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:

Guest Post: Mr Dekker’s Journey With OneNote & Minecraft

This is a repost of a blog on the official Microsoft Education blog where Mr Wilj Dekkers, a Year 6 teacher at St Andrew’s College and Microsoft Innovative Educator, recaps the journey of his classroom over the last two years with Microsoft OneNote and Minecraft.

OneNote is central to the pedagogy in my classroom and school. When you walk through the building you can witness the everyday use of the application from Year 4 to Year 8. You will see Active Boards where teachers annotate writing samples in the Content Library for students to use as a reference for their own learning. Students are huddled around their laptops debating which sources of information are most relevant to include in a shared notebook, and staff are reviewing meeting notes shared through a Professional Learning Group’s OneNote.

Preparatory School Inquiry Learning Model

Preparatory School Inquiry Learning Model

St. Andrew’s College uses a custom designed Inquiry Pathway—the core of which is built around helping students develop a collaborative approach to learning. The approach is question-driven, encouraging students to find the answers themselves, coming to their own conclusions. As a teacher, this is exciting; we plan and facilitate but cannot predict the final outcome.

Having planned an inquiry around national identity in the 21st century, I had posed a problem to my class: The Christchurch earthquakes of 2011 had left a long lasting scar on both the economy and identity of the city. Tourism was dwindling, with visitors flying in and quickly moving on to other parts of New Zealand’s South Island. I challenged my students to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Kiwi in the 21st century?” and also find a way to bring tourists back to our city.

OneNote Minecraft 1

Students formed collaborative groups and created their own shared notebooks. They planned, questioned and researched their Kiwi icons. They interviewed parents and discussed how families from a variety of cultural backgrounds celebrated being “Kiwis” and what being a New Zealander meant to them. All of which was documented in each group’s shared OneNote Notebook.

Students began asking if they could book laptops to work together in our shared learning spaces outside the physical space of the room. They loved having the flexibility to be able to work together around a PC or laptop and then continue collaborating using OneNote at home, completely away from the physical space of the school, in the evenings. Students were so enthralled with the inquiry unit and ability to work together in real-time through OneNote. Parents even began commenting on how they had never seen their students so excited to return from school and get started on their homework.

Part of the inquiry was looking at how we could bring tourists back to Christchurch. This was where Minecraft was introduced to the class. Students brought in devices running the pocket edition and connected to shared realms via the school’s Wi-Fi. As well as working as a team to answer the big inquiry question, members of each group had individually focused on an aspect of Kiwi culture. I asked the students if they could build a theme park with Kiwiana-themed rides that incorporated elements from their inquiries.

Before long, the class was a buzzing hub of self-directed learning. Students were writing presentation speeches from their inquiry notebooks while Minecraft experts built bigger and better Kiwiana rides to showcase their learning. In the evenings, groups continued developing and improving their learning in preparation for the big day.

By the end of the third term of 2014, OneNote became a standard classroom tool. Having seen the benefits, families had started purchasing laptops for their students to use in our class. This again caused a chain reaction. Students with access to their own devices were using OneNote more, which in turn meant that more students began arriving with laptops.

This had to be managed carefully, since having a laptop in Year 6 is not required. I was wary of technology being used as a substitution tool and made sure that in my planning any use of OneNote or any other tools we were using was in ways that enhanced or allowed learning to take place in a way that could not be done without a device.

OneNote Minecraft 2

It was around this time that Sam McNeill, Director of ICT for the college, brought in six Surface Pro 3s to trial, and I was fortunate to be asked to use one in the prep school. Having always been a believer in the creative power of the pen, I was instantly won over by having the best of both worlds at my fingertips—a fully functional Windows tablet with a stylus that allowed me to write down ideas, thoughts and comments directly into my OneNote Notebooks. It did not take long for a few students to begin arriving with their own Surface tablets!

In the final term of the 2014 school year, we focused on our use of narrative; enhancing writing features and broadening our vocabulary. Using both OneNote and Minecraft seemed like a natural fit.

As a class, we read through “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain,” written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in 1982. This book was one of the first “single-player gamebooks” and was the first of what was to become a successful series of pick-a-path gamebooks called “Fighting Fantasy.”

OneNote Minecraft 3

The students loved it. We discussed modern game worlds, from Fable to World of Warcraft. How could we emulate those fantastic “Fighting Fantasy” stories using the technology at our disposal, and how could the technology enhance the quality of our writing? We wanted our readers to have the same sense of choice and adventure we had experienced reading “Warlock,” while being able to share our writing without needing to produce any form of print media.

