Microsoft has announced Minecraft: Education Edition, a brand-new version of the best-selling building game. The concept is that kids love Minecraft - given the fact that it remains on the top of sales charts - and combining the game with educational subjects should improve the learning process. The announcement coincides with Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code, an intiative Mojang already has Minecraft-specific content available for.
This isn't a new idea for Minecraft, as the MinecraftEdu mod has been around since 2011. In fact, many of the ideas here came straight from MinecraftEdu, as created by TeacherGaming. The mod has allowed educators to bring students together in the virtual world and learn a variety of subjects.
"Geeky teachers have brought Minecraft to subjects ranging from history to biology to probability," wrote University of California professor Mizuko Ito on BoingBoing. "The game is being rolled out to every secondary school in Northern Ireland this month. If you're a parent, you've noticed Minecraft offerings spawning in your local summer camp listings. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a Minecraft camp for budding builders. Ninety-two libraries participated in the International Games Day Minecraft Hunger Games tournament, and crowned a 13-year-old girl as its champion. And, I've helped launch Connected Camps' Summer of Minecraft, a new in-game online camp."
Of course, it sounds similar to MinecraftEdu because Microsoft has simply acquired the mod from TeacherGaming. Instead of a popular unofficial mod, it's now an official product.
"Since 2011, MinecraftEdu - a version of Minecraft built for the classroom - has been used in over 40 countries. Lots of people have learned loads of things since then," wrote Mojang director of creative communications Owen Hill in the announcement blog post. "Microsoft has acquired MinecraftEdu and is building upon its proven success to create a new version of Minecraft that's dedicated to learning. The new title will be available as a free trial this summer. All existing MinecraftEdu customers will get the first year of Minecraft: Education Edition free of charge."
If those last few sentences give you pause, they should. Instead of being a free product or having a single purchase price like basic Minecraft, Education Edition requires a subscription. The game will cost $5 per student per year. That's good for Microsoft and Mojand as a revenue stream, but not great to students or schools. It's possible that Microsoft expects that schools will subsidize the game, but the subscription is tied to a student's Microsoft account.
The surprising thing is Microsoft isn't building much more with Education Edition. The product is an expansion of what MinecraftEdu already offers and the only other addition is the new Minecraft Education community site. Instead, the company is hoping that teachers will build new lesson plans in Minecraft: Education Edition and share those lesson plans on the community site. There is momentum for this, as many educators are already using MinecraftEdu; those teachers merely need to adapt their existing work to the official product.
Microsoft is betting on Minecraft becoming the next Oregon Trail, the kind of game that teachers and students simply expect in schools. Using games for learning has always been a facet of education, but most of those games were previously purpose-built, like Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego or Mario Teaches Typing. In the past few years, there's been a rise in commericial games being repurposed for teaching as tech-savvy teachers mod existing games like Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program for their own needs.
A survey of K-8 teachers by Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop found that 74 percent of those teachers were using digital games with their students. Within that group, 5 percent were playing commericial game and 9 percent used education-adapted commericial games. There's room to grow those numbers and improve learning with initiatives like Minecraft: Education Edition. I'm just hoping Microsoft kicks in a bit more effort to really grow Minecraft in education, rather than leaving it entirely up to the community.