Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…

Buy them up and shut them down.

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The title of this post comes from the lyrics of a Fugazi song entitled, ‘Five Corporations‘. It’s a song that is very critical of corporate behaviour and seems apt for what I’m about to write. Actually, I’ve been ‘umming and aahing’ a bit regarding whether or not to write this post, but I figure my concerns are significant and legitimate enough to warrant raising and also, as an educator, my responsibilities lie first and foremost with my students, and not with any alliances to corporations (to which I take pride in having none).

You can say what you like about corporate interests in the education sector and whether or not you agree with them, but the fact is that they are there and are likely to remain. Where there’s money to be made (and with the purchase and use of educational technology there is), you are always going to see corporate interests. This is perhaps most obviously apparent with the presence in the Twittersphere of brand specific certified, distinguished and educational expert innovators. I have no problem with this per se, but I do think as educators with a duty of care to our students, we should be mindful of the intent behind such activity and critical enough to ensure we don’t ‘brandify’ our classrooms and encourage corporate allegiances among our students. I know that as a parent, I certainly wouldn’t appreciate my kids coming home with [insert brand name here] splattered across their school bags and hyper-present in their vernacular.

Now I’m not here to brand bash, and I consider myself to be relatively platform agnostic. I’m not loyal to any one brand in particular and use whatever form of technology I find works best for me to complete the tasks I need to complete. Furthermore, I believe that as educators it’s important for us to impart a similar approach to technology use in our students. Kids need to be flexible and familiar with as many forms of technology as possible in order to succeed in a world in which technology is increasingly omnipresent, and we certainly don’t encourage or promote this level of familiarity and flexibility by aligning ourselves with any one particular brand. A recent presentation made by some of my students shows just how I encourage this diversity of technological familiarity and flexibility.

However, in saying what I’ve just said, the reason I’ve been ‘umming and aahing’ a bit about posting this is because I’m about to be critical of one technological giant in particular. But as I’ve said above, this is not for the purpose of brand bashing, it’s to address what I consider to be significant and legitimate educational concerns which directly impact my educational practice and the students in my class. So here goes.

Recently Microsoft purchased MinecraftEdu, which is an awesome Minecraft mod, developed by teachers, for teachers, and which I’ve been using with my own class for the last couple of years. You can read an excellent post here by Wes Fryer, who raises quite a few concerns that I also agree with. In my opinion, Microsoft have, as my post title suggests, effectively bought up MinecraftEdu and shut it down. Whilst I agree with all of what Wes has written, I would like to also add some additional concerns to the discussion which weren’t raised in Wes’s post. I’m not quite sure where to begin, so I guess I’ll just list them as they come to mind.

Lack of support for mods

For those that don’t know, mods are modifications that users can make to the underlying structure and functionality of Minecraft to suit individual or community user needs. Mods can do anything from change the look and feel of the game to modifying how blocks function or behave as well as adding completely new items, creatures and other elements to the game. MinecraftEdu is itself, a Minecraft mod, and one of the beautiful things about it is that it is also compatible with various other mods that are available out there.

This is important from a teaching perspective because mods can be very useful. For example, my class recently completed a project on extreme environments (the project the above student presentation is about) and to enhance the look of the world for their screencasts we used a couple of mods which added animals to the world which resembled animals that would inhabit the environments they had researched. Last year my year 1 class built a city in MinecraftEdu and again, we added mods that added furniture for us to include in our city buildings.

Now, whilst these mods merely added extra creatures and blocks that changed the appearance of the game, there are other mods that change the functionality in important ways. A particular mod that I’ve enjoyed using in the last couple of years is ComputerCraftEdu. Also made by TeacherGaming (makers of MinecraftEdu) ComputerCraftEdu is a mod which adds programmable robot turtles and is great for teaching the students the basics of coding. I’ve used this in class, across the whole school as part of our weekly edVentureTime sessions, and as the basis of a weekly Coder Dojo that I’ve been running at school this past term. Mods have also allowed me to create VR content within the game (a work in progress) and I’ll be teaching my students how to do the same this term.