“Minecraft brings out the creativity in me. I love remaking my story Minecraft and improving my writing.”
—Mila

Through the insertion of hyperlinks connecting pages, students found an easy way to provide choices for the reader, and as notebooks stored on Onedrive could be easily shared, the audience for their writing expanded quickly. Students were sharing and collaborating on their adventure stories by allowing editing rights to certain classmates deemed to have the relevant skillsets to be seen as official class editors.

The inclusion of Minecraft was thanks to Ms Tam Yuill-Proctor, a Year 10 English teacher in our college. Students in Tam’s creative writing class had used Minecraft and other 3-D authoring tools to create worlds for their stories.

“Using Minecraft made my imagination go wild with thoughts!”
—Kinda

Our Year 6 students took Tam’s idea and expanded upon it by using Minecraft to both plan and develop their writing, as well as to review and revise the content, descriptive phrases and vocabulary. As their Minecraft worlds grew, so did their stories, which were housed in OneNote. In some cases, we had 10-year-old boys who were not big fans of writing producing 5000-word interactive pick-a-path stories. We published a blog entry detailing the OneNote and Minecraft pick-a-path story.

“Minecraft was helpful because it made me notice all the little details in my narrative that were never in my original bubble plan.”
—Padric

By 2015, most teachers in the prep school had embraced OneNote. The superb OneNote Class Notebook app creator was now an important element of Office 365, and students were appreciating the structure of the Collaboration Space, Content Library and their own personal sections.

Teachers were appreciating the organizational simplicity of adding resources and lessons into the Content Library for students to use in their own sections. Within my Year 6 class, multiple students arrived at the beginning of the year armed with Surface Pro 3s.

OneNote sections became collaborative planning spaces for groups designing games and interactive narratives; students naturally made use of the Collaboration Space to form group sections for our prosthetic hand designs for the 3-D printer.

This was also the first year that I started using Minecraft in Math. The students in my group weren’t huge fans of math. I knew they were capable of so much more, but their personal attitude towards the subject was that it was hard; comments at the start of the year were mostly, “I’m not good at math.” My focus was to change their attitudes to that of a growth mindset where they say, “I’m not good at math, yet!” Continue reading

Presenting At Microsoft Analyst Summit 2016

image006This week I’ve had the privilege of attending, as well as co-presenting, at the annual Microsoft Analyst Summit for Asia Pacific, hosted at the St Regis Hotel in Singapore.⊗ The focus of this summit was Fuelling Customer Digital Transformation Through Innovation and was an opportunity for Microsoft to present their product and solutions roadmaps for industry analysts from the likes of Forrester, IDC and Gartner (amongst others) and where possible, highlight the value through the voice of partners and clients.

This is how I ended up at the Summit – Anne Taylor, from Microsoft NZ, inquired if I would be interested in co-presenting with Guenter Weimer the General Manager of Windows & Devices Marketing for Microsoft Asia Pacific. This seemed like a great opportunity to build on the 2015 video case study below that showcased some of the amazing work from our teachers and students:

Guenter had already seen the video and decided he wanted to show it in its entirety to the Analysts present, before discussing a few other developments at St Andrew’s, including:

  • How do we measure success when it comes to the integration of technology in education
  • To what extent has technology such as OneNote & Office365 increased collaboration amongst students and also between students and teachers
  • Did teachers need encouraging to adopt the use of a digital pen for inking on their Surface devices, or was it a natural transition
  • What plans does St Andrew’s College have for deploying Windows 10
  • In a BYOD environment that allows choice within parameters, how do we ensure cross platform compatibility and successful outcomes

MSAnalystSummit1With an audience of over 90 industry technology analysts, I was unsure what sort of reception a session that focused on education would have, however I was really pleased that after Guenter and I finished talking, there were a number of insightful questions from the analysts during the open Q&A session that followed.

Additionally, based on the Twitter feedback from the Summit’s hashtag of #MSAnalystSummit the session was well received:

Being the first conference of this sort that I’ve attended, I was really pleased to discover how open and engaging the different analysts were that I spoke with during the various breakouts and meals over the course of the two days.

