic functionality of it. An important part of this was giving students time to experiment with some of the more fundamental functionality of the product such as overlaying images, changing block colours and cropping images.static2

Having had an introduction students were then in a position to begin work on their production. What was particularly important here was that students, who may have no experience in digital manipulation, felt supported. I predominantly spent time in two classes; taught my Ms Helaina Coote, and Ms Phoebe Wright.

Once the students had created a number of different images most of them chose to import them into PowerPoint so that they could add music and animations to ensure that they met the requirements of the assessment task.

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For me personally what was particularly interesting was seeing the skill progression and increases in confidence that all students showed. It was also great to see the upskilling of staff as they learnt next to their students. This was echoed by both teachers involved:

“Teacher shows students willingness to learn. It is good for students to see that help is accepted. Students are supported to learn the tool.”

 

Future Challenges

This is a Challenging assessment task. On reflection there were some students who became a little engrossed in the details of each image, particularly as they we learning the tool. These students found it difficult to work fast enough to create the required number of images. Hopefully, the fact that a number of classes ranging from Y9-Y12 were also introduced to Gimp this year should hopefully enable those students to approach this task with more fluency as they progress through their English education.

This task is a perfect example of how eLearning is integrated into classrooms here at St Andrew’s College. I believe that as students add to their skill year year-on-year we will see further improvement in the complexity and quality of the digital images they are able to create. It is also a great way to support students, and staff, in learning a new tool.

Using Analytics To Profile Classes

A 12minute guided tour of the new Class Profile reports in PowerBI

Over the last twelve months St Andrew’s College has invested significant resourcing into developing web based reporting tools delivered via Microsoft’s PowerBI.com interface, to be used by both teachers, managers and administration staff alike. It’s worth reading some earlier posts about the rationale and features of why we have gone down this path, however some of the key reasons we settled on this solution include:

  • It’s browser based – you can access it from “anywhere” and see live data. You can also bookmark certain reports in your browser for near instant access.
  • There is also an app available (iPhone/iPad/Android/Windows10) so the data is accessible anytime / anywhere
  • We can tweak reports / visuals quickly and easily, based off feedback from stakeholders
  • Being browser based, you don’t need a local file on your computer that is “out of date” once a new version with improved features is built. What you see is always the “latest version”
  • It’s part of our existing Office365 Suite, so our existing username/password logs you into the reports.
  • Security permissions are centrally managed based off AD users and role based groups, including use SQL Row Level Security.
  • It connects to our on-premise MS-SQL Server, allowing for scheduled data updates (hourly / daily).

Throughout the duration of Term 3 the team have been focused on delivering a new set of reports for Mr Dean McKenzie one of the Assistant Principal’s at the College with responsibilities for Data Analysis. He had provided some concept designs for how he would like to see the reports look, along with the location of the majority of the data in our Student Management System (Synergetic). Additionally, there had been changes to how the Grade Credit Average (GCA) was going to be calculated moving forward, which would see individual subject’s have a GCA calculated for the first time along with more rigid definitions of how various credits would be counted.

All of this logic had to be encoded into the ETL process that transferred the raw data from Synergetic’s MS-SQL database and into our Data Warehouse, automatically calculating the results on a daily basis and making them available to staff via the web interface of PowerBI. The end result is the following pages in a single report:

Subject GCAs Per Student:

 Showing the results for a student in the current year and the previous year (click to enlarge)

This report is designed to allow a teacher to quickly select a student in their class and compare their GCA subject by subject, along with seeing how they performed the previous year. If you click the left hand image above to enlarge you will see numbers which represent:

  1. A selector for the current or previous year of GCA data for a student
  2. The teacher code (for full time classroom teachers this is automatically locked to their username meaning they only see the students in their classes. For Academic Deans or managers, they can see across a wider set of students).
  3. A year level filter, allowing a teacher to quickly narrow the selection of students down by the year level e.g. their Yr12 Maths students or Yr13 History students.
  4. The list of students arranged alphabetically that are taught by the teacher in the year level they have selected. Note these are colour coded pink/blue to give a visual cue to the teacher if they are looking for a male/female student in their class.
  5. A table showing each subject taken by the selected student, and their GCA (either current year or previous year depending on selection in #1 above)
  6. A bar graph visually displaying the same data as #5 but designed to quickly identify subjects of particular strength or weakness for the selected student. Note that the subjects are listed alphabetically and not by highest GCA to lowest, allowing for a “cityscape” effect.
  7. The name of the current student that is selected and the class code of the teacher who is browsing the report (useful if a teacher happens to teach a student a number of different classes).

The aim of this report is to allow a classroom teacher to quickly scan through the students in their class and identify their relative strengths/weaknesses in different subjects. It also enables them to answer a common question of teachers “I’ve a student who I think is underperforming in my class – how are they doing in other classes?”

GCA – Then and Now:

gca-then-and-now

This report allows a teacher to quickly see the individual students in their class ranked by GCA from highest to lowest and compare the current year GCA in the teacher’s subject with the student’s overall GCA from the previous year. This allows a teacher, at a glance, to see who are their best performing students based off completed assessment but to also pick up if there is significant variance between previous and current performance.

In the above example, the top bar graph shows the 4th ranked student in the class (in pink) was actually the 6th ranked student (relative to the class) the previous year. Whilst this is a very small sample size, what this can show is a student who is possibly underperforming or showing improved performance relative to the students in their class – all helpful information for a teacher to consider.

The red numbers in the report are:

  1. Showing the classes taught by the logged in teacher. Note that this also includes co-curricular options that the teacher coaches/manages, allowing them to review academic performance for all students that they have contact time with (this was actually the #1 request we had from teachers after launching the Tutor Quadrant Dashboard earlier this year – the ability to see results for students in all areas of their involvement at school).
  2. A gender score card. This is simply showing the number of males / females in the class.
  3. Bar graph (ranked) showing students by GCA, highest to lowest for the subject taught by the teacher and in the current year.
  4. Bar graph (ranked) showing the same students but their previous year GCA across all subjects, again ranked highest to lowest.
  5. A table giving a break down of the students in the class and their GCA in individual subjects. This is helpful if a teacher wanted to compare how a student was doing in a similar subject e.g. an English teacher seeing if a student was performing comparably in other literacy intensive subjects such as History.

Comparative Scores:

This was perhaps one of the most complex and ambitious pages to put together as it was potentially combining academic data from Yr9 Entrance Testing, PAT results (Yr9-10), MidYis Results (Yr9-11) and NCEA data by GCA. Additionally, this needed to give a break down of priority learners based on identified learning needs as well as ethnicity.

The real challenge was thrown down by Mr McKenzie when he said in an ideal world he would like a teacher to be able to select from any of the historical data and have it displayed on the same graph. We explored a wide range of ideas on how we could best implement this vision and in the end the following is what was achieved:

 Showing the results for a Yr13 Calculus class; on the left is the students’ Yr9 English Entrance testing and on the right their Yr13 Calculus GCA (click to enlarge)

Visually, there is a lot going on in this report and it will take the user quite some time to fully understand how best to extract what they are looking for. For this reason, all pages on these reports have user guides in text boxes and we have labelled each selection field numerically in the order that a teacher should select their data. This helps guide them through the process. In the left hand screenshot above (click to enlarge) I have added red numbers to highlight features of this report:

  1. The academic “score type” and “sub-score type” the teacher is wanting to see. If a teacher chose Yr9 PAT then the sub-score type would automatically display what options were available (i.e. English, Maths and Vocabulary). Similarly, if a teacher chose GCA as the score type they could choose the GCA for whatever subject they wished to check. The recent addition of search boxes from PowerBI make this process far easier to manage when there is a lot of options to choose from.
  2. Priority Learners – this is still being developed, but for now it highlights any students with data recorded in Synergetic, from diagnosis through to strategies to use in the classroom to support their learning.
  3. Ethnicity breakdown for the students in the class displayed in a pie chart and table below, along with the names of Māori and Pasifika students in the two boxes in the bottom right of the report.
  4. The bar chart that shows the students ranked by whichever score type the teacher has selected. Note that there are no axes on this graph, a necessary requirement given the academic data does not always share identical measures/scores. However, by placing the cursor over a student you can easily see their score e.g. a stanine for a PAT test, or a 2 decimal place GCA score for NCEA results. Additionally, there are visual cues on this graph that further help identify students with listed learning support needs or who identify as Māori or Pasifika.

A reminder that all of this data refreshes automatically each night so the teacher is always seeing the latest information on their students. Should a student leave/join the class the data is refreshed to reflect this.

NCEA Results Analysis By Standard:

One of the most requested features by the Senior Leadership Group and Heads of Department at St Andrew’s is an easy way to compare, standard by standard, how our students and teachers went compared to similar schools around New Zealand (similar schools has been defined as Decile 8-10). One of the challenges has been getting access to neatly formatted data that contains all NCEA standards, not just individual results which could be downloaded from the NZQA website.

After working with NZQA’s statistics team, we have been able to obtain this data and run it through our ETL process into the data warehouse, thus allowing this comparison to be easily done by classroom teachers:

ncea-analysis

Again, a classroom teacher would select a class they teach, and then narrow it down to a NCEA standard they wished to compare by following the numerical work flow selections on the left hand side of report. Once completed, this presents the four horizontal bar charts that show:

  • Top left = All students being compared, the top bar is comparative schools nationally (all students who sat this NCEA standard in Decile 8-10 schools). The middle bar is the performance of the St Andrew’s cohort, in this case all other Yr12 history students taught by all teachers. The bottom bar is the performance of the students in this teacher’s class.
  • Bottom left = Performance of Māori/Pasifika students (again broken down by national data, cohort and individual classroom teacher).
  • Top right = male students.
  • Bottom right = female students.

The results for these standards can be filtered to show either internal assessments only or formative assessment results for not-yet-sat external exams, providing students with a comparative score with the national data for that external standard from the previous year. This could work as a motivator for them before their external exams.

The red numbers in the screenshot are:

  1. Search box for the teacher to select the class code they want to analyze (again, searching is making this really easy), There are two pre-selected options visible which are the previous year’s national data and the StAC cohort data. A teacher could, in theory, turn these off if they simply want to display only their own class results and not compare them.
  2. Once a class is selected, this table automatically shows only standards that have a result recorded in the Synergetic database. This helps a teacher know which standard number to search for.
  3. Using the knowledge above, the teacher searches for the standard they want to analyse e.g. “HIST2” would show all Level 2 history standards allowing a teacher to quickly click through their results.
  4. The comparative graphs (as explained above). One of the neat features of this is if a teacher wanted to drill down and see which students in their class gained a certain result, they need only click the result and the list of students in the table filters immediately:
filtering-ncea

By clicking the silver “merit” grade in the bottom right graph (females) the table down the bottom filters to show the name of the student(s), allowing a teacher to quickly search through student names by result.

Detailed NCEA Results By Standard:

This final report is another one that is designed to quickly profile the range of ability of the students a teacher sees. However, it also delivers on one of the other most common requests from teachers e.g “I want to know how my Level 3 Geography students did in Level 2 Geography at the start of the year / or an internal assessment so I can better differentiate the teaching to meet their needs.” To date, we have struggled to graphically display a ranked past/present comparison tool for teachers and the security relationships is actually quite complex (just because you’re teaching the student for Level 3 Geography, for instance, does not mean you were their Level 2 Geography teacher).