Unfortunately, with the lack of continued support for MinecraftEdu users, no further development of the game, and the recent development of Microsoft’s Minecraft Education Edition, mods like this are no longer supported. In fact, there is pretty much no support for mods with the new educational Minecraft software, and definitely no way to create awesome VR content.

Another downside to this is that children are often inspired to try developing their own mods when they come up with creative ideas for ways in which the game may be developed. I’ve seen students at my school working hard to change the appearance of the game to make a ‘texture pack’ of their own using Adobe Photoshop. Not only does this provide an opportunity for students to learn how to use some fairly technical software, by accessing the ‘back end’ of the game, students are also learning a lot about how computers and software are organised. In my opinion, taking away support for mods also robs children of some powerful learning experiences.

Equity issues

Currently Minecraft Education Edition only runs on either Windows 10 or Mac OSX El Capitan. Now most NSW Department schools are running Windows 7, and I have no idea when that’s going to change or how long that might take. This means that even if I wanted to run Education Edition, none of the laptops or PCs available to me at my school are capable of running it, and I see no change to this in the foreseeable future.

This means that I would have to rely on students to BYOD if we wanted to use the new software in class. Now I work at a school that’s classed as low SES, meaning that most kids couldn’t afford to BYOD, and those that can, are likely to bring bottom of the market range tablets that don’t run Win 10 or El Capitan which again renders them incapable of running the new software. So this means, coupled with the excessive licensing fees mentioned in Wes’s article, the fact that the new software only runs on Win 10 or El Capitan means (at least in my case) that in order for students to use the new software they have to:

A) be able to afford devices that run the compatible operating systems

or

B) attend a school which provides access to devices running wither Win 10 or El Capitan – i.e.  a private school.

For me, this is an equity issue which effectively prices my students out of the market when it comes to using the new software.

No server support

In addition to the cool teacher interface, MinecraftEdu has a really simple to use server interface which allows teachers to quickly and easily launch a class server for students to log in to. Again, this is not available with the new Education Edition software. While students can still play multiplayer and collaborate with their classmates via LAN, there is no hope of launching a server which can be shared with students from other schools.

This last term I have been lucky enough to share a global MinecraftEdu server with students from Melbourne, Wellington, Rome, New York and New Hampshire, and we hope to continue to expand upon this by getting more students and teachers involved. This has been made possible purely through the awesome server interface of MinecraftEdu. Another cool consequence of running a server that’s accessible to others is that students can also log in from home and access the world. Just yesterday I was on the server with a student who was coding at home during the school holidays. I was able to log in to the server and help her after receiving a Seesaw notification from her requesting some help with her code. Again, this is currently only possible with the server support provided by MinecraftEdu and another reason (in addition to those above) why I will continue to run with this software for now.

Now as I said above, I’m not here to brand bash, that’s totally not my thing. I’m just an educator who has been using this software effectively in my class for some time now and who is unhappy with some of the changes that have been made. I believe that as an educator it’s important to remain objective and independent from corporate influence and to be willing to critique educational software and provide an independent, non-corporate aligned opinion. Fundamentally, that’s all this is, my opinion as an educator who uses technology daily in my class.

I have friends and followers on social media who are aligned with and employed by Microsoft and and who may come on here and post in support of the new software, and of course, they’re welcome to. However, being aligned with a corporation of course means that you’re going to publicly support that particular company. As I’ve said before, I believe that as an educator it’s important for me to remain unaligned with any corporation and to encourage platform and device agnosticism in the sense that we should be flexible and familiar with whichever technology suits our current and particular needs and not to ‘brandify’ our classes. MinecraftEdu were essentially a DIY collective, just like Fugazi, and to be honest I really do think it’s a shame the way they were bought up and shut down.

There, I said it.

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One thought on “Buy them up and shut them down.

  1. It is an interesting conundrum. I feel a lot of schools have the same issue with iPads, which have some sort of designed obsolescence built in. Read a post from Douglas Rushkoff criticising our obsession with new. I think that corporations only encourage this with their obsession with growth.

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