Gaming - Minecraft project opens up new worlds of creativity

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Scottish-Norwegian collaboration achieves `mind-blowing' results

The day-to-day educational rigmarole of classes, tests and revision can be a slog - so how did a Scottish and Norwegian group of teachers get their students interested in an extra three-week project, to be done entirely in their own time?

The answer is simple: Minecraft. Teachers and lecturers tapped into the huge popularity of the online computer game, which challenges players to build virtual worlds, and were "blown away" by their students' results.

The Minecraft project involved eight teams of four or so people, representing primaries, secondaries and further education colleges. They were challenged to build their ideal learning environment, after which teachers and lecturers took a back seat.

The process was not without hiccups: notably, when some Scots decided to build a giant phallus and their Scandinavian counterparts constructed a temple to Satan.

Ultimately, however, the freedom to construct worlds with minimal teacher interference proved inspiring. The winners' centrepiece was a series of futuristic domes in which holograms would allow students to step into worlds past and present, from First World War trenches to an Amazonian rainforest.

"What the teams came up with, the hours they put in and the learning that went on inside the worlds truly blew my mind," said David Renton, a computing lecturer at West College Scotland who specialises in games-based learning.

Although there was a competitive element - the winning team of digital media students from Fife received shopping vouchers - a strong sense of collaboration emerged, with students setting up Facebook help forums.

Teams were made up of members from different stages of education who might never have worked together before, and only the Norwegian students focused the project during class time. All were volunteers with a passion for Minecraft.

"I've learned that it works if you use games that the students are playing already," said Mr Renton. "We've tried Second Life (an online virtual world), but it didn't take off because they don't play Second Life."

"They know Minecraft better than us," said Colin Maxwell, a Fife College creative industries lecturer. "We're quite happy learning from them. For us, it's about pointing them in the right direction, keeping them on track - being more of a facilitator."

A second, bigger Minecraft project will take place from March to May, themed around the Commonwealth Games. The organisers are seeking teams from throughout the Commonwealth.

The project emerged from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, now renamed the Emporium of Dangerous Ideas, which is run by the College Development Network and encourages radical solutions for improving Scottish education. It convened in Stirling last week to share progress since a nine-day festival last June.

Martin Boyle, head of creative industries at Forth Valley College, said the festival had persuaded him to take a theory-heavy radio production course in a more practical direction, with students actually starting a radio station. "Dangerous Ideas gives us permission to take risks," he explained.

Diane Bolland, a lecturer on supported learning at Ayrshire College, explained how a five-day trek along the West Highland Way, aimed at encouraging Dangerous Ideas participants to see how learning could escape the confines of the classroom, had inspired her to explore setting up an outdoor classroom for her entire region.

Last week's event also hinted at plans for Dangerous Ideas' third annual summer programme this June, including a role play in which a Scottish city is invaded by giant spiders, and "pound-store pedagogy" - creating lessons using materials that cost no more than a pound. Also mooted were meetings across Scotland to tease out more dangerous ideas, the more offbeat the location, the better. Suggestions included mountaintops and nuclear bunkers.

"Part of it is embracing uncertainty, being open to whatever comes up," said Dangerous Ideas curator Karen Lawson. "It's about a belief that everybody is creative, and helping them to realise that."

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