This has now been displayed in the following reports:

 Showing the results for a Yr13 Geography class internal assessment 3.3 (91428) on the left; on the right is the students’ performance from the previous year for the internal assessment 2.3 (91242). (click to enlarge)

These reports contain a number of visual cues. In keeping with all our NCEA reporting in PowerBI, the colour coding is consistent: Gold = Excellence; Silver = Merit; Bronze = Achievement; Red = Not Achieved. Additionally, the bars are varied in height and ranked highest to lowest allowing a teacher to very quickly pick up the grade spread of their class at a glance. The red numbers in the screenshot on the left (click to enlarge) are:

  1. The teacher selects the NCEA standard they wish to analyse
  2. They select which of their classes they wish to filter by (many of our senior teachers teach two of the same year level/subject so this is helpful). The list of classes is pre-populated automatically, based on the username the teacher signs in as making this a very simple process.
  3. The bar chart orders the students by result, highest to lowest (as explained above).

Concluding Thoughts:

As evidenced above, a huge amount of work and effort has gone into these reports and they certainly represent the progression of thought over the last few years in terms of what is the key data we need to be able to provide to classroom teachers. A key objective of this analytics project at St Andrew’s is to provide easy access to the data for teachers on an “anytime, anywhere” basis and for it to be easily comprehensible.

As more teachers start to use these reports on a regular basis I anticipate feedback will flow and new feature requests will emerge. The beauty of the setup currently is we can release this version of reporting to teachers and then easily add new features which will become automatically available to teachers next time they log in – there is no need to update or install new files for the teacher. To further support teachers, we are now embedding a “Tour of the Dashboard” video into the landing page of each new report:

dashboard-tour

One of the great things about being browser based is the ability to embed third party content, in this case a YouTube video explaining to teachers how they can use this new report.

These embedded videos mean that should teachers forget how to use the report, or are new to the College, they can essentially “self-train” on how they can use the report with their classes.

I am genuinely excited about this level of reporting and the benefits it will have not just for our teachers, but for our students too!

 

Tech Advice A Click Away

This post first appeared in the September 2016 edition of the College’s Regulus Magazine

fountain-of-knowledgeThree computer whiz kids in Year 8 are acting as technology mentors for the entire Preparatory School student body, and even quite a few teachers. Caleb, Cameron and Mitchell run twice weekly Fountain of Knowledge technology training sessions, with students able to book appointments on a sophisticated website set up by Caleb. “I took over the project from its founder Ward (now Year 10) when I was in Year 6. We have seven mentors including the three of us, and are training up some Year 6 students so they can run the sessions next year,” says Caleb.

The students help with everything from setting up the internet on laptops, phones and tablets, to installing anti-virus software, and helping students to get the most out of OneNote. They also teach students how to use the cameras and other equipment in the TV studio. Their teacher Ms Melissa Rennell says she sometimes has teachers knocking on her door seeking technical help from one of the boys, or asking for assistance with their Activboards. “They often go to these students first before the ICT Department.” Caleb has even rebuilt an old laptop from the Preparatory School and connected it up to an active board on which students can share their projects.

As they get ready to hand over the Fountain of Knowledge at the end of the year, Caleb, Cameron and Mitchell are thinking about which equally enthusiastic young technology experts they will pick as its new leaders, and are already training Year 6 student Nicholas. “We’re proud of the programme and have had a lot of support from Mr Dekkers, who will be the teacher in charge of it again next year,” says Caleb.

Cameron says he enjoys technology but isn’t planning on a career in the field at this stage. However Caleb and Mitchell hope to one day own their own technology companies, “like Apple, or Google”.