I was also privileged to listen to some phenomenal presentations from other industry experts, including Mr Simon Challis the Managing Director from Ryman Healthcare in New Zealand, talking about how they are using Surface Pro tablets with every client in their retirement villages. Another interesting and relevant session was from Mr Mahendra Vaswani the Director of Teaching and Learning from Hale School in Perth, Australia.

Hale at home

As part of his presentation, he discussed the Hale @ Home programme they run which is described on their website as:

Hale@home is an innovative online learning programme that helps students prepare for the transition to Hale as a boarder. The boys undertake the programme in Year 6, prior to attending the School.

Hale@home provides a welcoming, online forum where boys meet others on the same journey to becoming a boarder. The programme is designed to build their confidence, familiarise them with technology and introduce them to their fellow boarders; all while they are still at home.

This is an outstanding initiative and a fantastic demonstration of how technology can bring both current, and future, students together into a virtual classroom.

Overall, this Summit has been a valuable learning and networking experience for me and represented a great opportunity to showcase the innovation happening at St Andrew’s College to a wider audience.

⊗ Full Disclosure: Microsoft covered all travel costs and expenses for me to attend this summit.

Guest Post: Mr Wilj Dekkers Attends Microsoft Educator Exchange

Picture4

This post was written by Mr Wilj Dekkers who attended the Annual E2 Conference. He is the second St Andrew’s College teacher to be invited to this global conference, after Mr Ben Hilliam attended in 2015.

WDE

Mr Wilj Dekkers

Microsoft Education hold an annual event that celebrates the achievements of educators who combine pedagogy and technology in their classrooms and schools.  The event is held in a different global location each year, with 2016 seeing Microsoft Innovative Educator experts (MIE experts) converge on Budapest, Hungary.

I was fortunate to be selected as one of five New Zealand educators to attend this year.  The E2 educator conference ran during the week of March 7th and was based at the Corinthia Hotel in the heart of Budapest.

300 educators from across the globe were given opportunities to collaborate and share our experiences integrating technology within our schools in ways that enhance and move learning forward.

As with every conference, a series of keynotes and discussion panels provided all delegates with inspiration and thought provoking ideas.

Picture3Anthony Salcito, vice president of Worldwide Education at Microsoft, spoke to us about recent trends and the move towards 21st century skills in education.  His keynote reinforced that the world our children are growing up in will require new skill sets; that employers are looking for collaborative, critical problem solvers.  I was impressed that all the concepts discussed came from a pedagogical background and never placed technology above learning but made it an integral part of the lifelong learning process.  As Anthony said, “What we’re here to do is help every student on the planet achieve more.”

Two of the highlights of the morning keynotes were Stephen Reid and Jacqueline Russell.

Stephen runs a company called Immersive Minds and for the past 20 years has been using technology as a learning tool in classrooms.  Stephen works with students and teachers to create new learning environments though a mix of digital and real world tools, developing confidence in the learning process on both sides as well as competence in the use of technology to support pedagogy, classroom management and assessment.  Stephen presented how he uses Minecraft to help develop Key Competencies through History and Science.  I attended one of Stephen’s workshops and spent time speaking with him about my own use of Minecraft to enhance literacy and accepted his kind offer to help us at St Andrew’s with ideas we are developing using Minecraft as part of the school centenary.

Jacqueline presented a keynote focussed on the Surface Pro 4.  Before leaving for the conference, Jacqueline sat with her daughter and talked about where she was going and together, mother and daughter used the Surface and stylus to research, collate and create a digital scrapbook within MS OneNote.  This was an honest representation of the power and ease of this tool when placed in the hands of children.  This reflected my own views as detailed at the end of last year when Microsoft interviewed and filmed teacher’s perspectives of the Surface device being used as a learning tool.

Picture1The workshops this year were diverse with subjects such as flipping your classroom using OneNote, Surface and digital inking to engage students; Minecraft application throughout Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM); building a world in Project Spark that reflected the collective understanding of the ideal learning environment; digital literacy and creative programming in the classroom.

One particular workshop was run by Nikkie Laing, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Fellow from Opaheke School in Auckland.  Nikkie’s workshop centred on the use of Office 365 SharePoint Sites.  In detail Nikkie shared how to minimize the time teachers spend collating and preparing resources and the time learners spend looking for materials and get on with learning.  Her presentation and workshop was so well structured and delivered that she won the prize of best presentation of the conference.  An overview of Nikkie’s workshop is below.

