Dear Middle School Parents, 10/14/2012 I am Dr. Linda Polin, Davidson Professor of Education and Technology at the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, where I teach in our doctoral program in learning technologies.
At the end of summer, with a handful of doctoral students, I initiated a small project we call the Minecraft Challenge League, to provide an opportunity for middle school students to compete across schools on problems and tasks intended to stretch their problem-solving and computation thinking skills. We invited three school teachers to join us: Bob Kahn, Brentwood Middle School, a private school in West Los Angeles; Chris Miko, da Vinci Innovation Academy, a public charter in Hawthorne, CA; and Angie Larson, Campbell Middle School, a public middle school in Lee’s Summit, MO. The teachers at each of the three schools are members of the League leadership group, which meets monthly to discuss issues and ideas regarding the league, the server setup, and any problems we are having.
As you probably know from your son or daughter, Minecraft is a buildable virtual world on which many people may play simultaneously. What you may not know is that it is not a typical video game. There is no “winning” or “end,” and there are no goals, rules, stories, or fighting built in to the game. Some people have set up their own Minecraft servers to operate like games by creating story-based quests or encouraging player versus player fighting, but that is a choice they have made for their server; it is not a function of the software.
We are using Minecraft as a sandbox that offers the chance for students to construct virtual machines by building their own tools and circuitry and using computational logic. Our interest in this arises from the disappointing national data indicating student reluctance to take up STEM college majors (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math). Prior research points to middle school as the place where students lose interest or feel increased anxiety about academic engagement in these subjects. We believe Minecraft allows players to experience the power and pleasure of STEM activities in a low threat, low risk, “hard fun” context. We see the League as a way to focus and direct Minecraft activities to support positive STEM experiences. Every 6 weeks, approximately, the League dispenses a challenge activity for school teams to solve. Right now, for instance, students have begun working on the Underwater Mine Rescue challenge, which is going to require strategic, iterative thinking and a lot of collaboration and team communication.
While we are focused on our periodic challenges, each of the three schools also has chosen to engage in learning activities that make use of the flexible, buildable, features of the Minecraft virtual world. In one school, this is an elective course. In another school, it is part of a course on engineering and programming. In a third school, it is an after school club opportunity. What happens at the school level in a class or club is under the auspices of the teacher in charge. We are neither teaching courses nor hosting clubs. You should contact the teacher to better understand what curricular goals and activities s/he is engaged with in class.
At Pepperdine, we host our Minecraft virtual world on a private server. This means only students and teachers who have been granted access through me are able to get on the server to engage with the software and each other. Brentwood and da Vinci also have local school-based Minecraft servers. We, at Pepperdine, have no control over or knowledge about them beyond the fact that they exist.
Beginning in January, 2013, several dissertation students and I would like to conduct formal educational research studies on the how students grapple with the challenges, how well the challenges evoke the kind of thinking and learning we’re aiming for, and how we can improve the tasks. However, well before we are able to initiate any research activity we first must seek informed consent from you, the parents, to include your child’s data in our data collection. We will never conduct any research without seeking that consent. At this time and for the near future, no such research activity is planned. We are merely trying to get the League established, debug the procedures and policies around activities, and finalize the conditions we’d like to have on the server.
Thus, in this letter I only seek to inform you of what’s going on currently and what I hope will be possible beginning perhaps in January. To reiterate, when we have a research plan, we will ask your consent. Meanwhile no data will be gathered, presented, published, or discussed outside the project. I would also like to note that when students on our server are “in world” they are using aliases, that is, names they created when they set up their accounts. For instance, ElaCraft, Durby48, and ThunderJackson are names of three players.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to remind you that your child’s teacher and I do not have control over what students do outside of school. We urge you to discuss the Minecraft experience with your child and to monitor the amount of time s/he is logged in to Minecraft in the evening. There is nothing you need to do in response to this letter, although your school may ask you to sign a separate a consent form. If you have any questions about the League, the Minecraft software, or the server hosted by Pepperdine, please contact me either by email or phone. I’m eager to answer your questions and clarify any ambiguities. Questions regarding the school classes or the local school server hosted at your child’s school are best answered by his/her teacher.
Linda Polin, Ph.D.
Davidson Professor of Learning and Technology firstname.lastname@example.org