Minecraft is C.O.O.L.


DSC_0185This year, I continued my experimentation with games and learning. I have always thought that a game can better serve my objective to motivate and make real the learning of a foreign language if it takes place with a partner class, possible abroad. This would mean the students shall need the language to interact in the game and proceed to the goal. eTwinning was the easiest way to find another class and teacher with the same idea, so I found as partner Miguela Fernandes from Bathala in Portugal; her colleague teacher of English was looking for a way to motivate the students to speak and use English and she has an ICT programme to carry out. So we started to think of a project to carry out together using technology to collaborate and English as a vehicular language.

The title of our project is COOL: Collaboration online with outstanding learning. The title was the acronym for the the objectives and competencies we wanted to develop with it. First of all we wanted to focus on the development of 21st century skills: collaboration, communication and creativity. We decided to use Minecraft, which the students already used at home in their leisure. Minecraft is a virtual world game where you are assigned a piece of land you can modify and build on as you like. We were particularly interested in the multiplayer game mode offered by Minecraft, whereby several players (students) can interact in the same virtual space hosted on an online server. The students could thus work to the same aim and build together something, so they would need to use English as a common language to , negotiate and agree among them. Building in Minecraft, also stimulated the creativity of the students as they could build just anything they like, and they could make their dreams come true in fantastic locations.

The process

All the activities of the project were centered on the driving question of “What is your ideal school like?”. The students were divided in groups with a more or less equal number of members from the partner countries. The first task was indeed aimed to creating a team collaboration spirit. To this purpose, each team had to share a powerpoint presentation including a page for each member. Another team-up activity was that of creating in Minecraft a logo for the project. This activity had the aim to spur a sense of belonging to the project and further motivate participation; it also introduced Minecraft as a tool to create graphics and artwork.

The next step was to ask each team to set up a free server using athernos.org and decide who was going to be in charge of updating the server on both the Italian and Portugues sides. This was very important as the member of each team could then play, that is continue building, also when they were not online at the same time.

The details of how to work in Minecraft and what to build were discussed in a videoconference with the teams also connected on the Minecraft servers. This videoconference was particularly interesting because the students were also working on the Minecraft servers and there was a nice “getting to know” interaction also in Minecraft world; they chatted and also fought between them, which is exactly what you expect from young people before they can become friends.  Finally, to reflect  on the final product each team prepared a video presenting their Ideal school built in Minecraft. They selected the most relevant screenshots of their building in Minecraft by sharing them on Google Drive and shoot a clip for each picture. For teams 1 and 2 the Portuguese students and for teams 3 and 4 the Italian students were in charge of mounting the video. The teams organized a video introduction to show the complete teams working on the project. Finally, the students answered a questionnaire to evaluate the project and keep track of their learning outcomes.

We tried to design synchronous and asynchronous collaboration opportunities to develop aural and written skills in the foreign language and also to develop awareness of the different constraints and etiquette of the two modes of communication as a way to develop digital competence generally and also a lifelong competence in using both modes.


Impact on curriculum

ESL 1st year curriculum was taught through the project by providing the background grammar, functions and vocabulary to use in the project:

  • Introducing yourself: age, name, interests and hobbies were integrated in the completion of student profiles and team presentations
  • Talking about your school and timetable: asking about the time, numbers, school subjects. This was important to describe activities and lesson in the ideal school.
  • Talking about belongings: this unit was essentially on the use of “have got” and possessives which were used in the asynchronous discussion about the school
  • Talking about abilities and routines: these functions were used then in the video describing the Minecraft school.

Also other subjects contributed to the project. The Italian teacher stimulated a reflection on school through readings and class discussions; the Technology teacher, instead, used the project to teach how to draw a plan of a room and then of the entire school building. Beside citizenship competencies, the students developed digital competence by becoming aware of the collaboration opportunities offered by the Internet, not only in Minecraft, but also to write a presentation or to mount a video. Building in Minecraft also developed critical thinking: you have a clear picture of what you want to build, but you have to do it using the blocks, a constraint if you want to draw national flags. This skill together with creativity are the basis of entrepreneurial competence. Students learnt to take responsibility for the final product and to apply their knowledge and skills to carry out the assigned tasks, the competence of learning to learn. Technology was regarded as instrumental to the project aims. Minecraft is a game and virtual environment widely used in education worldwide mainly because it allows teachers to simulate environments where their students can explore and discover subject related topics. In our project we used it because it is a virtual environment where the students could collaborate also remotely; instead of having the teacher build the environment, we had students build the school of their dreams. The project was also an experimentation for both schools since it had never been used before in the institutions and by the teachers involved in the project. The experimentation was very interesting since the students proved to be expert Minecraft gamers, yet the teacher were able to steer their learning experience to assure the learning goals set at the beginning were achieved.  


