‘Hard fun’

minecraft-logoNo surprise: Kids love video games.

So what would happen if teachers delivered some of their lessons through video games? And not just any games, but the wildly popular Minecraft?

Plenty of children will find out this fall, thanks for a one-credit “SMASH-UP!” course offered by NIU this summer.

Teachers who enroll will spend a full day in NIU’s Gabel Hall followed by two weeks of online work. Their final project is to develop a curriculum-linked “learning space” in Minecraft, where boys and girls of all ages can imagine, build and explore virtual worlds.

“Minecraft is a sandbox environment. You can create anything you want,” says instructor Aline Click, director of NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab. “One of my favorite uses of these virtual worlds is to recreate history or to recreate places.”

How about this, Click asks, for a lesson in social studies?

Picture a medieval village where the student Minecraft users function as hunters and gatherers, collecting the raw materials needed to light the furnace and bake the bread. They need to fashion pickaxes for digging – wooden ones to begin with; stone versions later.

Trade is conducted via a currency called “slime.”

Villagers can munch on apples (if they’re growing), but killing sheep and pigs provides more substantial food. Of course, Click says, they must acquire a way to cook those animals. “You can get sick if you eat too much raw meat,” she says.

Aline Click
Aline Click

And salmonella is only one of the dangers. Surviving the village’s monsters requires light – they prefer the dark, apparently – which makes candles and even jack-o’-lanterns necessary. Those who die also risk the loss of whatever inventory they’ve managed to secure.

Or how about this, Click asks, for a lesson in literature? After the students have read a book without illustrations, send them to Minecraft to construct the world they visualized from the author’s words.

Teachers can use MinecraftEDU to control the environments where they students are working; they also can “freeze” the virtual students if they need to get their attention.

Such jurisdiction can help in obvious ways – “These worlds are enormous, so if someone gets lost, you can teleport them back to home base,” Click says – and in unintended situations.

“One teacher accidentally gave every player 60 slime,” Click says. “The economy broke down.”

Children who learn from video games are practicing what James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and Regents Professor at Arizona State University, calls “hard fun.”

Gee, who’s written a book on the topic, found inspiration in watching a young granddaughter joyfully master a difficult video game. It made him wonder: What could she accomplish if her school lessons were delivered in the same manner?

Similar possibilities exist at the college level, Click says. Current online learning groups such as Blackboard offer “so little community,” she says.

In Minecraft, “you’re always present, with social intuition and a social presence,” she says.

“And in multiplayer virtual worlds, you can see when someone else arrives. Your brain feels like that person is there. I can walk into to my classroom and sit down next to my classmates,” she adds. “It’s such a different experience than in this flat world of Blackboard.”

Digital Convergence Lab logoClick’s definition of “hard fun” includes computer programming and the logic and math that come with it.

She’s excited by the possibilities offered at Chicago International Charter School ChicagoQuest, which follows an education model of game-like learning, systems thinking and connected learning.

ChicagoQuest believes that “students of today can and do learn in different ways, often through interaction with digital media and games,” and is designed “to help students bridge old and new literacies through learning about the world as a set of interconnected systems.”

Being a part of a similar movement through the SMASH-UP! is exciting for Click.

“Every time I see the teachers’ final projects, I say, ‘Please let me know how it worked for your classroom!’ ” Click says. “They’re all so creative.”

There’s still time to register. For more information, call (815) 751-3924 or email aclick@niu.edu.

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