Office Mix

The conference also provided opportunities to showcase what each educator had been working on back in their own countries. I shared the use of Minecraft and OneNote to write detailed pick-a-path narratives. A large number of delegates were quite interested in what the children in Year 6 had achieved with Mike Tholfsen, the Product Manager for OneNote recognising what the children had worked on.  Mike was very interested in how OneNote was being used for learning at our school, being particularly excited by the inclusion of Minecraft in the writing process.  A journalist, Jordan Shapiro also came over, interested in what was happening at St Andrew’s. This has led to a mention in his article for Forbes magazine:

Another teacher tells me how he uses Minecraft to teach creative writing. “I used to tell them to write a story and they’d give me these blank stares. Now I ask them to act out a story in the Minecraft world first and then, together, we figure out how to articulate it in writing.” He describes how the virtual block world lets him walk his students back to specific locations so he can interrogate them about the details. “I encourage them to get more descriptive and specific; I tell them to imagine how things might smell, what the grass might feel like under their feet.”

Overall the experience has both reinforced my beliefs in the importance of integrating technology purposefully in learning and motivated me to expand upon my own pedagogical learning.  The people I met have continued to amaze me with their enthusiasm and creativity.  The New Zealand and Australian contingent have remained in contact post conference, having developed both a close network and long lasting friendship. We are already planning continued collaborative, cross Tasman learning opportunities for our students.

Tech Evangelist Encourages Student App Development

Toby 3Today Mr Wilj Dekkers and Year 6 student Toby Skyped with Hannes Nel from Microsoft New Zealand about a game called “The Adventures of Mr Dot” that Toby had built in Scratch.

It was a great chat aimed to help Toby identify some next steps for his game development and when Hannes asked what his plans for it were, Toby’s answer was simple:

I want it to go on an app store so that it can make lots of money!

Toby’s game is called “The Adventures of Mr Dot” and is based on a traditional platform style game, revolving around moving a “dot” from one side of the screen to the other, progressing past increasingly difficult obstacles.

Toby demonstrates how to play “The Adventures of Mr Dot”

SuperMarioBros

Super Mario Bros screenshot that Hannes likened Toby’s game to.

Hannes, who has assisted in development of apps for Trademe and TVNZ, likened playing the game to the Super Mario Brothers games he played as a child.  He went on to explain to Toby that there are three different stores that his game could theoretically be published to:

  • The Windows Store
  • Apple’s App Store
  • Google’s Play Store

The challenge was going to be migrating the game from Scratch to a platform that could be published to these online app stores. Hannes made the suggestion that using Construct 2 would allow for this and that since most app developers were gaining success through publishing to apps for smart phones, Toby might want to think about allowing a touch interface to control “Mr Dot”.

Mr Dot

A screenshot taken from Toby’s Surface Pro 3 showing some of the coding he has done in Scratch to build his game.

Toby, who has spent significant time over the last month developing his game, was immediately up for the challenge and considering how he could convert the keyboard controls to a touch interface. Other students in the Year 6 class with Mr Dekkers have been informal “beta testers” playing many of the existing levels, finding it a fun and addictive game to play. Toby aims to write 100 levels for the game that would result in significant gameplay.

I’ll keep an eye on the development of this app and hopefully we can see it make it through to completion and publication on the various app stores.

Toby_gear

Microsoft kindly gifted Toby a backpack with some tech gifts to encourage him to keep up the programming (this did not include the Surface Pro 3 which is Toby’s personal device)

#CEM15 Guest Post – Explore The World With Mystery Skype

MysterySkypeThis post was written for the Christchurch Connected Educators blog as part of Connected Educators Month of October 2015. You can read the original post here.

Mystery Skype is a fun activity being played by classrooms all over the world and presents a fantastic opportunity for students to become “global citizens” as they meet other students from around the country and globe. On their website, it is described as:

Mystery Skype is an educational game, invented by teachers, played by two classrooms on Skype. The aim of the game is to guess the location of the other classroom by asking each other questions.