Managing Minecraft In A School

minecraft-bannerNote: this is quite a lengthy and, at times, technical post about configuring and deploying Minecraft in a school when choosing not to use the new Microsoft Education Edition. The following is the structure of the blog if you want to jump to a particular point of interest:

  1. The Background Situation: existing Minecraft usage and identified problems.
  2. The Opportunity: what we felt we needed to deliver to run our own Minecraft server securely and easily.
  3. The Technical Setup:
    1. Server
    2. Mods
    3. Client Installation & Deployment
  4. Where To From Here:

Minecraft, the hugely popular game with students of all ages, is described as:

A game about placing blocks and going on adventures. Explore randomly generated worlds and build amazing things from the simplest of homes to the grandest of castles.

The Background Situation:

houseA number of our teachers have already integrated Minecraft into teaching units in the past, most notably Mr Wilj Dekkers with his creative writing units and Kiwiana-themed parks and Ms Donna Jones exploring a Centenary related project.

Despite this initial success there has always been some problems with administering Minecraft, particularly around easily and securely allowing student interaction and collaboration in these virtual worlds. To date, teachers have had to rely on students using the Minecraft Personal Edition meaning it was essentially single player mode only, removing the ability to collectively work on a project together. To promote greater student engagement and allow the key competencies to be fully utilized in learning through Minecraft, alternatives needed to be identified.

In late September 2014, Microsoft purchased Minecraft for $2.5billion which held out the possibility of a deeper integration into Office365 and Microsoft’s wider Education strategies. It took just under two years before Minecraft Education version was released, during which time an alternative Minecraft Edu was essentially shut down and absorbed into Microsoft’s new Education version. This was a shame as the Edu version was very good, allowing the use of numerous custom mods (modifications to improve/customise the game play) and it could be run on a hosted server, not just on the student’s personal device.

Surprisingly, the announced version of Minecraft Education in January 2016 ended up having some key functionality removed, arguably for the sake of simplicity:

  • There was no ability to host the game on a stand alone server – now it would be installed and hosted via the teacher’s laptop computer (this raised significant security concerns for us and ultimately was a show stopper).
  • There was no custom mod support whatsoever. Over time, it was the ability to modify and customise the game play that had contributed to the enduring appeal of Minecraft and without this, the default game play was less appealing.

The upside, however, was that licensing was incredibly easy to manage and, if you were prepared to overlook security concerns, deployment for a teacher in a basic network would also be simplified.

An example of students using Minecraft Pocket Edition in previous years

The Opportunity:

After the initial disappointment of realising we would not deploy Minecraft Education as soon it was released, Mr Wilj Dekkers engaged in a number of discussions with myself and Mr Joshua Harrison from the St Andrew’s College ICT Services Team to explore how we might progress forward with Minecraft. Very quickly, some key features were identified:

  • Teacher Control: teachers would need the ability to easily manage students within the game. Without this, the chances of students running amok and getting into mischief was very real. This would require third party mods to achieve and a strategic plan around how Digital Citizenship teaching could be included into the Minecraft worlds.
  • The Minecraft server needed to be hosted centrally so that it could be controlled by the ICT services team, whilst still allowing the delegation of in-game management to teachers and to those students identified as leaders who could be student administrators.
  • Teacher/Student administrators needed the ability to maintain / deploy approved mods and perform low level administration work e.g. restarting worlds, creating/deploying new worlds.
  • Finally, the issue of how to deploy a pre-configured client onto student BYOD devices in a quick and simple manner, without disrupting any existing installations of Minecraft they may have already installed.

The above list of requirements needed addressing if we were going to be able to  build a sustainable environment for integrating Minecraft into the eLearning strategies at the College. Joshua decided he would explore various options based on his prior knowledge administering various Minecraft servers in his own time and see if there could be some suitable solutions to use at St Andrew’s.

Technical Setup:

Server:

For the proof of concept, we decided to use an existing HP Compaq 6000 that was spare. The specifications of this machine were pretty light weight, having only a Core2 Duo CPU and 4GB of RAM. It remains to be seen if this will be sufficient and we anticipate needing to increase the resources of this machine as more users and worlds join.

