Minecraft in Education – A sketch of one short day at BETT 2015, by Gerald Haigh

The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.

I drove to BETT on the final Saturday, and as I turned from the M25 and started down the M11 I suddenly realised that, from fully 20 miles away I could clearly see, in the sunshine, the familiar outline of the Shard with the other City towers, confirming that I was actually heading in the right direction. (And to think that London used to be called, ‘The Big Smoke’.) Then, just to add a comparable lift to the spirit, as I made my way along Row ‘D’ in the Excel, looking for the Microsoft stand, I glimpsed, also in the distance, though not in the sunlight, the familiar and imposing figure of Ray Chambers of Uppingham Community College, again reassuring me that I was on the right road.

Ray was in mid-flow delivering one of the eight presentations he made on Minecraft in Education – all of them, I was told, delivered to overflowing and deeply interested audiences. The degree of interest in Minecraft shown on the Microsoft Stand was a revelation, not least to senior Microsoft people themselves. In fact when I had a catch-up call with Ray immediately after BETT he, too, confessed to being surprised at the response.

‘I was a bit dumbfounded. I didn’t expect the sessions to be that well attended. There was lots of genuine interest in how you can use it in the classroom.’

The key, it appears, is that much of the impetus comes from students, as Ray explained:

‘There were teachers who didn’t really know what Minecraft was until they heard about it from their students,so that had a lot to do with their interest.’

Minecraft has many curricular possibilities – Ray met teachers with great ideas, including a history teacher at BETT who, with his students, has set up a Minecraft Visitor Centre – but there’s no doubt that much of the attention is drawn by the possibility of using it in the new computing curriculum. In fact, as Ray explains in his own blog, it was one of his students who first alerted him to the possibility of using Minecraft to teach computing.

Almost from nowhere, it seems, over quite a short time, with the backing of Ray, like-minded teachers and a host of enthusiastic students, Minecraft is becoming well established as a supporter of classroom learning for computing and also for adding creativity across the curriculum.

Immediately after BETT, Ray posted a great blog on Minecraft resources for teaching computing, which also contains a link to a ‘Sway’ of his BETT presentation.

Perhaps less surprising than the Minecraft surge, but equally impressive, was the reaction to the various presentations on the stand around Office 365. You almost saw the wheels going round in teachers’ heads as they lined up their own classroom routines with the possibilities of One Note, the Classroom Notebook Creator, Sway and Office Mix.

So, when I spoke to Cathy Brooks, for example, of Northgate High School in Dereham, Norfolk, after she’d taken part in a Showcase Classroom session on ‘Office Mix’, she’d already realised some of what it will do for her.

‘We are using Office 365 for email, but I realise there’s so much more to it. I didn’t know about Office Mix, but I can see that, for example, I can use it to construct lessons to be used by non-specialist substitute teachers.’

And that, of course, is no small thing. When a teacher is away from school, someone has to cover their lessons, and it’s likely that the cover teacher will not be a specialist. The regular teacher will usually leave work for the students, but inevitably there’ll be an interruption to the learning curve. A well thought-out Office Mix, perhaps also with ‘Sway’ providing extra input, will go a long way towards keeping the class moving forward and be a means whereby a specialist teacher can extend their reach and expertise.

Northgate High’s Network Manager, Bryan Herbert was with Cathy, and pointed out the key feature of Office 365:

‘It’s a free tool, with a familiar environment.’

Cathy has other Microsoft-related plans, too.

‘We’re building a lovely new Music room and it may be that we can have some Surface devices.’

OneNote Classroom Notebook Creator also captivated many people. I spoke to a group of primary teachers who professed to be blown away by the possibilities for collaborative work, peer-peer feedback and, naturally, the prospect of reducing the drudgery of marking. If OneNote goes down in history, it may well be because it gave teachers their Sunday evenings back.

After one of the presentations I sat and chatted to a teacher who was cradling what looked like a brand new Surface Pro3. He turned out to be Jacob Thuriner, teacher and ICT manager at Rejsby Europæiske Efterskole, a boarding school for 14 to 17 year olds in South Jutland, Denmark.

I only managed a brief word with Jacob at BETT, because he was keen to be off around the Show, but I did gather that he was about to equip his school with Surface, so I called him at school the following Monday, and discovered that he is introducing about thirty Surface Pro 3s for the staff, replacing their existing iPads.

‘Some of the functions we need are not available on iPad, so the only way we can use them at the moment is on computers. Surface will enable us to do what we need. For example, using the pen during presentations is really important to us.’

There is the possibility, he says, of significantly increasing their commitment to Surface, a decision that hinges on an issue familiar to many UK schools.

‘We are considering a couple of class sets, but some students bring their own devices and so we are discussing whether also to continue with that.’

Rejsby Efterskoles looks fascinating, innovative in many ways, not least in its pan-European ethos. The main website is here and an introduction to the school in English is here.

WP_20150123_12_11_51_Pro Teachers taking part in the Showcase Classroom sessions had hands on experience of using Sway, OfficeMix, OneNote and more, on Surface Pro 3s.

One later encounter had some personal resonances for me. Justin Heath is a former head teacher, ‘Now looking for new challenges.’ He was very familiar with Office 365 from his former work, and told me stories of how it had streamlined administration. ‘I had minutes of meetings in a pile of notebooks. OneNote replaced all that and, of course, it made them all searchable.’

Together we listened to Tom Rees, head of Microsoft Showcase School Simon de Senlis Primary, as he talked about his school’s vision for ICT. One key statement in Tom’s talk deserves endless repetition, and, if the organisers could pluck up the courage, ought to be hanging on a banner in in the Excel Centre during BETT.

‘Is technology going to make the learning better? If not, let’s not do it.’

Finally, here’s one moment – and one word -- that sticks in my mind.

After one of Ray’s Minecraft sessions I noticed that he’d been collared by a teacher. Nosy as ever, I waited till they’d finished then asked the teacher, who turned out to be John Galvin of St John the Baptist C of E School in Findon, what it was all about. He explained that he’d missed some of Ray’s talk and wanted a bit more information.

What pleased him was not just that Ray had been able to tell him what he wanted, but that he had taken time to make sure he had what he wanted. He used the word ‘gracious’ to describe how he felt treated.

And there, I believe, is one of the key reasons for the huge interest that was shown by teachers in the Microsoft presence at BETT. The constant and highly visible presence on the stand of currently practising colleagues, always smiling, always helpful meant that Microsoft people could say -- 'Look, don't just take it from me, let's introduce you to someone who's actually doing this.'

Many of the teachers and school leaders on the stands were Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts (MIEE). Between them they deployed a really powerful combination of expertise and bubbling enthusiasm, and a feeling that if any one of them didn’t know the answer, then, well, there was someone just over there who did. They did themselves, and their profession, great credit.

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