‘Save the Universe': Clear space for learning

Last week, Part 1 about the “whitewater-kayaking kind of learning needed today”; here, in Part 2, a great example:

An alternative headline might be: “A bucket of bricks for learning,” but I’ll get to the bricks in a minute. First the backstory. Marianne Malmstrom teaches the richest possible kind of media literacy to and with, elementary and middle school students at the Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, N.J. Her students are not just creating and producing media, but doing so together in the media – in the media environments they love to be in outside of school too: online worlds and games. And there they learn citizenship and social literacy in the process of mastering the Morrow School’s curriculum-support skills of 21st-century learning (see this).

What play in school looks like

For example, they participated in “saving the universe” this winter (and learning about civic engagement) when they heard LEGO was shutting down its LEGO Universe, or LU, online game world) for lack of subscribers (after investing millions in it). They and other kids decided to Occupy LU (video here and their Twitter page) to protest against the January 30 closing (brilliant, I thought, these kids are up-to-date on their current events too!). Why were they so passionate about this? They’d invested a lot in the game. Some of them had been part of the “Saving the Universe” after-school program Marianne created a year ago for students in grades 3-4. While they designed and built with virtual bricks and went on quests to “save imagination” from the evil Maelstrom and its minions, they developed collaboration, negotiation, and other skills.

Then along came Minecraft, another game world with virtual bricks, but otherwise LU’s opposite – defying any notion that kids have to have sophisticated graphics to be engaged. Videogamer site G4TV explains the game this way: Minecraft is “a first-person, free to play indie PC/Mac game created by one person [Markus Persson in Stockholm], with … graphics straight out of 1991. There are no characters and there is no story…. But within those narrow confines lies one of the most innovative and endlessly fascinating games in existence.”

Marianne’s students have certainly proven G4TV right. About the same time she started “Saving the Universe,” “Minecraft came on my radar,” she writes, “when my middle school students overwhelmingly voted to play Minecraft over World of Warcraft and Second Life during their tech club, that got my attention!… It was Minecraft that unexpectedly took on a life of its own when students started to drive the learning. At the students’ request, we expanded our Minecraft program to include a community server (called ‘Morrowcraft’) to provide a safe space for the kids to play at home.”

Give ‘em some bricks & see what happens

So there’s your backstory. Now about those bricks. Referring to both the plastic and virtual kinds in her “Open Letter to LEGO,” Marianne – who has been observing and participating with her students in both virtual worlds for months now (much longer in other game worlds) – explains the appeal of Minecraft for kids, the failure of LU, and the tight relationship between learning and play:

“LEGO invested millions designing and running ["well-loved but economically unsustainable"] LEGO Universe, a state-of-the-art MMOG for young players based on the story of saving creativity…. Mojang [the company Persson founded after creating Minecraft], on the other hand, built a simplified world that relied on emergent [player-driven] gameplay rather than on a large team of designers dictating what the experience would be. Think about it … Mojang’s virtual world of blocks allows players to build – simply build, anything they imagine!… LEGO Universe contains a beautifully designed building component but unfortunately is confined to an individual play mode that does not allow for collaboration.” She explains that, though both games allow players to play together, only Minecraft allows players to create and build together. And “Minecraft has no predetermined story or script.”

Marianne’s conclusion: “We have become a culture that is overtly pre-packaged and prescribed. You see it in our toy stores. You see it in our standardized schools. Play is relegated to pre-determined playdates, and recess has all but disappeared from the school day. What we are observing with the phenomenon of Minecraft is that kids are starved for a place to simply play. They want their bricks! They want their friends! And they want a space to play and exercise their own creativity with their friends!”

Do you, as I, see a lesson, here, for educators as well as game developers? Boiling it down just a little further: Mojang’s game wins in the classroom and the marketplace because it actually does save imagination (gives players infinite space to use theirs), while LEGO’s game lost in both cases because it “saved imagination” only in the storyline, confining players to the script.

Next week: What Marianne Malmstrom and John Seely Brown are teaching me about online safety

Related links

* As for learning with media in high school, see Albany, N.Y. teacher Johnathan Chase’s assignment for his 12th-grade Participation in Government class to create their own (video) PSAs that “raise awareness of a societal problem and/or promote a positive action.”
* Talk about teachers learning on the fly! First there was WoW in School in North Carolina; now there’s also Minecraft in School there too. Watch the first video on that page to get a feel for the creative powers of North Carolina 5th-graders! Meanwhile, PhD student Alex Leavitt at USC is working on his dissertation about Minecraft .
* And here’s “The Minecraft Teacher” blog by New York City teacher Joel Levin, co-owner of MinecraftEdu, a collaboration of a group educators and programmers in the US and Finland and the game’s creators Mojang AB in Sweden.
* Marianne’s article “Game to Learn” and open letter to Lego on what she learned from working in LEGO Universe and Mincraft
* The news that had From the GeekDad column at Wired: “Lego Minecraft is Coming”
* Lego seems to be learning too – see Fast Company
* You’ve now heard John Seely Brown on the future. Here’s the view from kids: “No Future Left Behind,” co-produced by Marianne, tech educator Peggy Sheehy at Suffern Middle School, and their students. (The link will take you to her YouTube page, which is also that of her virtual world avatar, Knowclue Kidd, and has links to lots of students’ own machinima, or video shot in virtual worlds and games.)

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Sidebar: Digital media projects at the Morrow School

To give me a feel for the kinds of assignments her students get, Marianne gave me three examples:

5th graders’ “Build a Shelter” challenge: If you click on the links on the assignment page here, you’ll see concrete examples of how imaginative these young Minecraft builder/architects were. They were given “multiple objectives for creating and collaborating in virtual space but also paired with teaching basic movie editing skills with an eye on being persuasive,” Marianne emailed me. “We looked at real estate videos and how they point out the best features of the house they are trying to sell.

“2nd graders did a two week lesson just to experience moving through 3D spaces with their friends. Their only assignment was to build their initials, but no instruction was given as to how it should be done. It was fascinating to see how they chose to do it. Most built up (which surprised us because we thought that was harder). A few built on the ground. One student inlaid their blocks into the grass. Very cool. New Jersey actually has a state standard stating that 2nd graders should be introduced to 3D virtual environments.

“8th graders taking the tech elective are required to generate their own projects that are interesting to them personally and that challenge them to learn something new in order to construct them. They document their progress weekly via a Google Doc. Projects have ranged from learning to create a playable hockey game to creating a music course that plays a popular tune as avatars walk across the note blocks.


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