SkypeThe St Andrew’s College Preparatory School has completed many Mystery Skype sessions now, ranging from students in Year 3 through to Year 8 and the students always thoroughly enjoy the challenge of guessing the location of the other classroom. So far we have played with schools in:

Given the time zone of New Zealand, there are many parts of the world where it is virtually impossible to connect (although check out this Skype we did with the Viking Museum in York, where students came before breakfast to connect)

The Mystery Skype to Russia was one of the more exciting and challenging Skypes, as the class was very small and every student appeared to have a different nationality. It turned out that it was an International School set up by Shell Oil and all of the students had parents involved in the oil industry. Here is a video of our Mystery Skype (If you’re interested in recording your Skype calls, check out this affordable plugin):

It’s interesting seeing how different teachers have prepared their students to play Mystery Skype – the American schools often have very formalised “jobs” where some students are researchers, others are questioners, whilst others hold up signs confirming if a question was answered correctly or not. Ultimately, it’s up to each teacher how they choose to play, but preparing students to think about how to ask effective closed questions is critical since answers can only be “yes” or “no”.

The temptation for students to zoom in and ask very detailed questions is almost overwhelming. For example, given the amount of American and Australian television we have in New Zealand our students can guess the accent of the students very quickly, but they tend to then ask very narrow questions such as “Are you in Los Angeles?” or “Are you in Sydney?” Teaching the effective use of atlases is really helpful and can then lead to more useful questions such as:

  • Are you landlocked?
  • Are you north of the equator?
  • Are you on the West Coast?

One of the real privileges I have had helping classes with Mystery Skype is the sharing of Māori culture with other schools that may never have seen any aspects of it before. The students in our Preparatory School jump at the opportunity to sing waiata and perform the College haka and invariably the students overseas love it:

Mr Craig Kemp, the teacher at the school in Singapore and an ex-pat Kiwi, tweeted the view from his classroom:

CONCLUSION:

Mystery Skype is a fun way to connect with classes all over the world and I would really encourage you to give it a go. It is easy to find other classes thanks to the Mystery Skype website and our experience has been the other teachers are thrilled to find classes in New Zealand because they are often “so far away.” Once a connection is made, it is fun to then re-connect and ask questions of the other class for curriculum related topics e.g. if you’re studying weather patterns or transport, why not Skype that class in the US and find out their experiences or views on these things? Finally, Mystery Skyping is contagious – once classes find out their friends in different classes have done it, they start asking their own teacher to get involved. Have fun!

Teacher Perspectives On The Surface Pro 3

Six SurfacePro3 for use in classrooms at St Andrew's College

Six SurfacePro3 for use in classrooms at St Andrew’s College

As we approach the first anniversary of the Surface Pro 3 release in New Zealand, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that we now have 26 staff members using them across the school. An earlier update on how how teachers have been using the Pro 3 in their classes remains one of the more popular posts on this blog and in anticipation of teacher demand for tablets in 2016, I have surveyed those staff members who use a Surface Pro 3.

The overall satisfaction rates of teachers with the Surface Pro 3 is very high

The overall satisfaction rates of teachers with the Surface Pro 3 is very high

Using SurveyMonkey I have collated some interesting feedback from teachers and share it here for the benefit of other schools that may be interested in exploring the tablets for their teachers.

Whilst it is not always easy to ask the “right” questions when it comes to getting useful feedback I have tried to get staff to compare the key features and functionality of a Surface Pro 3 with a traditional laptop that the College has issued to teaching staff:

Laptop v SP3

An interesting comment to the above responses from a teacher was:

What is not mentioned above is the functionality – the Surface is far more functional than a laptop as it doubles as a tablet, when needed. This is the huge advantage of a Surface over a laptop.

It is important to acknowledge some of those “niggles” that teachers have experienced because no device is perfect. Here is some feedback from staff highlighting some of the challenges of the device:

The keyboard needs to be taken off and reattached to remedy glitches. The keyboard is small and I often hit the caps button. Consider body posture when using the Surface Pro 3 so that you are not hunched. Before putting a plastic box on the desk and under the tablet, I would wonder why I had a sore neck/back/eyestrain.

The thing I really don’t like is a cheapie-feeling keyboard and how I keen hitting two keys at once … lack of USB ports is really annoying too

Some issues with it freezing when in sleep mode. Need to force a restart when this happens

We have done a significant amount of experimentation with wireless projection at St Andrew’s College and a future post will cover what we have settled on, however currently only 41% of our teachers with Surface Pro 3 tablets are using wireless projection (this number is skewed as well because the majority of our SP3 users are in our Preparatory School because of where their lease renewal occurred). However, 96% of the teachers said they would use wireless projection if it was available in their class, with the following breakdown showing how significant it is to their teaching style:

Wireless Projection

Clearly, the ability to roam a classroom “untethered” from the front and a data projector cable is a big drawcard for teachers and a trend I see only growing as the technology becomes more reliable.