After exploring various different versions of Minecraft, Joshua settled on 1.7.10 1.10.2 (this version is required to be compatible with Sponge. The earlier version was needed for supporting Bukkit which we are no longer using – see below). To support the deployment of these mods, two frameworks were necessary:

  1. Forge 
  2. Bukkit This has been replaced with Sponge due to a potential copyright issue; this has resulted in dropping KCauldron as well.

These are essentially APIs that allow other mods to run on the Minecraft server and normally a Minecraft administrator would use only one or the other of Forge or Bukkit. However, as will be seen, it was necessary to use both and to achieve this an additional third party tool called KCauldron was necessary to enable the use of different mods on the same platform to work nicely together. With the use of Sponge, there is no need for third party tools like KCauldron, as Sponge integrates directly into Forge.

Minecraft Server Dashboard

Minecraft Server Dashboard

Another important tool was MC Dashboard which allowed Joshua to use a graphical user interface (GUI) rather than a traditional command line interface (CLI) to administer the Minecraft server. This tool provides easy oversight into server resource usage, connected users and other important information.

Mods:

As mentioned earlier, it is really the mods that create the key appeal of Minecraft in schools, as it allows for customisation of the worlds and gameplay and, sadly, was something that Microsoft chose to remove from their Education edition. It’s easy to see why, however, because mods are also one of the trickier components and can easily lead to problems of version compatibility and contribute to a poor user experience. There are three key mods that Joshua has deployed for the StAC Minecraft server:

  1. Multiverse: Project Worlds: (Project Worlds replaces Multiverse due to the changes above relating to Bukkit – everything following remains the same) This is a key one as it allows us to run parallel worlds on the same server, whilst enabling teachers and/or students to jump between worlds at will. Put practically, a teacher could create a world for a collaborative social studies project where students need to work towards an assessment or project, whilst having a separate world for “free play” and experimentation. Without Multiverse, projects would need to be separated spatially within the same world which would inevitably lead to problems, such as having to walk a long way to go from one project to another – it all takes time!
  2. PermissionsEX: PermissionManager: (PermissionManager replaces PermissionsEX due to the changes above relating to Bukkit – everything following remains the same) This mod allows for differing levels of user permissions groups, and the following four were setup for school usage:
    1. Student – a basic user who can only do the default game play such as build/place etc
    2. Student Administrator – have slightly elevated controls such as the ability to move other student users around, freeze them and do other temporary modifications. These permissions are designed to support a Digital Citizenship component where students can be educated and entrusted to self-manage as much as possible within the game. The assigned permissions here were carefully selected by Joshua to prevent a student who had prior knowledge of how Minecraft administration works from being able to execute any command.
    3. Teacher – has access to most of the Minecraft server administration, can create new worlds, can kill off users, teleport users between worlds and other main administration functions.
    4. Administrator – aimed at superusers and, at this stage, reserved for ICT staff to support the server installation as necessary.
  3. ICY Admin: The Minecraft Macro/Keybind Mod (This was used to replace ICY Admin due to the version change of Minecraft) This is the key mod to bring the above together into a user-friendly GUI allowing for in-game administration from a graphical menu for the above user groups. The available menu options in ICY Admin The Minecraft Macro/Keybind Mod have been built from scratch by Joshua and are controlled by a config file on the Minecraft server itself. Users access the menu system during game play by hitting the tilde key (~) and this replaces the need to execute console / CLI commands within the game. This makes it significantly easier for new users to engage with the game and reduces the barrier-to-entry for teachers who may wish to administrate but know none of the commands.
    1. Some of the controls available via ICY Admin The Minecraft Macro/Keybind Mod include things such as “freeze” a user/all users in place (useful if you effectively want to pause the game for a break), teleportation of a single user / all users to a shared starting point or, for example, if you wanted them all to be in the same place to work on the same project. Additionally, environmental settings can be controlled in this way e.g. make it rain or snow, or set it to always be night time.
sponge-gui

The control interface for teachers and student-admins when using The Minecraft Macro/Keybind Mod (which replaced ICY Admin)

These three core mods are what allows the overall setup and administration and, through conversations with Mr Dekkers, are probably sufficient to enable most scenarios of how Minecraft might be used at this stage. Two in-game mods specifically requested by Mr Dekkers were IndustrialCraft and ComputerCraft both of which allow for significant learning opportunities. IndustrialCraft supports things like electricity generation and storage through batteries and transferring into different parts of the game, whilst ComputerCraft is essentially a full programming language accessible by computers in the game.