I started this project because I wanted to pilot experimentation in my school using Minecraft as a virtual learning environment. When we started the project both me and my partner did not know how to play Minecraft, but we had both read a lot on its benefits in education especially in terms of problem solving and motivation to learning. We relied almost totally on our students knowledge and skills for interaction in the game. This was good because the students realized and appreciated the fact also the teachers were learning and allowed us to show them how to learn and master new situations. The outcomes of the project were very encouraging both in terms of student engagement – about 100% of the participants said the project was very interesting -, and in terms of the learning goals set for the project, namely increasing collaboration skills, encouraging mastery in using English as a vehicular language in communication and developing creativity. In my school the project was presented at the end of the year teacher meeting to encourage other teachers to use Minecraft in their lessons and include it in the Educational Offer of the school.  The strengths highlighted in the presentation were the increased motivation of the students, their empowerment as they master the game very well, the problem.solving and critical thinking it develops. The added value of eTwinning was also stressed which allowed the students to collaborate with other European students who were a stimuli to communication in English.  Furthermore, eTwinning partners were a real audience for their work with which to reflect and interact. Also for the teachers eTwinning provided once again a colleague with the same motivation and vision, willing to learn and experiment new paths to improve learning. The project is duly documented through videos, photos and chat room records in the public Twinspace.

My gamified class – What about grammar?

imageIn planning and setting up my gamified class,  the main issue was how to include grammar exercises in the game in order to keep the students engaged. Grammar had to be part of the game!
So I decided to use a website called zondle which also has an app the students can download free to play on their smartphones.  Zondle allows teachers to set up classes and assign quizzes both as formative and summative assessment. You might comment ‘well, what then!?’ Each quiz is connected to a game the student can play to earn points (called “zollars”). There is a class scoreboard and with the zollars students can buy “teacher’s goodies”.

The teacher can allow a certain quiz to be played for a certain amount of time and then assign a new one. This accounts for a level up in the game. Furthermore, teachers can increase/decrease the zollars for any special reason, e.g. good behaviour, commitment, good team work, etc. This is very good for class management.
Teachers are mostly “control freaks” and this is not the only control they have!  Zondle records the progress of each student both in terms of percentage scored for each quiz and as the percentage over the last three plays.  It is possible to know which were the weakest sentences in each quiz for the student,  how many times he/she played it and when.
Now,  how could I link zondle to the other missions?  I decided to use the zollars to allow students to buy ” walkthroughs”  in the game as teacher goodies. These come in the form of hints,  suggestions where to find certain answers and also extra infos they were allowed to access to complete the task.
The students love to play zondle games and increase their zollars to buy items which allow them to progress faster in the game.
I’m now testing also their progress in English grammar with the routine tests which are compulsory in Italy  every month. Indeed the student score and progress in the game is not at all connected with the official assessment,  which is based on criteria set by the institution based on governmental guidelines. In a next post I will tell you more on how progress in the game compares to assessment according to the set standards.
Still working on it!


My gamified class – The beginning

Last year I wanted to changemap_glog the ESL textbook but I couldn’t because all the other teachers were happy with what they had, so I decided not too adopt any textbook and preferred just a grammar book. Then, during the summer I came across a new approach using games to motivate students; I found and attended an online MOOC on Canvas on the topic and immediately decided it was the approach to use with my first year students aged 10 and just exiting elementary school.
I spent the whole summer reading on the topic to learn more about this approach and how to design such a course.
A book that helped me a lot was “Gamification Survival Kit” by Hyle Daley and also a very inspiring webinar held by Gerol Petruzzella during a MOOC on gamification I participated in last July in which he explained how he gamified his philosophy course (here is the video) .

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PidLEzZVANc?rel=0]

So, based on what he said here is my own table of analogies between a game and a course, on which I wished to base my experience.

GAME                                                             COURSE

Goals                                              ===>       Syllabus

Levels                                            ===>       Units

Challenges  or quests              ===>       Assignments or quizzes

Non-playing characters        ===>       Teachers

Experience points (XP)          ===>      Feedback on skills and content acquired

This suggested how it should work. I had to divide the syllabus into units. The learning outcomes of each units would be the core of each challenge or quiz needed to accomplish in order to pass the level, i.e move on to the next unit in the syllabus. The teacher would be the non-playing character who could guide the students with walkthroughs for the various challenges and also assign experience points to provide feedback on progress.

I needed also a narrative to engage my students and stimulate their curiosity; a storyline which could be interesting for my students and take them to use English as a foreign language and which could also teach social skills and promote positive behaviour. It was on the beach during my camping holiday that I got the right idea which could cover most of the functions and grammar for the first year: a future world where the students had full control as their task was to enforce the rule and protect other children.

I also wanted their game experience to be collaborative so that they could have an audience of real people with whom to interact,  that is why I looked for other classes with whom to work. I launched the project on the eTwinning community and received the answer from three teachers from different European countries: Ireland, Romania and Sweden. So we started planning the activities and how they could be shared. We set up the Twinspace for the project so that our students could use it to accomplish the missions.

Usually at the beginning of any course you have to set and verify the perquisites,  so we started from the beginning; an application form and test to enter the police force.  It was a very involving activity for all the students in the class,  even the weakest because that was not boring and they also had to create their avatar for the game.

The activity worked very well and the students built then new puzzles and quizzes also on our countries to get to know one another better!
It worked very well and encouraged me to go on with the remaining missions!

Keep reading if you want to know more!