One of the key features of the Surface Pro 3 is the great accuracy of the pen and the ability to “write” into OneNote very easily; a feature that is consistently praised by our teachers. This question specifically asked about the usefulness of the pen:

SP3 Pen

Some departments at St Andrew’s College would love to change the requirement for students that all devices must support “inking” in some format, and it’s easy to see why: subjects that involve diagrams, formula and equations would be significantly easier for students if they could simply handwrite directly into OneNote.

Whilst the Surface Pro 3 is experiencing favourable feedback from teachers, we are also looking at “convertible laptops” that allow for the handwriting on the screen such as the HP Spectre x360 that folds back into a tablet. Historically, our testing of units like this have been disappointing as the accuracy of the inking on these hybrids just could not compete with genuine tablets like the Pro 3. That said, the attraction of a proper keyboard and a larger screen appeals to some of our teachers:

Laptop v Tablet

Ultimately, the value of any device to a teacher can be measured in whether they would recommend it to their colleagues: on this point, the teachers were almost unanimous.

Recommendation

One interesting comment from a teacher in the Preparatory School reflects the uptake of tablets in their class by students, purely based on what they have seen from teachers using the devices:

A number of staff in the Prep School who opted for laptops now regret their choice and given the opportunity would switch to a surface. 8 students in my class now use surface tablets – 2 having switched from Mac.

How has the practice of our teachers changed with the Surface Pro 3?

This is a difficult question to get answers to in some ways but a critical one to understand what, if any, impact on pedagogy a technology shift has had for our teachers. Up until the introduction of the Surface Pro 3 the teachers at St Andrew’s were all given identical laptops. By introducing some limited choice it has increased the support costs of maintenance and spares, therefore it was hoped there would be some positive changes or improvements in teaching practice. Here is a selection of some replies from teachers:

My practice has not changed, but the mobility of the Surface and the fact that will do all I ask of it has adapted my style. I am able to work with the students annotating a piece of writing or work through maths problems using the stylus and each child is able to revisit this learning through OneNote. The mobility, wireless projector connectivity and stylus allow me to get away from the desk and be with the students when teaching. Most importantly – the students use of the Surface to share with others is powerful. They take my surface and use it to explain concepts to a group when linked to the projector and when used in conjunction with OneNote, students collaborate in real time on a piece of learning using their stylus on their own Surface tablets.

Maths Teacher

A reply from a Preparatory School teacher suggests it can lead to MORE work:

I probably end up doing more work from home as it is much more portable [than a laptop]

Preparatory School Teacher

It has not changed my practice, but has complemented it very well. I already used my own Surface in conjunction with a school laptop. Before the Surface, I used my phone to do many of the same functions, complemented by a laptop. Having a Surface provided by school has meant operating fewer devices for the same outcomes, making it easier when you don’t have your own classroom.

Science Teacher

More movement around the class, use of pen and writing has enhanced the annotation ability, marking and so forth, integration of technology, ease of OneNote and working 1 on 1 with students. light, easy to move around with especially when wirelessly not connected to data projector

English Teacher

I don’t write on whiteboard anymore – I write directly onto my OneNote page so students can access this

Science Teacher

Much easier to use in PE settings ie with pen and tablet. Therefore I am more likely to use it, and complete observation style tasks more frequently. Easier to mark / use OneNote – I can mark and make comments quickly using the pen

PE Teacher

Less time at my desk and more time with students. Ability to take teaching outside the classroom, faster and with more resources. Being able to show examples of preferred practices with ease and ability to document past/current teaching and interactions with the students has been key. Students are assisted by this to become more reflective learners. (ability to revisit work via OneNote).

Preparatory School Teacher

A recurring theme comes through in these responses in terms of how a tablet, with the ability to ink, enhances the value of Microsoft OneNote, a key tool that is being used at our College.

The above information is important for the ICT team to understand. Like many schools, we lease our teacher laptops/devices and renew these every three years. The teaching staff leases are split into three, so each year we replace 1/3 of the devices (around 45-50), and I anticipate that the majority of our teachers who are up for a new device in 2016 will want something they can write on. The above information will be disseminated to those teachers to help them make informed decisions and also assist the ICT department in providing the best support possible.