 

Client Installation & Deployment:

Windows installation batch script

Windows installation batch script

With the setup of the Minecraft server achieved, the final part of the solution was how to easily deploy this to the individual student BYOD laptops. St Andrew’s College has a choice within parameters for BYOD, meaning students can bring either a Windows 10 laptop or an Apple MacBook running OS X.

It was important that there was an easy, stress-free way for teachers and students to install this version of Minecraft onto laptops that did not necessarily need to involve the ICT Services helpdesk team at the College. Joshua was pretty confident he would be able to write some batch scripts for Windows and I suggested he check out OS X’s Automator  as a way of scripting installation for the MacBooks. Interestingly, he found that he was able to script the installation on MacBooks with Automator in about half the time it took to write a batch file for Windows.

The tasks in the Automator script to install onto a MacBook running OS X

The tasks in the Automator script to install onto a MacBook running OS X

The key to making this happen was Minecraft MultiMC, an open source launcher for Minecraft that allows users to run completely separate installations of Minecraft with ease, meaning that we could confidently encourage students to install this version without affecting any other installation of Minecraft they may already have on their laptop.

MultiMC Interface

MultiMC Interface

Essentially, a student is provided with a USB key that has an installer launcher that copies MultiMC and a Java installation into a new folder, whilst setting up short cuts in their Applications folder so they can run the game.

Interestingly, Joshua opted to not include a copy of the Minecraft client application itself within this installer file, instead relying on students having to enter their own Minecraft credentials (linked with their personal paid licensed copy) which would then trigger the download of the client application of Minecraft. This way, we are not distributing any commercial software illegally and the download only adds 1-2minutes to the overall installation process. The key benefit, however, was that MultiMC is already configured to point the installation to the College’s on-premise Minecraft server meaning there was no additional configuration required for students. Additionally, Joshua set this up to run on a non-standard port so that if other students were using Minecraft at school they could not accidentally connect to the school’s Minecraft server and become a nuisance.

All up, it takes less than 5 minutes for a student to install this version of Minecraft from a USB key provided by the teacher.

Where To From Here?

industrialcraft-windmill-and-furnaceI am always really happy when members of the ICT Services Team have an opportunity to use their prior experience or personal interests to contribute to the teaching and learning at the College in ways like this. It is one of the unique things about delivering ICT in schools compared to other environments and the ability to be involved in this way is enjoyed by the staff. Talking with Joshua he admitted to being a bit worried about how to deliver what needed to be a very simple solution that could be managed by students and teachers whilst still being secure and stable:

I had a huge sense of personal satisfaction with the finished solution because I was a bit worried about how I would be able to deliver all of this at the start, or even if it was possible. Ultimately, it was ICY Admin that made it all possible and this was something I found only through researching for this project. It’s nice to know that the hundreds of hours I’ve spent administering Minecraft servers in my own time have paid off and could be used in an educational context.

Mr Joshua Harrison

For me, it is pleasing to know that we have a secure, robust and extensible platform which teachers will be able to use relatively painlessly thanks to the efforts of Joshua in this area. It remains to be seen what interesting curriculum uses arise from this and I’ll certainly be posting a followup blog highlighting this.

Of course, as Microsoft continue to develop their Augmented Reality HoloLens solutions, then perhaps the future of Minecraft will be 3D as this video shows: